30 years in, The Silence Of The Lambs’ Jame Gumb still deserves better
February 17, 2021 4:51 AM   Subscribe

A reluctant defense of Silence Of The Lambs' Jame Gumb (AV Club) "Yes, the directing is masterful, and the acting is damn near flawless. But these aspects come at the price of consistently elevating the worst piece of fiction to befall trans people". Harmony Colangelo writes about the problematic legacy of Silence of the Lambs as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.

See also:
Understanding Silence of the Lambs’ complicated cultural legacy (Vox)

The abiding complicated legacy of Silence of the Lambs (Vanity Fair)

Emily VanDerWerff (Twitter thread): "I do not believe SotL is transphobic (especially for its era); I do believe it propped up transphobia... You can’t talk about its legacy without talking about the way in which its legacy became intertwined with movies like The Crying Game or Ace Ventura or its copycats. It is one of the most influential movies ever made. Its influence includes transphobia."
posted by bitteschoen (70 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Essentially, this movie is hovering its finger over all of the things it is denying, while chanting, “I’m not touching you,” over and over.

Show is more powerful than tell.
posted by eustatic at 6:55 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]


A word of caution about that AV Club piece: if you don't want to see a whole bunch of people miss the point of the article about as completely as possible, skip the comments. (In general, the AV Club has declined greatly since its glory days pre-acquisition by Gawker/GO Media/whatever it's called now.) The article itself is pretty good, noting anti-trans trends in psychiatry.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:14 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


OK so that was a legitimately interesting article that actually changed my mind. Not about trans people in general - I think my position there aligns with most people on Metafilter - but about Jame Gumb in particular. I opened the article thinking "yeah, I know the movie is pretty bad, but he's a psychopath whose entire reason for existing makes him pretty hard to defend". I closed it actually feeling sorry for Jame Gumb. Excellent article, thanks for posting.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:30 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


"Oh no, this murderously violent cross-dressing character can't possibly perpetuate harmful stereotypes, because the text states that they're ~not trans~" is exactly the same excuse that J.K. Rowling's fans are using to defend her most recent book, 30 Gregorian years later.
posted by theodolite at 7:50 AM on February 17 [20 favorites]


I too have always hated SotL for exactly the same reasons. I will never forget the sinking feeling in my gut when the killer is revealed as TG as I anticipated all the damage that would be done.
posted by hypnogogue at 8:17 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


ianas, not a shrink...it doesn't seem surprising to me that to a character with gumb's raft of issues, body dysmorphia wouldn't be just one more. it was a not-trans phenomena, too. as a plot point, he'd been denied gender reassignment for legit reasons.

that said, was it Necessary for the character? nope, not at all. made a lot of space for conflating/mingling it with psychopathy. ultimately, not the right choice.

i think this is a timely and well-considerd critique.

I don't agree with the rowling comparison, but wdik. haven't looked closely at that.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:18 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I'm gonna take it as a given that Jame Gumb does indeed perpetuate harmful stereotypes, despite the honest efforts of the filmmakers to mitigate that fact. The AV Club essay does a pretty good job of making that clear. I think Emily VanDerWerff's twitter thread is also a valuable exploration.

What strikes me as I think about it is, the thematic underpinnings of the film completely fall apart if Jame Gumb is trans. Specifically, I'm thinking of how much the film is an indictment of the male gaze and toxic masculinity, with Gumb as the apotheosis of those. If Gumb is trans, then the stalking of Clarice in the basement with the night-vision goggles at the end of the film doesn't mean the same thing anymore. One of the things that's most interesting about the movie is how it builds this theme up throughout and pays if off at the end. It's like the film studies essays practically write themselves.

That being said, I can't excuse the transphobia, but I hope I can still appreciate the film's other merits.
posted by wabbittwax at 8:24 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]


I unabashedly love the movie--and have a soft spot for LGBTQ monsters that will never go away. That said, I'm very sympathetic to this AVClub article. To my mind, the movie's problems are (a) an overreliance on Hannibal's genius (his little anagrams and puzzles that seemed so clever thirty years ago now seem hacky and sad) and (b) its reception and the parroting of its tropes by other media, which I guess can't really be blamed on the movie itself, but its popularity certainly caused the injection of those tropes into popular culture.

Gumb is supposed to be a mystery--to himself, to others. He represents the complete failure of the system to figure him out. And "the system" in this case would mean not only the psychiatric system, but law enforcement, and our own categories. What makes him work as a monster is that he is beyond gender, beyond sexuality--his identity is too elusive for our grasp. Hannibal's tiresome little speech about Marcus Aurelius--what does Buffalo Bill covet--manages to miss the entire point of him, by pinning him down into a category, an identity, that he is always exploding past. The movie gives us this character and doesn't understand him, is too confident in its ability to classify, and in that manages to misunderstand actually existing people as well--Emily VanDerWerff's point about how Hannibal, in the trans conversation, tosses trans people into the "passive" bucket to exonerate them, is well-taken.

If you read about profilers in real life, you can kind of understand why the movie suffers from this need to categorize--and why it's more of a thriller than a horror film. The insistence that we are able to know, able to understand--that by checking off certain symptoms, we can identify and catch our killer--helps make the monstrous seem containable, and makes the FBI seem like heroes (and has launched an entire genre of work praising them for their ability to know us completely). In truth, you look at the story of someone like Ed Gein (one of the killers Gumb is based on), and you realize how little we understand ourselves as humanity, how we are full of edge cases that collide with our need to box everyone into a known identiy.

But maybe that's why I like the movie so much, because it's so confident, and yet so, so wrong. It really wants you to believe Clarice has solved the case and all is well, but in the end, the only containment possible for Gumb is his death--and the way he is instantly forgotten by the movie, after that death. Gumb-as-metaphor remains as powerful as it ever was.
posted by mittens at 8:45 AM on February 17 [27 favorites]


I don't agree with the rowling comparison, but wdik. haven't looked closely at that.

no, you haven't. a google search would have shown you just how that's played out. so many people defending the book as "not transphobic" using the same arguments explaining why silence is "not transphobic", but when placed in context of wider culture, it becomes very apparent that it is.

saying a character isn't trans as a defense, while simultaneously trafficking in stereotypes people have of trans women, and in the case of jkr actually writing essays where she links said tropes to trans women (and after writing the abuse of another trans character threatened with rape by the protagonist)... is transphobic.

but yeah, just dismiss it. everyone else already does.
posted by i used to be someone else at 8:48 AM on February 17 [13 favorites]


Jame Gumb is a composite of different serials killers and that mix unfortunately comes out transphobic. There have been some serial killers that sometimes wore women's clothing in private for erotic reasons (but plenty of non-murderers do that and it really shouldn't be played as "ooooooh, creeeeeepy"), and then of course Ed Gein made clothing out of women (not done by non-killers, actually very creepy). Harris could have written a novel where Jame Gumb was much more like Gein, but that would have been too simple for him, given his penchant for rather baroque serial killers. Because of Harris, we have this tsunami of fictional serial killers who are creative geniuses leaving coded hints in their victims' bodies when actual serial killers are more like Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
posted by LindsayIrene at 8:52 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


I haven't thought about this movie in years, other than having enjoyed the acting the two or three times I saw it back then. But, yeah, in my memory and on the briefest reflection, it is now immediately apparent that it is almost nauseatingly anti-trans both internally in its explicit and implicit representations; and externally as no one was forced to make a book/movie about this subject. The choice to do so is anti-trans. I do not believe I could stand to watch it again.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:53 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


The book and the movie are weapons that have resulted in the deaths of many trans women. Debating whether this was the correct thing to have happened is basically a "books don't kill people, people kill people" argument.
posted by tigrrrlily at 8:54 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]


hmm. i didn't dismiss rowling. i acknowledged my ignorance. isn't that part of engaged adult discussion? are you assigning me homework to complete before i can engage the post?
posted by j_curiouser at 8:56 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


This ties in with my theory that many serial killers who showed homosexual proclivities might have lived (somewhat) normal lives had they lived in a world that accepted them, instead of creating a situation where they thought killing someone was better than having people find out that they're homosexual.
posted by deadaluspark at 8:58 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


SotL is yet another one of those movies that I love and that I feel increasingly uncomfortable about watching or recommending as time passes. I am here for these analyses!
posted by Going To Maine at 9:00 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


hmm. i didn't dismiss rowling. i acknowledged my ignorance. isn't that part of engaged adult discussion? are you assigning me homework to complete before i can engage the post?

you dismissed the critique with:

I don't agree with the rowling comparison, but wdik. haven't looked closely at that.

you admit your ignorance, sure, but if we're going to have "engaged adult discussion", maybe admit that your phrasing typifies the dismissal that minorities have seen all too often when they point out bigotry.
posted by i used to be someone else at 9:01 AM on February 17 [28 favorites]


What strikes me as I think about it is, the thematic underpinnings of the film completely fall apart if Jame Gumb is trans

But that is part of the problem the movie has, it can't fully uproot the TERFy nature of its feminism. Gumb's character is posited as the thematic counterpoint to Clarice. Gumb the former patient/protege of Lecter's matched to Starling's "patient" apprenticeship with him, where the exchange is the alternating of Gumb's diagnosis with Starling's revelations. Gumb in the context of the themes has to be a man because that is central to Starling's struggle for her self identity and is consistent all the way through with the all other male obstacles she has to overcome to find herself, or metamorphize into her "true" nature.

Gumb represents then the false end, a man consuming and appropriating the skin of women to try and make himself something he's not. Clarice has to rescue the "girl" in the pit as a sort of symbolic challenge to become more than a woman trying to dress in men's clothing. The issue is that the entirety of that theme relies on ideas of gender that are tied to a more essentialist perspective that Gumb violated and Starling risked losing herself to.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:08 AM on February 17 [21 favorites]


Specifically, I'm thinking of how much the film is an indictment of the male gaze and toxic masculinity

gusottertrout basically said what I was about to say - I don’t really see how to separate that view of the character from its transphobic implication unless you can flip the “not really trans” switch and have people not think about it. Which is what they tried to do but it’s not actually a thing.
posted by atoxyl at 9:23 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Right, they tried to sorta, maybe, get around the issue by saying what Gumb is not, but leaving nothing for Gumb to actually be that makes sense within the frame of the film. It basically seems to posit "real" transgender identity as something other, outside the bounds of the norm.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:27 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


With the caveat that I haven't seen the movie in 25 years or so, what strikes me from this distance is how all of the three main characters are coded as queerly other. Starling is an aspirant to, and a failure at, normative femininity; Lecter is the classic Hollywood Evil Queen; and Gumb is the equally classic Hollywood "man" who "thinks he's a woman." Defined thus, the movie pits them all against each other. SOTL is a near pitch perfect example of the 90s trend of providing queer shock and titilation to largely straight cis audiences. (And it's worth noting that Demme follows that with Philadelphia, which, tho softer and cuddlier, pretty much does the same thing.)
posted by a Rrose by any other name at 9:38 AM on February 17 [18 favorites]


i acknowledged my ignorance

While also dismissing the critique. How can you dismiss something you're ignorant about ?
posted by Pendragon at 9:42 AM on February 17 [11 favorites]


A few years ago I read Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs after falling deep down a Hannibal rabbit hole. In Red Dragon, the first book, I was struck by the incredible compassion that the narrative has for its villain Francis Dolarhyde. He is a monstrous, horrifying serial killer, but the book goes into long digressions about his awful twisted upbringing and shows you exactly how a sensitive, innocent child could become this irredeemable killer. It was impressive, and I was looking forward to seeing how Thomas Harris handled Jame Gumb - surely it would be more of the same?

It was... not. The book The Silence of the Lambs loathes Jame Gumb and has no compassion for him whatsoever. He's not given nearly the same level of backstory and his characterization is pretty much limited to "gross, evil weirdo."

This isn't meant as a defense of how the movie handles the character, but to my mind it definitely handles him better than the book does, because it dwells far more on the horribleness of his actions rather than his pathologies.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:08 AM on February 17 [13 favorites]


For historical context I just want to emphasize this passage from the above post: From the start, the LGBTQ community was critical of The Silence Of The Lambs—although mostly for its vague homophobia, rather than the very clear example of transphobia it’s seen as today. This culminated in a large, violent protest outside of the 1992 Academy Awards...

I attended that protest and can tell you that critics at the time recognized it was transphobic. I was specifically educated by fellow activists about this portrayal as transphobic and that motivated my trip to LA for the protests, so any argument that it was a different time is wrong.

The other deeply disturbing aspect of Silence of the Lambs is the portrayal of the torture of Catherine Martin (I had to google the character's name! She doesn't seem to be getting much play in this retroactive analysis.)

One way to look at this movie is reinforcing that women are both monsters and victims, that we will be murdered or murderers, with Clarisse as a stand in for the (woman) viewer being given an impossible choice between terrible and extremely restricted and repulsive options of womanhood.

I also really like the above comment from a Rrose by any other name : this movie can also be watched as representing tropes of queerness. I'd add that any queer who lived through the 80s and 90s can attest the outsized symbolic place that Jodie Foster held for us: She was widely recognized and understood to be a queer woman, more than almost any other pop culture figure at the time, (close competetors would be Whitney Houston or Dolly Parton but neither was as widely understood to be gay). So her central role in this movie made it automatically about gay-ness.
posted by latkes at 10:22 AM on February 17 [26 favorites]


I'm surprised the main article didn't bring up the obvious predecessor: Psycho. Here, 30 years before SOTL, a cross-dressing man is a psychopath in the film that would probably have been named the most horrific film at the time of its premiere. At the end of Psycho, the psychiatrist gives lip-service to Norman Bates not actually being a transvestite.

There is something to be said, although I'm not sure exactly what, that, what are typically picked as the top horror films, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, and what is typically picked as the top two comedies, Some Like It Hot, and Tootsie, feature men dressed as women.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:23 AM on February 17 [16 favorites]


I’m not 100% sure of the validity of this narrative, but I’ve heard that Demme felt terrible about the transphobic implications of Gumb’s character and was deeply moved by the contemporary protests against the movie. This was a major factor in his choosing to make Philadelphia, which was explicitly tailor-designed to catalyze the mainstream recognition of the humanity of people with AIDS.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:30 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Emily VanDerWerff's tweet thread above captures how I feel. I wish we had a better shorthand way to say "work of art that wanted to engage with certain tropes which in the wider cultural context will lead to a []-ist reading regardless of the creator's intent," because I do think that is different analytically than "work of art that just flat-out intended the []-ist reading." Even though the first kind of work can still be very harmful. Like, I believe (despite feeble disclaimers) J.K. Rowling intended a transphobic reading, and so I judge her and that book differently than I do Demme and this film, while still acknowledging its powerful impact.
posted by praemunire at 10:31 AM on February 17 [22 favorites]


Starling is an aspirant to, and a failure at, normative femininity; Lecter is the classic Hollywood Evil Queen; and Gumb is the equally classic Hollywood "man" who "thinks he's a woman."

And reflecting on this, despite Demme's reputation as a liberal artist and dude—something that seems to have been true AFAIK—these are some pretty basic 1991 queer stereotypes, really only lacking an unstable bisexual femme fatale to run the table.

And on the topic, it might be illuminating to look at what connects SOTL to Philadelphia, namely queer-as-grotesque body horror. But Philadelphia is the queer threat pitched in the key of pathos, while SOTL pitches it in the key of terror.
posted by a Rrose by any other name at 10:31 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


i used to be someone else, your words are so valuable to me:
" people defending the book as "not transphobic" using the same arguments explaining why silence is "not transphobic", but when placed in context of wider culture, it becomes very apparent that it is.
saying a character isn't trans as a defense, while simultaneously trafficking in stereotypes people have of trans women, and in the case of jkr actually writing essays where she links said tropes to trans women (and after writing the abuse of another trans character threatened with rape by the protagonist)... is transphobic. "
Thank you.
I am one of those readers who did fix on " Gumb isn't trans" tree, without seeing the forest of that choice in both the book and later the film. Over the years my view has changed, but I've not had the language to articulate it as you did.

I really appreciate the comments on the queer tropes and male gaze / toxicity aspects. Thank you all for sharing.
posted by winesong at 10:32 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]


Queers who watched it when it came out: how did you feel about Philadelphia at the time?

I found it embarrassing, the Hanks/Banderas relationship without chemistry, and the failure to show a kiss as pathetic (although if I remember right, it was pitched as breaking ground for showing them kissing! But the way their heads are positioned is much different than a straight kiss would have been).

It's very hard for me to have perspective on this impression now, since I had so much at stake at the time in viewing mainstream (straight) presentations of gayness.
posted by latkes at 10:36 AM on February 17


There is something to be said, although I'm not sure exactly what, that, what are typically picked as the top horror films, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, and what is typically picked as the top two comedies, Some Like It Hot, and Tootsie, feature men dressed as women.

Huh. That's... huh.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:38 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


There is something to be said, although I'm not sure exactly what, that, what are typically picked as the top horror films, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, and what is typically picked as the top two comedies, Some Like It Hot, and Tootsie, feature men dressed as women.

If you have Netflix, Disclosure does say a lot about it.
posted by i used to be someone else at 10:40 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


Yeah, Disclosure is great! Highly recommended for anyone interested in the topics discussed in this thread!
posted by latkes at 10:41 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Queers who watched it when it came out: how did you feel about Philadelphia at the time?

God, I hated it--so freaking maudlin and mawkish.
posted by mittens at 10:41 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


Queers who watched it when it came out: how did you feel about Philadelphia at the time?

I remember my friends and I roasting it pretty hard. I also remember really wanting Hanks' apartment!
posted by a Rrose by any other name at 10:56 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Queers who watched it when it came out: how did you feel about Philadelphia at the time?

It meant a ton to me. I was in a small town with no gay culture (other than the toxic student group) and was starved for empathetic representation in the mainstream where being queer wasn't done for shock or comic effect. I found it deeply moving despite all its cliches.
posted by treepour at 11:00 AM on February 17 [11 favorites]


I’ve heard that Demme felt terrible about the transphobic implications of Gumb’s character and was deeply moved by the contemporary protests against the movie. This was a major factor in his choosing to make Philadelphia, which was explicitly tailor-designed to catalyze the mainstream recognition of the humanity of people with AIDS.

Isn’t this addressed in the article? The claim there being that, yes, it did play into him wanting to make a more sympathetic movie about “gay issues,” but that he never really got the particulars of how Silence fit in a history of transphobic narratives.
posted by atoxyl at 11:00 AM on February 17


fwiw: I didn't intend to draw a moral equivalency, I only thought it was worth mentioning that a well-meaning ally like Demme and a full-blown terf like Rowling (and, as mentioned above, a guy born in the 19th century like Hitchcock) ended up using more or less the exact same fig leaf to defend an extremely problematic characterization.
posted by theodolite at 11:01 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


(Starling is an aspirant to, and a failure at, normative femininity

I don't want to derail this enormously, but I'm not sure this is true. Lecter's analysis dismisses her class presentation, not her gender presentation. In fact, he later explicitly describes her as a woman attractive to men. The one time when she engages in a more explicitly feminine activity, at the funeral home (?) gently encouraging the gathered townsfolk to go home, she's successful in doing so in a way that her boss was not. And to the extent that being in the FBI at all is presented as unfeminine in the film, as you can certainly argue that it is, that would suggest that it's not an aspiration for her. I think it's fairer to say that she can be successful at normative femininity, but it's not a focus of hers like being in the FBI is. Which is of course intolerable to that ideology, and therefore queer in another way. But she's not the classic stereotype of "woman who's a lesbian because she's too ugly to get a man.")
posted by praemunire at 11:04 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


showbiz_liz : A few years ago I read Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs after falling deep down a Hannibal rabbit hole. In Red Dragon, the first book, I was struck by the incredible compassion that the narrative has for its villain Francis Dolarhyde. He is a monstrous, horrifying serial killer, but the book goes into long digressions about his awful twisted upbringing and shows you exactly how a sensitive, innocent child could become this irredeemable killer. It was impressive, and I was looking forward to seeing how Thomas Harris handled Jame Gumb - surely it would be more of the same?

It was... not. The book The Silence of the Lambs loathes Jame Gumb and has no compassion for him whatsoever. He's not given nearly the same level of backstory and his characterization is pretty much limited to "gross, evil weirdo."


It gets even worse in Hannibal, which has a villain who literally drinks martinis made from the tears of children.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:11 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Echo chamber of offense.

The angel on my shoulder is telling me I need to call out all the cis people in this thread for their nauseating compulsion to absolve themselves of ever having had a problematic fave. The devil on my shoulder is telling me, fuck 'em, they don't deserve to see your soul.

Echo chamber of motherfucking offense. Jfc.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 11:19 AM on February 17 [6 favorites]


[ A few comments deleted. Please refer to the Content Policy if you have any questions.]
posted by loup (staff) at 11:20 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


showbiz_liz : A few years ago I read Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs after falling deep down a Hannibal rabbit hole. In Red Dragon, the first book, I was struck by the incredible compassion that the narrative has for its villain Francis Dolarhyde. He is a monstrous, horrifying serial killer, but the book goes into long digressions about his awful twisted upbringing and shows you exactly how a sensitive, innocent child could become this irredeemable killer. It was impressive, and I was looking forward to seeing how Thomas Harris handled Jame Gumb - surely it would be more of the same?

It was... not. The book The Silence of the Lambs loathes Jame Gumb and has no compassion for him whatsoever. He's not given nearly the same level of backstory and his characterization is pretty much limited to "gross, evil weirdo."

Halloween Jack: It gets even worse in Hannibal, which has a villain who literally drinks martinis made from the tears of children.


I read Silence way back when because I loved the movie (a feeling only more increasingly complicated and difficult with time), and it's a banger except for the aforementioned lack of empathy for Gumb. I'm pretty sure, though, that Dolarhyde only got all the empathy in RD because Will Graham's thing is like 'super empathy,' so it has to come through him, rather than a necessarily considered artistic choice to build empathy into Dolarhyde's characterization on Harris's part.

Honestly Harris's Silence confuses me because I thought (despite the empathy) that Red Dragon was pretty bad, while Hannibal is absolute trash (Harris wrote it at the behest of the studio after Silence came out as a movie, and it shows). Whereas in Silence the novel, Clarice might be even better and cooler than she is in Silence the film. So like, I dunno with the transphobia maybe don't read any of them, but if you do only read SotL.
posted by TheProfessor at 11:22 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Double-post: "...except for the lack of aforementioned lack of empathy for Gumb and the transphobia."*
posted by TheProfessor at 11:23 AM on February 17


It gets even worse in Hannibal, which has a villain who literally drinks martinis made from the tears of children.

Yeah that book is fucking weird. I wouldn't really recommend it even if you read the first two, unless you're a completionist or you want to compare it to the show or the movie. It goes out of its way to ruin Clarice's life in a way that I found decidedly not fun or earned.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:26 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]


In addition to Disclosure, if you're interested in some light reading, Julia Serano's work Whipping Girl (Seal Press) speaks to it as well.

---

Part of what drives people's reaction to trans femininity lies in how it's viewed as negatively transgressive. When masculinity is prized to the extent that it is, it "makes sense" that 'women' (so to speak) would want to be 'men': Freud's "penis envy" can be read in that light; seeing women dressed as men may generate laughter, but it rarely contains the same tinge of disgust that jokes about men dressed as women generate.

On the other hand, when femininity is presented as the lesser/weaker/undesired (regardless of intent, be it "chivalric" or pure hatred), for society as a whole, anyone who isn't a 'woman' (again, so to speak) wanting to be one is seen as damaged, as contemptible. It's part of why so many presentations involve "trickery" of sorts (and where the "tr*p as a slur" comes from):
  • in jkr's work, a TOTALLY NOT TRANS person presents as a woman to lull women into complacency before murdering them
  • in Silence, Gumb's trickery is presented as his delusions
  • in Tootsie, Dorsey's trickery is the titular (rimshot) character
  • in the current season of America, trans women's trickery is (apparently) in
    • sports, which is why trans women must be banned from them wholesale,
    • existing, which is why in 39 states the trans panic defense is still a usable excuse

  • in current anti-trans rhetoric, trans trickery is 'transing'/'converting' children, most tragically, young 'girls', and to a lesser extent gay 'boys'

  • and so much more!

It's why there's such rage and hatred from some segments about 'passing' (which has its own Discourse in trans circles) trans folk, matched only in intensity with their hatred and rage for 'non-passing' trans folk.
posted by i used to be someone else at 11:35 AM on February 17 [23 favorites]


Sometimes a political agenda is just a political agenda.
posted by mittens at 12:09 PM on February 17 [10 favorites]


Cis people in this thread: Transphobia sure is offensive, sounds like a perfect time to talk about other offensive things that are completely unrelated
Also cis people: What if it was actually trans people who were transphobic
My shoulder angel: LET ME AT THEM I SWEAR TO GOD
My shoulder devil: See my earlier point about "fuck 'em"
posted by J.K. Seazer at 12:11 PM on February 17 [7 favorites]


I liked the movie, and appreciate the perspective from this article. I haven't read the book. (I am cis male.) I think some of the transphobia in the movie is rooted in the archaic psychiatric perspectives of the time. It seems like the "totally not trans" thing mostly serves to invalidate the identities and lived experiences of trans and other lgbtqi individuals, and is related to the pathology-by-committee paternalism side of psychiatry. It's not like the field is fully up to date now, but at least things have changed enough to make the movie look old.
posted by sillyman at 12:27 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I won’t lie, seeing SotL as a kid definitely colored my view of trans people, but it wasn’t alone, as mentioned above, there were a ton of movies I grew up with where the only time any sort of trans character came up, it was either evil trickery on their part, or as a target of humiliation. It took me years to recognize that, and try move past it. It’s not that I’m all that old, but I honestly wonder if people born later even have an idea of how badly trans people were portrayed in film and tv and popular culture in the 80s and 90s.

This is not to say things are all better now, it’s saying just how awful, yet utterly accepted by popular culture things were then. I mean, The Crying Game was celebrated and talked about as being great art when essentially it’s “fear of a man in a dress” the movie. The idea that trans people were either tricksters or serial killers was pretty much all you’d get from any kind of media, and I’m in awe of any trans person who endured that rampant shittiness and hatred.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:34 PM on February 17 [10 favorites]


I don't think we need to invoke tired tropes of self-hating closet-cases to explain the existence of transmisogynistic works in societies that are and have been deeply transmisogynistic.
posted by death valley compound at 12:34 PM on February 17 [18 favorites]


Well, that sounds like a distinction without a difference to me.
posted by death valley compound at 12:40 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Cis people in this thread: Transphobia sure is offensive, sounds like a perfect time to talk about other offensive things that are completely unrelated

Thanks for this. I don't fully identify as cis, but nor am I a person targeted by the types of transphobic tropes that appeared in SotL. So I appreciate the feedback.
posted by latkes at 12:48 PM on February 17


This does not bode well for the senator's daughter or her dog.

The dog (a little poodle named Precious) was Bill's. What do we read into that?
posted by Fukiyama at 1:14 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


[A couple more comments have been removed. To be honest, we don't really need yet another “let’s talk awful transphobia” thread. Please be mindful of each person's different stakes and direct experience here and be willing to give your fingers a rest and let others continue with the conversation. ]
posted by loup (staff) at 1:29 PM on February 17 [8 favorites]


....is it possible any of these writers/authors are closeted trans people, shaming or killing off other quasi, pre, or wholly trans characters?

it's a common trope to analyze the oeuvre of artists like lindsay graham and larry craig and then pillory them about being closeted, but in doing so the tactics often mimic the nasty behavior sent towards other queer folk.

sure, author harris and screenwriter ted tally might be closeted, eggy folk. but i don't know how helpful it is to speculate on that and it has the tendency, as J.K. Seazer points out, of seeming to blame the community for its own oppression. after all if a member of said community is enacting/enforcing the horrifying bigotry, it tacitly signals to other bigots that it's okay too.
posted by i used to be someone else at 1:48 PM on February 17 [9 favorites]


It's been a minute since I watched SotL (and longer since I read the novel). But when I think of the film now, my mind immediately jumps to two things. One is how a nipple ring used to indicate that a person was a dangerous deviant, which may be worthy of another post. The other is the the second part of Lecter's tossed-off line, which is almost undiscussed in OP's linked defense:
"But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying [than that of a typical transsexual]."
I don't know any trans people who instill terror in others or demonstrate the savagery Lecter describes in his late 80's vernacular. But language changes; I think all the trans people I know (including my transbro) are absolutely savage as the word is commonly used today. In my recent experience, savage is an aspirational descriptor for certain out-caste or "ratchet" social groups, the axial opposite of scandalous. These poles are somewhat difficult to describe to people outside of these groups; the following is the best I've come up with.

Someone who is savage adheres to, operates by and enforces a stern moral and ethical code. It may not be a moral code most of us recognize as moral; it may include petty theft, grand theft, fraud, exemplary violence and murder, even honor crimes—but it is as consistent as any other ethos or code that has lasted for centuries, and its adherents may have their own feelings about their co-adherents but never any ambivalence about the code to which they (mostly) all adhere (the nature of individual enforcement of a communal code tends to promote idiosyncratic variance among caste members). Someone who is savage, in the end, doesn't give a fuck about what happens to themselves.

Someone who is scandalous is only ever looking out for number one (or a number one by proxy; MacBeth was scandalous for his Lady's sake, but without her would only ever have been a nebbish paying lip service to being savage). They lie all the time to everyone. They steal at every opportunity from friends, family, strangers. They point and call attention to the scandalous nature of others believing that listeners will look past the scandal right in front of their nose and follow the pointing finger to gawk at the scandals of others. They have pets and fellow travelers, not friends, and they will abandon them or worse if they ever become the slightest bit inconvenient to whatever their goals of the moment may be. Someone who is scandalous, in the end, doesn't give a fuck about what happens to anyone else.

Jame Gumb hated who he was, and let no one or nothing stop him in his quest to change. Is this savage? No. If murdering Catherine Martin had required him to kill Precious as well, I sincerely believe the character as presented in both the novel and the film would have wept over his puppy's "necessary" death. Murdering one's own companion animal in service to one's own ego doesn't follow any moral or ethic that I'm familiar with. Jame Gumb is 100% scandalous, and this character flaw, for lack of a better term, has zip zero zilch nada nothing to do with whether Gumb is trans.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:59 PM on February 17


One point I get from the AV article I hadn't appreciated before is how much the defense that Gumb isn't trans relies on, "we know he's not *really* trans because he didn't pass the gatekeeping from doctors."
posted by RobotHero at 3:13 PM on February 17 [15 favorites]


Does anyone think that Demme--in 1991--or especially Harris--in 1988--couldn't have made Gumb explicitly trans without experiencing significant repercussions? My memory of life in 1991 suggests that, very unfortunately, they sure could have. So I think those lines really are in there as a (failed!) attempt to differentiate the horror-imagery of the text from stereotypes about trans people. Which is not to suggest that they deserve a cookie for that, but I don't think the negation, which is actually pretty brief, reflects obsessive anxiety.
posted by praemunire at 6:12 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


I think all the trans people I know (including my transbro) are absolutely savage as the word is commonly used today. In my recent experience, savage is an aspirational descriptor for certain out-caste or "ratchet" social groups

"Savage" is also a tremendously racially-loaded insult and, while it may have experienced some in-group reclaiming, which is fine, I would be terrified to use it unless I was in that group. I bring this up not to pick on you or derail, but because I think that itself is a good example of the problem with SOTL. You mean "savage" in a complimentary/evocative way, but it has an extremely harmful cultural and historical context that you can't just clinically separate it from for your own expression.
posted by praemunire at 6:16 PM on February 17 [8 favorites]


if we can have one less hateful work, why not?

If a work propagates transphobia then it is hateful, even if it was not the intention and even if it was not as transphobic as it could have been. I don't think there is a jury out there that's going to rule SoTL as "not transphobic" and then be able to cross it off the hateful list, whatever the hell that means.

Your comments have a really weird JAQing off feel.
posted by schroedinger at 9:14 PM on February 17 [5 favorites]


I'm not even certain if the piece reads as wholly transphobic, in the first place. Stating it "propped up transphobia," (bitteschoen) seems sensible.

Just to clarify, those weren’t my words, I was quoting the Twitter thread by Emily VanDerWerff that starts by making a distinction between intent and effect, but acknowledges that there has been a damaging influence even if the intent may not have been malicious in the first place. It’s worth reading carefully, it doesn’t absolve the movie from its damaging influence:
Obviously, knowing the intent of a work doesn’t mean shit, because the intent is less important than the impact. And when people saw SotL, they didn’t hear “Buffalo Bill isn’t trans.” They saw a weirdo serial killer dancing around in women’s clothes.
I saw the movie at the cinema when it came out and she’s absolutely correct. I genuinely did not remember hearing that line until I read these articles and the thread, but oooh even today I definitely clearly remember that visual and how unsettling it was made to look, in the context of the movie. So I absolutely get what VanDerWerff means in that thread.
This is what I mean when I say it propped up transphobia. The culture of the time was even MORE anti-trans than right now, which is how things like The Crying Game went largely unchallenged. So SotL ended up playing into that, no matter how little it “meant” to.
posted by bitteschoen at 5:18 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


"Savage" is also a tremendously racially-loaded insult and, while it may have experienced some in-group reclaiming, which is fine, I would be terrified to use it unless I was in that group.

The racial dynamics of this word are a lot to wade into really, since:

- multiple minority groups arguably have some historical “claim” to it

- the group largely responsible for popularizing it/from which it is often appropriated these days is not necessarily the same group that considers it highly offensive for outsiders to use?
posted by atoxyl at 9:05 AM on February 18


Instructive to view the Silence of the Lambs tag on Metafilter going back a good 18 years.

I think the film has not so much aged badly as hit a particularly bad cultural time. In my opinion, Demme was trying not to be hateful at the time, but he hit the limits of his range. The AV Club article trying to respect Gumb's pronouns without bowing down to medical gatekeeping gives the lie to the onscreen disclaimer, but it's an insider view from the 21st century on a film made by outsiders in the 20th. It was a swing and a miss, but they did swing. As the inimitable EVDW puts it "Poorly! But they tried!". And at the time, how many people in the multiplex would have noticed if they hadn't? But they gave it a go.

But right now, if you were to get cis people to name trans characters in film, this dated and problematic representation is still, 30 years later, in the cultural memory. It hasn't been diluted by mainstream films with trans detectives, trans gross-out comics, trans surgeons, trans best friends, trans romantic leads. Maybe in 30 years (TTTCS) it will read better: still problematic, but not the elephant on the trampoline of representation.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:50 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I know there is a temptation to claim that you never liked something that later gets viewed as "problematic," but I don't have that luxury. I was the film reviewer for my college paper when Silence of the Lambs was in theaters. I even ranked it as the #1 film of 1991 in my column. I remember that I saw it twice that year, once in a first-run theater, then at a second-run theater.

When I was a collegiate film critic, I would just inhale film criticism. I read Premiere. I read Entertainment Weekly. I religiously followed J. Hoberman's column in the Village Voice. I also read David Ehrenstein's film column in The Advocate, which introduced a cis straight guy like me to criticism from a gay point of view. I seem to remember at the time that Ehrenstein was much harsher on The Crying Game (he thought the film's "twist" was boringly obvious to "cross-dress aware" viewers), Naked Lunch (for de-queering William S. Burroughs), and Basic Instinct (aside from the GLAAD boycott of the film, he ridiculed the amount of work that must have gone into lighting Sharon Stone's pubic hair while still skirting an NC-17 rating). On the other hand, in another magazine (American Film, maybe?), I even a saw a column, which argued that Silence of the Lambs was progressive, because the reviewer thought the relationship between Clarice and her female roommate was obviously lesbian, but the film didn't make a big deal of it.

Thanks to the Internet. I was able to dig up one of the rarer reviews of Silence of the Lambs I remember from the May 1991 issue of MIM Notes, the free newspaper of the Maoist International Movement.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

(Orion, 1991)

Cool thriller with a strong female lead. Too bad the thrill is
based on sheer homophobia. The main villain is a transvestite, a
would-be transsexual had he not been turned down for the surgery.
There is also plenty of cheerleading for the Federal Bureau of
Investigation. Liberal director Jonathan Demme has said he wanted
to make this a feminist movie, but when women gain power through
the FBI to blast transvestite killers in an ultimate climax, they
are betraying their gender. The FBI is part of the capitalist,
racist power structure that has murdered many proletarians in this
country, notably members of the American Indian Movement and the
Black Panther Party. And whatever the intention, a transvestite
villain plays into the bigoted Amerikan mindset where queers
suffer from some form of mental disease and deserve whatever comes
their way: AIDS, discrimination, death.


I remember reading the review at the time, but looking at it now, it seems clear that there were some people who definitely criticized Silence of the Lambs at the time for anti-trans content, but like the MIM review, it was generally lumped under "homophobia." I don't remember the word "transphobia" being current then or being acknowledged as separate concept in its own right, but among MeFites alive in the 1990s, YMMV. Similarly, MIM notes that Demme's intentions were liberal and feminist, but the review also acknowledges that you can only be so liberal when your movie makes the FBI the hero. On the other hand, even the Maoist reviewer acknowledges Silence of the Lambs is a "cool thriller," which probably explains a lot of the ambivalence people feel about the movie, even today. Movies can be really good in terms of quality or in terms of giving thrills to the audience, but still have prejudiced content in it. In fact, a film can be even more insidious, precisely because it is both aesthetically good and pushing such problematic content.
posted by jonp72 at 8:28 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


"But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying [than that of a typical transsexual]."

Yeeaahh... I highly doubt that Hannibal Lecter was using "savage" in the Urban Dictionary sense. The Lecter in the film listened to classical music and did drawings from memory of Italian Renaissance architecture. He's way too much of a snob to use "savage" in that way, even if that usage wouldn't have been anachronistic at the time.
posted by jonp72 at 8:34 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


But that is part of the problem the movie has, it can't fully uproot the TERFy nature of its feminism.

I can definitely see that. You could almost say, "Of course its feminism was TERFy. Feminism was TERFy in 1991!" I'm just a cis straight guy who went to liberal arts school in 1991-1994 & read a lot of feminist essays in class readings. Today, if you asked American feminists "Are trans women women?", the response would be something like, "Yes, of course they are. What the fuck kind of a question is that?" But based on my hazy memory of circa 1991 feminist debates that I read about in college, there were a lot of feminists who treated the answer to that question as an arguable and legitimate topic for debate. Heck, you could probably make the argument that hegemonic UK feminism now is totally TERFy (*cough cough* J.K. Rowling). Is there anybody else here who was an undergrad in 1991 who can confirm or challenge?
posted by jonp72 at 8:49 PM on February 19


Just speaking for my own undergrad women's/queer studies department during that era, I don't think it's true that feminism was TERFy in 1991, more that the really interesting tools of gender analysis feminists were using then--to highlight the social, legal, economic, racial, and sexual definitions of womanhood, to talk about gender as a political and constructed and contested category--went on to be used for this TERFy purpose in the 2000s. The trans exclusionary feminism of 1991 would not have been viewed as particularly radical (thinking of the Michigan Womyn's Festival of that period), since it functioned using the same unanalyzed categories as the Nice White Lady and Angry White Lady feminisms we were always so mad at in the department, and its theorizing didn't go further than "man bad."
posted by mittens at 6:12 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


I can't speak for every radical intellectual group in the country, but I think that for many in 1991 there wasn't even a clear categorical distinction between trans women and gay men (hence referring to the "homophobia" of the movie). You can see it in Paris is Burning, where the people who today we would probably consider and who would probably consider themselves trans women don't really see themselves as analytically distinct from the gay men they share the ballroom scene with. "Male transsexuals" would have been considered at most a very small group and not a major intellectual issue for most feminists (I remember learning of the situation primarily as an etiquette issue--that you really should address people as they preferred). I'd never heard of Janice Raymond until the 2000s, though of course she'd been doing her repulsive work for a long time by then.
posted by praemunire at 2:01 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


(Or, to put it another way, while, unfortunately, I doubt that if you'd asked me as a young feminist in 1991 whether a "male transsexual" was "really a woman," I would've said yes, it would also never have occurred to me that such people represented any sort of threat to women or a meaningful issue for feminism to grapple with. At the time (when I was somewhat sexually unsophisticated/inexperienced myself), I simply accepted the film's disclaimer that Gumb was not "transsexual," though I understand now how completely inadequate it was.)
posted by praemunire at 2:13 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


As far back as 1991, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was already excluding trans women.

As far back as 1980, Anti-Trans activists had already driven a trans woman from feminist record label Olivia Records.

As far back as 1973, Anti-Trans activists had already attacked and beaten Sylvia Rivera.
posted by i used to be someone else at 6:48 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]


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