Dissecting the Macabre: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Hey there, Creepy Peeps! Today’s Dissecting the Macabre will be a little different than previous posts. Instead of analyzing certain themes of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), I’m going to talk about – and respond to – criticism of certain characters in the movie. Before we get started, though, if you haven’t check out my companion video to this post, you can watch it here:

Ok, so in my video above I talk about some of the themes of The Silence of the Lambs, themes like gender and identity. Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the serial killer Clarice (Jodie Foster) is trying to catch, prefers wearing his female victim’s skin. When the movie first came out, Lambs was criticized because of the depiction of Buffalo Bill.

Groups like Queer Nation, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) claimed Buffalo Bill was just one huge stereotype, as one GLAAD leader told press:

“The killer in the movie is a walking, talking gay stereotype. He has a poodle named Precious, he sews, he wears a nipple ring, he has an affected feminine voice, and he cross-dresses. He completely promotes homophobia.” (Bloomer, “How the Furious Gay Backlash…Demme”)

These groups were protesting the portrayal of gay/trans characters in the film as lunatics rather than showing them as regular people. To these criticisms, Demme responded in an interview with Film Comment in 1991:

"We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” Instead, Buffalo Bill was supposed to be “someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism, and behavior and mannerisms that can be interpreted as gay.” (Bloomer, “How the Furious Gay Backlash…Demme”)

Even today, there are those that criticize Levine’s character in the movie, and this is where this post will differ from other Dissecting the Macabre, as I intend on sharing my thoughts on the matter. Kind of like one of my discussion topic videos, you know?

I wanted to talk about this because I thought it related in a lot of ways to my discussion video on the depiction of mental illness in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) and the criticisms that movie received. As I stated in that video, the horror genre has a long history of depicting the fears of society during the time the film was made. Whether you view the horror genre – or any genre of film for that matter – in that way or not, it is a very popular school of thought. What I like about horror is that it shows us what we are afraid of in a hyperbolic way, so that we can then face what we are afraid of. For example, the horror films of the 1950s showed gigantic, mutated bugs and creatures which are a metaphor for post-WWII fears. The world had seen what an atomic bomb could do, and people were nervous about the repercussions of this kind of technology. Hence, the giant bugs.

Another example is Split, where James McAvoy plays a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Mental illness is slowly, but surely, becoming less of a taboo subject, but it is still something that is heavily debated whether conditions like anxiety and depression are real illnesses. DID is even worse, I would put money on more people thinking DID is fake than real; it’s a disorder that is still very mysterious and there are very many documented cases on the subject. And Split explores that idea. Because we don’t know much about DID as a society, we are afraid of it and Shyamalan takes that fear and hyperbolizes it.

The Silence of the Lambs is yet another example of this idea. Buffalo Bill, as Demme puts it, and even how Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) himself puts it, Gumb hates himself so much that he is trying to become the exact opposite. And even Gumb himself mistakes this for being trans. Demme is exploring the fear of the unknown in the form of identity, what is the worst things someone who could do if they hated themselves this much? Gumb answers that question.

I guess that’s pretty much all I want to say on the matter. In the end, everyone can interpret art any way they want, that’s the beauty of art. I just feel like that it’s criticism like this that gives the horror genre a bad rep for misrepresenting minority groups just because horror movies are doing what they are meant to do: scare people.  

I would love to know what you guys think in the comments section! I’ll leave an Affiliate link to The Silence of the Lambs on Amazon, in case you need a refresher:

The Silence of the Lambs
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine

Works Cited

Bloomer, Jeffrey. “How the Furious Gay Backlash to Silence of the Lambs Changed Jonathan Demme.” Slate Magazine, Slate Group, 28 Apr. 2017, www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2017/04/28/director_jonathan_demme_faced_down_silence_of_the_lambs_gay_backlash.html.