This article was written at a time when I was a lot less wise. When a work of art moves us, it’s hard to imagine that same work may have hurt someone else. In my eagerness to defend Silence of the Lambs, I was not sympathetic towards those who felt threatened by this film. I was wrong to do so and offer my sincere apologies. The truth is that transgender people have been slighted in the arts for far too long, and upon realizing that I tried to WRITE A FOLLOW UP PIECE THAT HOPEFULLY OFFERS A MORE SYMPATHETIC EAR TO THIS FILM’S CRITICS. Silence of the Lambs continues to thrill and move me as it does many people, but that’s no excuse for any of us to ignore valid criticisms of this deeply troubling aspect of the film. Once the lambs are silent, maybe we can all try to listen a little better.
Silence of the Lambs is no stranger to controversy. Though met with critical acclaim upon its release, the film was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of gay and transgender people due to the characterization of Jame Gumb, the serial killer being hunted by FBI agent Clarice Starling. This culminated in a massive protest at the Oscars on the night that Silence took home all five major awards for the evening. According to Ted Levine, the actor who played Gumb, these are superficial readings of his character.
In order to understand the controversy, one need merely look at the Jame Gumb character. In the film, Gumb is a serial killer who kidnaps overweight women in order to skin them, thereby fashioning himself a ‘woman-suit’ so he can change his identity. After each killing, Gumb, known to the media as ‘Buffalo Bill,’ places a month in the throat of his victims in order to sign his work, and symbolize his desire to change. On his trail is Clarice Starling, a budding FBI agent who must enlist the help of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in order to track down the psycho.
Gumb has a white Bichon Frise named Precious, dances around wearing women’s clothes and a scalp, and has had a homosexual relationship with at least one male in his past. On the surface, it seems pretty obvious that the character is a negative stereotype of the LGBT community. However, the makers of Lambs dismiss these claims. Actor Ted Levine who played Gumb, had a far different interpretation of the character when making the film.
Ted Levine has had numerous successes throughout his career, such as his regular role on the hit series Monk, but many still call Silence of the Lambs his most notable achievement. Levine talked extensively about his preparation for the role in the 2003 documentary ‘Inside the Labyrinth: The Making of Silence of the Lambs, where he clarified that he never played the character as gay.
There’s a lot of flack about him being gay. I never played him as being gay.
Levine did a lot of research in preparation for his role, reading up in several of the serial killers that inspired Buffalo Bill in the novel. In particular, he took an interest in Ed Gein and Jerry Brudos, both of whom skinned their victims. This weighed heavily on Levine, who is still shaken by these things years later.
I had a good deal of time to work on the part before we started shooting. I read a great deal of material about serial killers. Not a fun process at all. I’ve lived with a lot of images that I still remember.
Also in preparation for the role, Levine did research into the gay and transgender community, and this is where his role really began to take shape. Levine began his work by going to bars frequented by crossdressers and people going through transition. While there, he said he was struck by an epiphany. Jame Gumb wasn’t there.
I met with female impersonators. I went to some very interesting bars looking and talking to people about a side of life that I’m not familiar with. And I came to the conclusion that none of that had anything really to do with this. If the guy was gay, he’d be killing and maiming boys and men and he was killing women.
Realizing that the LGBT community had nothing to do with his character, Levine set out to search for a new angle by which to play him, insisting on not playing the character as gay. Rather, he tried to play the character as someone who despised homosexuals and transgender people in an effort to mask his own insecurities.
The stance I took was more of an acutely homophobic heterosexual man doing that mocking thing. I kind of took it that he was sort of imitating the way his mother might have talked to the poodle. By hearing that voice, in a sense he’s sort of talking to himself. His inner poodle as it were. The other thing he’s not is he’s not a transvestite either or a transexual. He was playing with these ideas and he’s tried on a whole lot of personas, and just got hooked on this idea of dressing in a women’s skin.
Still, concerns were high on the set, in particularly from director Jonathan Demme, that many would misinterpret the character as an attack on LGBT people. He spoke with Ted Levine at length about these fears, which Levine recalls in his interview.
He was scared about the gay thing too, and I said ‘Don’t worry. This is not a gay character.’ You don’t want to beat that movie cliche over the head of the mincing homosexual.
Levine has maintained that was the stance he took with Gumb, but still has said he understands how his characterization was misinterpreted. He has reached out in the past to members of the community to offer amends.
People really took it to heart and were offended by it. I’ve talked to people whose feelings were hurt about the characterization I did, and I apologize for that.
THE STORY ITSELF
There is Ted Levine’s stance, and perhaps nobody knows the character better than him and writer Thomas Harris. But what of the film itself? More elaboration on Gumb’s background was in the book which clarified that he wasn’t in fact gay or transgender, but posing as one. In both the novel and several scenes cut from the film, Crawford speaks with a doctor, Dr. Danielson, at a reassignment clinic while following a lead. In the novel, Dr. Danielson refers to transexuals as decent people. Crawford agrees, and replies as follows.
The whole idea is, the man we want is not your patient. It would be someone you refused because you recognized that he was not a transexual.
These scenes were condensed in the original screenplay, making Jack Crawford more confrontational during the meeting. Ultimately, they were cut from the final film to make more room for Clarice’s story. Screenwriter Ted Tally stated it was to try and keep the film as much from Clarice’s perspective as possible. As such, these and serveral other subplots were cut, including Crawford dealing with his wife’s impending death from a terminal illness.
We ended up having to lose references to his (Gumb’s) childhood and how he became this twisted creature that he is, which was unfortunate. He becomes something of a cipher in the movie. Not as rich as he is in the book. But it’s a 375 page book. You can’t save everything.
This left filmgoers with only glimpses of the man’s damaged psyche. Still, some significant moments clarifying this are left in the movie, mostly during the sequences between Lecter and Starling. Starling herself offered this thought while speaking with Lecter.
There’s no correlation in the literature to transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.
Perhaps the best quote to illustrate this comes from Hannibal himself. The cannibalistic doctor responds by outright dismissing the idea of Buffalo Bill, whom he refers to as Billy, as a transsexual.
Billy is not a real transexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.
The purpose of the scenes with Lecter and Starling are to help the audience, and Starling herself, better understand the villain. Very early on, him being transgender is dismissed entirely, which is the reason the film never addresses it again. This also reveals a lot about Gumb’s affair with Benjamin Raspail. Hannibal states that Gumb has tried to be a lot of things. With Raspail, he tried to be gay. When that didn’t transform him as he hoped, he murdered Raspail in retaliation. Gumb was not a true homosexual, but was trying to be one due to his intense self-hatred, a self hatred that eventually manifests itself in deeply sinister ways.
Watching the film, one finds Gumb’s home is filled with examples of Nazi paraphernalia. This bit of set direction, easily missed upon a first viewing, reveals more of Gumb’s psychosis. Nazis, like many racial superiority groups, radicalize people by targeting insecure individuals. Messages of empowerment would have appealed to someone like Gumb, and this would have been another chapter in his life where he tried to change his identity. Nazis were known to skin their victims, which may have served as the inspiration for Gumb’s transformation into Buffalo Bill. When he can’t empower himself with such methods, he resorts to possessing his victims. Turning them into a suit is the ultimate way he dehumanizes them. Ted Levine again clarifies that this is how he played the role.
He wanted the power that he perceives a woman possesses. ‘I want you, so I’m gonna have you. I’m gonna have you completely in that I’m gonna skin you and crawl inside you.’
LEGACY OF THE LAMBS
Though acclaimed, the misinterpretation of the Jame Gumb character has been something of a blight on the legacy of Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster, herself a lesbian, had this to say.
Our film sort of got lumped in with Basic Instinct where some of the more activist groups really felt that it portrayed a gay character as being psychopathic, and that audiences would be confused into believing that if you were gay or transgender then that must mean you’re a serial killer. I think it has vanished from the legacy of the film because on further inspection, I think people really realize that was kind of a superficial reading of the movie.
Foster is of course, correct. On the surface, Jame Gumb may appear to be one of the most monstrous attacks on homosexuality and transgenderism ever put to film, but only at a glance. Look a little deeper and Gumb is revealed as a dangerously disturbed individual who superficially views sexual and gender identity as ways he can transform himself. Gumb is a complex character played superbly by actor Ted Levine to create one of cinema’s most frightening villains. Focusing on Gumb also misses the moral tale at the center of the film, one of a woman punishing a wicked man who turns women into objects he can keep.
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50 thoughts on “‘Buffalo Bill Is NOT Transgender’ Claims ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Actor – ScreenHub Entertainment”
A very detailed analysis. I’d expect to read some reader comments below the article.
Is the representation transphobic? Yes. I suggest you give it a try by putting yourself into the psychology of any trans viewer. It seems easy to say “not transphobic” from such a distance to the problem.
Just like calling “not racist” to black criminal portrayals and representations of the 90s’ movies.
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I get what you’re saying. But there is more to it. One might also say that the movie is male-phobic, as it is again a male being portrayed as the evil violent person. Prison guards could claim that prison guards are always portrayed as silly. Prisoners could claim that they are incorrectly depicted as deranged oversexualized amoral creatures. It never ends. The little doggies could claim that doggies are depicted as helpless cuddly things who have their freedom taken from them and being used as coin.
It is only from the perspective of transphobic-sensitives that every single representation of trans people with some negative aspect attached to them as well, is transphobic. To the rest of the world, it is not. Lecter was just as evil, perhaps even more. Perhaps? Forget perhaps. He is the big bad wolf. He is the real devil of the movie. Yet he is not depicted as transsexual. SSo then there is no problem? Why not defend every person in every movie who is depicted as a villain? There are dozens of villains, and 0.000001% of them is transsexual. Now there is a movie, the first ever I guess, with a villain in it who has some transsexual properties. And they yell ‘omg its transphobic’. It doesnt make a lot of sense, you see?
It has been some time since I wrote this article, and my attitudes on the subject have changed. I should have listened more then. I regret not doing so, and am ready now. https://screenhub.blog/2020/06/27/silence-of-the-lambs-in-the-trans-liberation-era-screenhub-entertainment/
Hey. Just had a few questions about your comment. I identify queer/non-binary, while biologically female. When I saw this movie first, I was about 15. And I never associated the Gumb character as either trans or gay. It’s clearly stated by the highest authority in the film, Lector. But that’s not the main reason. That lies in Levine’s portrayal of Gumb. He’s tall, imposing man with a terrifying voice. He likes carrying guns, has a hand-quilted Swastika bed spread. He hates himself, and somehow thinks he can transform into something beautiful that could be loved. His main characteristics are complete lack of empathy, sadism, and his dedication to his “work.” He’s a memorable movie monster, but not because of his sexuality or gender identity, he’s just horrifying and repellent.
When he chases Clarice in his basement, he reaches towards her hair, almost touching the beauty he feels he can never achieve. His dying words, in the book, are “What is it like to be so beautiful?”
So, that’s how I read him. A disturbed dude who takes his self-loathing out on women. And every time I listen to music and put on clothes and makeup, I think of him. Thoughts?
I saw the film the same way. Im 45 years old straight male and have seen this film countless times and never realized that trans/gay people were offended by the film. I never saw this film and thought “gay people are serial killers”. That laughably stupid and tells me people were either looking to be offended or were not paying attention to the film as it is made pretty clear he is neither trans nor gay. Jame Gumb was a lunatic and in my opinion if he had been said to be gay/trans then his actions wouldve made little sense and the character wouldve been really hard for me to believe.
Im not sure if i agree that he took his self loathing out on women i think it was just another road he was going down in search of a transformation that would find him the love he was looking for and unfortunately murdering and skinning women was part of that as his actions infer he sees women as beautiful and wants to be that. I dont think he hated anyone but himself.
FYI-Precious is a Bichon Frise, not a Poodle.
Also, I’m assuming that “gatgeting” should be “targeting? “
Thanks for letting us know, we passed informed the writer of this!
I just finished reading the book and watching the film again. I was actually quite astounded by the depth of author Thomas Harris’ understanding of transexualism in the late 80s. It’s not as clearly stated in the film, but as you pointed out, they give the best lines to Lector (Hopkins) because he has met and understands Jame Gumb. He also suggests how to find him by looking at specific reasons for his inability to have had confirmation surgery. And that leads to one of the avenues to catching Gumb through Johns Hopkins.
This is thought provoking. I did always think the dog was a bit much, but it’s in the book, and he does hug and speak to the dog while watching old video clips of his mother who abandoned him. Which aligns with the idea that, in a way, that was how he mothered himself. Good piece! Definitely going to share and discuss with queer friends.
We thank you for your comment. This was always a risky piece because there was always a chance it would come across as dismissive of the Trans community and that’s absolutely not what we intended.
I watched this movie for the first time today. To be honest to me Jame Gumb would actually work as gay/trans villain even if he’s not. But being gay or trans aren’t the factors that would make him the disturbed character he is (that would indeed be very laughable to believe into) but his terrible life did. I’m not sure if there is a detailed story of his childhood in the foster home he spent 8 years in, however, whatever happened during that time period made him violent enough to kill his grandparents. And perhaps the time he spent with them was another traumatic experience. From there on Gumb might have experienced plenty of more systematic abuse and getting involved in nazism that all warped his psyche to utter garbage.
So to me he seems like just another mistreated human of our world whose mind broke, and he just happened to be gay/trans. I don’t see anything transphobic in this because anyone can become a monster. You can be a white, black, man, woman, gay, trans, police, florist.. doesn’t matter. As long as you are a human and life f*cks you over enough you can snap too.