The controversial depiction of Buffalo Bill in the famous Silence of the Lambs represents a prevalent issue of transgender themes in its genre.
Adaptation of the novel by Thomas Harris, The silence ohf the lambs, inspired controversy within the LGBTQ+ community due to the film’s portrayal of fictional serial killer Buffalo Bill. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror classic continues a negative trend in Hollywood’s portrayal of transgender characters and themes. Its controversy reveals how the trans community is still affected by the film and how queer critics view its legacy.
The Thesilenceofthelambs holds a legacy powerful enough to inspire numerous adaptations and sequels that have attempted to capture the success of the cultural phenomenon. It’s one of only three films to land a “big hit” at the Oscars, having won Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role and Best Director. It also remains the only Oscar-nominated horror film to win Best Picture. Thesilenceofthelambs’ The influence extends to the present day and continues to receive criticism and praise. The film’s treatment of trans and feminist themes has created wide rhetoric among critics and fans alike for years.
There have been issues with the defamation of trans identities for a long time. It is seen in other horror classics like Alfred Hitchcock Psycho. Norman Bates killing his victims while wearing his mother’s clothes started a trend in the genre that, intentionally or not, had a lasting impact on the trans community. psychology is just one example in the middle of a larger trend. For a time, gender-nonconforming, queer-coded characters were used to signal villainy and danger, and it became an especially common trait among horror movie antagonists. The Thesilenceofthelambs followed in the footsteps of movies like overnight camp or Brian De Palma Trained to kill, despite various efforts to steer serial killer Buffalo Bill away from being classified as actually trans. Besides the fact that The Thesilenceofthelambs’ As a positive influence, the film undoubtedly reinforced a destructive issue in horror that critics have wanted audiences to heed for decades. Trans people are statistically more likely to be victims of violent crimes than to perpetuate them, and the stigmatization of trans identities in cinema contributes to perpetuating this prejudiced violence.
The LGBTQ+ Silence of the Lambs Controversy Explained
Buffalo Bill became an infamous villain in movie history due to his terrifying MO as a killer; he wears the skin of young women whom he traps in his basement. A little like psychology, Buffalo Bill was inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein who notoriously dressed in his late mother’s clothes. In Thesilenceofthelambs, Bill’s desires to dress in women’s clothing and seek medical transition are traits that make him, if nothing else, a transcoded character. While Dr. Hannibal Lecter declares that Buffalo Bill is not “a real transsexual” Lecter mentions the likelihood that he applied for “reassignment surgery” in various hospitals. Director Johnathan Demme attempts to separate Bill’s trans identity with these lines, but they instead thwart his intentions by demonstrating Bill’s desire to transition. The film also attempts to separate the antagonism of trans identity when Clarice says there is “no correlation in the literature between transsexualism and violence” though this only seems to imply that Bill’s identity is not the reason for his murders. Following these conversations, Buffalo Bill’s identity remains debatable rather than something to be dismissed and is notably something that is discussed by other characters but not something that Bill is allowed to express himself directly.
Even though Bill wasn’t meant to be read as trans, he’s coded to be. Critics and LGBTQ+ audiences have pointed out that regardless of the film’s creators’ intentions, Buffalo Bill still has a connection to trans identities that will encourage some viewers to internalize harmful generalizations. It is not uncommon in 20th century films for there to be a direct correlation between villains between evil and criminal activity and gender non-conforming behavior and trans identities – a famous occurrence of this appears in the final act of Ace Venture: Animal Detective. Whatever the intent, Buffalo Bill’s coded queer portrayal plays on long-standing transphobic tendencies that reinforce the assumption that trans people are somehow evil. Plus, by queering villains like Buffalo Bill, trans communities are even more exposed to real-life violence. A large subset of the LGBTQ+ community rejected Thesilenceofthelambs’ legacy for years as Hollywood seems to ignore criticism. There was a huge protest at the 1992 Oscars that resulted in the arrest of ten LGBTQ+ activists who believed the Oscars favored homophobic and transphobic films (via The Washington Post).
What Critics Said About Buffalo Bill’s Depiction in Silence of the Lambs
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have called Thesilenceofthelambs’ poor portrayal of transgender themes and terminology but critics were particularly critical of the film. As reviewer Emily St. James points out (via Twitter), the majority of viewers won’t remember Clarice Starling and Hannibal discussing the fact that Bill isn’t trans. Instead they will remember “a bizarre serial killer dancing in women’s clothes” which is the most important argument to explain why Movie The Silence of the Lamb is received as transphobic. The scene where Buffalo Bill dances in women’s clothes is incredibly memorable, in part because of the catchy song Farewell horses and effectively highlights the offensive aspects of the film’s villain.
Emily St. James also points out the problem with Demme’s serious intentions with Bill’s portrayal by stating “Intent is less important than impact.” With Hollywood’s history of naughtiness of queer characters, it’s necessary to realize that the repetition of these trends leaves a mark on the general public. With more iconic villains acting ambiguously non-conforming or being assumed to be trans, this may inspire less acceptance and safety for trans communities in real life. Trans director Lilly Wachowski (co-director of The matrix) agrees with the critical consensus and, despite how far the company has come since Thesilenceofthelambs, and she points out that trans people are still reviled. “We are not predators, we are prey,” she commented (via Windy City Times). Jonathan Demme has apologized profusely over the years for not being able to clarify that Buffalo Bill is not trans in his adaptation. Nonetheless, the dance scene as well as Bill’s penchant for wearing women’s skin would likely have caused the same impact no matter how clear the script.
Why horror movies need to stop vilifying trans identities
Trans identities have been portrayed negatively by dozens of influential films that continue to impact the world today. Jonathan Deme Thesilenceofthelambs is one of many that includes the naughtiness of trans characters and themes in its narrative, remaining a subject of LGBTQ+ criticism. Emily St. James’s comment that intent is less important than impact still holds true, as being trans is incredibly stigmatized today, in part because of these films contributing greatly to public perception. These perceptions lead to hate crimes and outright violence. Casting trans characters as predators is a negligent choice given that statistically, transgender people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people (via Williams Institute). Lilly Wachowski’s reminder that Hollywood still vilifies trans identity should be heeded more than ever, because change is finally slowly coming.
Horror is only part of cinema’s vast history in exploiting trans identities, from movies like dog afternoon or most recent The Danish Girl problematically casting cisgender actors in trans roles, and many comedies still rely on offensive transphobic jokes for their humor. However, the horror genre remains the most negatively impacting for trans people despite its gradual progression. There are still major issues that live on in the horror genre versus trans progression. Whereas Thesilenceofthelambs attempted to distance itself from the association of Buffalo Bill’s antagonism with trans identity, the film’s effect on LGBTQ+ culture was extremely severe. Positive transgender representation has been on an upward trajectory in recent years, so hopefully there will be far fewer correlations between evil and trans identities. The horror genre needs to move away from the transphobic tendencies movies love Thesilenceofthelambs used.
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