Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Ted Tally (screenplay), Thomas Harris (novel)
THE FEMININE HERO OF THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1995)
She emerges almost as if out of the earth and pulls herself up a steep incline, out of the abyss of a dark morning fog. As she reaches the top of the hill, she hesitates for a moment to get her bearings. The wings of a bird shudder and flutter. She starts to run. Alone in the woods, her footfalls echo in dead leaves crackling over hard ground. She picks up momentum, running slowly at first and then more rapidly, speeding through the deserted forest. Her eyes dart from side to side and she pushes herself to run faster with the resolve of a woman being chased, as if she fears some shadowy pursuer. Her breathing gets heavier. She scales a webbed fence three times her height and falls to the ground on the other side. Is there a sound of someone pushing his way through the bushes behind her? She breathes so loudly now that she would fail to hear the approach of any intruder and if he’s there, she certainly doesn’t see him. A man steps out behind her and calls out: “Starling!” She breaks from the obstacle course and, by the look in her eye, it’s clear she works to be strong enough to compete with any man, that she won’t be defeated by her size, her vulnerability, her sex. “Jack Crawford wants to see you in his office.” (From the screenplay The Silence of the Lambs, Ted Tally, Orion Pictures Release, l990)
In this very first scene, Jonathan Demme’s terror-filled film The Silence of the Lambs from Ted Tally’s Oscar winning screenplay sets the audience in position to identify with a new heroic journey of the feminine. When Jodie Foster makes her appearance, an FBI agent-in-training alone in the forest, we feel the context of danger that is the familiar hallmark of a woman’s life. “She’s not safe,” the red light flashes in our brains. Any woman alone, anywhere, puts us on signal alert. Watching Lambs terrifies us because we, especially we as women, know the danger so well. We know a woman isn’t safe living alone in her own apartment; and she tempts the fates when she chooses to run by herself through a park. Though classical mythology likens the female spirit to a nymph, at one with nature, invisible killers haunt the contemporary American landscape and women live with the fear that attack can come from out of nowhere. Not only do they fear men’s attacks on their bodies but also they face denigrating social systems that reinforce a second class status and devalue what it means to live through a feminine point of view.
The character Clarice Starling represents an emerging model of a new female heroine. She embarks on a journey of confrontation with this hidden and pervasive annihilating force against the feminine in American society. Instead of following the precedent of most action/ adventure films starring women, The Silence of the Lambs does not focus on the way in which women have to function from the masculine in order to get the job done. In Clarice, we see an action/adventure character who is full of feelings from beginning to end, one who never doubts that feelings are an asset, a source of power. We watch her balance her intuitive clarity with a skillful maneuvering of frank and intimate conversation. She has an uncanny ease with emotionally piercing scrutiny by her male bosses, peers and even the male killers. Close examination of her most private thoughts does not rattle her. If anything, she becomes more focused. She is responsive, not passive, in the face of male betrayals and holds a mirror for the transgressors to look at themselves. And, against all warnings, she continues to place importance on establishing real interpersonal trust with Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.
Clarice begins her story where classic stories of the heroine’s journey end; at the return to ordinary life after the descent. Whether or not the filmmakers are aware, the first image of Lambs shows Starling pulling herself up from a metaphorical feminine center like Inanna, a vision that suggests a heroine making her return from the deep process of self-examination and affirmation. She lifts herself out of the abyss, stands at the top of the hill ready to go forward, to forge a career for herself guided by the strength she discovered on the inner journey. When Clarice Starling succeeds, she succeeds as a heroine who carries a set of feminine ethics. She goes beyond self-growth or professional accomplishment. She manages to achieve a far greater victory: she establishes the strength of the feminine up against unmitigated evil and creates hope for the safety of a feminine presence in our society. Clarice Starling is a larger than life heroine, one who leads us on a newly unfolding quest to transform fear of the feminine into a triumph of the feminine.
To imagine that a woman is safe–safer–because she adheres to her feminine values sharply contradicts our thinking. Conventional male-oriented rules for survival are symbolized in The Silence of the Lambs by the FBI training that Clarice Starling receives: be strong, handle a gun properly, cover your back. By inference, this schooling suggests she must suppress her feminine qualities, qualities that are regarded both as provocation for attack and as explanation for women’s helplessness. While the intention behind that training may come from the well-meaning desire to help women, schooling women to perform like men in order to achieve safety shows a refusal to trust or rely upon what the feminine has to offer.
The terror of The Silence of the Lambs is built upon our subliminal acceptance that a woman is, by her very nature, an invitation to irrational aggression from men. Before she receives her assignment, Starling has a moment alone in Crawford’s office where she reacts to the pictures of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s victims posted on Crawford’s office walls. We know from the tensing in Jodie Foster’s face that this photographic vision of mutilation of the feminine affects Clarice in a more personal way than it ever could affect one of her male colleagues. Here is the first of many examples of this theme: women experience things differently from men.
At this early point in the film, we simply feel the fear behind that difference. We imagine the worst: unlike male trainees, Clarice could become a victim of an attack like this herself. We feel doubly frightened when we see the emotional way in which photos of the victims of Buffalo Bill affect Clarice because we expect those feelings to render her a helpless victim. We anticipate that, because she reacts emotionally, she will be unable to shield herself from that terrible, lurking violent force we have all come to accept as a part of the fabric of our daily lives.
Because we in the audience have worked so hard to numb ourselves in our own lives, our judgement of Clarice is unconsciously guided by the expectations of societally learned prejudices against the feminine. We hope that Agent Starling will submerge her natural inclinations to be emotional, that she will inhibit her true self; that if she insists on trying to become an FBI agent, she will at least be smart enough to realize that this is man’s work and must be approached as if she were a man, performing the job the same way he would. We hope that she will emulate the male role model. And that hope is our Achilles heel. We are afraid to identify with Starling, to choose her inclusion of emotionality as a path of honor and nobility. Her lack of regard for the rules heightens our fear even further as she ignores what we have been taught makes a woman safe.
“Do you spook easily?” Crawford asks Clarice just after he enters the office. On the surface, Jack Crawford appears to be the perfect father-figure and mentor, tough but interested in helping Starling’s advancement within the FBI. He evaluates her outstanding record as if she were any of one his trainees, and our inclination is to interpret his treating her without special attention to gender as proof of his open-minded professionalism. But, this indifference speaks to a subliminal prejudice. Pretending to ignore Clarice’s sexuality reinforces the belief system that says we should discourage the feminine approach in this arena where crimes must be solved and killers brought to justice. This is the Department of Behavioral Science, a world where agents must be trained to deal with serial killers who skin their victims. And Clarice is about to encounter a man who eats people alive, so terrifying that he can’t even be trusted behind normal lock and key. An almost morbid curiosity is set in the minds of the audience: if men fear Hannibal Lecter so greatly, what spectacle will we observe when a woman encounters him?
We hesitate embracing Clarice Starling as an authentic hero for this story. The majority of stories told in our culture feature boys or men as protagonists and present human dilemmas though the masculine ethic. Using Joseph Campbell’s outline of the hero’s journey, it begins with the “call to adventure.” The assignment–such as Luke Skywalker accepting the challenge to rescue Princess Leia–will be of the highest order and promises to put the hero to the ultimate test, helping him to learn what unique gifts he has to offer the world. The key to any heroic adventure is in the central character recognizing himself as in some way unique and outstanding. The mentor, Obi Wan Kenobe, teaches Luke that the force is within him, that he must discover his inner power.
The stories of our culture, in the film arts as well as in literature, support a man’s adventure to discover his outstanding qualities but inner feminine principles are not viewed as heroic. “‘Cries very easily’,” writes Susan Brownmiller in the chapter “Emotion” from her book entitled Femininity, “was rated by a group of professional psychologists as a highly feminine trait.” The goal of the study, she goes on to remind us, is to elucidate the way in which “stereotypic femininity was a grossly negative assessment of the female sex and, furthermore, that many so-called feminine traits ran counter to clinical descriptions of maturity and mental health.” In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, a female probation officer took offense to Jodie Foster’s Academy Award night acceptance speech in which she called her character in The Silence of the Lambs a feminist hero. “The only way,” this woman wrote, that Clarice Starling “got any pertinent information from Hannibal was to use her femininity (read ‘vulnerability’), not through any superior analytical investigative skills.” In other words, the only method of heroic behavior many women in positions of power know how to embrace is that which can be identified with the masculine: find out the facts, crash down the door, shove the gun out in front, throw the perpetrator on the floor, force his arms behind him and clap on the handcuffs.
Suspense builds as Starling makes herself an exception to these masculine rules of survival. She acts in a spontaneous and natural manner, following a compelling instinct to establish a relationship with Lecter. In her bookPsychotherapy Grounded in the Feminine Principle, Barbara Stevens Sullivan writes the following:
Masculine consciousness depends on splitting the world into opposites, on separating elements from their union with each other….Masculine consciousness separates the individual from his dark inner labyrinth: instead, the individual reaches in and pulls something out to be examined in the clear light of day, in the process of differentiation….The central value of the dynamic feminine principle is Eros: the connections between individuals, the relationships that encircle our lives….We call this feminine consciousness “wisdom.” It is the intelligence of the heart, even of the stomach, it is the wisdom of feeling. (Wilmette Il, Chiron Pub, l989, pp. 17-27)
In what might be described as the metaphorical inner labyrinth of our country’s soul, Clarice makes a connection with what the masculine-oriented world hides away and dismisses as an enemy. Throughout the film, Clarice reaches out to intermingle with the “opposite,” regarding the darkest areas of human nature as something she can learn from instead of categorizing them as monstrous and abhorrent. Her success lies in her wisdom of feeling. Through the power of her relationship with Lecter, she is able to draw him out and gain critical insights.
“Just do your job,” Crawford commands Clarice. His advice is clear: feelings will work to her disadvantage. In a man’s story, the strong and rational Crawford would be an appropriate mentor. In Clarice’s story, he fails to see the force within her. “You’re to tell him nothing personal, Starling….And never forget what he is.” True to the cultural prejudice against women, Crawford’s message to Clarice says she must learn to be someone other than who äsheð is. Her inner forces (for example trusting in intuition, in revealing herself and interacting on the level of intimacy) are seen as her worst enemies, perhaps greater enemies than even the outer threat of an adversary like Hannibal Lecter.
This figure who in a classic hero’s story would prove to be a mentor turns out to be a symbol of patriarchal disregard for the feminine in Lambs heroine’s story. In a hero’s story, Jack Crawford would send his trainee to see Lecter as if he were going off to slay his dragon. In giving Clarice her assignment, Crawford downplays its importance (he calls it more of an “interesting errand” than a true assignment and assures her he expects little or no results). A few scenes into The Silence of the Lambs and it has already been established that agent Starling has to depend on skills her FBI training does not provide. Crawford’s half-hearted deception/offer hardly resembles a hero’s call to action but something in his presentation arouses the heroine’s attention. “What’s the urgency?” Clarice wants to know. Intuition tells Clarice that she is onto something important. She senses Crawford’s dishonesty. She refuses Crawford’s attempt to gain obedience by frightening her with his simplistic description of evil. She shifts from intuition to another feminine trait we see her use often, the depth searching question. “What is [Lecter] exactly?” Clarice wants to know.
“He’s a monster,” the chief psychologist Dr. Chilton answers in an elliptical film cut to the maximum security asylum. “Crawford’s very clever, isn’t he, using…a pretty young woman to turn [Lecter] on.” Now we learn that Crawford deliberately misled her, hoping her innocence would be disarming to a menacing killer he knows might have information regarding the Buffalo Bill case. Crawford dismissed her ability to be effective if she knew the seriousness of her task. Crawford not only fails to acknowledge Starling’s value, he feigns a protective attitude as a cover to exploit her femininity as a lure and engage her cooperation without revealing his motive.
Where Crawford veiled his sexism, Dr. Chilton can’t seem to contain a leering misogyny: “We get a lot of detectives here but I must say I can’t ever remember one quite as attractive,” he says upon meeting Starling. From the moment she leaves the training ground, in the very first encounter of her very first case, Clarice endures an open verbal assault on her sexuality. Chilton alternately insults her and then flirts with her, refusing to accept her lack of interest and professional manner. She holds her ground as Chilton reveals he has no respect for Starling, not because she is a trainee, but because she is a woman; and one who refuses his advances. Again, the experience of the heroic journey changes because Agent Starling is a woman. She can’t rely on the patriarchal system to nurture or respect her talents.
As they travel down into the cellars of the building, below the ground, towards the gallows where the state keeps its most demonic criminals, Dr. Chilton coldly briefs her on the rules regarding conversations with Hannibal Lecter. His prelude to introduction would frighten even the strong at heart. Clarice surprises us. She stops and asks to proceed alone. While Clarice’s request might be interpreted as an effort to take control and assume a certain masculine bravado, her agenda remains hidden: she wants to approach Lecter on her own terms. She knows everyone has failed in trying to gain cooperation from Lecter and maneuvers an opportunity to be alone with him, using feminine wiles for the first time in order to gain advantage. She finesses her rejection of Chilton by flattering him as someone with a power that Lecter reviles. Going alone to the interview with Lecter, Clarice will be able to test and challenge herself, to plumb the depths of her personal strength. Like a true heroine, she furthers her own spiritual search as she pursues the information necessary to solving the Buffalo Bill case.
If the opening scene of the movie hinted at the way in which we fear for a woman’s ability to protect herself, Clarice’s slow approach to Hannibal Lecter’s cell vividly reminds us that locks and keys are not adequate reassurance. Even the following written description of this scene from Ted Tally’s screenplay sends chills:
INTERIOR. DR. LECTER’S CORRIDOR. MOVING SHOT–with Clarice, as her footsteps echo. High to her right, surveillance cameras. On her left, cells. Some are padded, with narrow observation slits, others are normal, barred….Shadowy occupants pacing, muttering. Suddenly, a dark figure in the next-to-last cell hurtles towards her, his face mashing grotesquely against the bars as he hisses: “I can smell your cunt!”
Clarice’s dress surely does not project an invitation to seduction in this scene but nevertheless she draws out sexual advances from hidden places by her sheer physical presence. The whispered obscenity of Lecter’s cellmate, Miggs, burns like a hot coal reminding us of Clarice’s inherent vulnerability. She has entered into America’s underground, the place we hide away the worst imaginable sociopaths, the physical representations of our greatest fears; and the object of their aggression is female sexuality. This symbolic underbelly of society holds a dark male secret, a lust for and hatred against the mysterious power of the feminine. From emotional fragility all the way through to the flash of a leg out of a slit backed skirt, woman is seen as target in our culture. And because Clarice goes alone, we as the audience get our first view of what sustains the female heroine and helps her hold steadfast while being tested and degraded.
The confrontations between Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter take us into new territory where we can begin to see the advantage of a woman at work with the demonic. Her method is receptive and responsive from the outset: she avoids a power struggle with the supernaturally charismatic doctor and instead defers to his authority. “I’m here to learn from you,” she offers, reaching out to Lecter with an odd respect. He tests her sincerity immediately, asking what Miggs said to her, wanting to see how capable she is of emotional honesty; and she meets his challenge without reservation. Everything Clarice has been taught and told, from the most subliminal messages of systemic sexism to the direct warnings she’s received from Crawford and Chilton, urges her not to allow Lecter even the most minimal insight into her feelings. Still, within moments of their first interaction, this heroine appears almost reckless in her willingness to engage Lecter.
That orientation towards personal connection affects Lecter more than even he might suspect. Where Crawford approached Clarice’s gender with indifference, and everyone from the respected psychiatrists of the world (Chilton) to the deranged deviants (Miggs) respond to her sexuality with varying degrees of uninvited arousal, Hannibal Lecter acknowledges Clarice as unique. He finds himself fascinated, not titillated, by her character. In their first meeting, Jack Crawford read Starling’s resume. Lecter reads her soul: who are you, where do you come from, what have you run from and where do you want to go?
Her individuality intrigues him. She reveals herself and makes it clear that she is more than an FBI agent. She is a person, and, even more important, a woman. Later in the film, when the mother of the latest Buffalo Bill captive makes a televised plea for her child’s life, Clarice remarks on how smart it is to make the killer aware of the girl as a feeling human being. “If he sees her as a person,” Clarice says, “it’s harder to tear her up.” By giving Lecter a sense of who she is, Clarice has affected his desire to destroy her.
In their first meeting, Lecter does dismiss Clarice in an angry fit over her bold assertion that he use his high-powered perception to evaluate himself, but when, on her retreat from Lecter’s cell, Miggs defiles Clarice by flinging his animal-semen at her face, Lecter is highly agitated. Witnessing this degrading attack on Clarice’s sexuality spurs Lecter into a frenzy, and he offers her a proper call to adventure. He calls Clarice back and awards her with information directly related to the Buffalo Bill case.
Though the audience audibly gasps each time Clarice violates the rules and ignores the warning to remain impersonal, the underground demon surfaces now as Clarice’s mentor. The true call to heroine action, the call to rise above ego, comes from the dark side. “Go deep within yourself,” Lecter says echoing Obi Wan Kenobe, and he gives her a real life and death assignment that will lead to her finding Buffalo Bill. Her interpersonal treatment of Lecter elicits his feelings of empathy for her and prompts him to give her what she wants most: “advancement”.
There is no doubt that on the surface he means to say he offers her advancement within the FBI system. However, the advancement he offers holds symbolic meaning as well and refers to her heroine’s journey. Starling’s “job” involves more than just catching a criminal. This story focuses on a woman who, while in training to develop her masculine side, discovers her exceptional nature lies in her ability to utilize feminine powers. She confronts an almost mythic demon who demands an emotional exchange whereby she must yield her softest innards in order to gain his cooperation. She opens herself up to Lecter and trusts–not in him–but in her own feminine capabilities as weapons in her fight for life and safety.
In translating Thomas Harris’ novel into screenplay form, the filmmakers changed the name of the storage facility from “Split City Mini-Storage” to “Yourself Storage,” heightening the metaphor of the heroine’s journey, sending Starling literally deep within herself. And why did Demme photograph the scene to feel as though it were underwater? Here is a quotation excerpted from The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets:
Students in mythology find that when the feminine principle is subjected to sustained attack, it often quietly submerges. Under the water (where organic life began) it swims through the subconscious of the dominant male society, occasionally bobbing to the surface to offer a glimpse of the rejected harmony. (Walker, San Francisco, Harper and Row, l983, p. 1066)
In fact, the filmmakers continually photographed Clarice’s voyage to feel as though it occurs in the underwater and the underground, the arenas of feminine exploration, emphasizing the closeness to the ebb and flow of nature and darkness that a woman experiences. She then resurfaces to resume her FBI training where her methods contrast against and test masculine rules for success.
“I don’t know how to feel about this, sir,” Clarice says when Crawford tells her that Lecter induced Miggs’ suicide, presumably on her behalf. “You don’t have to feel anyway about it,” he responds. This is a key scene regarding the delineation between the masculine and the feminine principle. Crawford thinks answers lie in the facts of what Lecter says while Clarice searches for meaning from the way his actions make her feel. Again from Sullivan’s book:
Masculine knowing seeks laser-like clarity that fosters perfection, analyzing life from a rational perspective, breaking it down into component parts, examining each piece, judging it in a directed, disciplined logical way….Feminine knowing orients toward a state of wholeness that includes imperfection and that blurs edges and differentiations, a consciousness which exists within close proximity to the unconscious. (Wilmette Il, Chiron Pub, l989, pp. 17-27)
The masculine approach disregards feelings and exalts factual information. The heroine works through feelings in order to make sense of factual information. Clarice has a “feeling” that Lecter was speaking metaphorically when he gave her the assignment to check out his former patient Hester Mofet. Clarice evaluated the message in context of Lecter’s character and decided he couldn’t have been sincere about telling her to “look deep within yourself,” that there must be some hidden message behind the phrase. Nothing in the facts of what we have seen would lead us to deduce, logically, that Hester Mofet was an anagram or that Lecter wanted Clarice to discover a “Yourself Storage Facility.” She uncovers those details through some unexplained intuitive understanding of Lecter’s mind and, because of that ability, finds herself pulling back the American flag, deep within “Yourself”, from the coffin-like hearse that holds the first clue connecting Lecter to the Buffalo Bill case.
This American flag Clarice pulls back is the first in a long list of references Lambs makes to American society. A close viewing reveals that when Clarice finally kills Buffalo Bill, a stray bullet breaks open a window and a small, tattered flag finally sees the light of day. The American flag also hovers above Buffalo Bill’s sewing machine and he abducts his wonderbread-fed size-fourteen girl-next-door victims from the very heartland of the country. When we meet the U.S. Senator’s frizzy-haired blonde daughter, Katherine, just before she becomes Buffalo Bill’s next captive, she’s belting out this Tom Petty lyric, singing along with her car radio:
“After all it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to. Yeah and if she had to die trying, that one Å little promise she was going to keep. Oh, yes, take it easy, baby. Make it last all night. She was an American girl.”
The filmmakers clearly wanted The Silence of the Lambs to be more than a horror film; this is intended to be a culturally meaningful story about the patterns of our society that lead to this unacceptable victimization of women. What dynamics of the feminine do killers exploit? What societally suppressed powers of the feminine need to be re-emphasized in order to change the cycle of brutality? How do our mothers, sisters, and girlfriends find themselves cowering in the back of a van, trapped by a serial killer?
Haven’t all women, at one time or another, walked from their cars, maybe even carrying groceries, and found some stranger or neighbor in need of a hand? The threat of danger usually overrides the natural inclination to offer assistance to someone in need; but every now and then, hasn’t everyone just decided to put those groceries down and help push that car up the driveway or grab the end of that heavy couch? In her book In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan writes:
The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate “the real and recognizable trouble” of the world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment. (Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, l982, p. 100)
Women like to help. It’s part of their desire to make connections, open up possibilities, to give and receive from each other. The violent serial killer, like Buffalo Bill, appeals to that desire and then exploits it. He draws upon a woman’s generosity and then attacks her; and (the male-oriented) society turns the event around, blaming the woman for engaging in the interaction in the first place.
Blaming the victim distorts and undercuts a woman’s ability to protect herself. American culture socializes women away from their natural means of defense. The character Katherine hesitates when the stranger asks her to step into his van and carry the couch all the way back where she’ll be unable to escape if he is indeed Buffalo Bill. Her intuition tells her she should switch off her helping mode and stay out of the van, but she does as she’s told and steps into danger anyway. She doesn’t back away, retreat. Why? Like Katherine, American girls are taught from childhood to be the “good girl,” to be agreeable and compliant, to promote an amiable emotional environment, to nurture even when it goes against innermost intuitive feelings of danger. In 1848, pioneer feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made the following, capitalized declaration to reporters:
SELF-DEVELOPMENT IS A HIGHER DUTY THAN SELF-SACRIFICE. (Gilligan, p. l29)
Whether its message is directed toward a woman who follows the traditional goal to “stand by her man” or toward one, like Clarice whose professional training suggests the importance of being like a man, patriarchal society teaches women to serve its goals at the expense of their own, less-linear, values.
The breakthrough aspect of Lambs is that the closer Clarice comes to accepting her true feminine self, the closer she gets to solving the crime; and the closer she gets to solving the crime, the more she has to grapple with who she is as a person. In their first meeting, Lecter chides Clarice for trying to cover up her hinterland roots. She surfaces from their tense confrontation in tears and has a comforting vision, from her provincial childhood, of her father returning home. Contrary to the negative assessment of what it means to cry easily, here we see a woman’s inner, private life appearing to nurture her and help her work through the fear she has just been courageous enough to confront. When Crawford pulls her out of class and steps up her participation in the Buffalo Bill case, Clarice ironically has to go back to Virginia, the unsophisticated “state” from where she came. Both Lambs and Clarice Starling take Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s advice by taking the next step. Clarice’s self-development overcomes her fears of inadequacy and leads her to an even higher duty of asserting her feminine presence in the world. Self-acceptance leads to self-expression.
With her penchant for matter of fact confrontation of authority figures and her reliance on feeling, Clarice exhibits a growing confidence in her feminine complexity after she returns from her mission into the “self-storage” facility to meet with Lecter for the second time. Anything but the good girl, Clarice sits on the floor, wet from her submersion into the unconscious state of exploration and discovery, and she thoughtfully exposes her exhilaration at finding the beheaded former client of Dr. Lecter. As her emotional bravery becomes more visible, we are impressed and tentatively begin to look for Clarice Starling to be the one who will find the killer through her privileged conversations with this demon. We begin to trust in what initially we feared the most and are prepared to follow her on the heroine’s journey that could transform our constrictive beliefs about the feminine.
Our first inclinations lead us to fear that Lecter has the upper hand, that he feeds Starling information in a way that will further endanger her. Because she reveals herself, maybe she isn’t “watching her back,” and ultimately Lecter will make his offer of collusion in an effort to do her in. Somewhere, somehow, he has a master plan to get out and kill everyone; and Clarice must be playing directly into his hands. Though resistance toward taking the path of heroism through feminine principles is difficult to overcome, the audience enters wholeheartedly into this heroine’s quest; we want Starling to succeed in her unorthodox method not just for her but for ourselves as well. We begin to trust Clarice not because she is capable and resilient but because she has exceptional talents suited to this particular battle.
Clarice’s ability to set the boundaries between revealing herself and allowing exploitation defines both the level and the complexity of her heroic interactive skills: it puts her on par with Lecter’s analytic prowess. Though she tacitly gives Lecter permission to probe her with personal questions, when he uses that privilege to focus on Jack Crawford’s sexual interest in her, she stops him cold, refusing to dignify his verbal fantasy of Crawford’s special interest in her with an answer. “Frankly, doctor, that doesn’t interest me,” she asserts, “It’s the kind of thing Miggs would say.” That emotional sophistication protects her from both her fear of Lecter and from our own subliminally accepted sexism out in the audience. The ability to differentiate emotional rapport from exploitation is one of the distinctive, heroic capacities of feminine instinct. Acting upon it enhances Clarice’s status and establishes a boundary with Lecter: Lecter cannot take her as a fool. From this point on, Clarice’s subtle, unspoken pride in her inner power must be honored. This is not to suggest that Lecter stops testing her or that he divulges his secrets to agent Starling easily. As always, the demon/mentor has more in mind than helping Clarice solve the Buffalo Bill case. Clarice has established for herself a relationship that parallels the Obi Wan Kenobe/Luke Skywalker model: as she presses for answers that will help her complete her outer pursuit, Lecter holds out in order to teach her about her inner quest.
“All good things to those who wait,” is Lecter’s tutelary snake-like response to Clarice’s demand to know who killed his former patient. This epithet, especially suited to the heroine’s journey, speaks to the importance of the feminine ideal of immersion and contemplation, to let one’s growth process “happen”, so as to avoid blocking a discovery that is trying to surface in its own way.
Throughout this testing of her patience, Clarice is learning to accept and rely upon her unique self, now, in äallð its facets. Confronted by the grisly reality and heinous condition of the killer’s latest victim in an autopsy scene, she drops any countenance of urbanity. Now, both her gender and her provenance work in her favor. Her understanding of the specificities of the habits of a “girl from the city” (versus one from the town) leads her to uncover things about the victim (the way her nails are painted means she is more likely to come from a particular area) that no other examiner can see. She is coming to a fuller awareness of the significance of self-respect or, in other words, she is learning the importance of cherishing and not disqualifying for any reason one’s personal background experiences as valuable and relevant to the task at hand.
More important, we see Clarice consistently return to her inner gifts in order to further her double goal in the outer world which is to solve the case while gaining recognition for feminine principles. This dual agenda emerged in an earlier scene, when Crawford had resorted to a sexist ploy to win over the local sheriff when the FBI was being met with a cold reception for intruding into the community grief at the funeral of a hometown girl. Under the pretense of protecting Starling’s delicate ears from hearing the description of the condition of the skinned girl, Crawford had sought – and obtained – a private conversation with the sheriff. Far from shielding Clarice, the exclusion drew attention to her sex from a roomful of male deputies, all of whom were already hostile to the FBI’s intrusion into their investigation. Crawford left her standing alone to withstand the probing social gaze of these local policemen whose attention he has focused on her alleged inadequacy. Once again, we got a chance to see this action/adventure heroine plunge down inward. Without an ally to protect her from the invasive stares, she withdrew from a scene as uncomfortable as any of the film’s more graphically malevolent moments by entering into the room of mourners and recalling a fantasy memory of her father’s funeral.
Clarice’s recurrent retreats into childhood memory implies that feeling images, even sad ones, have restorative power. Clarice’s feminine strength helps her gain control of her emotions. She “resurfaces” from this immersion into self and handles the deputies with a heroic feminine gesture. Choosing not to assert her authority as an FBI agent to dismiss the deputies’ participation from the autopsy, Clarice speaks up and assures the men she understands their concerns. She asserts her control by taking their feelings seriously, deftly circumventing the power struggle in an unexpected way.
Later, in the car, Crawford acknowledges his mistreatment of her. He tries to seek her approval, and she holds her ground to make what appears to be a small point, illuminating the higher value of the act. “Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters,” she reprimands. Her point is taken: as a man in a position of authority, his devaluing of her leads to a greater acceptance of sexism. This is a subtle representation of what is the larger and most important issue that the film addresses. It is not sufficient to make a place for a woman on the job: what is needed is a place for the feminine to be expressed. Those men who hold positions of authority must break old habits of sexism and interact with the values and perspective of the women close to them.
The feminine hero wants male respect both for her ability to hold down a traditionally male job and to assert her own way of being in that job. She wants to enter and wield power in traditionally male institutions but with her feminine intact, perhaps even doubly committed to feminine values. She may lack development in the male skills, be symbolically “in-training” like Clarice, but she is also making demands on her colleagues and superiors to accept the intrinsic value of a feminine orientation that has developed as a consequence of experiencing life as a female. Just as Clarice’s goal involves more than finding the killer, the new heroine’s goal reaches beyond any desire to overthrow the patriarchy: it strives instead for a transformation of what has become heartless in patriarchy, seeking above all, a societal rebalancing.
“What did you mean by transformation, doctor?” Clarice asks Lecter after she has revealed her worst memory of childhood and earned her turn to question him. Quid pro quo – a fair exchange: that is the ethic of Clarice and Lecter’s confrontations with each other. The startling realization that these two could share an ethic suggests a symbolic basis for healing the imbalance in masculine and feminine principles that creates such frightening aggression in our culture. “Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse,” answers Lecter. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage, more terrifying.”
Speaking of the masculine and feminine as principles within all of us regardless of gender, Buffalo Bill’s character suffers from a severe detachment from his feminine. This is a killer so out of touch with what it means to be feminine that he thinks he can achieve womanhood through stitching together a costume made from the hide of the outermost definition of what it means to be feminine. This is a sinister aggressive new strategy by the masculine to take an unmerciful hold on the feminine by appropriating its persona. Risking a homophobic interpretation, Demme presents the psychological disarray of Buffalo Bill (a character who disappointed many viewers, in contrast to the texture found in Starling and Lecter) as a masculine dementia driven to the point of pathological persecution and destruction of the female in the outer world. It is noteworthy that the pathological behavior of coveting what is coveted can also be interpreted as a desperate attempt for some remnant of self-esteem. This is another thread of the theme of overcoming the evil wrought by what appears as an irreparable schism at the heart of this film.
Resistance to using a feminine orientation as an inner authority is particularly intense because claiming authority as Clarice does means confronting that which male authority often fears the most: its unknown territory, its darkness. Masculine-oriented storytelling builds the hope that we can dominate life, that we can exclude darkness. Stories in which the good-hearted hero defeats the evil villain carry on the fiction of possibility that we can live happily ever. This masculine ethic of transcendence through domination reinforces an escapist interpretation of institutionalized aggressive behavior. The familiar result, socially, is to live in a false state of security, a world run by the masculine principle of protection from harm where killers lurk behind every tree. In such a world, women aren’t safe to offer the counterbalance that includes respect for the dark side, an embracing of the side of humanity where solutions are not clear and problems of the shadow persist to the point that evil is a fact of life that must be continually confronted.
While Clarice does manage to fulfill the audience’s expectations for heroic action by killing Buffalo Bill, the rescue sequence in the murderer’s house is a parade of the heroine’s powerlessness against controlling the evil underworld rather than the usual heralding of an FBI agent’s ability to save the day. It is hard to recall a film in which the triumphing hero seemed more vulnerable. As in her submersion into “Yourself Storage”, or her descent to visit Lecter’s gallows, Clarice almost swims through the depths of Buffalo Bill’s subaqueous maze while he toys with his power to reach out and touch her in the darkness. What would in the usual detective film be the hero’s victory in battle against the antagonist feels instead like a narrow escape from victimization; only in a flash of frightened intuition does agent Starling manage to fire her gun in the right direction and save herself from the very fate of the kind of girl she has set out to liberate. This thin victory leaves the audience feeling unsettled because the threat of victimization continues: we don’t feel secure about the defeat of the villain.
The masculine journey, to which we have become so inured, resolves through conquering and winning, (Lucas made it work by locking into the joy of his boy-hero in Star Wars) but this feminine journey fails to wrap itself up so neatly. When in a masculine hero’s journey, our knight slays the dragon, the new equilibrium is one of safety and the townspeople shower gifts upon their savior. Solving the Buffalo Bill case, on the other hand, gives Starling little more than an official commendation, and leaves the largest relationship of The Silence of the Lambs unresolved: we know that Lecter escaped and remains at large. Even as she graduates with honors, with the always reticent Crawford adding his supposedly supreme compliments, a dry assurance that her father would be proud, Clarice gets a phone call from Hannibal Lecter. Crawford’s awkward and indirect praise is contrasted with Lecter’s presumptuously easy style and pointed congratulations, which imply that he hasn’t forgotten their negotiation for a fair exchange. We respond to his insinuation uneasily: does she still owe him something? Even though we allow that their connection is strong and Clarice has proven herself a worthy adversary, we slip back into identifying with a woman who has violated all the rules, revealed herself and told too much. It’s clearly not over.
“I’ll not be coming after you.” Lecter’s words are so unexpected that they ring out even as he speaks them in soft tones. “The world’s a more interesting place with you in it.” he explains. What has moved Lecter, the symbol of pure evil, to set this boundary of safety for Clarice? Why does the demon choose to let the heroine live? Is it possible that vulnerability has developed a safe passage instead of invited disaster? Could empathy and intimacy have protective power? We are left with questions.
Symbolically, this is Clarice’s greatest triumph: she has achieved a new state of equilibrium on the darkest level where feminine values can not only withstand but äco-existð with the hidden and terrifying consequences of an extreme masculine emphasis on control of objectionable elements. When Lecter asks Starling for reciprocity, for his liberty from her pursuit, she defines her power through empathetic language, “You know I can’t do that,” – and here again she appeals, appealingly, to the connection between them. She doesn’t say I can’t do that, as if she were now separate and apart from him. She does not abandon the feminine orientation but keeps it as a basis for action. Her honesty is part of the balance, part of the give and take that is key to the bargain that the Lambs characters have established as a precedence for collaboration. Above all other imposed responsibilities, codes of honor or magnanimous pacts of exchange, it is Clarice Starling’s perogative to affect the world through asserting her principles and she takes it as her duty to do so. On a literal level, she can’t let Lecter go because he is a criminal and she is an FBI agent; more profoundly, she can’t let aggression that breeds on detachment live freely without offering the opposition of intimacy as a balance. In symbolic terms, the masculine and feminine opposites are not independent of each other: one force simply äð cannot prevail without influence from the other. TheSilence of the Lambs ultimately suggests that the feminine hero’s goal lies not in destroying the demon that masculinity has become under patriarchy but by creating a relationship with him, to affirm feminine value in a hostile world that has forgotten how desperately it needs her.
<The Silence of the Lambs is an unusual story of a woman who, even in the face of all the pressure to behave like a man in order to remain safe and achieve success, confronts her fear, and in turn challenges our fear that to be feminine means you are a vulnerable target and a deserving victim. A symbol of the modern woman who no longer finds herself in the role of looking solely for personal approval or acceptance in a professional position, Clarice is neither demanding nor rebellious. She asserts her values with a self-possessed presence and a matter of fact manner of expression. She is able to gain crucial information from the most renowned serial killer alive as well as to learn from him. She succeeds where men have failed. By the time the movie ends, the hero has done the usual. She has saved the girl, destroyed the bad guy and graduated with honors; but something does not feel usual, ordinary. This hero won the day not by being an expert, male-identified FBI agent, but by breaking away and asserting herself as a woman who could rely on her feminine self to provide her with the special or “super” strength she needed. In this breakthrough film, as Jodie Foster recognized, the filmmakers vaunt a new type of heroine, one whose “feminine” capabilities make her exceptional.