Transvestism and the Masquerade in The Silence of the Lambs

In “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Mary Ann Doane cites Joan Riviere’s concept of the masquerade of femininity, in which femininity “could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if [the woman] was found to possess it” (Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade”). What Doane sees as crucial in Riviere’s theory is the power of the masquerade, “in flaunting femininity, [to hold] it at a distance,” (81), to simulate the missing gap with which woman is aligned, “to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one’s image.” (82) This missing gap is associated with the power of re-vision attributed to the male subject. Doane cites the section of Freud’s “Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes” in which Freud claims the little girl “makes her judgment and her decision in a flash” upon seeing the penis for the first time, in stark contrast to the male subject, in whom a gap occurs between sight and knowledge in making sense of the cis female genitals, this gap ultimately “[preparing] the ground for fetishism” (80) as well as the distance requisite to a mastery over images and signifying systems. To masquerade, to flaunt one’s own femininity, is thus to recreate this gap with whose lack the female subject is associated, granting the female subject access (or a simulation thereof) to the male structure of fetishistic, controlling, distant viewing, at least as concerns her own image.

The Silence of the Lambs‘s Jame Gumb conducts a feminine masquerade of his own, with greater parallels to the process delineated by Riviere and Doane than one might expect. Essential to our understanding of Gumb’s psyche (and essential to the grain of salt with which one is to take the film’s politic of queerness) is Lecter’s claim that “Billy is not a real transsexual… Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” That Gumb should attempt to alter his own image in responding to this pathology is the commonality between Doane’s woman and Gumb: both simulate a gap between themselves as subject/active/seeing and as object/passive/being seen in order to gain mastery over their own image. Gumb does so in response to self-hatred, while Doane’s woman does so in response to a patriarchal overdetermination of woman as image.

Their motivation, however, seems to be irrelevant, insofar as the process is essentially in the same in each (at least, as Marcus Aurelius would see it, “in itself”). However, this alignment is arguably the site of a failing of Doane’s argument: the gender politic on which it relies is, in its binary essentialism, already complicit in reinforcing the equation of femininity with objecthood which the text seems to be chastising. While this equation is, on the one hand, somewhat self-evident in our culture (and, moreover, our culture’s films), the restrictiveness of Doane’s theory seems only to perpetuate that problematic, in the face of a host of options that might well contradict or subvert it.

What does he do, this man you seek?

– He kills women.

No. That is incidental. What is the first thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

– Anger. Social acceptance. Sexual frustrations.

No. He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

– No. We just…

No, we begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

The locus of Gumb’s relationship to women is a covetous desire, one established principally by the traditional Mulveyan scopic regime of male/seeing and female/being seen. In attempting the masquerade, then, Gumb is already lending credence to this regime, operating under the equation of femininity and image – an image whose distance from his masculine self-concept is helpful, but perhaps incidental. That Doane’s masquerade differs in no meaningful way other than the gender identity of the subject involved thus already assumes, on the part of the female subject, an acceptance of this same regime.

Doane summarizes her argument in her final paragraph: “Above and beyond a simple adoption of the masculine position in relation to the cinematic sign, the female spectator is given two options: the masochism of over-identification or the narcissism entailed in becoming one’s own object of desire, in assuming the image in the most radical way. The effectivity of masquerade lies precisely in its potential to manufacture a distance from the image, to generate a problematic within which the image is manipulable, producible, and readable by the woman.” (87) The masquerade is thus presented in contrast to this adoption of the masculine position, what she calls a “transvestism” of spectatorship in the case of the female subject. However, I would argue that this masquerade, insofar as it already assumes the equation of woman and image, is itself another form of “transvestism,” though a more circuitous one: it is precisely in flaunting her own femininity that the female subject falls into this masculine position with regards to her own image, in that the motivation of this flaunt presupposes that the position she will find herself in, having successfully simulated the distance associated with the masculine viewing subject, is already indicatively male.