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The Silence of the Lambs

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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

And I read this and I thought: Oh, my God! I can't do this movie! I told him that I was having a very hard time getting involved and excited about a film where a man skins women. And he said, “No, no, no, no no … You don't get it! You don't get it at all! This is a feminist piece!” And I thought to myself, How can it be a feminist piece? (Kristi Zea, production designer)


Upon its release, the film The Silence of the Lambs had been under attack. Militantly political organizations decried the portrayal of the psychotic killer as homosexual, and activists tried to rain on the parade of Jodie Foster surrounding her nomination for best actress by the Academy Awards. Added to this, the Academy must have wondered how a film about a serial killer could have been nominated, lest win, its highest honor which is only bestowed upon movies with social or humanitarian concerns. Actually any problem with this film can be attributed to a misunderstanding: Too many people failed to comprehend what the film was about.

Like any well-constructed story, The Silence of the Lambs has a focus, or theme. It is a film about change. Characters feel a need to transcend their present situations: The status of Clarice Starling is changed in her childhood, and then she must rise above her situation in adulthood which is dominated by males; Buffalo Bill desires a change in gender; Hannibal Lecter wants a change in setting; Dr. Chilton wants media attention. (Clues concerning the characters' rising above their situations abound: Lecter dismisses Clarice by telling her to "fly away"; Lecter arranges the body of a victim to look like an angel; as he preens before a mirror, Jame Gumb opens the folds of his robe which look like wings; birds are evident with terns which are promised to Lecter and pigeons which are raised by the father of Buffalo Bill's first victim; planes are used to reach Calumet City, to transport caterpillars through LAX, and to transport Lecter and Chilton to the same vacation site.)

The story has, as its central character, Clarice Starling who is Everywoman: Because of the nature of her gender, she must over-come much. She must confront both unpleasant childhood memories and obstacles which will get her to reach her goal in adulthood - advancement in the FBI. It is ironic that the person responsible for making positive changes in her life will be a male who is insane (Lecter); this is indeed a scathing comment on the present state of male-female relations in society.

In the opening scene, change is evident when we first see Clarice Starling: She is engaged on an obstacle course at the FBI Academy which, if she successfully completes the rigorous program, will change her status from trainee to agent. The course of her destiny is to be altered when she is given a message to see Jack Crawford. She is redirected, and she heads for the FBI Academy building.

In the following scene, Clarice is given instructions from which she is not to deviate concerning her visit with Hannibal Lecter at the Baltimore State Hospital. Instead, she does the opposite: She nears the glass partition of Lecter's cell, she accepts material (a towel) passed to her by Lecter, and she reveals personal information to him about herself. The initially pleasant Lecter does not appreciate her digression (i.e. change of topic) when Clarice gets down to business. Clarice is rudely dismissed by Lecter, but when Miggs startles her, Lecter calls her back and changes his mind about helping her. Like a typical male, he will only help her on his terms.

It is after her first visit with Hannibal Lecter that Clarice recalls her first early memory which involves contact with her father and which was a happy one. The images change for the worst and get bleaker as the story progresses: She next approaches her father's coffin, and later she recalls a traumatic incident involving the slaughtering of lambs, one of which she tried to save. (The lamb is a metaphor for the female victims of Buffalo Bill; both are helpless and heavy.) Dr. Lecter will get her to realize that her desire to become an FBI agent is related to her futile attempt to save the innocent creature in her youth; if she can save women from Buffalo Bill, her nightmares might end. Understanding is the first stage of growth, and it is during Clarice's last mock-therapeutic session with Lecter that her mentor brings this awareness to her. An indication that she will profit from this knowledge and evolve is evident by her assimilating, and learning from, other information provided by Lecter which helps her with the Buffalo Bill case and the fact that Lecter has touched her (a visual pun shown by him using his finger to stroke her hand as she retrieves the case-file on Buffalo Bill).

Clarice must prove herself not only because she is a trainee, but she is a woman in a male-dominated society. As Clarice jogs back to the Academy building and when she enters and exits from an elevator, the heads of the male trainees turn in her direction; we see very few females at the Academy. And the one that is constantly visible is, not coincidentally, a friend of Clarice even though Clarice is white and Ardelia Mapp is black; one might assume that Clarice feels more comfortable with a member of the same sex but of the opposite race than with a member of the opposite sex who is of the same race. She seems to be the center of attention whether she is at the Academy or in a room filled with local law enforcement officers who are members of a male fraternity that don't respond to her when she gives an order; she feels their stares (as Lecter indicates to her) and is made uncomfortable, but she must overcome and assert. (It would have been amusing if someone had mistaken her for a secretary, but this film is deadly serious about the woman's role in society which must change.) In the course of her odyssey into adulthood, Clarice encounters and deals with strange males (Chilton, Lecter, Pilcher, Gumb who are on the same male-gender spectrum as Miggs) - all of whom she must face on their terrain.

Clarice's lot is that of the American girl, the eponymous song to which Catherine Martin sings as she drives to a point where her destiny will be altered. (Note that the song that could have been used to convey a message about the opposite sex was "American Woman", but the word woman would have been less offensive and, therefore, inappropriate.) Clarice's strength is contrasted with Catherine's vulnerability: As a senator's daughter, she was undoubtedly given much, but the good life has diminished her character; she ungratefully refers to her rescuer, another woman, as a "bitch". In the end, it is a woman who saves a woman from a man.

In the film, women are portrayed as a subspecies - as victims, as flesh, and as objects of manipulation. This not only applies to females who encounter Buffalo Bill (who only perceives a woman as an "it" - an object), but to women who must deal with men. Concerning her relationship with her superior Jack Crawford, Clarice is manipulated by him. Crawford uses her as bait for Lecter - as Chilton indicates. Crawford also lies to her, at first, and denies any connection between Lecter and the Buffalo Bill case. When Clarice learns about the real identity of Buffalo Bill, Crawford already has the information, and he perfunctorily thanks and dismisses her since her services are no longer needed. In the end, she is abandoned for the second time by Crawford whose parting comments seem inappropriate to Clarice's situation, and she is alone to deal with Lecter who is more in touch with Clarice's reality. Lecter, although an ally at times, has also not been forthright with Clarice: He plays games (i.e. anagrams) with her, baits her with sexual suggestions, and eventually manipulates her to secure his release.

Change is evident in therapy. Lecter is a psychologist whose work with patients involves a change in behavior. Lecter says that Benjamin Raspail's therapy was going nowhere, meaning that he was not showing any change. Raspail was a manic depressive, a psycho-logical condition which involves radical changes in moods. He calls Raspail "a fledgling killer's first effort at transfor-mation". When we see Raspail with long lashes, he is made to look somewhat like a woman - hinting at a gender change.

Mood changes are evident. During their first meeting, Lecter tolerates Clarice; then he dismisses her. His self-destructive ability to attract and then repel both Clarice and Senator Martin is a visual pun for his literal and figurative tendency to "get under the skin" of people. Nothing, however, gets to Lecter: Starling is informed that Lecter's pulse does not change when he maims his victims. Clarice is in control when she enters the cell area. So confident is she that she dismisses Chilton who wants to accompany her. An emotional change overcomes Clarice when she leaves the asylum: She cries. Bill is patient with Catherine when he asks her to apply the body lotion, but he loses control when she tries to affect him emotionally.

Now let's see how change is evident in the other scenes in the film:

  • In a mock training session at the Academy, Clarice's failure to consider her danger area is a metaphor for tunnel vision to only focus ahead. This is something that she must change. when letters are changed about).

  • Lecter asks for a change of setting - away from Chilton in a cell with a view.

  • Buffalo Bill's sixth victim is about to pass her abductor, but he looks so helpless that she changes her mind.

  • Buffalo Bill weighs down the first victim so she will surface later. Cleverly, Bill changes the order in which he killed.

  • In her speech, Senator Martin pleads for a change of heart for the fate of her daughter.

  • Starling offers a deal to Lecter involving a transfer – a change in setting. Lecter agrees to do so; however, Clarice must exchange information on Buffalo Bill for information on herself.

  • The course of destiny is changed for:

    a. the victims of Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.

    b. Clarice's father when he is surprised by two armed burglars.

    c. Clarice when her last parent dies.

    d. the lambs whose fate is death.

    e. Lecter when he frees himself. He changes both his clothes and his identity with a dead guard.

    f. Chilton who will be murdered by Lecter.

  • Lecter asks if the object in the throat of the victim is a butterfly, a creature that undergoes a change. He notes, "The significance of the moth is change .... Our Billy wants to change too." Butterflies are also evident in the artwork in Gumb's residence. Lecter directs Clarice to three centers for sex-change operations.

  • Chilton makes a deal with Lecter for a change of setting (from Baltimore, Maryland to Memphis, Tennessee). Senator Martin agrees to barter a new setting for information about her daughter's abductor.

  • A guard asks Clarice if Lecter is a vampire, a creature which undergoes a transformation.

  • Bill's interest in sewing involves his trade – altering clothes; Fredrica, as well as her friend Stacy, used to alter clothes for Mrs. Lippmann.

  • Fredrica Bimmel leaves Belvedere for a better life in Chicago.

  • As Catherine puts her plan of escape into effect, Jame Gumb is transforming his appearance. 

  • Jame Gumb changes his name to John Grant and then Jack Gordon. Crawford learns too late that Gumb has changed his residence.

  • Lecter has altered his appearance to avoid detection by Chilton; his hair looks different.

Because the focus of The Silence of the Lambs is on women and change, the following elements, as conveyed through the storyline, must change in society: the perception of women as less than equal to men in the workplace and affording women equal opportunities in choice careers, women as victims of male abuse (and most degrading, the object of sperm), women as helpless creatures, women as flesh, women as tools to be used by men. These are legitimate social and humanitarian concerns.

In response to the critics, what is unimportant is the sexual preference of a person (regardless of his state of mind) in a film or in real life. One can only wonder if the killer were hetero-sexual would similar complaints be registered. Also unimportant is the private lives of those whose job it is to act. Actors owe us no more and no less than what they are paid to do. Their private lives should be respected and need no defense.

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