Analysis a feminist reading of The Silence of the Lambs

In several respects, The Silence of the Lambs lends itself to an analysis within the categories of the 'classical' or canonical story format: the screenplay shows a clear three-act division, with introduction and coda (the first act ends with Clarice's discovery at the Baltimore warehouse; the second with the trick offer made to Hannibal by the FBI; and the third with the showdown in Buffalo Bill's house); the narrative moves are based on repetition/resolution (the successive encounters between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter, the introduction of past, present, and future victims of Buffalo Bill); the character constellations play permutations on triadic relationships (Clarice Starling-Hannibal Lecter-Buffalo Bill), with overt mirroring and more covert echoes linking the characters. A Proppian analysis would similarly reveal the layeredness of the actants' functions around injunctions (rules and their infringement), senders, envoys and antagonists, magic objects, helpers and villains. The film also has a deadline structure to 'contain' the narrative and steer it in a linear direction, which even leads to the (albeit unconsummated) formation of a (heterosexual) couple, once the threat to traditional categories of sexual difference (in the person of Buffalo Bill) is eliminated. In its dynamics of suspense and spectator involvement, The Silence of the Lambs is also quite classical: powered by a detection plot, the action moves inexorably towards a final cathartic showdown and finishes with the heroine's victory, followed by a coda, in which closure is neatly balanced by the possibility of an opening towards a sequel (an indication of the film's post-classical 'knowingness', but also of its cleverly perverse negotiation of a traditional if not 'reactionary' version of heterosexuality).

The story concerns a young policewoman at an FBI training academy who is given the assignment to befriend a very dangerous criminal, Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist, now imprisoned for multiple murder and cannibalism, but who may be able to help the police identify a serial killer on the loose who murders young women and then skins them. Clarice Starling becomes deeper and deeper involved in the world of Hannibal Lecter, who helps her but extracts his own price, by psychoanalyzing her and penetrating her personal psychic secret, the trauma of the lambs, whom she tried but failed to rescue as a young girl, and the obscure link this incident may have with the death of her father, the nonexistence of a mother, and her escape from a (sexually abusive) guardian-uncle. Guided by Lecter, she eventually tracks down the serial killer and, in a gruesomely protracted showdown, is able to kill him. The film ends with Clarice's graduation ceremony at the police academy, and a phone call from Lecter, who managed to escape and is now once more at large, somewhere in the Caribbean, 'rewarding' her by promising to desist from any further unwanted attention.

The Silence of the Lambs is interesting for feminist film theory because it makes the site of gender/sexuality the explicit focus for questioning the relation between seeing and knowing. Buffalo Bill's victims are strangely overwritten texts: he cuts shapes out of their skins and leaves an insect in their throats, so that detection becomes not only the usual inventory of clues as to time, place, or cause of death, but immediately a matter of interpreting and 'reading' the body (of the victim) in order to read the mind (of the murderer). But so horrific are these bodies, so overpowering the marks of violence inflicted upon them, that close examination, proximity of vision, and detailed observation become almost impossible. In one memorable scene in a funeral parlour, where Clarice has to overcome this ocular revulsion as well as the stench of decomposition, in order to train her sights at the most minute detail, such as glitter nail polish and triple ear-piercings, she is herself the object of the gaze: before the autopsy, a serried row of policemen and detectives stand around observing her observing, and during the autopsy, her boss Crawford continues to observe her. Already in the credit sequence, when entering a lift on her way to her superior, Jodie Foster's size and femininity is contrasted with the tall males surrounding her at the FBI academy, an emphasis on body- and gender-based difference that is repeated several times over. In another scene, when interviewing Hannibal Lecter she strains to scrutinize his face, but due to the lighting in his cell and the perspex pane that separates them, it is he who seems to be observing her, from behind her back, trying to observe him. This shot of mirror-like superimposition is often featured in the film's publicity material, suggesting the ubiquitous gaze of Hannibal Lecter enveloping Clarice. In the final showdown, it is Buffalo Bill who, equipped with night-vision goggles, can see Clarice groping her way through his pitch-dark lair, unaware that he is watching her, and we with him, complicit in this sadistic spectacle that makes a mockery of her having a loaded gun but not the sight to aim it. Thus, while in one sense Clarice is in possession of the traditionally male look of scrutiny and detection, this look is frequently undermined as a symbol of mastery and the possession/position of knowledge.

Another point of interest for feminist film criticism is the question of gender and genre, notably feminist readings of the thriller/slasher/horror film. At one extreme, The Silence of the Lambs can be regarded as a classical thriller film in the Hitchcock mode, following on from Psycho and The Birds, revived and radicalized in films such as Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill or John Carpenter's Halloween: a female heroine is being asked or forced to play detective, to enter dangerous territory, which exposes her extreme vulnerability as spectacle. The gendered architecture made up of looking and being looked at, which after Mulvey is said to determine spectator-screen relations (both on-screen and between screen and audience) is here redefined with respect to what constitutes a horror film for women: knowing one is observed without seeing (cf. Williams 1984). As indicated, feminist critics of The Silence of the Lambs were split between arguing that the woman's look functioned partly as it does in Hitchcock - for the sadistic pleasure of the male - but partly also as a signifier of the empowered female: Clarice/Foster not only embodies a positive (female) role model, showing courage and determination, she is also a woman operating in an all-male world as a 'professional'. Demme's film, along with those of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and other contemporary horror films made by male directors, would then be 'deconstructing' the Hitchcock slasher/horror film, by opening it up to the ambiguities of female visual pleasure and to a more complex play of cross-gender identifications. One model for such readings is provided by Carol Clover and her analyses of what is at stake for female spectators (1992): 'Clover believes that in slasher movies identification seems to alter during the course of the picture from sympathizing with the killer to identifying with the woman-hero. Clover also argues that the (apparently male) monster is usually characterized as bisexual while the woman-hero is not simply a "woman." She is often "unfeminine," even tracking the killer into "his underground labyrinth'" (Staiger 1993: 147). In fact, Clover also argues that the female heroine or 'final girl' is often a stand-in for the adolescent male, allowing identification and projection to fasten on a 'safe' substitute, in order to explore homoerotic desires.

Another type of reading might invoke Barbara Creed's theory about the modern horror film. She argues that the ambiguous gender of the monster and the attraction/repulsion which the genre holds for female spectators symbolizes the 'monstrous feminine', the 'phallic mother', and the female subject position of 'abjection' vis-à-vis the primary, abandoned love-object (Creed 1986; 1993). The absent mother in Clarice's life seems to 'return' in all these bloated, disfigured, or lacerated female bodies she is called upon to inspect and to investigate.

Finally, a more mythological interpretation of Clarice Starling would point to her as a kind of latter-day Ariadne, who tracks down two kinds of man-beasts, two incarnations of the Minotaur - that of the bisexual Buffalo Bill in his dungeon, or earthworks labyrinth, and Hannibal Lecter as the master at the centre of a mental labyrinth (Jim Hoberman, cited in Staiger 1993: 150). There are, of course, other mythological echoes, relating to the Judeo-Christian iconographie traditions that could be identified and even given explicitly readings: Salome and the severed head of St John the Baptist, for instance, or the role of the sacrificial lamb in the Christian Easter mythology, probably adapted from pagan rituals of redemption and renewal.

In these generic, metapsychological, and mythological readings, the film challenges classical feminist film theory in that female spectatorship and heterosexuality no longer line up as mutually sustaining categories. For instance, the reason Hannibal Lecter's sexuality remains unmarked is that he is so severely heterosexual (the way he 'defends' Clarice Starling's honour in prison against the lewd Midge, his next-door cellmate). At the other extreme, Buffalo Bill puts the binary system of sexual difference into crisis, in the way he explicitly and compulsively restages the Lacanian mirror phase, which leaves the question of sexual identity disturbingly unresolved for spectators of either gender. The knowing reference to the mirror as unstable conferral of identity highlights Buffalo Bill's confusion as to his own gender, but the invitation 'Fuck me' which he narcissistically addresses to his own mirror image is also typical of the post-classical text taunting the spectator, who now has to decide whether this is a man speaking to his own female psyche, a woman 'trapped' in a male body perversely self-fashioned in a woman's dress, a gay addressing another man, or a transsexual idealizing his self-image as the object of another's desire, regardless of gender.

By staging these possibilities, and simultaneously suspending them, The Silence of the Lambs also became the occasion for feminists to examine some of the limits of the constructivist argument around female masquerade and the performativity of gender, once essentialist positions have been deconstructed. On the other hand, the film leaves space for the motif of cross-dressing traditional gender roles also to transfer itself metaphorically to another character: as already suggested, Clarice herself can be read - even before Jodie Foster was 'outed' as. a lesbian - as a trans-gender figure in relation to the traditionally male occupations of police work, homicide investigation, and the detection of criminal pathology.

When filtering the film through the issues of (classical) feminist film studies, one's reading of The Silence of the Lambs is centred on Clarice and her 'problem'. This would be how to 'make it' in a man's world, when the markers of sexual difference and gender identity have come under pressure intersubjectively, through the pathology of figures like Buffalo Bill and, socially, by the improved career opportunities open to college-educated women. In addition, the film excessively elaborates its Oedipal initiation story, though this time centred on a female, occupying the structural position of the male: surrounded by overpoweringly present good father figures that turn out to be bad (Crawford/Chilton) and bad father figures that are also good (Hannibal Lecter), Clarice has to cope with the violent death of her biological father, a policeman shot on duty, and the trauma of real or imagined childhood abuse. However, once attention shifts to Buffalo Bill, who in spite of being a serial killer of young women is also a figure of pity (in his desperate desire to change his gender) and of provocation (besides being a misfit, he is clearly a rebel, surrounded by the paraphernalia of a heavy metal rocker, a psychedelic drop-out, and a deranged Vietnam veteran), one may wonder whether his attacks on women are not, symbolically speaking, a form of cross-dressing: as a transsexual, he literalizes male anxieties about sexual identity in the wake of 'feminism'. For given his unconventional identifications and object choices, and a verbal-visual discourse that splits him between stereotypically homosexual behaviour and Lecter's prevarication around identifying him as either transsexual or transvestite ('he's tried a lot of things, I suspect'), Buffalo Bill undermines traditional notions of phallic masculinity more effectively than he threatens the cultural codes of femininity, which he copies with his needlework and travesties in his dress.

We can now understand more clearly why The Silence of the Lambs divided the activist gender community. The film offers entry-points to several kinds of transgressive, non-normative fantasies of negotiating gendered identity, on either side of sexual difference and on both sides of the law, but for all that no less troubling: Buffalo Bills kills his women not for sexual gratification but in order to dress himself in their skin, and Clarice kills Buffalo Bill in self-defence as an officer of the law, but not without thereby also re-establishing the dividing lines of gender roles and sexual difference that she herself is challenging. If feminists thought the film progressive and empowering, where gays saw homophobic and criminalizing portrayals of sexual 'deviance', does this mean that their positions were symmetrically related - around the implicit 'norm' of heterosexuality? Such a stance would remind us of the objections voiced against Mulvey's purported 'heterosexism' underlying her feminist position. It would seem that the boycotts and protests against The Silence of the Lambs were also indicative of a rift in the 'rainbow coalition' of gender, obliging feminists, lesbians, and gays to discover that they had divergent interests and stakes when it came to the identity politics of cinematic representation.

Arguing along similar lines when reviewing the debate on women's right to pornography (rather than The Silence of the Lambs), Stephen Heath has pointed out the fallacy of what he calls 'equal opportunity subject positions' (Heath 1999: 37-8), meaning thereby the notion that each group has a right to its own sexual fantasy material, without this impinging on the self-image or social recognition of other groups. Citing Slavoj ¿iiek, Heath notes that fantasy scenarios are at once highly specific and intimately connected with one's sense of reality, since it is fantasy which 'anchors' social reality. But if, as ¿izek claims, one has to have a fantasy (a 'symptom') in order to function at all in everyday reality and not be overwhelmed by the Real, then it follows that one does not have a choice in one's fantasies, be they violent, racist, or sexist. The split between feminists and gays around the reception of The Silence of the Lambs would thus be inherent in the politics of representation, rather than a contingent feature of the ideological construction of this particular film. A parallel argument has been made by Judith Halberstam, from a more 'postmodern' perspective:

I resist the temptation to submit Demme's film to a feminist analysis that would identify the danger of showing mass audiences an aestheticized version of the serial killing of women. I resist the temptation to brand the film as homophobic because gender confusion becomes the guilty secret of the madman in the basement. I resist indeed the readings that want to puncture the surface and enter the misogynist and homophobic unconscious of Buffalo Bill, Hannibal the Cannibal and Clarice Starling____

Gender trouble is not the movie's secret, it is a confession that both Starling and Buffalo Bill are all too willing to make____It seems to me that The Silence of the Lambs emphasizes that we are at a peculiar time in history, a time when it is becoming impossible to tell the difference between prejudice and its representations, between, then, homophobia and the representations of homophobia.

(Halberstam 1991: 40-41)

Both the fallacy indicated by Heath and the impossibility pointed out by Halberstam would suggest that we may have reached a deadlock in our interpretation, and that a move to another conceptual level is needed if we are to resolve it. One may have to deconstruct the key idea of feminist film theory, namely that the cinematic image is a gendered representation, as well as a central tenet of cultural studies, which sees filmic texts as sites of contested 'representations' (mostly of class, race, and sexual orientation). At the same time, the deadlock implies a theoretical move from 'sexual difference' to 'gender': 'every society has a sex/gender system - a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention, and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be' (Gayle Rubin, in Reiter 1974: 165). Put differently, one could say that while gender, being culturally constructed, needs to be 'articulated' (or 'performed'), sex needs to be 'shown' (on the body as physiological absence/presence of, for instance, breasts, penis), implying that while sex is of the order of sight and the specular (involving the psychoanalytic paradigms of fetishism and disavowal, voyeurism and castration anxiety), gender belongs to the register of the discursive and the performative, and thus necessitates a different kind of 'sexual politics' (see Butler 1989, and also Rubin's notion of the 'theatricalization' of a sexual practice as distinct from the role this practice might play in identity politics). An emphasis on gender, one might say, once more underlines that tendency in film studies which sees the various 'regimes of visibility' in crisis, in that gender challenges the visually confirmed self-evidence of sexual identity.

To sum up our feminist reading so far, and linking it to our previous chapter, we might say that whereas Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future showed an unworkable patriarchal order from the perspective of the adolescent male, Demme's The Silence of the Lambs shows the unworkable patriarchal order from the perspective of the young professional female.

Instead of the failing father or the incompetent/impotent fathers confronting Marty McFly, Clarice Starling encounters in her FBI bosses and Hannibal Lecter a succession of potent and powerfully destructive/abusive super-fathers, dangling crucial clues and rewards in front of her, while seeming to own the outcome in advance. Yet there is, as in Back to the Future, also an almost textbook knowingness about the elements of identity formation that need to be lined up, in order to work out the (still heavily - or happily) Oedipal trajectory of Clarice's initiation as a professional 'special agent'. Nonetheless, if the 'problem' in the two films is similar, the 'solutions' are different: this time it does not involve sci-fi gadgets and time-travel, but a special kind of body horror, where the boundaries of inside and outside, of skin and flesh, of seeing and knowing, of bodies and minds are transgressed and traversed. But this merely underscores another ironic twist that all along lay in store for our psychoanalytic-feminist reading: the horror at the heart of the film is not Buffalo Bill's 'severe criminal pathology' or sexual perversion, but psychoanalysis itself, in the figure of Hannibal Lecter, whose patient Buffalo Bill once was. Lecter penetrates Clarice's mind and gets under her skin in ways that turn out to be as brutal and almost as much of a violation of her personhood as Buffalo Bill's violation of the young women's bodies in order to get (at) their skins.

As such, The Silence of the Lambs once more raises the question, discussed also in the previous chapter: What does the (film) analyst do when the theory s/he wishes to apply in order to position a film critically is not just openly on display, but stands accused of the ultimate evil? The dilemma leads her to look for another type of interpretation, preferably anti-psychoanalytic: this, then, is the point where one would to turn to Michel Foucault, to find there a different account of vision, a political reading of sexuality and the body, and a deconstruction of the power relationships inherent in the discourse of psychoanalysis. Foucault's critique takes us to Deleuze, where questions of the visible and the knowable, of the look and 'body politics' receive further redefinition, while also introducing a set of new concepts.

9.4. Foucault and Deleuze: theory

Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze are thinkers in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche. This means that they are critical of the Enlightenment project of the progress of pure reason, of truth and moral self-improvement. These values and ideals were regarded by Nietzsche as the ruses of the 'will to power', as rationalizations of a particular class, race, religion, or gender, in the struggle to arrogate dominance over others. Thinkers in the Nietzschean mould are sceptics, especially with regards to epistemology, i.e. the claims of philosophy to be able to establish the foundations of universally valid knowledge or 'truth'. Foucault and Deleuze are also sometimes known as anti-humanists, because they regard 'man' to be a recent 'invention', dating from postRenaissance humanism, in which a particular version of individualism began to reign supreme. Humanism manifests its supremacy by drawing various strict lines of division and exclusion: mind vs body, reason vs madness, male vs female, subject vs object, observer vs observed. Our two philosophers are intent on breaking down, opening up and re-organizing these binaries. Both Foucault and Deleuze are thus in some sense concerned with new classification systems, new taxonomies, and they salute each other as 'topographers' or 'cartographers'. Where Foucault regards himself selfconsciously as an 'archaeologist' and a 'genealogist', Deleuze, for instance, called his cinema books neither a theory nor a history, but a 'natural history' of the cinema, as if he was arranging specimens, or defining class, type, and genus (1997: 46). Both are profoundly 'spatial' philosophers, even if their spatiality is often directed towards analysing multiple temporalities.

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  • kifle
    Why is silence of the lambs as a feminist movie?
    8 years ago
  • Alfreda
    Is the portrayal of clarice starling typical of our conceptions of women in these roles?
    5 months ago
  • anne
    Why did hannibal lecter sexually explicit silence of the lambs?
    4 months ago

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