Feminist author Betty Friedan dismissed the critical and popular success of Silence of the Lambs by calling it a film about “the evisceration, the skinning alive of women.” On the surface, her disgust is warranted. Based on Thomas Harris’ bestselling 1988 novel, the film follows rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) on the trail of a serial murderer with a predilection for skinning women, known only as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). A box-office smash and winner of Five Academy Awards, the film courted controversy upon release, both for its grisly subject matter and its perceived depiction of the trans community.

Thirty years on it may be tempting to similarly write off Silence of the Lambs as another violent crime drama which relishes in dead, brutalised women. But, alongside the enduringly relatable experience of its lone female protagonist navigating a male-dominated landscape, the mostly bloodless portrayal of the subject matter is one of the things that remain truly remarkable about the movie today. These qualities set apart the film’s most effective sequences of violence while also drawing notice to its half-hearted attempts to separate its subject from transphobia.


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Within the first five minutes of the film, we understand that Starling inhabits a man’s world. Full use is made of Foster’s diminutive stature, as director Jonathan Demme surrounds her with towering men, often seeming confused by Starling’s presence. These men broadly fall into two categories – those who flirt with Starling (the slimy Dr Chilton, the mostly pleasant entomologist Pilcher, and arguably even Hannibal Lecter himself) or those who dismiss her outright. The main exception is FBI Director Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), a sort of paternal mentor and role model. But even Crawford is caught out.

In an attempt to dismiss a local sheriff, Crawford implies to the man that they shouldn’t discuss the gory details of the case in front of Starling because she is a woman. Crawford recognises her irritation but brushes it off as a necessary ruse to secure privacy. In one of the film’s most interesting and nuanced examinations of everyday sexism, he cannot see why it matters that he undermined his female colleague. After all, he didn’t really mean it. Clarice’s explanation is simple but brilliant: “It matters, Mr Crawford. Other cops know who you are. They look at you to see how to act.” Starling says “cops”, but the meaning is clear: men look to other men, and thoughtless or performative sexism can still do damage.  It’s also a rare and reasoned depiction of one of the most common but insidious forms of sexism: those little unthinking acts perpetrated by an otherwise well-meaning man.


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The film’s examination of everyday sexism is commendable – but what of Friedan’s claim of the film’s gendered violence? Anyone who’s seen Bryan Fuller’s excellent Hannibal television show, or even later films in the Hannibal series, know full well that a Hannibal story is more than capable of being drenched in blood, torture, and the occasional bouts of body horror – it’s practically a prerequisite. Fuller’s show revels in it, building a reputation for its disgusting but strangely beautiful corpse-art. One of its most enduring images emerges from the first episode, the naked corpse of a young woman, impaled and artfully displayed on the antlers of a great stag. It’s the kind of thing that would probably have set Betty Friedan’s teeth on edge, less a crime scene and more an attention-grabbing tableau.


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In Silence of the Lambs, there’s no such stylised artistry – at least, not for the women. During the autopsy of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims, the assembled party – Starling, Crawford, and the medical examiner – pass a tub of VapoRub between them to apply beneath their nostrils. It’s to mask the scent of decomposing flesh, a grim reminder of the messy realities of death while making one thing abundantly clear: there’s nothing beautiful, artful, or romantic about this murder. The camera focuses intently not on the spectacle of the body, but Clarice’s stricken face. Examining the corpse of a young woman dredged from a river, Clarice is clearly shaken to the core by what she sees. There are tears in her eyes as she haltingly describes the state of the body and what that meant for the woman’s final moments. It’s a fully emotional response, one that encourages our perception of this corpse as a woman – a human being – and not merely serial killer fodder. The victim’s humanity is maintained, hinting at the brutality and terror she must have endured without relishing in it or putting it on display.

Sotl Clarice Starling

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Indeed, for a film featuring two unequivocally vicious serial killers, the comparative lack of gore is one of its most surprising elements. Buffalo Bill’s carnage is primarily seen through small crime scene Polaroids – gruesome certainly, but small and unobtrusive windows rather than stylised art pieces. The aforementioned autopsy frames the body through Clarice’s reactions, relying on her emotions rather than lurid close-ups of the body. Early in the film, when Bill batters Catherine unconscious to kidnap her, the act of violence that occurs entirely offscreen. We hear the hits but we don’t see them land.

This restrained approach lends more terror to the film’s most iconic figure, Dr Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter. Much is made later of Lecter’s physical barbarity – his taste for human flesh, his propensity for extreme violence given the chance. But what fascinates is the fact that Jack Crawford’s initial warning to Starling concerns Hannibal’s mental acumen. “You’re to tell him nothing personal,” he warns Clarice. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” Lecter’s initial reveal is marvellously uncanny, a slight and unassuming man in his mid-50s behind a pane of glass, unblinking like a reptile. In the years that followed the film’s release, the Glass Prison trope has become a kind of shorthand for cerebral, impossibly dangerous villains – your Lokis, your Khans, your Raul Silvias (and yes, your Doctor Evils). None, however, sell the absolute menace of its inhabitant quite like Hopkins. It’s later implied that, without needing to lift a finger, Lecter is able to merely talk fellow prisoner Miggs into killing himself. With minimal screen time and zero blood, the film confirms the full extent of Lecter’s intangible malice.

Of course, it doesn’t stay intangible for long. The most overtly violent scene is Lecter’s escape sequence – a brief and explosive burst of previously-unseen brutality that sees Hannibal, an unfortunate guard, and a small pen knife perfecting the Face/Off technique a good six years before Nic Cage and John Travolta. Here, death takes on an artistic form, with Lecter’s victim – fully clothed, male, unobjectified – strung up in a perverse angelic pose. It’s grotesque and in line with other franchise murders, but does not cater to the male gaze. The response to Lecter’s escape – a terrified, fully armed police task force chasing down a single man like he’s a xenomorph loose in the air vents – now seems entirely appropriate. Lecter is onscreen for less than 20 minutes of the film’s two-hour run-time, but not a single second of Hopkins’ performance is wasted.


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If its depiction of onscreen violence against women is to be commended, as well as its restrained use of gore for maximum impact,  the same can’t be said for its portrayal of Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill. Gumb is loosely based on real life murderer Ed Gein, who was known for exhuming the corpses of recently deceased women in order to fashion clothing and furniture from their bodies and skin, and was a major inspiration for films like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Spectacularly troubled and desperate to transform himself, part of Gumb’s motivation includes the fact that he was denied gender reassignment surgery, and so kills women in order to make a “skin suit”. In many ways the character plays into the worst and most hateful stereotypes about trans identity imaginable, sparking protests and accusations of transphoia even at the time of release.

The film pre-emptively tries to circumnavigate the ugly transphobic implications of Gumb’s motives by having Clarice Starling assert (using the terminology of the time) that there is “no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence”, and Lecter agree that there’s no substance to the idea. “Billy is not a real transsexual,” he explains (whatever that means). “But he thinks he is, he tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.” Lecter emphasises Gumb’s desire for transformation and change as his main motivation to kill. Gumb is not a trans person, but a self-hating cisgender man desperate to change his identity in an exceptionally drastic way.

But is it really enough to have Starling and Lecter reject the link between queer identities and moral depravity, only for the film to then voyeuristically relish in it? Gumb, applying makeup and filming himself dancing naked with his genitalia tucked between his legs, remains one of the film’s most memorable and oft-referenced sequences – not least because it is intercut with a terrified kidnap victim desperately trying to escape his clutches. This is the lingering image that most members of the audience walk away with. Can a couple of lines of explanatory dialogue really counteract the iconography the film builds itself around? It’s a thorny and unavoidable sticking point in an otherwise exceptional film, and whether it encourages or dispels harmful parallels remains a matter of contention for anyone viewing the film today.

Time has been both kind and cruel to Silence of the Lambs. Thirty years on, its portrayal of women in male dominated environments remains pertinent, especially in the variety and subtlety of the workplace obstacles. Its ability to portray violence against women respectfully, without fetishizing it, is refreshing and admirable even among today’s cinema, and its horror is meticulously constructed. But the film ties to have it both ways, handwaving away the unfortunate implications of its main villain whilst seizing upon fearmongering stereotypes around transwomen to spin a narrative of predation and brutality.