Under the Skin: the Cocoon and Abjected Identities in The Silence of the Lambs

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The movie poster of Jonathan Demme’s critically acclaimed thriller The Silence of the Lambs, pictured above, features protagonist Clarice Starling with an evolved moth called the Death’s Head spread across her lips. This image encapsulates many key themes of the film: a silencing, a transformation, a covering or mask, and an invocation of oral desire. Before the deadly beauty of the moth is born, however, the grotesque cocoon must survive. Ugly and deformed, the cocoon is a phobic object that both comes from within and yet is alien to the body. The cocoon is also a propagator of silence. It is stuffed down the throats of Gumb’s victims, obstructing the windpipe. Although this act is conducted after the death of the victims, the emblematic blockage of language is hard to ignore. In this way, the transitive cocoon is incoherent as part of the symbolic. It functions as a state between two states, like the gender difference which Lacan describes as functioning in the real. Zizek summarizes, “for Lacan the Real is inscribed into the very core of human sexuality…sexual difference can be gained only against the background of a fundamental loss,” (“Trouble with the Real.”) In Silence of the Lambs, this loss is manifested in Gumb’s desired transformation.

The transformation lies within Gumb’s obsession with becoming a transsexual, a process through which he believes he can diverge from an abject psychosexual development and change from something monstrous into something he perceives as beautiful. This transformation is attempted through the stitching together of women’s skins obtained through serial murders. This project involves the physical covering up of a lack, the loss that Lacan defines as inherent in gender identification itself. This assembled identity both masks and transforms the person within, like the cocoon itself. In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes that the primitive sons would eat the totem as a ritual to take on its power. He also postulates an infantile fantasy wherein the act of sucking and biting translates into desire. While Bill does not ingest his victims as Hannibal Lecter does, he longs to be swallowed by them through inhabiting their skin. He is also swallowed by placing a part of himself – the cocoon – inside of their throats in order to obtain this totemic power.

This power lies in the attempt to gain mastery of one’s own image, to control perception. The loss, transformation, and oral desire are put in conversation with one another in Silence of the Lambs as manifested through the gaze. We can understand this through Mary Anne Doan’s arguments in “Film and the Masquerade.” She references psychoanalyst Joan Riviere, stating that masquerading woman “assumes the position of the subject of discourse rather than its object,” (page 81.) She entertains the notion that a subject can see itself as object, and compensate for this positionality through “overdoing the gestures of feminine flirtation,” (page 81.) Gumb masquerades as he films himself, creating an image with himself as object. Finally, the gaze is codified as oral desire throughout the film. The elevator scene and funeral scene both include a host of men who exact a ravenous gaze on Clarice, yet none so ravenous as Lecter himself. Dr. Chilton tells her, “I don’t believe Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years, and boy, are you ever his taste.”