Table of Contents

The Horror of Spectatorship

Neil Richter

Click here for a printable version...
Click here for a printable version


One can only imagine what audiences must have thought when they first saw The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.  They had lived through an entire decade of nubile teens being hacked up by masked madmen, but this was horror of an entirely different type.  When the maniacal killer, dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill’ as a result of his penchant for skinning his victims, sashays through a sultry dance routine among a small forest of wigs and dresses only to end it by tucking his genitals between his legs and displaying the results, fear fails to adequately convey the level of discomfort that we feel.  Indeed, this one scene does an excellent job of encapsulating what makes the film so effectively frightening. The horror goes beyond surface fright to hit something deeper and more primal. Barbara Creed, in her article “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine:  An Imaginary Abjection,” refers to horror as a ‘crossing of borders.’ That is, horror crosses lines of decency in ways that threaten the stability of order.  Creed identifies one particular border:  that of gender.  I would argue that this crisis of gender identity is found in the story’s protagonist, FBI trainee Clarice Starling, and its villain, aforementioned serial killer Buffalo Bill.  These characters deviate from their presented roles in a way that deconstructs the male gaze of film theory.  Buffalo Bill is nothing less than the male gaze itself, while through Clarice we see an on-screen representation of the male look in action.   

     Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb is a literal manifestation of the male-gaze.  Hannibal Lecter puts it quite succinctly when he describes the killer’s primary action as ‘coveting,’ and goes so far as to compare such coveting to the eyes that stare at Clarice’s body every day.  Thus, both types of gazes, the ‘normal’ male gaze of characters in the film toward Clarice, and the aberrantly heinous coveting demonstrated through Buffalo Bill’s actions are shown both to be the products of the same basic system of desire. Moreover, by skinning his victims in order to make a suit, Gumb commits the ultimate act of objectification.  Not only does he literally take their lives away, rendering them inanimate corpses, he also uses portions of their bodies as material.  Might one argue that this is what the male-gaze does to on-screen women?  The objectified woman becomes nothing more than a pillar of exquisitely formed flesh, a blank slate on which man projects his innermost fantasies with no identity outside of its image.  In this movie we see the idea made literal. In this way, Gumb serves as a peculiar embodiment of the male gaze. 
     Beyond this, the film’s director, Jonathan Demme, forces the audience to identify themselves with Gumb.  The very first shot directly relating to Gumb as an individual is a point of view shot through his night-vision goggles.  Thus, even before the audience sees him as a separate character, we see the world through his eyes.  The presence of night-vision allows for a transition from the ‘normal’ view of the camera to a ‘look’ that is completely different.  In this way the male gaze, embodied by seeing things through Gumb’s eyes, calls attention to itself.  Furthermore, the nature of the night-vision shots not so subtly makes the male gaze predatory.  Like a wild animal on the hunt, Gumb tracks his prey with a view perfectly calibrated for nighttime stalking and attack. The film is in fact book-ended with night-vision scenes: the initial kidnapping and the climax.  In both cases the male gaze is put forth in a clear and straightforward way. The audience becomes a man objectifying a woman with his look.  Moreover, in both cases the audience is not allowed any distance.  They assume the role of Buffalo Bill.  This base assumption that the audience is Jame Gumb forces the viewer to come face to face with the inherent perversion of the gaze, a ritual in which they have become complicit.
      Nowhere is this more evident than in the dance sequence where Gumb attempts to tuck his genitals between his legs and seemingly ‘erase’ his gender.  Creed begins her article with this quote by Freud:  “Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals” (Creed 251.)  When Gumb displays his own genitalia, warped into a fleshy parody of a vagina, he thus performs what is perhaps the ultimate abjection.  The result is what Creed calls “the place where meaning collapses” (252.)  In addition, I would suggest that this scene reverses Mary Ann Doane’s notion of the ‘projector sequence.’  She uses the films Caught and Rebecca as examples.  According to Doane:  “Both films contain scenes of projection in which the image as a lure and trap is externalized in relation to the woman […] In fact the desire of the woman in both films is to duplicate (the projected) given image, to engage with and capture the male gaze” (Doane 72.)  Thus, the woman onscreen sees a projected woman and seeks to become it, mirroring what the female audience member does with the icons they see onscreen.  As a result, they too become objects of the male gaze.   This time though, the components are reconfigured.
      The apparatus is visible now as a camera instead of a projector.  The camera focuses on a man attempting to ‘capture’ his own gaze. What it records is an act of voluntary castration.  Gumb attempts to transform himself not only into a woman, but also an example of iconic womanhood, the very type created through the male gaze.  Note the blonde wig, the campy costumes, and the rehearsed, unrealistically seductive movements.  What are the implications of this?  On one hand, it conforms to Doane’s ideas regarding the male gaze.  She cites the ‘cyclical mechanisms’ of the male spectator as:  “voyeurism, fetishism, even identification” (Doane 70). Thus, Gumb’s attempts to identify himself as female are merely another part of his fetish, not a true attempt at switching genders.  After all, the change he is making is literally ‘skin deep.’  By wrapping himself in the outer trappings of iconic womanhood, he is simply enacting what the male gaze does when it takes in the spectacle of a woman onscreen. Doane argues that a male viewer cannot separate woman from spectacle when it comes to film spectatorship.  Thus, Gumb’s outwardly female appearance is just one more type of objectification.  Just like in Caught and Rebecca, the audience views the same process that they undergo while watching a film.  The only difference is that this time the gaze itself becomes the mirrored object, not simply the means by which to ‘capture the gaze.’ The spectator looks at Gumb with horror and disgust and must come to terms with what they have become.  Each act that he undertakes, aberrant as it may be, is a direct mirroring of the audiences’ own gendered process of observation.   
     If we think of Gumb representing the viewer, then Clarice represents the effects of the gaze.  Through her we see the horror of the gaze itself. Clarice, an attractive young woman and an FBI trainee, is alone in a wholly masculine world, the perfect ‘other,’ and a perpetual object of spectacle. However, from the very first scene in the movie, Clarice has ownership of each and every frame, rather than the screen capturing and owning her.  Demme’s refusal to make a spectacle of Foster is manifest in numerous ways.  One is her style of dress.  Clarice wears conservative clothing throughout the film:  sweatsuits, tweed jackets, slacks.  This de-emphasizes her status as a filmed spectacle. By not dressing her in an overtly feminine way, Demme does not make her more ‘manly.’  Instead, he takes attention away from Foster’s natural beauty.  He mutes her sexuality, as well as the internal coding that would go into seeing this ‘woman’ doing a ‘man’s job.  When we see her doing masculine things, it removes her status as a spectacle. She’s not standing to the side, idly smoking a cigarette like Rita Hayworth's Gilda because she’s too busy accomplishing things.  She is no longer an icon, set aside for the viewing pleasure of the audience.  Losing the status of her sexuality, she becomes androgynous.  Her femininity duly becomes more a concern to the characters onscreen than to those in the audience whose own response to the male gaze is ‘turned off’ as a result of Clarice’s desexualized state.  All that is left is our own observance of the onscreen relationships.  While the characters within the film may ogle Clarice, the audience is never given that option.  Without this, all that is left is the discomfort of watching the gaze in action. 
     In addition to undercutting the male gaze, Demme also forces the audience to become an object of the gaze. In describing how films emphasize femininity through camerawork, one must return to Doane’s idea of the projector sequence.  It would be my contrary contention that in filming Clarice, Demme turns this concept inside out.  Doane’s thesis on the significance of the ‘projector’ sequence focuses on the idea of desiring.  Through the visualized apparatus of film: projector, screen film, etc. the woman sees her image reflected back at her, a reflection of what she wishes to emulate.  With his very subjective camera movements, Demme puts the emphasis on being desired.  The camera does not so much watch Clarice as watch men watching Clarice.  The focus is always on their looking at her. Demme subtly forces the audience to identify themselves as an attractive woman.  They themselves are objectified, the subject of the screen’s voyeuristic ‘look.’  Through this, Demme performs a neat reversal.  Instead of the female being forced to look at her own objectified reflection, man looks at his own objectifying gaze.  If, as Doane states, “As a card-carrying fetishist, the male spectator does not have to choose between acceptance or rejection of the image” (Doane 75), he can however see his own voyeurism turned around on him.  Clarice’s reaction shots to this gaze dictate the audience’s reactions.  The male viewer is forced to more deeply identify himself as a women being objectified. We see close-ups of Clarice’s face throughout the film, but never once are we led to simply ‘look’ at her.  Every close-up is rife with emotional information.  The audience, bonded to her by their shared point of view, takes their emotional cues from Clarice in these close-ups. This breaks the endless pattern of voyeuristic gazing and at the same time calls attention to it.
     When the effects of Clarice’s scenes are combined with the horror of Gumb’s, a larger technique comes into view.  Not only is the audience confronted with the image of themselves through Gumb, they are also forced to assume the role of a woman being objectified through the gaze.  During the climax of the film, these two viewpoints come together and merge.  In a virtual double of the initial kidnapping scene, the audience once again sees the world through Gumb’s predatory night vision.  The only difference is that now the audience’s identification is split.  Throughout the film, they have been forced to assume the role of both Gumb and Clarice.  In this climactic scene we are stalking ourselves.  In this way, Demme forces the audience to realize both their own complicity in the gaze, as well as the threat that it poses to us as spectators.  As we finally switch back to Clarice’s point of view as she triumphantly shoots Gumb to death, it is a moment of immense emotional catharsis.  The part of us that Gumb represents, the unconscious desire to objectify and dehumanize through the gaze, is eradicated. The audience feels validated, as if their darker self has been removed.  And yet, the creeping horror of the gaze still prevails.  During the final graduation sequence, we are left with a few lingering suggestive looks by men.  This is most notable in Crawford’s uncomfortably long handshake with Starling.  With all that has come before it, this simple gesture achieves an undercurrent of aberrance. In the world of the film, Clarice is still an object.   
     In many ways, The Silence of the Lambs both supports and refutes many of Doane’s ideas about male spectatorship.  She defines Hollywood films as “compensatory structures designed to defend the male psyche against the threat offered by the image of the woman” (Doane 70).  Through Buffalo Bill, the audience is given a visual approximation of this process.  Gumb dehumanizes and objectifies that which threatens him, much like the male gaze objectifies the spectacle onscreen.  By wearing the resulting ‘material’, he enacts the ultimate objectification.  Nevertheless, by calling attention to Gumb’s inherent aberrance, Demme holds a mirror up to the audience’s own viewing process.  The resulting horror forces the audience to rethink their own ‘masculine’ vantage point and to view it in an entirely darker light.  Clarice fits neatly into this process as a crash course in the structures of the male gaze. By desexualizing Clarice, Demme places the gaze in a sort of cinematic test tube.  We can view it onscreen with minimum interference from our own unconscious desires at viewing a woman onscreen.  All that is left is the humiliation and objectification of the gaze.  An attractive woman becomes our surrogate, and the result is a view from the other side of the looking glass. By working with these two characters in tandem, Demme temporarily dismantles the gaze and forces it back on the audience.  A repeated motif in Doane’s essay is the ‘impossibility of female spectatorship.  By facing down the gaze itself the audience is, in many ways, forced to adopt the position of a female.  Once our repulsion at Gumb has repulsed us to the gaze itself, there is nothing left to do besides adopt Clarice’s objectified persona.  The result of this is nothing short of horror on a grand scale.

Works Cited
Creed, Barbara.  “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine:  An
Imaginary Abjection.” Feminist Film Theory, a Reader.
Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York U P, 1999. 251-265.
Doane, Mary-Anne. "Caught and Rebecca:  The Inscription of
Femininity as Absence." Thornham. 70-81.
The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie
Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine Film. Orion Pictures, 1991.