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Gender Inversion and Spectator Identity in Silence of the Lambs

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  1. Introduction
  2. The eyes of the elusive Buffalo Bill killer
  3. A typical slasher film
  4. Jame Gumb as a character
  5. The opening credits of the film
  6. The recurring device used in the Silence of the Lambs
  7. Clarice Starling's sexual identity
  8. Conclusion

Jonathan Demme's 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs centers on a young FBI trainee's attempts to catch a deranged serial killer before he kills again. Clarice Starling is a young woman determined to rise through the ranks of the male FBI. Already at a social disadvantage due to her sex, she must push against the glass ceiling while simultaneously searching for an elusive serial killer who steals the skin of his victims. Jame Gumb, the serial killer Buffalo Bill, is a sexually confused male who appropriates the skins of women so that he can wear them, in essence becoming a woman. Not surprisingly given these thematics, the film brings gender roles heavily into question. In order for Clarice to be taken seriously as an FBI agent, and for that matter to catch Gumb, she must exude masculine professionalism and toughness. This creates a degree of confusion within the male gaze. It is usual for the woman in film to be the object of the male spectator's gaze: it is also standard for men to identify with a male protagonist. But in this film the audience is given neither a solid male role to identify with nor a solid female role to gaze at. What we are presented with instead are two theoretical transvestites, and a consequent confusion of whom the subject is and who is the object of the film. By the end of the film, Jame Gumb and Clarice Starling have both been sexually inverted, and the audience identifies with the female-turned-male role of Clarice over the male-turned-female role of Gumb. The true confusion lies within the character of Jame Gumb and his own literal grapple with sexuality.

[...] As Clover says in her essay, gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance (penetration, it seems, constructs the female).[5]' If what Clover is saying is correct, then Clarice's sexual ambiguity and stern professionalism attribute to her masculinity. The most important statement of Clarice's sexuality comes from Lecter himself: know how quickly the boys found you, all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the FBI'.[6] It is as if Lecter is suggesting that even while Clarice was involved in sexual activity in her youth, she fantasized even more strongly about success. [...]

[...] When Gumb turns the lights out, we experience the terror of Clarice as though we are the ones in danger, and share her wide eyed fear as she stumbles around in the dark. However, there is still a tie of identification with Jame Gumb, as we find ourselves once again gazing through his night-vision goggles at Clarice. Right now, in the dark, Gumb has power over Clarice: he/we can still see her whereas she is blind. Clarice is the helpless female victim now, and is almost pathetic to watch as she falls over in the dark, breathing hysterically. [...]

[...] The audience has been prompted by the Buffalo Bill back-story, and now has in full view a major male character with whom to identify. As he flicks the goggles on, the audience is forced into a solid identification with Gumb: we become him. The next shot is first person, through night vision, a subject watching Catherine Martin get out of her car and tracking her movements as she walks to the front door of her apartment building. Although the audience member may not identify with the killer, there is an established link; we see what he sees. [...]

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