It is impossible to watch Silence of the Lambs (1991) and not feel the burden of male surveillance, the persistent discomfort of being watched. And yet, can we confidently say that the film occupies a “female gaze,” an inversion of Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze where the spectator occupies the role of the female protagonist? Mary Ann Doane argues in “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator” that such a thing cannot exist – that in the presumed binary system of gender, a female protagonist will always be put in the position of the male and the female spectator is inseparable from the intrinsically male fetishism of the cinematic apparatus: “Spectatorial desire, in contemporary film theory, is generally delineated as either voyeurism or fetishism, as precisely a pleasure in seeing what is prohibited in relation to the female body. The image orchestrates a gaze, a limit, and its pleasurable transgression. The woman’s beauty, her very desirability, becomes a function of certain practices of imaging – framing, lighting, camera movement, angle. She is thus, as Doane points out, “more closely associated with the surface of the image than its illusory depths, its constructed 3-dimensional space which the man is destined to inhabit and hence control.” Many female characters in film subvert their objecthood through deliberate performance of their femininity, or as Doane calls it, “masquerade.” In resisting conventional femininity and her “to-be-looked-at-ness,” Clarice Starling, the protagonist of Silence of the Lambs, occupies a traditionally male role, thus forcing the female viewer who identifies with her to hold the position of the “transvestite gaze;” she both masochistically identifies with Clarice and desires her. While the transgenderism in the narrative of the film seen through Buffalo Bill is played for horror (or potentially laughter), Clarice’s gender fluidity reaffirms her as an object of desire, according to Doane’s argument.
However, I want to push back against this idea of the impossibility of the female perspective in film. In my view, the camerawork and dialogue of Silence of the Lambs subverts the predatory nature of hegemonic cinema a la Peeping Tom by forcing the viewer to confront the discomfort of the male gaze. Though surveillance is a thread throughout the film, the notion is especially evident in the scene in which Clarice first meets Hannibal Lecter in prison. When Clarice first enters the basement, the camera pans around the room to show several men staring directly at the camera. This echoes prior scenes in the film that put the viewer in the position of being watched and here reflects Clarice’s discomfort as the only woman in the setting. The camera stops on a direct close-up of the guard as he explains to her, with a slightly condescending tone, to not get too close to the glass. The close-up is positioned from a slight low angle, positioning the viewer directly in Clarice’s view. He emphasizes the film’s relations to spectatorship and the gaze when he tells Clarice, “I’ll be watching.”
As she walks down the corridor toward Hannibal’s cell, the camera cuts to a tracking shot from Clarice’s point of view, so the men calling at her from their cells are positioned looking at and taunting the viewer. The shot moves away quickly from the first man, mimicking how Clarice shields her own gaze from him in an effort to preserve her dignity. The next man the viewer sees from her perspective says, “I can smell your cunt.” This emphasizes the particularly gendered mode in which Starling is watched, and the predatory relations between man and woman in this context (see my discussion on The Dangerous Game and the relationship between hunter and hunted). The corridor becomes akin to a runway, where Clarice is the object that exists to be seen. When Starling approaches Hannibal Lecter’s cell, however, he is distanced from the barrier and framed by the wooden panels, standing in a manner that seems less predatory but is perhaps more chilling in its unexpectedness; flanked by the panels, he can be seen as either the spectator or the object being looked at. He asks Clarice if she is “one of Jack Crawford’s,” establishing her identity in relation to men. The shot reverse shots between Hannibal and Clarice, both positioned in tight close up looking directly at the camera, continue to create a sense of discomfort in the viewer. Hannibal’s winking and challenging Clarice’s credentials imbues the scene with a flirtatious and condescending tone, as if Clarice were the object of desire rather than a legitimate professional (though of course, she is only a student). Hannibal insists he cannot in fact smell her vagina, but evaluates her scent and guesses she uses Evian skin cream, and sometimes L’Air du Temps – a tongue-in-cheek projection of her femininity. He also asks if she thinks Crawford is sexually attracted to her. Hannibal’s unique mixture of flirtatiousness, intellect, and cannibalistic desire allows the scene to be read as somewhat of a courtship of Starling. She is simultaneously bothered by it and fascinated; she is caught between the position of feminine and masculine in a binary symbolic order of gender.
When Hannibal uncomfortably psychoanalyzes Clarice, she says, “You see a lot, Doctor, but are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? Why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Maybe you’re afraid to.” Clarice challenges Hannibal’s gaze, forcing him to look back onto himself; in doing so, she challenges the male gaze and the predatory apparatus of the cinematic signifier. This is an instance of the film’s self-awareness, a subversion of female objectification rather than a perpetuation of it. While Clarice is positioned as an object of desire, she – as well as the camera – actively challenges it by engaging the spectator. Hannibal responds, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” He reaffirms his status as the predator, attempting to hold on to the gaze that gives him masculine power. His cannibalism is inherently fetishistic, as he prizes particular body parts and pairs them with fine wines and side dishes, like the high-class man he portrays himself to be. Clarice proves an ideal challenge; though she never comfortably settles into the role of object in the sense of the masquerade, she rises above it, an enduring icon of identification for the female gaze in cinema.