The adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs has caused controversy in the LGBTQ+ community due to the film’s portrayal of fictional serial killer Buffalo Bill. Jonathan Demme’s classic 1991 horror film perpetuates the negative trend in Hollywood portrayal of transgender characters and themes. His controversy shows how the film still affects the trans community and how queer critics relate to his legacy.
“The Silence of the Lambs” has a strong enough legacy to inspire the creation of numerous adaptations and sequels that have tried to reflect the success of this cultural phenomenon. This is one of the three films that received a “great success” at the Oscars, receiving awards for best adapted screenplay, best actor and actress in a leading role and best director. It also remains the only horror film nominated for an Oscar to win the award for Best Film. The influence of the “Silence of the Lambs” is spreading to this day and continues to cause both criticism and praise. The film’s treatment of transgender and feminist themes has caused widespread controversy among critics and fans over the years.
There have long been problems with denigrating transgender identities. This can be seen in other classic horror films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Norman Bates, who kills his victims in his mother’s clothes, started a trend in this genre that, intentionally or not, has had a lasting impact on the trans community. Psycho is just one example among a broader trend. For a while queer-coded and gender-inappropriate characters were used to denote meanness and danger, and this has become a particularly common trait among the antagonists of horror films. “The Silence of the Lambs” followed in the footsteps of films like “Sleep Camp” or “Dressed to Kill” by Brian De Palma, despite various attempts to disqualify serial killer Buffalo Bill from being classified as transgender. Despite the positive impact of The Silence of the Lambs, the film undoubtedly reinforced the destructive horror problem that critics have been urging viewers to listen to for decades. Statistically, the likelihood that transgender people will become victims of violent crimes is higher than their perpetuation, and the stigmatization of trans identities in cinema takes part in perpetuating this biased violence.
Explanation of the LGBTQ+ Controversy in The Silence of the Lambs
Buffalo Bill has become a notorious villain in the history of cinema because of his terrifying M.O. as a killer; he wears the skin of young women whom he traps in his basement. Like Psycho, Buffalo Bill was inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, who famously wore his late mother’s clothes. In The Silence of the Lambs, Bill’s desire to dress in women’s clothing and strive for a medical transition are traits that make him at least a transcoded character. While Dr. Hannibal Lecter states that Buffalo Bill is not a “real transsexual,” Lecter mentions the likelihood that he has sought “reassignment surgery” at various hospitals. Director Jonathan Demme tries to separate trans identity from Bill with these lines, but instead they contradict his intentions, demonstrating Bill’s desire to transition. The film also attempts to separate antagonism from trans identity when Clarice says that “there is no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence,” although this seems to imply only that Bill’s personality is not the cause of his murders. After these conversations, Buffalo Bill’s identity remains questionable rather than something that should be rejected, and in particular, it is something that is discussed by other characters, but not something that Bill is allowed to express himself directly.
Even if Bill wasn’t supposed to be read as transgender, he’s coded that way. Critics and viewers of LGBTQ+ note that, regardless of intentions According to the filmmakers, Buffalo Bill still has a connection with trans identities, which will encourage some viewers to internalize biased generalizations. Often in 20th-century films, villains have a direct link between evil and criminal activity, as well as gender-nonconformist behavior and trans identification – one famous case of this appears in the final act of Ace Venture: Pet Detective. . Whatever the intent, the queer-coded portrayal of Buffalo Bill plays on long-standing transphobic tendencies that reinforce the assumption that transgender people are somehow villainous. Also, because of queer-coding villains like Buffalo Bill, trans communities are at even greater risk of violence in real life. Much of the LGBTQ+ community has rejected the legacy of the “Silence of the Lambs” for years because Hollywood seems to ignore criticism. At the Oscar ceremony in 1992, there was a mass protest, as a result of which ten LGBTQ+ activists were arrested, who believed that Oscar favored homophobic and transphobic films (via the Washington Post).