not in our stars, but in ourselves
10/52: A movie with an animal in the title
Having seen The Silence of the Lambs at least 1300 times, and having read the novel, I figured it was high time to post about it for real. And perhaps it’s because tomorrow (or today, if you’re in one of those time zones that place you in The Future) is International Women’s Day, I paid particular attention to the film’s insight into, and treatment of, women. Honestly, it’s so rare for movies directed by cis white men even to consider the world from a woman’s point of view, and to take it seriously, and to recreate it faithfully onscreen, and to show all the dangers she faces without ever insinuating that they’re too much for her; and so perhaps you can understand just why this movie is such a personal favorite of mine.
In case you don’t know what it’s about: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a trainee at the F.B.I. Academy. She’s extremely book-smart, and comes to the attention of the F.B.I.’s head of Behavioral Sciences, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). He asks her to take a psychological profiling questionnaire to notorious serial killer, Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). He offers a word of warning: under no circumstances should she tell him anything personal. “You DON’T want Hannibal Lecter in your head,” he cautions. It doesn’t take long for Dr. Lecter to figure out that Agent Starling has been sent to “interview” him in order to find out more information about an ongoing serial killer case: Buffalo Bill, who abducts heavyset young women, holds them for three days, shoots them, and cuts off portions of their skin. Lecter will cooperate with Starling if, and only if, she offers him information about herself in return for information about Buffalo Bill. Quid pro quo. Starling plays his game and – very nearly at the cost of her own life, as well as that of Bill’s latest victim – catches the killer.
Here’s the thing: many, many, many, many serial killer cases are “about” women, in some way. Sexual rage often factors into the murder, in some way; and because the vast majority of serial killers are male, they often take out that rage on women. As this (admittedly idiotic) Jezebel article summarizes: misogyny kills. It’s rare indeed for a serial killer not to be motivated by some twisted sexual urge – and women are frequently the victims. See: Jack the Ripper, the Rostov Ripper, Ted Bundy, the Son of Sam, H.H. Holmes, and plenty more. And even in cases where the killing isn’t predominantly motivated by sex – as, indeed, Buffalo Bill’s murders are not – women are just easier targets. They’re usually weaker, less likely to fight back effectively, easier to overpower.* So are children, of course, and there are a depressing number of serial killers who’ve done unspeakable things to children as well; but children usually have someone to miss them. Grown women could be gone for weeks without anyone noticing or caring. The point is that serial killer cases usually orbit around women in some way, and Silence – with its two serial killers – seems to take that as its jumping off point.
Unlike many other media on the subject, however, Silence understands what it means to be a woman. As a victim, as an investigator, as everything. More specifically, it understands how men – whether they’re killers or colleagues – react to and think about women. Buffalo Bill has applied several times to undergo the surgical procedure that would render him a biological female. Due to his criminal history and pathological nature, he has been denied every time; but he isn’t truly trans, of course. Lecter tells Starling as much: there’s no part of Buffalo Bill that believes itself to be female. In the book, Harris writes that the room always seems emptier when Bill (real name Jame Gumb) walks in: he’s a black hole of a person, an abyss of hatred and cruelty. It’s not about being anything. He doesn’t want to be himself, and he hates others who embody what he thinks he should be, so he destroys them. He’s cunning and strong, and he uses the old Ted Bundy trick of pretending to be injured in order to get unsuspecting women to help him; and so he abducts them into his basement hell. He’s Tantalus, in a way. What I mean to say is that Silence never pretends that there’s anything but the worst impulses behind this kind of violence against women – as, of course, there never is. No one is ever asking for it; no one ever deserves it. It’s only ever about a bottomless pit of rage and despair, into which an able-bodied man drags a woman he wants and hates in equal measure.
That’s a small part of Silence‘s insight. The greater part of it is reserved for Starling herself. She is exactly as smart and capable as any of her male classmates – more so, in fact – and physically strong as well. There is no reason for her to be treated as “less than,” at all, for even a moment – and yet, she is constantly made to feel just that. Does Crawford want to help her because she’s the best in her class, or because he desires her sexually? Does she get to interview Lecter because of her acumen and intelligence, or because she’s a cute little number? I don’t know how much more female-friendly the F.B.I. has gotten in the years since 1990, but twenty-five years ago, at least, it seems to have been pretty terrible. This is something that very few (white) men take the trouble to try to understand, or imagine: that you could be forced to strive, constantly, to be better than everyone else and to be smarter and to be stronger, and still endure the speculation that you’d gotten where you were because you’d spread your legs, or indicated that you’d be willing to do so. It is very much to Silence‘s credit that both the director, Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally, and Harris in the original novel, all understood that struggle very well. Starling never moans or cries about how hard it is for her – but it’s clear in every moment, from her mostly masked impatience when she’s sexualized yet again to her quiet protest against Crawford’s using her female delicacy as an excuse to get rid of local law enforcement, that this is a massive obstacle. She’s driven and strong enough to get past it – but why should she have to? Why should she have such a hard time when a (white) man with far fewer gifts and far less dedication would be able to breeze through the Academy? (Please note: although Silence does include a few men of color among its background F.B.I. personnel, I assume that a non-white man would face too many obstacles of his own – not the same as Starling’s, but just as frustrating and unnecessary. And a woman of color – well, let’s just say that Starling’s roommate and friend is probably the only black woman in the entire Academy, and she probably faces far more prejudice, hostility, and personal danger.)
In short: Silence is a great movie, for many reasons. It’s suitably scary, tense, thrilling; beautifully photographed (even among all the bleak Rust Belt scenery); perfectly performed; and just plain great as a movie. There’s more to it than mere psychological thrills, however, and that’s why I keep coming back to it again and again. It’s an old friend that I just love to have for dinner.
*Note to all women reading this: THINK ABOUT SELF-DEFENSE. THINK ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME. THINK ABOUT EVISCERATING ANYONE WHO TRIES TO TAKE FROM YOU WHAT YOU DON’T OFFER. I cannot overstate this. It takes almost no effort to pop out someone’s eyes with your thumbs. If at all possible, aim for the dick and pummel it until it’s mush. Choke. Smash. Bite. Scratch. Use your keys, your shoes, your nails, everything you have. Set his hair on fire with a lighter, if you have one. Always assume that some piece-of-shit degenerate male will attempt to fuck you up, and be ready to fuck him up before he even hits the pavement. Be Boudicca. Unleash hell.