Table of Contents

Reaching for the Image:
Themes of Regression and Paternal Law 
in The Silence of the Lambs

Alejandro Rivera


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A horror film, if done well, should lead the viewer into the shadows of some wholly wretched underground to reveal the abject: the element which threatens to tear the social fabric at the very seams. The horror film done to perfection, on the other hand, will, in that moment, turn the audience around to see where they came from, to see the very social fabric they once found security and solace in, and present it in a way where the viewer cannot distinguish between the two. The monsters, then, become us (Cannibal Holocaust), morality is perversity (Salo), the friends become strangers (Diabolique), and, most startling, man becomes woman, and woman becomes man. This gender transmogrification is evident in The Silence of the Lambs. The ambiguous portrayal of gender roles within the film results in one of the most interesting and nightmarish abject images ever committed to film. Looking past the nightmarish, however, these objects of the abject lead to a fundamental question essential within the film and to the sociological climate of the present day: what is the role of Clarice Starling? Is she, in fact, a man wrapped in a woman’s skin? Can she, in good conscious, be called a male figure because she is in a position of authority and narrative control? Using feminist criticism to analyze the film, Starling’s wish to regress back to a time of her childhood marked by “silence” and paternal law becomes a question of gender self-identification and ambiguity.
     The horror film, according to Linda Williams, is “aimed at adolescents careening wildly between the two masculine and feminine poles” (270). The validity of Williams’s statement may be put into question with a number of horror films, especially the ones that seem to have nothing to do with the question of sexuality, but it is certainly justified in viewing many slasher, “final girl” films. The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, makes what is supposed to be a subconscious identification of adolescents and turns it into an explicit on-screen portrayal. The film illustrates the ambiguity of sexuality and the adolescent’s oscillation between gender identification (personified by a grown but childish man), bombarding the audience with just about every film and narrative technique available—lighting, plot, mise en scène, just to name a few—leading to a central idea: just as Buffalo Bill, when videotaping himself, is the viewer of the object wishing to be the object (man coveting woman), Starling is the object wishing to be the viewer. In other words, it is regarded (at least popularly) that Starling covets the male figure, the patriarchal position, and the paternal law. This explanation, though, does not explain the role of the two serial killers in her life, what the real purpose Dr. Lecter has, or her desire to regress to a childhood stage of “silence.” In light of these questions, does Williams explain the complexities of these characters? Furthermore, what happens to William’s conclusion about horror movies when the subconscious battlefield of gender identification is brought, without make-up (as it were), to the screen? Do we see ourselves? Do we hate ourselves? Or worse, do we not even recognize ourselves, like Freud in his article on the Uncanny, in seeing ourselves in the mirror? What, above all, does Starling want?
     The success of The Silence of the Lambs was in part due to Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Clarice Starling as an “unorthodox woman.” Starling, an aspiring FBI agent, is put into the role more commonly reserved for the male within the crime drama: she investigates the mystery, carries the narrative, and shows great intelligence and vigilance. In fact, Foster plays the character so outside the normal paradigm of women within the filmic structure that a group of gay rights activists officially “outed” her, assuming that, in light of her film role and hints of her personal life, Foster could only be a lesbian (Staiger 210). Therefore, it is not surprising many have come to the conclusion that she is really a man in a woman’s skin. This conclusion, however, may be fairly misleading as many, in essence, label her a male figure because she is in some position of power, suggesting the orthodox role of the woman within the crime drama is to be exclusively in peril. In any case, it oversimplifies a much more complicated situation. Starling does, in fact, have another role within the film, but to analyze that, an interpretation of the serial killers must be noted.
     In order to catch Buffalo Bill from committing another slaying, Dr. Lecter, the former psychologist of the serial killer, is questioned by Starling. It is, however, more than a mere former doctor-patient relationship that the two men have. They have, in essence, similarities in their adolescent behavior and desires. Dr. Lecter’s actions are marked by their juvenility, ranging from his crude comments: “Amputate a man’s leg and he can still feel it tickling. Tell me, mum, when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?” to his playful movements: as the police officers writhe on the floor, Dr. Lecter is lost in his music, and, when broken from his trance, he walks over to the guard, saying, “ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry.” In essence, Dr. Lecter is the child who tears the wings from a fly and watches it wander off to die; he is the curious and neotenous cat who plays with a dying mouse, flinging it across the room as it lingers for life, and Starling, who in this case is another “potential fly,” is warned, before meeting him for the first time, that she doesn’t want Dr. Lecter inside her head because then he will begin to play as children often do. Buffalo Bill is also akin to a young boy. He is an adolescent confused in his sexuality and unable to separate himself and the image of the woman lost in his fantasy of what he could be and what he is. He is the little girl, brushing her dolly’s hair and anthropomorphizing it to a level of reality, care, and love; the little boy, undressing Barbie dolls and pressing their plastic synthetics together, experiences a skewed introduction to erotica. Even threats to his own life are met with a level of playfulness. In the end, when Starling pulls her firearm after her discovery of his actual “identity,” Buffalo Bill smiles and runs off, and, as Starling wanders around lost in the basement of the house, he watches her in utter curiosity and amazement, reaching out in some attempt to have her. Essentially, the two men are not monsters, but, rather, children who grew up and hated the monsters the world had turned them into and became children once again through skinned humans and edible flesh, and, though they consume, they, too, produce and are the basis of Starling’s battle of self-identification.
     Similar to the relationship of Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill, Starling and Dr. Lecter’s dynamic goes beyond the official rationale of merely wanting to catch a serial killer. In the ticking seconds of the 25th hour, Starling tries her hardest to extract the right information from Dr. Lecter about Buffalo Bill, and all the while he plays “quid pro quo” with her. She can get what she wants as long as he can be her psychologist, her listener, through which he is able to evoke Starling’s desire in his own words: “And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don't you? You think if Catherine lives, you won't wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.” Later, in the last scene, Dr. Lecter informs Starling he wishes they “could chat longer, but [...] I'm having an old friend for dinner. Bye,” referring to Dr. Frederick Chilton, the person who had inconvenienced Starling so much in her investigation. Dr. Lecter is, then, a type of guardian who rectifies the dishonors done to himself and Starling alike, keeping her alive because he would “think it’s rude” to harm her. The dynamic between Starling and Dr. Lecter suggests an almost father-daughter relationship. However, it is very far reaching, if not altogether incorrect, to call Dr. Lecter the father of Starling. Rather, it is suggested that he is the substitute father, a stand-in for Starling biological father.
     The proxy is significant for Starling because it allows her to, in a way, procure the mentality of Dr. Lecter, which she must use to catch the killer, Buffalo Bill, or, in other words, to do her job well. For example, when Starling reads the clue written in Buffalo Bill’s file: "Starling, doesn't this random scattering of sites seem desperately random—like the elaborations of a bad liar? Ta, Hannibal Lecter," Starling must think like Buffalo Bill and Dr. Lecter to rationalize this clue. In fact, it is the criminal psychologist’s job to think like a criminal in order to anticipate the actions and trace the movements of their target. As a result, Starling does not descend into the darkness, as it were, as she has always been there, thinking like a serial killer. In the final scene with Buffalo Bill, Starling wanders in his den. Blind, scared, lost, she is delving deep into the mind of the serial killer while he plays with her, reaching, yearning, perhaps, to be like her. The scene ends with her understanding his position behind her and firing the gun with unbelievable haste. Starling, then, understands the mind of the serial killer and can walk down into the den of the monster.
     Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, is the opposite of the guardian figure. Starling is penned up with him in his horrid dungeon, the sound of his victim’s screams of help at the bottom of a well resonating throughout the dark pitch with Buffalo Bill close behind, stalking, playing, reaching to her image. He is, then, the force which threatens to consume the physical life of Starling. However, Buffalo Bill signifies another kind of threat to her. Buffalo Bill is the symbol of a boy in a woman’s suit or some unnatural entity sprung from something alien to earth.  He, as analyzed by Dr. Lecter, “hates his own identity you see, he always has and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying. He wants to be reborn you see. Our Billy wants to be reborn, Starling. And he will be reborn.” This rebirth, if realized, would’ve produced a thing outside of the normal paradigm of patriarchal and paternal laws, making him a threat to the welfare of the greater community. In essence, he is different, and things which are different (at least in terms of the film) are threats.
     As manifested by Dr. Lecter’s inquiries, Starling wants nothing more than to silence the lambs. Before this confession, a flashback scene depicts a younger Starling interacting happily with her father, a law enforcement official. Later in the film, during a wake, another flashback scene portrays the young Starling, wearing a flowery dress, with a blank expression on her face. The implication here is that the time of “silence” was marked by the father and paternal law but was interrupted by the untimely death of her father. Therefore, as implied by Dr. Lecter, if Clarice can stop Buffalo Bill from transforming and reaching a complete state of gender ambiguity, then she can regress back into this period of silence. In a way, Starling must kill, must take down, must erase and free herself of the Buffalo Bill image within herself in order to lay back in full placid silence. Therefore, if Buffalo Bill represents gender ambiguity, then it is the ambiguity which Starling strives to destroy. In the end of the film, when Starling strikes down Buffalo Bill in the basement of his house and the rays of sun shine through the open window, creating an atmosphere in which the night vision goggles are no longer needed because there is nothing left to “gaze at,” and no woman around to be the object of the gaze, Starling’s transcendence from student to FBI agent is, in essence, sealed. In other words, by killing the symbol impeding her desire to be initiated back into the world of law, the symbol of gender curiosity and confusion which marked the woes of her childhood, Starling leaves that world of gender ambiguity for the world of social law and the order once personified by the departed father. Therefore, if Dr. Lecter is her stand-in father, then her real father is the law which was taken away from her at a young age, and, so, she has been trying for a great deal of her life to get back into this order of law, this function of a father, or, in a term coined by Jacques Lacan, the “Name of the Father,” a symbolic concept where the laws of the father are elevated to an ideal order. Here lies the true essence of what Starling wants: she does not want her biological father back in a literal sense, but, rather, she wants the order of the father back and to regress to a point in which she does not have to “act like a woman” or grow-up or participate in the “masquerade” of womanliness. She wants to regress back to an age when to participate in the order of the father was not only acceptable but  felt right, thereby killing those questions of gender ambiguity signified by questions like “is this how a woman should act?” manifested by the figure of Buffalo Bill. In the end of the film, she did what Buffalo Bill wanted to do and what Dr. Lecter already did: to change from the hateful image the rest of the world had molded her into.
     A natural question stems from these conclusions of Starling’s wish to kill gender ambiguity: by becoming the figure of male law then isn’t she herself an example of gender ambiguity? Doesn’t she become that very entity that she had to avenge in the earlier scene with Buffalo Bill? Starling does not wish to correct herself or conform to social formalities, but, rather, all she wants to do is to go back to a period of familiarity where she was held in the arms of her father and there was no question of gender ambiguity. In essence, Starling strives against that period of the young person’s life when one is bombarded by questions of gender identification and sexual ambiguity, that happening soon after the age of nine (nine being the age Starling was when her father died). The irony of the situation is, in order for Starling to go back to a period before gender ambiguity, she must become ambiguous with her gender. In other words, she must kill that question and the very existence of gender ambiguity thriving in the person of Buffalo Bill to rid herself of it. In essence, Starling merely wants to be cradled rather than “serve and protect” or create a safer atmosphere for the greater good of the community. In fact, the only figures who want Buffalo Bill to fall, because he is a threat to the social fabric, are Jack Crawford and Dr. Lecter: one a symbol of law, the other a symbol of another kind of law.
     Dr. Lecter, in turn, has a stake in this destruction of gender ambiguity. When asked what Dr. Lecter desired most of all, he states that he would like a room with a view of a tree. He does not, then, want to leave the cell that has kept him many years. Dr. Lecter consumes, but he is, in actuality, those people, those officials he himself once was. In short, Dr. Lecter is himself a social order, a master deconstructionist, an observer of the law and the complexities of the human mind. Therefore, Dr. Lecter does not want out of the system that has kept him imprisoned because it is the system he has found solace in destroying, playing, and living. His law, as alluded above, is based within the patriarchy, just as Crawford’s law is. What he does, then, is use Starling by entering her head and giving her the necessary clues to destroy Buffalo Bill, who was a threat to the system wherein he found a home. With Buffalo Bill now dead, Dr. Lecter’s mentality continues to thrive within the head of Starling; her head now a battleground between the order of the FBI and Crawford and the order of Dr. Lecter. She was, in essence, their tool. They both entered her head, a threat warned to Starling by Crawford, and continue to haunt her as she repeats “Dr. Lecter” into the telephone.
     So, is she successful? Do the lambs stop screaming? In the end of the film, Starling is left with nothing but silence on the telephone, repeating the name “Dr. Lecter, Dr. Lecter, Dr. Lecter.” Therefore, the lambs never stop screaming at the end of the film, and Starling is left as haunted as she was because, in trying to understand and enter the mind of the two serial killers, she had to be the very anarchy which killed her father. In short, through Starling and Dr. Lecter’s understanding to leave each other unconsumed, the law becomes the killer, and the killer becomes the law. It is the price she pays for her revenge and want of regression: though she becomes the law, she has descended into the basement minds of both Dr. Lecter (marked by his prison cell) and Buffalo Bill and, consequently, has lost her innocence and naivety. She is, in essence, not the child she yearned to become but just another monster, another offspring of the unnatural modern world of gender confusion and self-identification. She is akin to women who flaunt their “womanliness,” which, in actuality, is nothing but “a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it” (Riviere 213). By becoming a figure of the law (Crawford) and the internalization of anarchy and “evil” (Dr. Lecter), Starling mirrors a woman’s position within our current sociological construction: like Starling having to be an FBI agent thinking in terms of the killer, so too must a woman be “a man who thought he was a woman, to a woman who thinks she is a man” (Doane 73).
     A question, however, still remains: how does audience react? How do spectators identify as the lights in the theatre rise, as their “identities” fade away from the screen and they are left with nothing but the horrid silence with which they departed from Starling? The audience finds their identity shifting between Dr. Lecter and Starling (in fact, the character of Dr. Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins has gone on to reach more of a commercial success in his mere seventeen minutes on screen than any of the other characters), and, yet, they find no sadness in Buffalo Bill’s death but, rather, only joy. The film’s ending of Dr. Lecter’s supposedly continued exploits does not bother the audience. The fact that the lambs never stop screaming does not bother them. Torn between their identifications of the characters, they internalize the very duality of Dr. Lecter and Crawford’s law by feeling a sort of satisfaction in knowing Dr. Lecter’s plan to murder Dr. Frederick Chilton and watching Dr. Lecter stroll down a street a free man along with the satisfaction in Starling, who is now a law official and will continue to “serve and protect.” Spectators, in other words, are the battleground between these two entities; they are not Buffalo Bill or Dr. Lecter, but Starling. Like her, the audience is between: between the childlike and the social law, between the yearning for younger days when they could be curious,  playful, and confused, and get away with it, and between the order of shame and discipline. Therefore, Williams’ theory on horror movies can only account for half the equation in this film: instead of speaking to the audience’s issues of gender confusion, the film works to reach a desire to destroy that very gender confusion, thereby stopping the oscillation between the female and the male sexuality. In doing this, the film supports the status quo of paternal law and violence by depicting Dr. Lecter’s escape as a “happy ending.” The film suggests the only unnatural element within the structure is that in which good and evil find a common enemy: the element which breaks free of the paradigm, the freakish amalgamation threatening to overthrow our perfect system, and this entity, personified by Buffalo Bill, is what the audience must, too, avenge.
     We feel what we fantasize: overwhelming emotions evoked by nothing but a seemingly real scene inside our heads. The simple fact that it never happened is trivial until we are thrust back into “reality.” In short, we want what we know is unreachable, untouchable, sacred, lost.  Akin to Buffalo Bill, we reach out past ourselves to the very image that causes pain and joy, a part of our childhood that seems to grow brighter every day, even as the future grows darker; like Dr. Lecter, we want freedom from the social laws but cannot live without them; like Starling, we want silence but cannot live without noise. Essentially, the film is about what we do to each other as human beings and our struggle, whether man or woman, for self-identification.







Works Cited
Doane, Mary Ann. “Caught and Rebecca.” Feminist Film Theory:
A Reader. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York U P, 1999.
“Name of the Father.” Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. 5 March
2007. 7 March 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_of_the_Father>.
Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” Psychoanalysis and
Female Sexuality.  Ed. Hendrik M. Ruitenbeek. New Haven: College and University P, 1966.
The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster,
Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine. 1991. DVD. MGM, 2004.
Staiger, Janet. “Taboos and Totems: Cultural Meanings of The
Silence of the Lambs.”  Thornham.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.”
Thornham.