The controversial depiction of Buffalo Bill in the acclaimed Silence of the Lambs represents a predominating issue of transgender themes in its genre.
The adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, The Silence of the Lambs, inspired controversy within the LGBTQ+ community due to the film’s depiction of fictional serial killer Buffalo Bill. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror classic perpetuates a negative trend in Hollywood’s portrayal of transgender characters and themes. Its controversy reveals how the trans community is still affected by the film and how queer critics view its legacy.
The Silence of the Lambs holds a legacy powerful enough to inspire numerous adaptations and sequels that have attempted to capture the cultural phenomenon’s success. It’s one of only three films to land a “big sweep” at the Oscars, having won awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Director. It also remains the only Oscar-nominated horror movie to win Best Picture. The Silence of the Lambs’ influence extends to today and has continued to be the subject of both criticism and praise. The film’s handling of trans and feminist themes has created a broad discourse amongst critics and fans for years.
There’s been problems with vilifying trans identities for a long time. It is seen in other horror classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Norman Bates killing his victims while wearing his mother’s clothes kickstarted a trend in the genre that, intentional or not, made a lasting impact on the trans community. Psycho is just one example in the midst of a larger trend. For a while, queer-coded and gender-non-conforming characters have been used to signal villainy and danger, and this became an especially common trait among antagonists of horror movies. The Silence of the Lambs followed in the footsteps of movies like Sleepaway Camp or Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, despite various efforts to distance the serial killer Buffalo Bill from being classified as being actually trans. Regardless of The Silence of the Lambs’ positive influence, the film undoubtedly bolstered a destructive issue in horror that critics have been wanting audiences to heed for decades. There’s statistically a higher likelihood for trans people to be the victim of violent crimes than to perpetuate them and the stigmatization of trans identities in cinema takes part in perpetuating this prejudiced violence.
Silence of the Lambs’ LGBTQ+ Controversy Explained
Buffalo Bill has become an infamous villain in cinematic history due to his terrifying M.O. as a killer; he wears the skin of young women he traps in his basement. Much like Psycho, Buffalo Bill was inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein who notoriously dressed in his deceased mother’s clothing. In The Silence of the Lambs, Bill’s desires to dress in feminine clothing and to seek medical transition are traits that make him, at the very least, a trans-coded character. While Dr. Hannibal Lecter declares Buffalo Bill to not be “a real transexual,” Lecter mentions the likelihood that he applied for “reassignment surgery” at various hospitals. The director Johnathan Demme attempts to separate trans identity from Bill with these lines but they instead counter his intentions by demonstrating Bill’s desire to transition. The film also attempts to separate antagonism from trans identity when Clarice says there is “no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence” though that seems to imply only that Bill’s identity isn’t the reason for his killings. Following these conversations, Buffalo Bill’s identity remains questionable rather than something to be dismissed and is notably something that is discussed by other characters but not something Bill is allowed to directly express himself.
Even if Bill wasn’t meant to be read as trans, he is coded to be. LGBTQ+ critics and audiences have pointed out that, regardless of the intentions of the film’s creators, Buffalo Bill still has a connection to trans identities that will encourage some viewers will to internalize prejudiced generalizations. It is not uncommon in 20th-century movies for there to be a direct correlation in villains between evil and criminal activity and gender-non-conforming behavior and trans identities—one famous occurrence of this appears in the final act of Ace Venture: Pet Detective. No matter any intent, the queer-coded depiction of Buffalo Bill plays into long-running transphobic trends that bolster the assumption that trans people are in some way villainous. Furthermore, by queer-coding villains like Buffalo Bill, trans communities are at even more risk of violence in real life. A large subset of the LGBTQ+ community has rejected The Silence of the Lambs’ legacy for years because Hollywood seems to ignore the critique. There was a huge protest at the 1992 Oscars that resulted in the arrest of ten LGBTQ+ activists who felt the Oscars were favoring homophobic and transphobic films (via The Washington Post).
What Critics Have Said About The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill Portrayal
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have called out The Silence of the Lambs’ poor representation of transgender themes and terminology but critics have especially critiqued the film. As critic Emily St. James points out (via Twitter), the majority of audience members will not remember Clarice Starling and Hannibal discussing how Bill isn’t trans. Instead, they’ll remember “a weirdo serial killer dancing around in women’s clothes” which is the most important argument to be made about why The Silence of the Lamb movie is received as transphobic. The scene where Buffalo Bill dances in feminine clothing is incredibly memorable, partially because of the catchy song Goodbye Horses, and effectively highlights the offensive aspects of the film’s villain.
Emily St. James also points out the issue with Demme’s earnest intentions with Bill’s portrayal by stating “intent is less important than impact.” With Hollywood’s history of villainizing queer characters, it’s necessary to realize that the repetition of these trends does leave a mark on the general public. With more iconic villains who act ambiguously non-conforming or are implied to be trans may inspire less acceptance and safety for trans communities in real life. Trans director Lilly Wachowski (co-director of The Matrix) agrees with the critical consensus and, despite society coming a long way since The Silence of the Lambs, and she points out that trans people are still being vilified. “We are not predators, we are prey,” she commented (via Windy City Times). Jonathan Demme has apologized profusely over the years for being unable to make it clear that Buffalo Bill is not trans in his adaptation. Nevertheless, the dancing scene as well as Bill’s penchant for wearing women’s skin likely would have caused the same impact regardless of the script’s clarity.
Why Horror Movies Must Stop Villainizing Trans Identities
Trans identities have been negatively portrayed by dozens of influential films that continue to impact the world today. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is one of many that includes the villainization of trans characters and themes in its narrative, remaining a subject of LGBTQ+ critique. Emily St. James’ commentary about intent being less important than impact still holds true because being trans is incredibly stigmatized today, due in part to these films which greatly contribute to public perception. These perceptions lead to hate crimes and real violence. Portraying trans characters as predators is a negligent choice considering that statistically, transgender people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people (via Williams Institute). Lilly Wachowski’s reminder that Hollywood still vilifies trans identity should be heeded more than ever because change is finally slowly being made.
Horror is only a part of movies’ vast history in the exploitation of trans identities, from films like Dog Day Afternoon or the more recent The Danish Girl problematically casting cisgender actors in trans roles, and many comedies still rely on offensive transphobic jokes for their humor. However, the horror genre remains the most negatively impactful for trans people despite its gradual progress. There are still major issues being perpetuated in the horror genre against trans progression. While The Silence of the Lambs attempted to distance itself from associating Buffalo Bill’s antagonism with trans identity, the film’s effect on LGBTQ+ culture has been resoundingly severe. Positive transgender representation has experienced an upward trajectory in recent years, so hopefully, there will be far fewer correlations made between evil and trans identities. The horror genre needs to move on from transphobic trends that movies like The Silence of the Lambs utilized.
Next: Genius Disney Theory Reveals Broken Villains Share A Tragic Origin
Want more LGBTQ+ Content? Check out our essential reading below…
Furiosa Movie Synopsis Reveals How Story Fits In Mad Max World
About The Author