“Goodbye Horses” plays as Buffalo Bill poses in the mirror speaking to themselves. “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me, I’d fuck me SO HARD.” The speech is aggressive, full of barely disguised rage. Towards who? Men, women, themselves? They’re turned on…suddenly we’re thigh deep in disturbing weirdness. The infamous full frontal shot of Bill in drag (not really; he’s tucked, because decency) is one of the most iconic scenes in horror.

It’s The Silence of the Lambs. According to LGBTQ community activists who protested the film in 1991, it’s transphobic. Clarice Starling, trainee FBI agent, will ring the bell, interrupt Bill’s fantasy, and murder him…her…fundamentally doesn’t matter.

But this isn’t transphobic: it’s violence against a killer, which ought to be equal opportunity.

Let’s imagine Buffalo Bill is Buffalo Barbara, she’s cutting up men (or women, or nonbinary folks) to make a suit, a dress, something. Disturbing still? Yep.

But Silence flirts with abuse and assumes audiences are more frightened of sex than violence. Paradoxically, Silence is a feminist film.

But this film introduces a false dichotomy between siding between two serial killers, between Clarice and misogyny. It’s manipulative, brilliantly so. The fact it’s good horror doesn’t change that.

Our need for a “good criminal/bad criminal” dichotomy leads us into the trap abusers lead victims into. It distracts us from the fact Hannibal is dangerous. His cultured social polish doesn’t make him less dangerous. He exploits everyone, everything. We shouldn’t expect anything else.

But we’re deceived. How?

How narcissists deceive: surface level, facile charm.

Quote Marcus Aurelius, sketch nice charcoal drawings, know the Duomo in Florence from memory, tell witty insults and jokes alike, cook decent fava beans and choose a good wine pairing, viola, you’re Hannibal the cannibal, the only man that can make prison jumpsuits chic.

Hannibal seems charming for the wrong reasons; it’s for classist, cultural reasons that we reward him for having refined tastes. Audiences regard him as charming because he’s an elitist snob.

Despite the fact she’s almost graduated from the FBI, Clarice isn’t prepared for Hannibal. Her need to impress blinds her to his plans. This doesn’t mean Clarice, the object of his manipulation, is weak, but if we deny she let him into her head (against Crawford’s instructions), we’ve followed into the trap. That’s where we stumble face first into real horror.

Clarice is a rare feminist protagonist: she’s smart, strong, good-looking, understands her strengths. She’s not trying to be a man. She’s strong AS a man, but this isn’t anachronous to her femininity. She knows she’s attractive: why else wear makeup and dress as well as her modest budget allows? She knows it doesn’t matter: why else eschew makeup when training?

She recognizes when being attractive is to her advantage and when it would stand in her way. She knows when standing out matters and when fitting in matters more.

Her independence is evident in everything she does. Clarice never states she’s being treated unfairly unless it’s relevant. She says this once. Jack Crawford tells a country sheriff he doesn’t want to discuss details of a sex crime in front of her. She later tells Crawford, who is director of behavioral science at the FBI, this was the wrong decision, as the cops looked to him to know how to act. He accepts her observation. Clarice knows county cops.

Why? She’s foster care West Virginia white trash. That’s also apparent in everything she is.

Her father, a cop, was shot in a senseless crime. His death was long and painful. Clarice only cries when remembering him. Her trauma is ordinary and rural. It’s southern Gothic. Her attempt to save a single lamb from slaughter by carrying him in the freezing countryside is a failure epic, one that she can’t succeed in. She needs a better myth (she’ll find it).

When characters interact with Clarice, they’re talking to Foster Care West Virginia White Trash, not her. Hannibal knows why Clarice is trying (unsuccessfully) to hide her accent. He uses this to insult her on their first meeting. He thinks her below him in every way: intellectually, socially, culturally.

But who asks her questions? You guessed it. Hannibal Lecter asks questions.

The problem is they’re to gratify his ego, not help Clarice. He’s not a therapist, she not a patient. The only patient we know about ended up in a glass jar.

But we’re tempted into thinking, somehow, he’s helping. He’s endearing like any predator is: he promises to help her catch Buffalo Bill and establish herself as important to the FBI.

It’s not hard to guess that’s what she desires: Clarice both wants to be equal to male FBI agents and also wants to be uniquely valuable to the FBI. But Lecter is experimenting on her until he uses her to escape. How do we know? Lecter uses everyone.

The reason Lecter’s abuse is coded and wrapped is because Clarice is opposed by most of the men in this film. Let’s look at a few examples.

Dr. Chilton offers to show Clarice what fun Baltimore is. A driver doesn’t help her lift a heavy door (her solution to this problem is one of the best examples of DIY hillbilly genius in film). An entomologist flirts with her before examining a cocoon collected as evidence at a crime scene (she flirts back). Multiple Miggs throws semen at her after claiming he can smell her cunt (Lecter punishes him). Male FBI cadets stare when she’s running with fellow FBI trainee Ardelia Mapp. Crawford uses her as a way to resolve the situation with the country sheriff.

The fact Hannibal Lecter overtly abuses her is oddly refreshing; his overt abuse reveals the covert abuse of men around her. Hannibal knows he’s hurting Clarice; he uses it as a game in exchange for insight on the case (he doesn’t have insights). If Crawford was paying attention, he would’ve stopped Clarice; he told her not to get personal with Lecter. But the manipulation and abuse continues.

This is how the audience falls into the quicksand of this film. Clarice falls into the clutches of the worst person she could seek emotional support from.

Do we believe, as Hannibal taunts, that Clarice loves Hannibal, or he loves she? We shouldn’t. Hannibal suggests Crawford wants to fuck Clarice. That’s not insight. Hannibal consistently suggests Clarice suffered abusive sexual experiences in childhood and adolescence. There’s no reason to suggest this apart from hurting her. He wants to make her trauma salacious and then shallowly, cheaply psychoanalyze her.

Hannibal’s insights are exactly what we’d expect an abuser’s insights to be. What’s his point?

His point is he can.

Maybe we like Hannibal because beneath his pretention, he knows he can’t offer insights. Psychiatry usually doesn’t: all psychiatrists do, usually, is go further down the rabbit hole of confusion, suffering, hubris and neurosis. Maybe the meta point of the film is Hannibal is a great psychiatrist, because this downward spiral is all psychiatry offers.

Why’s he doing this? He’s a psychiatrist and psychopath. He knows Clarice thinks she can establish rapport by revealing her traumas, then wraps her into a pseudo-therapy session where he exploits what he knows.

He’s also just logical.

Hannibal knows if Senator Martin had to help catch Bill and find her daughter, she got that information from Clarice and Crawford, but Martin wouldn’t approach him through Clarice. He uses Occam’s razor and finds it implausible. But he realizes Clarice and Crawford believe the con will work. He sees the potential to manipulate them. When the opportunity offers itself, he seizes it.

If this looks like Hannibal is a genius…not exactly.

Hannibal has a good ability to predict how individuals behave: he was a psychiatrist. On the first meeting, he’s toying with Clarice (and through her, Crawford) to please his ego. By the end of the first meeting, he’s manipulated both into approaching him with Buffalo Bill information.

Oh, wait, we’re supposed to believe Hannibal didn’t kill Benjamin (the head in the jar)?

He lead Clarice and Crawford to one of his own undiscovered body dumps, convinces them Buffalo Bill did it almost a decade earlier; he further suggests he knows the identity of Buffalo Bill, then bargains for a transfer in exchange for information he doesn’t have.

But! Clarice said forensics found a butterfly in Benjamin’s head…

She’s bluffing.

This is possibly the hardest thing for the audience to grasp, but this film makes up privy to information in an almost omniscient way. However, most of the point of view revolves around Clarice’s point of view. Forensics never mention the butterfly in Benjamin’s head, that interaction never takes place. Clarice invents it to get leverage over Hannibal. He plays to it instead of against it.

Let’s review: Hannibal killed Benjamin. Benjamin and Bill never met. Hannibal never knew Bill. Hannibal deceives Clarice and Crawford. Clarice attempts to deceive him back. He plays it to his advantage.

The fact Crawford is interviewing him again tells Hannibal that Crawford hopes the insight Crawford might get from Hannibal might help him find Bill.

This would have happened to anyone Crawford sent to Hannibal. Clarice is incidental.

Hannibal doesn’t mastermind the situation entirely.

He gets a piece of information, he makes a correct conclusion about it, he manipulates Crawford and Clarice into bad conclusions, they make a phony deal with him, by chance, he gets a pen cap, and after meet Senator Martin outside the high security prison, he escapes.

He needs Clarice to keep coming back. She is the way he’s manipulating Crawford. Hannibal doesn’t know how to use Crawford yet, but he knows that to use Crawford, he needs Clarice. The rest is improvisation.

That’s what’s most dangerous about Hannibal: he’s brilliant because he can improvise.

How will he do it? He drags Clarice in with emotional manipulation, making her believe he cares, despite the fact he psychologically abuses her throughout their interactions.

That’s the real horror quicksand the audience steps in: to manipulate her, Hannibal uses real abuse techniques on Clarice.

But let’s put it to rest, again: when Clarice somehow deduces Bill’s real identity and location, enters his home without a warrant, rescues Katherine, then shoots Bill in the face, in the dark, in a basement full of swarming death’s head moths, using the same technique her instructor taught her after a humiliating training session, despite all the odds? That’s not transphobia. That’s heroic. It’s a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, but heroic none the less.

I take violence against transwomen seriously. We’ve now made television series and films that portray trans characters with respect. In decades past, mockery, violence, and fetishization were the norm. To deny this is to deny discrimination against trans people. That doesn’t serve this argument.

In the novel The Silence of the Lambs (1998) Thomas Harris writes a villain who wears women’s clothing. Was Harris writing a transwoman serial killer, a transvestite serial killer? What’s his intention? We’re not sure.

But Harris didn’t entirely invent his character.

Ed Gein, better known as the Butcher of Plainview, shocked the world in 1957 when he was found guilty of murdering two women in the rural community in Plainview, Wisconsin (he’s also suspected of killing his brother). When police searched his home, they found a gory spectacle. Gein hadn’t murdered many, but he’d robbed countless graves and fashioned an entire country house decorated with body parts. His favorite material? Skin from female corpses and female body parts. He even made (you guessed it) clothing for himself from it. The room his deceased mother had once occupied in his house was pristine. Since he had lower than average intelligence and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Gein was found guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to a mental institution for life. Gein inspired not only Buffalo Bill, but Norman Bates from Psycho (book written by Robert Bloch in 1959, film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960), and the Leather family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (directed by Tobe Hooper in 1974).

Each one of these portrayals of Gein’s crimes are sensational to salacious, the worst offender being Texas. But nobody accuses Texas of being transphobic because the Leather family are equal opportunity cannibals (maybe all genders taste like chicken).

Silence does it’s best to establish that it’s not transphobic. Clarice and Hannibal discuss the reason Bill’s been rejected for sexual reassignment: Hannibal thinks that Bill believes themselves a transsexual, but they’re really just a sadist. But if Bill is transsexual, it changes nothing.

The time this film fails (flat on its face failure, too) is in its most memorable scene. There’s no reason to show Bill posing with bits tucked back. We’ve heard Bill speak aggressively to a mirror, we know Bill will carve up Katherine and has carved up other women.

The pose reminded audiences of Sleepaway Camp (1986) where the disgusting moment wasn’t “she’s the killer,” but “she’s got a penis.” It’s gross, not scary. This shot’s a major blunder, because Silence doesn’t need it. It’s considered transphobic because this disgust is unnecessary.

Even if Bill is transsexual, Bill is keeping Katherine Martin in a hole and will carve her up to make skin fabric. Why Katherine? She’s overweight; her skin is looser and can be used for fabric. If anyone should be offended by anything, it’s that.

Silence might be a feminist film. Clarice isn’t the only strong female career woman in it, either.

Senator Martin isn’t onscreen long: once for half a minute on TV, then in a scene in Tennessee with Hannibal. In it, Hannibal offers her false answers and asks her an obscene question. He mocks her by admiring her clothing with fake lust in his eyes. Martin was fooled once, but not again. She stonily glares back. The senator avoids the mistake Clarice keeps making. Martin doesn’t give him anything more to use. She doesn’t get back at him; she couldn’t have, anyway.

Ardelia is Clarice’s only friend at the academy. They push each other to achieve. Together, they discuss Lecter’s insights, and together, they decide Clarice should start investigating near Frederika’s home for the real Buffalo Bill. Frederika was the first killed, so they realize he can’t be far away.

Ardelia plays a critical role for Clarice precisely because they’re both women: they’re not answering what they can’t answer, they’re blackboarding ideas together. This communication style is not exclusive to women, but it’s more common of women.

(In the book, Clarice and Ardelia are also friends with benefits, but that’s irrelevant here.)

Katherine Martin isn’t conventionally pretty. She gets less pretty over three days in the hole. She’s unwashed and covered in lotion. If conventional beauty standards make us care about female characters because sex appeal is all they have, this film operates as though that’s not true. The audience cares about Katherine or the film loses urgency.

Katherine isn’t stupid or passive, either. She screams for three days, she says everything to potentially appeal to Bill, she ties a bone to a bucket and drags a puppy down into the hole to force Bill to listen. In her situation, I wouldn’t think of that.

But ultimately, all this pales to the moment that matters. Clarice enters the home (without a warrant), and takes an almost stupid chance: she draws her weapon and orders him to freeze. Bill flees to the basement. Clarice realizes this is where Bill has done his gruesome work. She finds Katherine alive. Clarice is alone with no backup and can’t take the time to call for them. Bill gets a gun, then turns the lights off. Bill has night-vision goggles to see with. Clarice can’t see; she’s surrounded by moths. If she doesn’t improvise, she’s going to die; so will Katherine, so will other women. Clarice might become part of the skin suit, too. Bill thumbs the hammer back. Clarice turns toward the sound and fires, without hesitation. She shoots (and, yes, kills) Buffalo Bill.

It’s a heroic moment. I think anyone, no matter if their transsexual, cissexual, nonbinary, female, male, anyone, is tempted to cheer. It’s a triumphant moment, and I wish the film had ended there.

I have to confess: I hate the end of this film. A lot.

Sure, we’re happy Clarice graduates from the FBI. But its almost a given, an obvious event after all that have come before it. Was there any possibility that they weren’t going to graduate her after all she’s accomplished?

And yet, there is a sour taste in my mouth about her graduation, too: is Clarice actually good FBI agent material? She’s strong, smart, capable, and aware of her worth.

But if she’d kept her personal information private from Hannibal, if she’d shown restraint, Hannibal would have never had a chance to exploit her or Crawford. She’s a badass, she’s a hero, but maybe she doesn’t have the restraint to be a good FBI agent. If she graduates to agent, she might be killed like her father was, for something unavoidable.

I know I’m arguing against narrative, however. Clarice is a hubris character; her fault was her invitation to an adventure. She’s a classic Greek hero.

But must Hannibal call her at the ceremony to gloat about how he will kill and eat Dr. Chilton?

(Fire whoever wrote that joke; it’s below Hannibal’s whole character. Don’t ask me how he managed to call her there, either; it defies all logic of the film in a “gotcha” twist way.)

It’s like when your abuser calls you on your birthday. I’ve experienced abusers before; they do this.

Why do they call then?

The same reason Hannibal did it to Clarice: to take her achievement, her heroism and triumph, steal it from her, cheapen it, to remind her of her trauma, and to have the last word.

If we still think he’s charming after that, we all need a good therapist.