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Should we still be protesting “The Silence of the Lambs?”

Buffalo Bill in the infamous tucking scene, art courtesy of Jo Moses

DISCLAIMER: This article is an examination of the internal (and transphobic) logic of “The Silence of the Lambs,” and thus the ambiguously transfeminine character Buffalo Bill will be referred to with he/him pronouns, as in the film.

Is “The Silence of the Lambs” transphobic?

Most certainly yes.

Is it worth watching and examining critically? Also yes.

The 1991 film from director Jonathan Demme is a hard watch — particularly if you’re sensitive to deeply problematic portrayals of trans and gender-nonconforming people. It has received unrelenting scrutiny for its portrayal of transfemininity, and it was at the center of a controversy that exploded immediately upon its release.

The year? 1992. The place? The Oscars. Police in riot gear descended on the gay rights protesters outside Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as it hosted the awards show. Reporter Neal Broverman recalled that “this was the scene at the 1992 Academy Awards, where activist group Queer Nation staged a protest that devolved into chaos, with objects thrown at vehicles, punches thrown, arrests made, and “Fag” stickers slapped on 24-foot-tall Oscar statues. Queer Nation and many other LGBT people were furious at Hollywood for what they saw as a pattern of demented, homicidal queer characters.”

The 1990s, just like the decades before, featured primarily violent and exploitative portrayals of trans characters by cis actors. The year that activists protested The Oscars was also the year “The Crying Game” premiered, infamous for its “shocking” and highly publicized scene where the main love interest is undressed and revealed to be a trans woman. She was played by Jaye Davidson, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Just two years after “Silence of the Lambs” hit the screen, Jim Carrey, starring in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” dramatically vomits after finding out his love interest is a trans woman. The acclaimed 1991 comedy “Soapdish” saw the defeat of its villain come with the humiliating reveal that she is trans. With plenty of examples to arm them, queer activists at the 1992 Oscars proclaimed loudly and uncompromisingly that “Silence of the Lambs” was the last straw.

Queer activists were protesting the event for its celebration of “The Silence of the Lambs,” and with good reason. The film follows FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who is tasked with convincing institutionalized serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Perkins) to aid in the hunt for serial killer Buffalo Bill, who has been kidnapping women all over the area. Buffalo Bill is the nickname of Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), a gender non-conforming serial killer whose modus operandi — discovered by Starling in the film’s grand revelation — is kidnapping and murdering women, with the purpose of skinning them to create a “woman suit.” This predatory characterization of Gumb, as a misguided cis man who longs to be a woman and will resort to violent means to achieve that end, rang the same alarm bells in 1992 that it does now. Gumb’s character is in, no uncertain terms, a cruel mockery and distortion of trans women and transfeminine people.  

When the film first premiered and suffered its first of many oppositions from the queer community, Director Demme directed critics to the heavy-handed scene in which great pains are taken (in vain) to assure the viewer that James Gumb, even though he was assigned male at birth and is attempting a D-I-Y transition, is absolutely not a trans woman. 

You see, Buffalo Bill isn’t trans, he simply believes he’s trans. As Hannibal Lecter explicitly tells Detective Starling, “Bill is not a real transsexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be.” He goes on seconds later to clarify that Buffalo Bill simply “hates his own identity, you see, and thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and terrifying.” There’s a lot to unpack in Demme’s weak attempt to cover his own ass, the least of which is the smug medicalization of trans identity. 

“The Silence of the Lambs” never uses the word “trans” or “transgender,” only “transsexual,” a medicalized term meant to imply a sex change operation. Within the film’s logic, having a medical transition to conform to cisnormative gender standards is what makes a trans person trans, not identification, and certainly not desire. The film also claims that transness is a disorder to be diagnosed. After all, if simply believing one is trans (as Buffalo Bill does) is not enough to be trans, then what is? The answer is implied to be the approval of the cisnormative medical industry, which Lecter notes that Gumb has already been summarily excluded from. “There are three major centers for transsexual surgery,” explains Lecter. “Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, and Columbus Medical Center. I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy had applied for sex reassignment at one or all of them, and been rejected.” 

So, is Buffalo Bill a trans woman? “The Silence of the Lambs” argues, obviously not. Why? Well, because the writers said so. 

“The Silence of the Lambs” does not attempt to hide its contempt for trans people, particularly those who do not conform to cisnormative gender standards. Lecter assures Starling that Buffalo Bill is not trans, but that his real pathology is “a thousand times more savage and terrifying.” The operative word that displays his contempt here is “more.” “The Silence of the Lambs” is gracious enough not to compare the supposed savageness and terror of trans people to that of serial killers, but not enough to admit that there isn’t anything savage or terrifying about trans people at all. 

“The Silence of the Lambs” cannot even let its characters stumble through its preemptive apology without exposing the irredeemably transphobic ideology that underscores the film. Demme’s attempt to assure queer audiences that Buffalo Bill isn’t trans, that he is simply a man in a dress, spectacularly fails to address one of the most transphobic arguments that cis culture, including “The Silence of the Lambs” itself, propagates: that trans women are simply men in dresses rather than actual women. 

The portrayal of transfemininity in “Silence of the Lambs,” in conjunction with the swift and severe opposition it faced, begs more than the simple, oft-repeated question: Is Buffalo Bill transgender? The history of this film, as well as the history of trans representations in the media, invite us to ask the more important question: So what? Does it matter that Buffalo Bill is a bad representation of trans women? Well, queer scholars and media analysts have argued, maybe not. 

“When ACT-UP and Queer Nation protested ‘Silence of the Lambs’ at the 1992 Academy Awards, they did so on the premise that positive media representations would lead to positive social treatment of queer people,” writes Cael Keegan, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies professor at Grand Valley State University. “[But the recent explosion of] positive forms of transgender media representation do not seem to be improving political or social outcomes for all transgender people. As transgender scholars have pointed out, the rising media visibility of transgender identity appears to be linked with increased policing of and violence against transgender people, especially poor transgender people of color.”

In some ways, representations of trans people in the media being held up as solutions for transphobia does damage to the LGBTQ movement, by shifting the blame for transphobic cultural attitudes onto the supposed failure of trans people to be represented in the media in ways that conform to cisnormative and assimilationist standards. 

Not only does hinging our hopes for progress on more assimilationist representations of trans people in media implicitly place the blame for transphobia on the “unassimilated” trans people who have not transitioned in the way that Hannibal Lecter might deem appropriate, but it also removes the blame for the suffering of trans people from their poor material conditions under capitalism. Instead, it applies this blame to a supposed lack of positive media representation, a vague threshold whose meeting would not help trans people access medical care, safety, housing or employment.

The ruling class and the mainstream media know that placing the blame for prejudice and oppression on abstract concepts like “representation” distracts from demands for change to the material conditions of oppressed groups. It is this very performance of progress that rewards us with liberals like Kamala Harris being touted as a “win” for Black voters, even though she made her career as a prosecutor and an architect of the prison-industrial complex that oppresses Black people to this day. There is no question that “The Silence of the Lambs” is transphobic assimilationist propaganda, and that makes it pretty difficult to enjoy on its own merits. But it is worthwhile as a cultural artifact because it is a case study of the successes and failures of queer performance in the eyes of the state. 

Jame Gumb is transfeminine, sexualized, poor, criminal and perverted. He does not conform to the expectations of cisnormative capitalism, and so he is punished. Clarice Starling, subtextually implied to be a lesbian, is gender-conforming, chaste, wealthy and dreams of upholding the state as an FBI Agent. But still, she’s queer — and so to fully assimilate and align herself with the interests of the state, she kills Buffalo Bill and is promoted. “The Silence of the Lambs” is much more than a tale of a shy lesbian cop who overcomes her insecurity about being white trash by catching a serial killer that no one thinks can be caught. It is an instruction manual for the ambitious, bloodthirsty, Pete Buttigieg-voting, WASP-y queer — for those eager enough to gain the approval of the state that they are willing to throw their less privileged brethren under the proverbial bus to get it.