Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed horror films of the century, precisely through its attention to the ways in which the figure of the serial killer, in the contemporary American sense, can imply the underside of so-called normativity in a culture of prohibition. The serial killer is intriguing to the (American) public in its position as the manifested form of destructive jouissance that stalks upon the “normal” public. More specifically, as The Silence of the Lambs emphasizes, the serial killer reflects the subject who has an excessive enjoyment in the violent destruction, mutilation, and consumption of the figure of the citizen. The Silence of the Lambs depicts two different versions of this figure: Hannibal Lecter, the analyst who poses a (desired) threat intellectually more so than in his cannibalism, and Buffalo Bill, the working class man who functions as the normative imago of the “depraved trans” subject. Lecter seems to know all, with relation to both the Buffalo Bill case and the psychic lives of the FBI agents who interrogate him. His knowledge is both desired in its totalized nature, and feared in its destructive capacity. Through the acknowledgement of the materiality of language, Lecter manipulates language, and exposes the ways in which the so-called experts of pathology, the FBI agents in the film, are unable to look to the obscure to procure their answer to criminal cases. This results in the generalized fear throughout the movie that Lecter will “get into your head,” a phrase that implies the forceful imposition of his analytic prowess into the psyche, metaphorically figured as the physical head of the interrogator. But the dual danger of Lecter, one not as consistently realized as the latter danger, is his cannibalistic jouissance, an enjoyment that is visually shown as consuming the faces of people. Between the consumption of the Other’s face, the surface of the head, and the imposition into the Other’s “head,” the psyche of the Other, is the absolute unknowability of Lecter by the Other. Lecter’s jouissance is oral and revolves around pure consumption, not phallic, though his unknowable knowledge that brings out something in the Other more than the Other is figured as phallic by the Other. The film’s humanization of Lecter, though, is traced through its insistence on his understanding of the feminine Othering of Clarice. The only “male” figure that is able to understand Clarice’s predicament as constantly being watched, always having “eyes moving over [her] body,” is Lecter, in (neutral) contempt of the blatant misogyny imposed on Clarice. Whether this misogyny is obscenely imposed by the incarcerated Miggs or the various men in law enforcement that objectify her doesn’t matter. Lecter is the one man out of the film – he is closest to Clarice’s experience of being the feminine Other.
So how does Buffalo Bill figure into the Othering of Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs? Bill is the absolute Other of the film, the kernel of pure immorality that founds the humanity of all characters, specifically through his particular murderous jouissance that differs from Lecter’s. Bill’s jouissance is initiated through the collection and refinement of the skin of his (women) victims. As opposed to Lecter’s oral jouissance, Bill’s jouissance is a disturbingly extreme alterity in its status as a premeditated project towards a telos. What is this telos of collecting the skin of his victims? The desired endpoint of Bill is the creation of a “woman skin suit” that he can don in order to become the woman he wants to be, and is rejected as being from numerous transgender clinics for bodily transition. Thus, the central point of The Silence of the Lambs’ narrative of differing scales of alterity revolves around the question as to what a legitimate demand for transgender bodily transition is, and therefore what is the deciding line between (psychoanalytically) desire and the undead force of singular desire that is the drive. “I’d fuck me” says Bill as he applies lipstick to complete his woman-imago in the mirror. His identity in the statement itself is from the position of the man looking at his woman-imago as the objectified feminine Other that he desires sexually. Bill’s treatement of women, insofar as he murders them, is predicated on the framing that the feminine Other is an “it” that can be desired, but is desired insofar as their skin is the medium which can transform him into the ultimate auto-erotic object of desire. This can be discerned when Bill calmly refers to his captive Catherine as “it,” commanding her by telling her that “it puts the lotion on its skin.” Describing a case study about the analysis of Primeau, a man who believed he was becoming a woman against his will, by Jacques Lacan, Patricia Gherovici describes how Lacan’s questioning of Primeau distinguished “the case of a man that he sees as psychotic from a more legitimate demand for sex change” (“Depathologizing Trans,” 545). The Lacanian case of psychosis, akin to how Judge Schreber’s transsexual jouissance attached to the imposed pleasure of God, relates specifically to the imposition of a Big Other that does not exist. In this sense, Primeau’s feelings of transsexual jouissance were not a legitimate demand for a sex change, as it did not arise from a singular excess of jouissance only for, and yet beyond, the subject. Buffalo Bill’s transsexual jouissance is markedly different. Instead of an imposition from a fictional Big Other, Bill’s desire to become-woman is tied to the ungendering of the feminine subject, and a masculine desire for phallic authority over the Other, to the extreme apex of an auto erotic jouissance wherein he is able to figure himself as the (ungendered) feminine Other. This is what, at least from a Lacanian perspective, makes his demand for a sex change wrongful, and instead a delusion unable to come to live as founded by the excessive singularity of the sinthome.
The feminine appropriation of the (male) gaze, as Mary Ann Doane describes it, is not a true appropriation, and can only function under the structural logic of masculinity. Doane describes this feminine gaze in terms of Joan Riviere’s masquerade and what she describes as “transvestism,” the latter of which is when a feminine subject masochistically over-identifies with the masculine position. This “transvestism” can be shown in the depiction, and praise, of Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. She takes jouissance in the killing of the obscene imago of the trans Buffalo Bill, thus ensuring her place in the superegoist Law of the FBI, and the film depicts this as a promotion of an authentic feminist authority. Instead, through not placing a distance between the masculinist logic of Bill and the trans imago of Bill, the film uses Bill and the phantom of transgenderism in order to promote Clarice’s Symbolic transvestism which recedes into masculinist logic itself. We can say, then, that this is where The Silence of the Lambs fails in its representation of transness, instead reproducing the anxiety of the imago of the trans as depraved in autogynephilia.