Under Discussion: Feminism in The Silence of the Lambs

—Condensed and edited by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Round-table conversations on world-changing ideas

Horror films incite all sorts of provocative questions: Why do viewers enjoy being terrified and disgusted? Do these films make evil attractive and viewers more violent? Or do they make us more aware of the reality of evil in our world—and therefore more ethical?

A student sitsStudents in “The Horror Film,” taught by Malcolm Turvey (film history), explored these questions and more, discussing Psycho (1960), Alien (1979), and The Shining (1980), among others, as works of art and social commentary as well as popular entertainment. As Turvey says, “Horror films are capable of complexity, profundity, aesthetic innovation, emotional intensity, sociopolitical critique, philosophical reflection—all the things we usually value about art works.”

Monsters are central to the genre, and in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, the film’s heroine, Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster), confronts more than a few of them: Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, and also, perhaps, the patriarchy. As Clarice pursues serial killer Buffalo Bill, “She is beset by sexism on all sides, and to miss this is to miss the fundamental point of the film,” Turvey says. The Silence of the Lambs is indisputably inflected with a feminist consciousness.

Image of a studentCritics diverge, though, on whether the film goes far enough. Feminist philosopher Cynthia Freeland worries that Clarice’s allegiance with Hannibal undermines her power: as Turvey explains, “The feminist heroine of the film is being paralleled with a serial killer!” But critic Greg Garrett’s view is more laudatory, pointing out Clarice’s remarkable courage—and her ability to successfully navigate a world of male power and violence. On April 16, Turvey’s students considered the critics’ arguments and decided for themselves: Is The Silence of the Lambs a feminist film?

Under Discussion: Cynthia Freeland, The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Westview, 2002); Murray Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances,” in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion (Johns Hopkins, 1999); Greg Garrett, “Objecting to Objectification: Reviewing the Feminine in The Silence of the Lambs,” Journal of Popular Culture vol. 27, #24.

Cover of the book Jessica Butler ’14: I think the most interesting point Cynthia Freeland made is that Clarice’s alliance with Hannibal is something she needs to further entry into a patriarchal world. … It’s as if she has to assume a supposedly male role in order to further her success in the academy. She has to become one of the men, and I think that’s what Freeland sees as a problem—especially alongside the idea that Hannibal is helping her. …

Malcolm Turvey: So there are two issues there. One is the relationship Clarice has with Hannibal and the fact that he gives her certain clues throughout the film, which arguably enable her to track down Buffalo Bill. Second of all, there’s this idea that she has to take on male characteristics in becoming a successful FBI agent. … Are these fair points? …

Jack Bell ’17: I don’t necessarily agree with the male characteristics part. In Clarice’s case, she is a very skilled FBI agent. …

“The parallel between Lecter and Clarice is that they’re both bucking the system. They both refuse to be turned into objects.”

Student discussionEliza Truschel ’17: I [also] don’t see it as problematic as Freeland [does] because first of all, she’s not the only person who seeks help from Hannibal—it’s the entire FBI. I don’t think we need to hold her to some ridiculous standard where she needs to be smarter than all the men in the film. Everybody needs help from Hannibal Lecter. …

Juna Drougas ’16: I think it’s important that she’s the one who is sent [to talk to Hannibal]. She’s only able to get his help because she’s respectful, and Freeland really talks about that—that Clarice accepts from the beginning that he is a mentor and teacher and that she’s willing to learn from him. …

Malcolm Turvey: Greg Garrett thinks that the reason Lecter and Clarice get on so well is precisely that Clarice treats Lecter like a human being, rather than as a curious anomaly. … So the idea of objectification is not just about male attitudes toward women but also about Clarice and her capacity to see Lecter as a human being—of course a very unusual one, but still a human being. …

Students ponder the questions raisedJessica Butler: Lecter doesn’t allow the system to objectify him as a prisoner. … He initially rejects Clarice when she gives him the test to pick his brain. It’s not until she starts showing more complex interest and ideas that she respects him more. In a way, Lecter is rejecting any classification or objectification as a prisoner just as Clarice is trying to reject being gendered. I think both Freeland and Garrett are trying too hard to see it as masculine and feminine. I don’t see why we can’t see Clarice as transcending both genders and just being an individual doing her job. …

Malcolm Turvey: The parallel between Lecter and Clarice, as Freeland puts it, is that they’re both “bucking the system.” They both refuse to be turned into objects, and they both combine masculine and feminine traits, or what are conventionally coded as masculine and feminine traits. Why would this be a problem? Why is it a bad thing necessarily, that Clarice is like Lecter?

Elsa Levytsky ’14: Because they’re both being objectified, but the one deserves to be objectified, and the other is just born female and that’s why she’s objectified. So the fact that we’re rooting for Lecter—we don’t realize we’re rooting for someone who has killed and eaten many people, because he’s so similar to Clarice in some ways. …

A studentMalcolm Turvey: Wouldn’t you say she’s both like Hannibal and also unlike him in the sense that she feels human emotions, right? She’s devastated by her father’s death, and it’s something she thinks about a lot. She’s clearly concerned deeply about Catherine Martin. When she initially sees the body that’s brought out of the river, she’s obviously horrified, yet she’s able to overcome that horror.

Nicole Vigil ’15: They both have such strong morals. Hers is that she cares about human life and wants to save people and save the lambs. [Hannibal] just aggressively doesn’t care—but they both have these set rules they follow. That makes them really similar. …

Madeline Hale ’17: Clarice says that Hannibal won’t go after her because he would consider it rude. So he does have moral standards in that sense.

Malcolm Turvey: Manners.

Class: [Laughs.]

Brock Robinson ’16: … What’s different about this film and why I think the gender becomes problematic is because, as someone brought up earlier, Clarice doesn’t have a choice. She’s never allowed to forget that she’s a female in a man’s world, and she has to overcome a structure that’s set up for her, whereas Hannibal is trying to overcome his own hubris and his desire to be beyond classification. Clarice is just trying to not allow her gender to classify her in the workplace.

A circle of students discuss