Silence of the Lambs: conventional gender roles

Contemporary films


Contemporary films often portray atypical gender roles, or transgressions from the conservative gender perceptions. Although the thriller The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) was received as a feminist film, it has been the focus of much mixed criticism towards its portrayal of gender. Initially, the protagonist Agent Starling’s (Jodie Foster) role as the investigator in The Silence of the Lambs suggests that the movie completely defies normative gender roles. However, a deeper analysis of her relationships with the male figures in the film, and the way that Demme plays with camera framing, angles, and movement in various scenes, confirms that the film acts upon the normative gender roles of classical Hollywood cinema.  

Agent Starling’s apparent rebellion of normative gender roles begins with her role as an investigator for the FBI. She represents a female figure that is bent on progress and fulfillment of her goals as she fights to excel in the male dominated FBI. However, the inspector, or private eye, is a famous noir film genre which traditionally stars masculine heroic figures, such as Humphrey Bogart, who solve their cases while smoking a bogey, shooting the bad guys, and wooing the leading lady. In the typical horror film, women performed the role of helpless victims carried off by the villain, so that they could be saved by the male hero. They were portrayed as childlike, innocent and vulnerable. They needed men to protect them and choose the course of their life.  Per this understanding, it is clear that a self-reliant female detective is anything but conventional. This threat of the female authority is dealt with by contrasting Starling’s character with the ‘monstrous’ figure of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the commanding figure of Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), and numerous other male characters throughout the film who challenge Starling’s newfound power.

Starling’s image is that of an object of interest or scrutiny among the numerous male figures in the film. She is undermined, gazed at, or sexually desired as she deals with these figures, which are all characteristics of a conventional gender role. This is either conveyed through storyline, or suggested through point of view shots and mise en scene, even when there is no apparent male figure present. In the opening sequence of the film, we are introduced to agent Starling in the forest, where she is seen running in an obstacle course for the FBI. During this scene, the camera takes specific voyeuristic views, as it follows Starling with a long shot, stalking her as it trails from behind. Although she isn’t being chased literally, the sequence foreshadows the final moments of the film, where she is being hunted by Bill in his basement.

 At the end of this sequence, her name is called out and we see a male officer passing her a message to meet with Crawford. The officer is then left watching her after she leaves the frame of the shot. This is the start of a trend in the film, where she is constantly being gazed at by different men in different locations. Agent Starlings vulnerability is made clear by placing her among other agents or figures of authority, as in the scene at the FBI facility, upon where she enters an elevator full of men. Her body is significantly smaller than the towering men around her, who are all wearing red shirts to emphasize Starling’s smaller figure as they gaze at her.

At the funeral home, Agent Starling accompanies Crawford to identify another victim of Buffalo Bill. Crawford tells the commanding officer that he does not want to discuss the murder in front of Starling, since as a woman she might be sensitive to the matter. Although he does this to blow “smoke” in order to change the subject (which he explains to Starling later when he apologizes to her), he nonetheless touched upon the issue of a female investigator being unable to handle certain situations. Clearly, he is not taking her seriously and undermining her capabilities. After Crawford and the leading officer leave the room to discuss the matter, we are left with Starling standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, surrounded by intimidating male officers.

This scene is particularly interesting because of the point of view being from Starling, which offers the audience the mutual feeling of discomfort as she is looked at in an objectifying way. The beginning of the scene is an establishing shot from a high angle to show her position amongst the men, who surround her in a circular fashion. The following shot is a pan shot from right to left, taking Starling’s point of view. While panning, the camera focuses on the officers’ faces in pairs, in order to convey the feeling of being crowded and outnumbered, as they gaze back at the camera. The pan shot is also taken from a low angle, which traditionally conveys the feeling of superiority in the subject being framed as they become larger in the eyes of the audience. This also associates the officers with an authoritative and intimidating image compared to that of Starling. Later, she summons the courage to tell all of the officers to leave the room. From her point of view, we see the officers looking at her in a demeaning way, some sizing her up as she speaks.

  The numerous male figures in the film noticeably desire agent Starling sexually. Each character displays this desire in a different manner. Dr. Chilton is depicted as a desperate man from his attempt at stardom. He makes deals with the congressman, takes credit for Starlings investigative breakthroughs, refers to Starling as “attractive,” and passes a sexual invitation, which Starling respectfully denies. This is a blatant disregard for her as a professional and undermines her efforts as a serious FBI agent.

Perhaps the most outright sexual desire for Starling is seen in the character of Multiple Miggs, an inmate who resides next door to Lecter. This scene, and the events that occur thereafter, are very normative gender depictions of Starling, as well as Miggs and Lecter. Upon entering the corridor that leads to Lecter’s cell, Starling passes by Miggs, who climbs across his cell bars like an animal and slurs at Starling. Starling replies to this by alarmingly turning her head away from him. After being dismissed by Lecter, she passes Miggs’ cell at which point he tosses semen at her. In perhaps the most demeaning act of sexual aggression towards Starling in the entire film, this scene conveys superiority in the male figure, even though if he is an inmate. It puts the female authoritative figure in a position of weakness. The fact that Starling had not reasserted herself in some way depicts her as helpless.

Two other figures that can be read as having sexual interest in Starling are Lecter and Crawford. Their specific relationships with Starling can be read as normative in the sense that the female must have a love interest by the end of the film in relation to a patriarchal other. Because both male figures are seen as more powerful authoritative roles than Starling, they fit the patriarchal characteristic. Crawford’s interest in Starling is less apparent than Lecter’s, although he makes more physical contact with her. When Crawford congratulates her on the success with Buffalo Bill, there is an awkward moment between the two up until she shakes his hand. There is emphasis on this handshake as the camera takes a close up shot of Crawford slowly gripping her hand and firmly holding it. Lecter’s only scene of physical contact with Starling comes before this event, when he hands Starling the case files, and in doing so, caresses her finger (thus teaching the audience the meaning of this shot). These two individuals are closest to Starling throughout the film, and are the only ones whose physical contact with Starling is emphasized, conveying the idea that Starling, in the end of the film, must have a possible love interest. 

Lecter, the charismatic psychopath, is the unlikely hero in relation to the Miggs’ event, further cementing Starling as the helpless girl in need of rescue. Although he is a murderer and threatens Starling in his own way, he reacts to Miggs’ actions by calling Starling back to him, and saying “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” He proceeds to give Starling a lead in her case and promptly dismisses her. Later in the film, we find out that Miggs had killed himself by swallowing his own tongue in reaction to Lecter whispering maddening thoughts into his head. We are left to believe Lecter had done this in reaction to Miggs’ treatment of Starling earlier.

Another aspect of the film that depicts Starling in the conventional gender role of the female is that of the father figure and the guidance or protection he brings. Agent Starling’s memory of her father is triggered by emotional distress, thus associating him with Starling’s desire for security and comfort. The scene that follows Miggs’ act of aggression shows us a frightened Starling, leaving the building with her hand over her mouth. She pauses and walks over to her car while remembering a warm moment with her father embracing her as a child. The scene cuts back to Starling crying atop of her car. Her vulnerability is shown through her weeping in light of the Migg’s event, which can be symbolized as a rape.

Crawford and Lecter are protective of Starling. It is primarily because of their guidance that Starling is allowed to move the plot along. Crawford is regularly seen offering Starling advice, and guiding her in progressing in the FBI. He cautions her about Lecter, while involving her directly with the Buffalo Bill case. In the end of the Buffalo Bill scene, he shields Starling from the press, holding her similarly to the way her father held her in her memory. Hannibal Lecter’s paternalistic image is also related to his protective (in a twisted way) nature toward Starling, as well as the clues and guidance he offers her in finding Buffalo Bill. His protective nature can be read from his punishment of Miggs, and the clues and leads he offers Starling on discovering Buffalo Bills’ true identity are his way of helping and guiding her.

            One of the strongest arguments in analyzing classical Hollywood cinema’s portrayal of the female figure is voyeurism. Toward the end of the film, Starling confronts Buffalo Bill in his home by a chance encounter. He lures her into his basement where he turns off the light and leaves Starling aiming her gun in pitch blackness. He puts on his night vision goggles and proceeds to watch Starling move about helplessly in the dark. The camera takes the subjective point of view of Buffalo Bill. He watches her continuously until she turns around to shoot him after he makes a sound with his gun, revealing his position.

This scene can be read as voyeuristic as Bill doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to kill her, but instead lingers, watches, and toys with Starling as he comes ever so close to touching her hair before he ultimately points his gun at her. Starling thus becomes the unwilling sexualized object of Buffalo Bill, which not only undermines her authoritative figure, but depicts her in the classical Hollywood image of a woman being objectified from the male point of view.

It may be argued that Agent Starling’s role as a female FBI investigator puts her in an anti-normative stance. Even though the protagonist agent Starling displays heroism in her actions, she mainly conveys vulnerability and fragility through her traumatic experiences and relationships with the male figures in the film. The impact of these encounters and events is further emphasized through meaningful camera techniques. Thus, it is evident that The Silence of the Lambs does in fact conform to the normative gender roles of classical Hollywood cinema.

Characters: Clarice Starling, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Jack Crawford

Played by: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn

The silence of the lambs