Film Corner: Silence of the Lambs

[Content Note: Misogyny, Misogynistic Language, Sexism, Transphobia]

Husband was out of town over Memorial Day weekend visiting his kids, and I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to watch Silent of the Lambs for the first time.

I've never seen the film before because I didn't particularly want to see it. Scary movies were forbidden when I was a child because I found them, well, scary and because my parents didn't want to deal with the aftermath of nightmares. (Nor do I blame them for that.) And I carried over my No-Scary-Movies rule into adulthood, branching out only tentatively into fantasy violence, which I can handle slightly better. (I only very rarely ask Husband to check behind the shower curtain for vampires. I do, however, always check the driveway for zombies in the morning before going to work.)

But recently I've been drawn more into thrillers on the grounds that they're such an integral part of popular culture that I can't really avoid them. And sometimes I like them. We rented The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo thinking that it was something else entirely, but ended up pleasantly surprised (if horribly traumatized in the process, but eggs and omelets amiright?). And I've enjoyed Elementary as well as the bits of the CSI and Law & Order franchises that aren't completely shit. And I'm sure those glowing words will go on the back of a DVD box release at some point, because why wouldn't they.

So I rented Silence of the Lambs on the grounds that I've seen the "puts the lotion on the skin" scene in about eighty zillion parodies at this point that I supposed I should watch the real thing. And I mentally prepared for the movie to be shit because (a) a lot of classics do not hold up to my tastes, and (b) I was expecting a bog standard "menace all the wimmins" thriller with lots of sexy dead bodies and male power fantasies. What I didn't expect -- and was pleasantly surprised to find -- is how much the movie is about institutionalized sexism, and how it is so much fucking bullshit that women have to overcome. Huh. 

First, some caveats. I am not necessarily recommending this movie to everyone who hasn't seen it, though I did end up enjoying it more than I suspected. To start with, there are not nearly enough people of color in the movie, and the ones who are there can be boiled down to support characters with very little screen time. I was pleased to see that protagonist Clarice Starling has a black girlfriend going through training with her, but if she had an actual name, I missed it, and I couldn't help but keep wondering why she couldn't have been the main character. (Although that might have introduced new and bad FedEx arrows, but still.) And I am not even going to talk about the movies issues with fat women because it deeply depresses me that just the fact that fat women were in a movie is revolutionary, and yet was done in such a terrible way.

The movie is additionally a total mess on trans* issues, imo. They try to have their cake and eat it by saying that the serial killer isn't really trans* (according to whom?), but then they fuck that up by justifying this position on the grounds that trans people are "passive", which completely dehumanizes trans people and lumps them all into an othered monolith. I appreciate that the authors were trying to say that most trans people aren't homicidal but just say that. I can honestly count on no hands the number of times I've heard that most cis people are "passive", because that is a completely othering statement. Nor does it help that this fact that the serial killer is not really trans* is a blink-and-miss-it reference, and that the movie's understanding of the transition process seems to have been either partly or wholly incorrect. (More here.)

But setting all that aside for the moment, I am pleased at how the movie is less about Serial Killers and more about institutionalized sexism. Clarice is apparently picked by her older, more experienced boss to interview Hannibal specifically because she's his "type" -- or at least is assumed to have been picked for that reason by the authorities she interacts with. This framing of why and how she got her job undermines her efficacy from the start, and means that Clarice must constantly push back against the assumption that she was chosen for how she looks rather than for her skills with interviewing, investigation, and interrogation.

Even when she is able to set aside these prejudices about her skills and get to the task at hand, she must still constantly acknowledge that she is a woman and Hannibal is a man in their exchanges. For all that Hannibal tries to position himself as more honorable and gentile -- he wouldn't sexually assault her in the way that his fellow prisoner Miggs does -- he still requires her to position herself as a vulnerable ingenue before he will interact with her, and he quizzes her relentlessly on her sexual assaults in order to make her uncomfortable: What did Miggs say to her when she walked by? Did her foster parent sexually assault her? Does her boss fantasize about her sexually? In order to do her job as an interviewer, Clarice is forced to put up with this sexual harassment -- harassment which her male colleagues do not have to live with as part of their jobs. Hell, she can't even get a piece of evidence analyzed without being hit on by the lab technicians.

My absolute favorite part of Silence of the Lambs is when Clarice's boss (Crawford) takes her with him to conduct an autopsy on one of the serial killer's victims. In a room full of male police officers and an older male chief of police, Crawford employs a sexual stereotype against her in order to manipulate the police chief -- he suggests that "this type of sex crime" needs to be talked about privately, just between men. In doing do, he completely undermines Clarice as a valuable member of the FBI, and suggests that women agents can't or shouldn't be allowed to do their jobs. The gendered stereotype "works" in the sense that Crawford gets the alone time he wants with the police chief, but the remaining officers stare with hostility at Clarice, treating her like a strange curiosity at best and a sexual object at worst.

Later, on the ride home, Clarice's boss "justifies" his actions, but Clarice is having none of it:
CRAWFORD: When I told that sheriff we shouldn't talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn't it? That was just smoke, Starling, I had to get rid of him. You did well in there.

CLARICE: It matters, Mr. Crawford. Other cops know who you are. They look at you to see how to act. It matters.

Fucking-a. Who spilled feminism all over my thriller movie rental? Crawford is attempting to silence Clarice and make himself feel better: It's not his fault! He's not like Those Other Guys! This is just the way the world works! She has no right to be angry! She needs to understand how things are! He's just trying to help! Intent is magic! You can't expect more! Bullshit.

Clarice shuts that down as effectively as she feels she can in the presence of her boss: what he does isn't neutral. It doesn't Not Matter in the larger scheme of things. By participating in the patriarchal systems and systemic sexism, he is reinforcing them. Crawford can comfort himself by thinking that it was merely the older police chief who is sexist and that he's a relic who will be replaced soon, but Clarice lives with the reality that the younger officers take their cue from the behavior of the older officers: Crawford wasn't harmlessly indulging an old man; he was harmfully indoctrinating young men.

And then he has the gall to lecture Clarice about being "burned" (so emotional! irrational! angry women! never thinking with their brains! not understanding the harsh realities! unwilling to work within the system!) because he doesn't want to feel guilty about his sexist actions.

I liked Silence of the Lambs because I thought it understood that complicated concepts like sexism are more difficult than just making the Villain an over-the-top sexist creep and calling it a day. I thought it understood that sexism can be subtle, and that many traditionally "Good" Guys can and do engage in sexism even though they wouldn't recognize themselves as Sexists. By making all the major male characters sexist in their own ways -- except, interestingly, the black man who works as Hannibal's prison guard, thereby suggesting either that (a) as a marginalized person himself, he doesn't want to perpetuate further marginalization on Clarice or (b) as a marginalized class below Clarice (who is a white woman), he legitimately doesn't feel safe expressing sexism around her -- I thought the movie was acknowledging that sexism is something endemic that most men struggle with, not merely villains.

But then I watched Hannibal, wherein all the sexist guys were Clearly Villains and were slinging around words like cunt and pussy like it was on their Word-of-the-Day calendars, and had to sit there and figure out just how disappointed I was. On the one hand, it makes sense that career!Clarice would receive more sexist attacks than student!Clarice because misogynists love to target successful and independent women, but on the other hand I felt like the larger subtle message had been lost in the ten years between movies.

And the increased emphasis on Hannibal as the Best Little Anti-Hero Evar made me more than a little uncomfortable as he bounced about carrying Clarice in his arms like she was the new Bella Swan and undressing her off-camera so that he can play Dress-Up Barbie and confess his love to her.

Um.......... do not want?

So. Silence of the Lambs: Slightly better than anticipated. Total mess on trans* issues. Needed more characters of color. Deeply depresses me on the grounds that Subtle Sexism needs to be explored in more (and more modern) movies, and yet frustratingly isn't. Seems to have stopped Getting It in the ten years between Lambs and Hannibal. Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore are incredible actresses. If Anthony Hopkins doesn't have a job narrating audiobooks, someone should offer him one. The End.


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