“Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?” The question posed by serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is still overwhelmingly creepy, 25 years later. Lecter, played with lip-licking menace by Anthony Hopkins, means to remind FBI trainee Clarice Starling that men are always watching her—himself most definitely included.
The classic thriller, which came out 25 years ago today, is preoccupied with the sinister nature of the male gaze. Director Jonathan Demme got his start in exploitation cinema, and Silence of the Lambs is a kind of mainstream love letter to that crass B-movie tradition. This includes a classic gender trope of slasher flicks: Jodie Foster’s Clarice is meant to be the Final Girl, the pure, resourceful brunette who survives the bloodshed and kills the bad guy at the end. Yet Silence of the Lambs shies away from giving its Final Girl too much power. The movie is scared of its own heroine.
It’s true that the film is self-consciously feminist. It consistently presents Clarice as a lone woman in male enclaves—stepping onto an elevator filled with suited FBI men, or milling about in a room full of male cops before an autopsy. By virtue of her gender, she’s constantly dealing with unwanted sexual advances. The smarmy psychiatrist who works with Lecter hits on her, as does the doctor who consults with her about the autopsy.
When she’s jogging on the FBI training grounds, a fellow trainee turns around to look at her butt. And her relationship with Lecter is tinged with sexualized, sadistic abuse, as he forces her to discuss traumatic details from her childhood in return for information about her serial killer case.
Nor is Clarice a passive victim. She confronts her boss about his inadvertent sexism, and her professional competence and courage allows her to handily defeat others’ efforts to objectify her. The movie celebrates her competence, bravery, and ambition.
Yet in other ways, the film seems nervous about Clarice’s agency. Silence of the Lamb’s appointed villain, after all, is a walking—and transphobic—symbol of gender panic. Serial killer Buffalo Bill wants to become a woman by sewing himself a dress made out of his female victims’ skins. He’s a kind of nightmare image of Clarice herself, who is trying to shed her femininity in the workplace and model herself after her deceased policeman father. When Clarice kills Bill, is she triumphing over male sadism and violence? Or is she affirming the evil of gender nonconformity, and confirming her own status as a monster?
While the movie lets Clarice kill Bill, the real monster of the film escapes. The movie adores Lecter in all his cannibalistic evil and hyperbolic cultured intelligence. And so it gives him continued power over its heroine.
Lecter acts as a sort of twisted father figure to Clarice throughout the film, feeding her hints and leads so that she can track down her quarry. Despite her intelligence and her ambition, Silence of the Lambs puts Clarice in the position of trading on her youth and her attractiveness. She solves the case not (just) because of her initiative or drive, but because Lecter likes her. He is the director of his own film, sending her here and there across the screen with his calculating, eager eyes.
And when Clarice achieves her dream of becoming a full-fledged special agent at the film’s end, the movie presents Lecter’s successful prison break as a parallel happy ending. He calls her at the end of the movie, relaxed, content and ready to murder (and eat) his psychiatrist. He promises her that she’s safe from him and hangs up to follow his prey, while Clarice remains on the phone, repeating his name. The movie gives Lecter the last word.
Twenty-five years on, Clarice Starling remains one of Hollywood’s most memorable female protagonists. But she’s also a reminder of just how timid mainstream film can be. In exploitation slasher films, at least the Final Girl gets to kill or castrate the bad guys. Moreover, as Carol Clover argues in her classic study Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the Final Girl flips gender expectations, encouraging men (and women) to identify with an empowered female protagonist. That was too scary for Hollywood.