Patriarchy

30/07/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Daniel Pyne (screenplay), Dean Georgaris (screenplay), George Axelrod (1962 screenplay), Richard Condon (novel)
Stars: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep

 

Transformations in the Mythic Construct of the Hero:

The Manchurian Candidate from 1964 to 2004.

(Published in Spring 73, Cinema and Psyche, 2005)

 

Recasting The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, into a Gulf War context revivifies our terror of mechanized mind control with twenty-first century state of the art brain implants – but it also revamps Freud’s Oedipal complex and C.G. Jung’s negative mother complex with a heart over mind message. ‘Mother’ has long been associated with emotional memory and it is no secret that a man’s destiny depends on the peace he makes with both. But to believe mother love holds a dark underbelly of deceit and danger more deadly than a foreign enemy is old mythology brewed in a patriarchal pot. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, puts forward a contra-patriarchal image of masculinity in the role of hero, challenging the negative mother complex itself as a misbegotten source of power.

Perhaps catching a private corporation in the act of nearly taking over the American government for its own greedy purposes in the 2004 reprise of The Manchurian Candidate would be reflection enough of a basic twenty-first century fear of capitalistic control. But the 2004 film goes beyond grandiose corporate machinations to where the real control of the future lies. In the psyche. The film’s close examination of the fight for individual freedom to think, to care about others and to question any system attempting to control people’s minds proves to be about much more than money. If memory can be erased, laid down artificially and made to ‘feel’ as real as the truth, any dark deed is possible. If it can’t, what could possibly prevent it? What might protect truth? Where might hope reside?

Mind control is not new to the movies, not new to life. But The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, presents a surprising postulate for retaining humanity in a society increasingly dominated by technology you don’t want to miss. Unlike the original in 1962, no outside re-programmer need be brought in! There is an antidote lying within the hearts of men, creating a capability to fight back against brainwashing and strong enough to restore healthy mental functioning. It may stay dormant during indoctrinations but ultimately it’s capable of resisting the invasive technology of artificial encoding. To release the antidote, however, some fear-based patriarchal mythology about the emotional susceptibility of a man to his mother’s selfish motives must be given up.

Historically, societies dominated by patriarchy have feared the relationship between mother and son, developing a mythology that casts it in a dark light, denigrating mother love. The standard analytic interpretation of Oedipus is that mother-son love has a dangerous underbelly. A son enamored of his mother leads him to kill his father and claim his mother for his own. A mother, enamored of her son, colludes in the son’s emotional dependence and keeps him under her control against the father, in service to her own purposes. This conspiratorial mythology not only distrusts and distorts the love between mother and son from early on in a boy’s life, it provides justification for a father’s authoritarian control. In effect, a father’s egoistic fears of losing power to his son are blamed on reasons buried in the unconscious. Such Oedipal interpretations ignore the fact – especially in ancient times – that a woman’s well-being and desire to better herself as well as her safety was dependent upon her men. In a society dominated by patriarchy, a woman does well to align herself well with powerful men – including her sons.

Sadly, C.G. Jung gave this patriarchal distortion of mother-son love a name that stuck; he identified it as a ‘negative mother complex’ inherently innate to the human psyche and, like Freud, slid past cultural influences. He says, “On the negative side, the mother archetype may connote what devours, seduces, and poisons; it is terrifying and inescapable like fate (underlining mine). I have expressed the ambivalence of [maternal attributes] in the phrase ‘the loving and terrible mother’.” Those words, ‘inescapable like fate’ places Jung in a framework before women had a presence of their own in the public world and femininity was defined by men, seen through their eyes and bound by their expectations. It also dates him in a world before men of radically different ethnicity, financial means and class were thrown into wars where they would become close buddies, arousing an unprecedented felt connection between men (and women) of wide ranging diversity across the boundaries of nations and continents. It dates him before an instant invisible net of cyberspace existed around the globe, creating a web of international access, intrigue and knowledge far more powerful than radio or TV. These modern times challenge the soul of mankind to preserve a capacity for human caring against greater odds than have ever been known before. And The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, lends an image to how this may come about.

In both versions of The Manchurian Candidate, the mother’s capacity to manipulate her son’s love is co-opted by patriarchal entities – in the first by a foreign country and in the second by an international corporation. The mother yields to patriarchal forces – first without, and then with her knowledge. Given patriarchal reasoning, the use of the mother’s ill-gotten power over her son for the father’s goals is fair game. Patriarchal desire for control of the emotionally charged relationship between a mother and her son drives the drama in both films. In the 1962 version, The Manchurian Candidate turned a mother’s influence over her beloved son into a hypnotic spell of compliance that could be triggered by a playing card, the red queen. She rendered her son an assassin to kill the nominated presidential candidate of the United States, elevating her husband to presidential pawn for a foreign power. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, turns the son of an ambitious female senator into a war hero. Military brainwashing lays the ground for mother and son to become a presidential combo of shills in service to corporate greed. The son comes home from war programmed to fall victim to his mother’s determination to make him president as well as to kill on command from her – or a mysterious ‘them’. In the revamped version, a mother powerful enough to manipulate an entire political campaign fronts a corporate takeover of the U.S. government. And a brainwashing system strong enough to dupe a complete squad, including its Commander, spins the son into a cultural war hero in front of an entire world.

The 2004 mother differs from 1962 when a mother’s influence on her weak child-man son elevates her weak husband to power, not knowing that she’s selling out her son to get in solid with the foreign power that takes over. In the second, a mother’s political ambition lifts her techno-implanted son’s path of societal entitlement toward the presidency, promoting them as a dynamic duo and allowing them to work as partners for worldwide corporate greed. The central change in role of the son over a span of forty years, 1962 to 2004, from the end of one generation to the beginning of another, is from presidential assassin to presidential partner, from deadly sycophant to deadly consort to a mother who knowingly sells out her son to gain power in society. In both films, the mother-son relationship gets co-opted for the evil purposes of patriarchal greed. In The Manchurian Candidate 1962, the personal mother acts separate and alone from her son. In 2004, she acts within the archetypal relationship and the negative mother-son complex itself becomes the source of danger and destruction. And, the construct of the complex, symbolically speaking, gets to become the rightful target for a deadly bullet. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, like a cultural dream, seems to reflect a shift in mythology.

In both films, the son’s older Commander plays the hero, uncovering the scheme of mind control. However, in the first version, the Commander (Frank Sinatra) single-handedly breaks the code of control triggered by the red queen of hearts (with its obvious mother symbolism) and freeing the son from his mother’s clutches. In the second, the Commander (Denzel Washington) appears preoccupied with images of a recurring nightmare that have haunted him since the war. He’s in a low-level public relations position, giving speeches for the army to Boy Scout troops and living in his apartment as if contained in a cell. No friends, no social life, no change in routine. Years pass. He believes his nightmares contain a key to a confusing web of lies being spun around him by the military. But the meaning of his nightmare seems impenetrable until a soldier from his squad shows up at a talk he’s giving and shows him a sheaf of papers, revealing that he too continuously dreams the same nightmare. The soldier’s scrawls are the same images that come in the night to the Commander. Spurred by the possibility that his nightmare represents the remnants of a shared rather than private trauma of war, the Commander’s ruminative obsession turns into a search for truth. He sees one of his previous soldiers on TV, running for president and wonders if he too is having these nightmares. Eventually, meetings with fellow soldiers set off flashback memories to a week during the war when the whole squad was secreted away for a sci-fi medically inspired military indoctrination. He’s part of a group.

As the story progresses, The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, heads into less traditional mythological territory of the hero than presented in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962. The men’s collective memory, in effect, kept a reality intact on an unconscious level that couldn’t be erased by artificial mind control. An instinctive emotional bond felt between ordinary men, under the worst of circumstances, proved strong enough to counteract the machinations of evil men. Men who draw upon a felt connection with one another prevent the misuse of love between mother and son for dark purposes. They are stronger, not weaker, for believing in a feeling of caring for one another that won’t be pushed aside by aspersions cast against their manhood by the military. The second film breaks away from the archetype of a singular hero on his own, standing alone and on his own. 2004 characterizes the Commander as a hero woven into a bonded identification with the men who served with him. He’s a man embedded in an identity of camaraderie, one who’s an integral part of a group and prompted to action by empathy. And he connects to other men through a dream – not through logic or sport. When this Commander discovers that his nightmare is being dreamt by others in his squad, his personal quest for the truth begins. He’s frightened, believing that the dream signifies something major being covered up. And little does he know.

Both versions of The Manchurian Candidate exploit the concept of a psychoanalytically based ‘negative mother complex’ to intensify the meaning of “Enemy”, as if war were less dangerous than a man’s relationship with his mother! When an outside enemy with weapons of mass destruction is construed as less dangerous than one developed in our own heads, it’s time to examine the truth of what’s inherent and what’s learned. The film assumes audiences will infer the patriarchal origin of ‘negative mother complex’ as purely innate. The use of an innate maternal trigger for a technological brain implant lends it greater evil, implying a cold dispassion for mankind laid deeply – inevitably – in a son’s psyche, not simply his brain. The complex gets put conveniently in service to an ideal of ultimate patriarchal dominance, influencing a mother to “devour” her own son to further a private corporation’s greed, power and control. This is a good moment to remember that a complex is not a person, not a real – living and breathing – mother. It is made up of emotional memories distilled into our most intimate habits of feeling to which we cling for survival. We will resist giving up what we require in love, how we style our bodies, what we feel to be a homecoming, the fears to which we have become accustomed. This is all a mother memory ruling a man’s life, a continuity of patterns we have lived with for so long that we become them. The personal mother is not the archetype. The archetype lives, influenced and shaped by cultural circumstance.

Both films make it clear: the mother’s need for power in a male dominated society drives her willingness to use her son as a pawn in a much larger game. What might be overlooked, however, is that a son taken over by a mother’s scheme to succeed in a man’s world can also be used to drive a young man into an ambition not his own, align him with a greed not his own and deprive him of freedom of choice – keeping him neatly in the service of a commercially driven patriarchy. For a young man to break away and think clearly, he must debunk the whole notion of the devouring mother as an inevitable underbelly of intimacy between a mother-son. A son’s freedom to grow up, mature and develop as a man independent of patriarchal programming remains in jeopardy as long as the underpinnings of the ‘negative mother complex’ go unrecognized for what they are — induced by society.

How to rid one’s psyche and culture of the control by a ‘negative mother complex’ is where the two films depart.

In The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, the cure for brainwashing lies in a superior intelligence – still military, male and patriarchal in origin – that breaks the code binding son to mother. And the death of the mother. The resolution of the first version requires only the son’s riddance of the physical mother – and the idiot stepfather. In the 1962 film, the son breaks away from the spell of the Red Queen at the end by killing his scheming, incestuous mother and her puppet husband (his stepfather) instead of the programmed target, the next president of the United States. That old mythology required revenge, an adolescent, Oedipal anger rising up in a cold heat to slice the umbilical cord and free not only himself but also his country from all mothers who would bargain their sons’ souls to secure their own place with a patriarch. That son, played by Laurence Harvey as a whining child-man, conveyed the image of mother as the instigator of infantilization in her son. A mythology of heroes who broke away from the mother – symbolically killing her as his only way to free himself – idealized men who stood alone and relied upon individual acts of heroism to prevail.

In The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, the cure lies dormant in a man’s basic make-up — in his natural ability to form emotional, empathic connections with the man next to him. The antidote to brainwashing begins in a feeling of camaraderie aroused between soldiers who fought together day in, day out in a war. Together, they form a multi-faceted chorus not so easily silenced as a single voice. This grand, captivating portrayal of a heroic bond of empathy between men offers an alternative to the mythology of Freud’s famed Oedipal complex and Jung’s monomythic hero, the exceptional man symbolized by Odysseus. Alfred Adler, the third originator of psychoanalysis along with Freud and Jung, considered the ‘feeling of intimate belonging to the full spectrum of humanity’ to be a dominant motive of life, as basic as Freud’s sexual drive or Jung’s urge toward meaning. The twenty-first century may be Adler’s turn to shine. ‘Intimate belonging’ urges men to connect emotionally in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, forming an immunity to a masterful scheme to invade the human psyche with actual mechanical implants.

Then, as illuminated in the film’s stunningly symbolic ending, a man’s transformation from shill to free spirit lies in a riddance of the whole concept of a negative mother complex, a full death of the incestuous complex superimposed on the mother-son relationship, planned and directed by a son empowered by his found feeling for other men. The implication? Possibly that young men who know a different truth about their emotional natures can rid the culture of the negative mother complex, identified for the patriarchal concoction it is. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, dramatizes – as the theatrical dramas of ancient Greek reflected fresh and timely cultural sentiment – an alternative base of emotional strength for men and a timely answer to an old problem of competition between fathers and sons.

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate begins with a scene in a bar, a rowdy sexualized interaction between soldiers and foreign women. An uptight Captain enters, putting a damper on the fun with a stern call for his men to report for duty. By contrast, The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, opens with a group of young soldiers sitting in the back of a humvee, playing cards and laughing shoulder-to-shoulder while Kuwaiti oil fields burn in the background. They’re strangers thrown together in a strange country by the Gulf War in 1991, harking not only from different parts of the United States but also from different ethnic backgrounds. Here they are. Friends, like alloys forged into steel under fire, doing what they can to lighten a dark night while waiting for the call that will put their lives on the line. The music on a boom box echoes ethnic diversity in songs from reggae to rock to rap. The camera pans their faces, bridging a dozen differences while the rhythms in the background blur their boundaries and many biases. Here, in a foreign land under fire, they’re all the same man, tense beneath the skin and scared, but comfortable enough to be friendly toward their Captain who, separated from them by rank and class, dampens their fun with his condescending, cold call-to-action attitude. One of the men jokes that the Captain needs a friend and a hug. Everyone laughs. Little do they know how right they are.

Captain Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schrieiber) stands apart from his men and his commanding officer, Major Bennett Ezekiel Marco (Denzel Washington). Shaw appears socially awkward and distracted by a private irritation. A few minutes after ordering his men into battle, he’s seen fulfilling the role of war hero. Ostensibly, he saves all but two of his men’s lives, earning the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. This sets the stage for his mother’s ambition. The second film veers from the original, propelling Shaw (rather than his boorish step-father) as the man of choice in his mother’s determination to project one of her own men onto a fast track through the U.S. Senate straight to a nomination for Vice President. His mother, Eleanor Prentiss (Meryl Streep) is a Senator with a reputation for getting her way. She single handedly engineers a small coup among her colleagues to make sure her son gets the nomination. In the professional hands of Meryl Streep, the image of Eleanor Prentiss rises to symbolic resonance of an archetype, conjuring up C.G. Jung’s negative mother complex with the artistry of a William Shakespeare creating Lady Macbeth. She will push her son to greatness, leaving blood on the carpet if she must.

Twelve years after the war, as Prentiss Shaw’s star is rising in the presidential race, retired Major Ben Marco continues to suffer from a recurrent nightmare from the Gulf War. Embedded in his psyche, disturbing images have resisted treatment by drugs, psychotherapy and time. He lives within his dream; his apartment and his choices are still identified with the strictures of war. He also finds himself tormented by a freakish repetition of obsessive behaviors that won’t let go, making him feel more robot than man. Another soldier from the Kuwait battle seeks Ben out to show him a notebook full of the identical insomniac dream images and writings. Marco wrestles with a growing internal pressure to dig up the root of his nightmare. He begins to contact and confront Shaw, insisting Shaw shares the nightmare from their days as soldiers together in Kuwait – insisting the dreams cannot be ignored.

Shaw can’t imagine he’s part of a nightmare even more disastrous than the love-hate relationship he experiences with his smothering, controlling mother. However, as actual events unfold, he realizes his mother not only has an uncanny control of him but also has – true to an old mythology – aligned herself with a power-mongering corporation determined to use him in a dastardly plan to take over U. S. government. Unable to lift herself to the political heights of grandeur enjoyed by her father, hindered as she is by being of the female gender, she uses her ‘motherly’ talents to secure her ambitions through her son. The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 redirected the assassin son’s aim at the last moment to kill his mother and his stepfather instead of the designated target, the next president, was a sufficient break in mind control programming to startle expectations at the time. It represented an act of freeing sons from the emotional torment and constraint of a suffocating mother complex. But it didn’t kill the real enemy; it didn’t kill the belief in the distortion of a mother-son relationship purported to exist within the collective psyche that binds a son pathologically to his mother. In that version, a son has only one choice — to rid himself and society of the mother as if it were she and not the distortion that was the problem.

The Ben Marco of the early film represented the conscious side of a man and helped the son who was a good man held captive by incestuous, crippling memories. The analytic Marco unveiled Shaw’s emotionally based mother complex. As a buddy – a friend dedicated to truth – he could step forward and compete with the mother, even break her grip. But the extension of a man’s friendship to another man was transitory, not transformative. Feelings made a man suspect of being feminine and, by faulty deduction, associated with weakness so Ben approached the problem intellectually, using mysticism to defeat hypnosis.

The mythology of heroes in 1962 had not yet begun to include hero as common man, an ensemble hero of everyday who wasn’t a man of destiny from an elite family. It’s worth noting the evolution that takes place in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, where Alfred Adler’s concept of an legitimate, emotional but not sexualized sense of ‘intimate belonging’ between men shows up as an interesting, deep and powerfully connective tissue that can withstand the pressure of mind control and open a new door. It steps away from the legacy of an inevitable, inescapable aberrant mother complex by shifting away from the familiar hero’s journey as the only journey, the only source of heroism. Many are now walking the hero’s path, made an integral part of popular culture by Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of a Thousand Faces and George Lucas’s epic franchise, Star Wars. That questions its elitist hold on the only way to prevail against evil. Men – and women – from all walks of life, levels of society and gender identifications evolve toward a consciousness that contributes to and insists upon good for mankind.

Taken as companion pieces, the old and new Manchurian Candidate films can be seen as a dramatization of differences between the old singular type of hero and a new type of hero whose identity is multiple, ordinary and coincidental with a team of men. His conflict is their conflict. He draws his strength from an invisible, instinctive and emotional bond with them – not an inanimate cosmos. His power comes not from some abstract, mystical place in outer space but from within his own feelings, manifested and held in place by a dream. A dream! This ineffable, imagined and felt bond existing between men proves more real and more central to their survival than a rule of law. When the lone man on the battlefield proves vulnerable, easily implanted and manipulated with state of the art triggers to kill, the heroic image of superstar loses its luster. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, finds its tale of an attempted double invasion into a country and a man’s psyche defeated by an ethereal air of energetic, intense and empathic exchanges between men who believe more strongly in the truth of their own nightmares than the spin of outside authorities. Heroism emerges from the flimsy stuff of a collective dream to penetrate the conspiracy and unseat the enemy. And it engenders hope. It’s a vision of heroism based in a natural psychological resources, possessed by every baby born – feelings and dreams.

In the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate, a heroism synonymous with a bond felt between men offers an alternative to the single-minded heroism of one man. It opens up and ushers in new prospects for balancing good and evil in a technology driven world. The mythic and psychological message of this latest version of The Manchurian Candidate is different than the first, promoting a felt connection between men that can act as a strength as well as a guide to truth and new options when faced with artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to kill the wicked symbol of ‘mother’ to alter narrow-minded patriarchal goals. No, what must be shot straight through is the whole ‘negative mother’ complex.

The final act of the son in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, represents a reckoning, a redemptive act that frees him, his commander, the men who fought with him – and the audience – to move on. He instigates the death of his fear-based, disabling enmeshment with his mother not by suicide, as if it were contained within him, or even homicide as if it were contained in his mother. He steps together with her, letting a single bullet from Marco kill them both simultaneously, demonstrating the clarity of his intent to do away with what exists between them. Symbolically, the pathological distortion of the dynamic between mother and son is eliminated by a new hero. The son’s insight makes possible the emergence of a new archetype of heroism, one that honors the veracity of a masculine bonding and awards all sons their rightful legacy of feelings. With the death of the distorted complex, the film suggests a fresh mythology can begin to rise in which men can identify masculinity with empathy as well as a healthy emotional bonding with each other – and their mothers. At the end of the new version, Ben Marco returns to the scene of the crime on a deserted isle where minds were warped and futures ruined. He slips a group photo of his men, along with a single Congressional Medal of Honor, into the sea. It’s a ritual of return, referencing the symbolism of reclamation and renewal. But it also signifies a transformation in the type of leadership that can now mean ‘hero’, one of a man belonging to a matrix and not a complex. The men with their medal return to the source of life on earth – an inclusive, elusive fluidity that sustains a natural flow between human beings and repeatedly withstands evil.

Patriarchal mythology, based upon and heavily vested with values supporting iron-fisted domination of one order of human beings over another, must yield its complexes. When the son, programmed as an assassin wakes up in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, and discovers links of destruction in his own psyche reaching from personal mother to corporate father, he throws light into a cultural construct of developmental psychology in need of change. His self-instigated release from the artificially implanted nightmare of a twisted mother-son dynamic symbolically ‘kills’ the archetype that destroyed his chance to become an independent young man. The hopeful mythic thread of “Resonance, Return and Renewal” in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, shows a way out. The film demonstrates a source of hope in dark times. Empathy forms an abiding bridge between men and liberates acts of independent thinking even when aggressive attempts are being made to program individual choice into oblivion.

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14/02/91 Film Essay # , , , , , , , , ,

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Ted Tally (screenplay), Thomas Harris (novel)
Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney

 

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.

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