English 738T, Spring 2015
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Good Evening, Clarice

Posted by Clifford Hichar on Friday, May 11th, 2012 at 11:35 am

For my final paper I am writing about fatherhood in Dracula and Frankenstein so first let me apologize for the fact that my head is entangled in those two books.  That said, I was introduced to the film Silence of the Lambs (1991) for the first time a few weeks ago and something has been bothering me:  Hannibal Lecter and Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb are fascinating recreations of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Wretch.  Maybe this course and my paper have me seeing them everywhere, but I really think there is a case to be made.  Further, how these two “monsters” relate to women.

Towards the end of the film, one of the cops asks Clarice Starling, “Is it true what they’re sayin’ [about Hannibal Lecter], he’s some kinda vampire?”  She denies it and states that there is not “a name for what he is,” however, I disagree.  I think vampire is a very good name for what he is.  To begin with, vampires and Dracula (particularly in the screen adaptations) stand somewhere between male and female elements: they attract their victims with their elegant appearance and yet hypnotize with a powerful male gaze.  Likewise, Hannibal Lecter, even in his prison clothes, is well groomed and dapper; his cell is more refined and elegant than those of the others and no cell-bars block him from view.  He is meant to be viewed—especially when in the isolation cage in the center of the room towards the end of the film.  In any other setting he would be appealingly put together; he looks at home in the refined suit at on the tropic island at the end of the film.  However, within a prison, knowing the threat he poses, and under his dominating gaze that follows the camera, he is distinctly unsettling.  Hannibal seems all the more dangerous because his danger is not overt.

Hannibal the vampire would seem to be dominant—his male gaze forcing Clarice to submit to him—yet, he never is interested in her submission.  What Hannibal wants from Clarice is equality.  For every piece of information he gives her he wishes stories of her life in exchange.  Nor is he interested in consuming her—literally or metaphorically.  When Hannibal escapes, he could easily target her but he makes the decision not to do so.  Like Dracula with Mina, he seeks an exchange—not of blood, but of data.  Interestingly, this suggests that so long as women are allied with the monster, they are safe—even humanized.  Until Hannibal, none of the men in the film look at Clarice as an equal.  She is an object.

Dr. Chilton says as much, “Crawford [Clarice’s superior] is very clever, isn’t he, using you? [….] A pretty young woman to turn him [Hannibal] on. I don’t believe Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years. And oh, are you ever his taste. So to speak.”  Further, the only thing Chilton seems interested in is not her ability to do her job or her life, but only her appearance: “You know, we get a lot of detectives here, but I must say I can’t ever remember one as attractive.”  Even those she solicits for help, such as the students who study insects, help her mainly out of the hope that she might agree to go on a date with them as they find her physically, rather than mentally, appealing.  Similar to Clarice, others see Hannibal only as an object.  Dr. Chilton, whose care Hannibal is under, says of him, “Lecter is our most prized asset.”  He is an “asset” and described as an animal and a monster, not a person.

Interestingly, Clarice is not endangered by the vampire of Hannibal Lecter, but by the objectification by Gumb and other men.  Hannibal asks Clarice, “What is the first and principal thing he [Gumb] does? What needs does he serve by killing?”  She replies, “Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…”  However, the answer Hannibal is looking for is “He covets.”  He might just as well have been describing the motivations of Frankenstein’s Wretch.  The Creature becomes a serial killer angry at his creator, finding no means of gaining social acceptance, and because Frankenstein denies him a mate.  Granted, there is one major difference: the Wretch’s appearance is a visible example of his fractured self and his inability to fit in, while Gumb struggles to create an appearance that matches his fractured interior.  Hannibal claims about Gumb, “Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our [Buffalo] Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see.”  Once again, the quote could just as easily be applied to the Creature whose birth is marred by his violent abandonment at the hands of his “father,” is made a criminal by years of abuse and loneliness, and who hates himself as much as he does his creator.  Those things are what make him “savage and more terrifying” than Hannibal.

The danger represented by Gumb is clearest.  He directs his attacks on women and openly attacks Clarice, as well.  Gumb, though he identifies with women, thinks he can become one by literally creating a patchwork girl—or at least a patchwork girl costume.  He thinks he can become a woman by putting on the skin of his female victims.  Therefore, it is through mimicking the appearance of womanhood and not the experience of womanhood that he seeks to become female.  Just as the other men, Gumb reduces women to appearance and not their identity.  He ignores his victims emotions, pasts, and memories—the things which one uses to construct an identity.  In fact, Gumb never refers to the women by name or even “she,” only as “it”: “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again,” “yes, it will, Precious, won’t it? It will get the hose,” etc.  In spite of Gumb’s desire to become a woman, he fails to recognize them as more than objects.  He denies them status as people.

Her superiors don’t help matters.  They inturrupt her training to send her into the field.  They don’t listen to her arguments and consequently she walks into danger ill-prepared.  In fact, the only reason Hannibal is able to escape is because the police focus on his exterior rather than his interior—they look only at the face of the “victim” and fail to recognize it as merely a fleshy mask (the face of one of his guards which he removed for the purpose).  Thus, it’s clear that whether through Gumb or Clarice’s colleagues, objectification and exterior is what endangers women—and through the officer’s mistake, men, too—rather than the monstrosity of Hannibal.  Perhaps because Hannibal is positioned between the male gaze and the feminine object to be viewed, he is able to use his objectification in the eyes of men to his advantage.

Hannibal is different. As frightening as it is, he is fascinated by Clarice’s mind.  He explores her memories, fears, and background all in an attempt to know her.  Even in his method of killing he is interested in the interior of his victims for he consumes them entirely, with particular interest in their interior organs.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Hannibal is a feminist hero—he does eat a nurse’s face, after all—but he is the lesser evil to Clarice and even proves a vital ally.  Further, Clarice is undoubtedly the hero of the film.  Though, even that is fascinating as it shows that to be a hero a woman must court a monster and be his equal, ally with him to combat the other, more dangerous monstrosity and one that cannot be courted because it refuses to recognize the heroines humanity.  If Red Dragon is anything to go by, for a man to be a hero, he must become the monster he hunts.  He must feel the monstrosity inside of himself.  Clarice, need on prove her humanity to the monster as objectified as she is to empower herself.  Through this, the two form a special bond.  Hannibal, if teasingly, suggests, “People will say we’re in love.”  Certainly the two share a common language, so to speak.  Clarice is the only one able to decipher his anagrams and interpret the clues in his turns of phrase.  As frightening as Hannibal is, he is the only one who understands her and sees Clarice as more than a tool to be used, an art object to be admired, or a vehicle for sexual pleasure.  It takes a monster to give woman her humanity and a woman to see the humanity in the monster.

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7 Responses

  • Jennifer Ausden says:

    I think the case you present here is solid, Clifford, not to mention a wonderfully constructive take on Lambs…truth be told, having in general a weak stomach, I never stopped to consider these identity complexities presented in the film. And I agree with your analysis here.

    Two miscellaneous notes I thought might be of interest:

    1) A line from Silence of the Lambs that didn’t make the final cut: “This guy is out there hunting women, and I’m the only woman hunting him.”

    2) Was 1991 a significant year in the feminist movement in general, I wonder? Among the top ten films of that year are: La Femme Nikita, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, and Thelma and Louise. I’m not sure I see the masculine component you mention — re: Dracula and/or Frankenstein — carrying over to all these in a tidy parallel, but there’s certainly a shared interest in re-conceptualizing “woman.”

    • Clifford Hichar says:

      Funny you mention T2, actually. I just finished watching it as well and couldn’t help but laugh that the strong female character is really only of importance because she is a mother. Clarice is at least a little more complex. Sarah Conner’s heroism has nothing to do with her personally, only her ability to reproduce. Further, she needs a man and/or her son to get anything done. Her son consistently has to go to her rescue and the Terminator is the deus ex machina–or perhaps machina ex machina (quite literally at the end of T2)–that keeps the two humans alive time and time again.

      Interestingly, Sarah Conner looks to the Terminator as a potential father figure because he has not the weaknesses of man–he won’t beat his son or come home drunk and instead would give up his life for the child. Yet, ultimately, the Terminator cannot be a good father because he can only understand human emotion and not feel it himself (the whole conversation about crying). Basically, the reason that the Terminator would be a great father (his inhumanity and thus lack of weaknesses) is the reason he is a bad father. He is not human and thus he fails.

      Sarah Conner is strong, but the film doesn’t re-conceptualize woman so much as glorify motherhood and the lengths a mother will go for her child. Perhaps the ultimate mother’s day film?

  • LaRonika Thomas says:

    Might there also be something in our discussion about women being a prosthetic for men to reach, if briefly, the sublime? Could the case be made that Clarice and the other women in this movie are viewed primarily as bodies, as means to an end for the men in the film?

    • Clifford Hichar says:

      I’m really not sure that any of the men in Silence of the Lambs reach the sublime–with or without Clarice and the few other women alive or dead in the film. Hannibal escapes using the face of another man, so even in terms of freedom and desire to kill his doctor as the sublime, I question women having a role in it at all. Even Gumb’s elaborate woman-skin-outfit isn’t going to miraculously make him a woman, so if that is a sublime it is a false one. While, I suppose putting Clarice on the case does allow her superiors to catch Gumb, again, there seems to be no moment of sublimity for them. No, if any one has a moment of sublimity–which I rather struggle to see–it would have to be one of the women, specifically Clarice. I think this film fits well with ideas of monstrosity and femininity, but not with our conversation about the sublime. Sorry, it would have been neat if it had.

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