Noirish Inversions:
Investigation and Victimization in
The Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2009, Volume 8, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2009/cragin.htm

 

Becca Cragin
Bowling Green State University


Noir is an instantly recognizable pattern of signification that permeates every corner of American media. There have been vociferous debates among media scholars – spanning decades – about its proper conceptualization, as a style, genre, or historical moment (see Hirsch; Telotte; Naremore). As Chris Straayer has done, however, I propose sidestepping the debate, as noir functions in our collective cultural memory as a genre of sorts (161), however permeable. If we tease apart questions of genre as a category from the textual operations of generic texts (Mittell), a space is created for consideration of similar narrative strategies at work across a variety of genre categories. In this essay, I look at two categorically different films, The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1992), as a way of creating an argument about the sexual politics of their use of “noirish” narratives of investigation.

The films exemplify the early-90s, neo-noir trend of generic recombination, and they continue to be remembered as popularizers of the lowbrow slasher and erotic thriller genres, resetting the bar on gore and explicit sexuality in mainstream films (see Clover; L.R. Williams). Inverting the classic tropes of male detective and male killer, both present highly ambivalent conflations of gender and sexuality that were protested throughout their production and distribution by queer activists (see Cohan; Gross; Staiger). While criticism on these films has often focused on sexuality, I’ll argue that the gender politics of the films provide an interpretive lens for understanding their sexuality. While the female detective and killer depart from tradition, it is masculinity (traditional, not trans-) that reveals how similarly positioned narratives of investigation can arrive at divergent ideological ends.

Narratives of detection typically involve “not one but two stories”; they focus not only on the mechanics of the specific investigation but also on the deeper cause of its violence (Todorov 44). These deeper investigations are usually a subtext in detection genres, but in Silence and Basic they are foregrounded to an unusual degree, as we witness the increasing anxiety that the genders/sexualities of the killers create for their pursuers. The investigations work in opposite ideological directions, however. Basic appears to mourn men’s (imagined) loss of control over women, framing the loss as victimization, while Silence sympathizes with women’s victimization under the realities of masculine control. In both films, the threat embodied by the gender under investigation becomes literalized in a physical threat to the detective, though one is a fantastic fear of counter-normative femininity, and the other a far more reasonable fear of normative masculinity. While the films have much in common, from their noirish aesthetics to their use of the generic conventions of investigation to explore psychology, the gender reversal of the central detective role in Silence provides the film with many opportunities to explore gender dynamics from a feminist perspective. From male anxiety over female sexuality to female anxiety over male violence, analysis of the two in tandem presents an interesting commentary on the gender dynamics embedded in the narrative structure of detection.


Basic Instinct

Of the two, Basic Instinct is more consistent in its use of “noirish” elements. In classic noir tradition, washed-up San Francisco police detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is on the trail of a serial killer, and in the process falls in lust with his prime suspect, crime novelist Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone). Set contemporaneously in the 1990s, the film adopts the visual style of “film soleil,” “film blanc,” or as director Verhoeven dubbed it, “film clair” (L.R. Williams 241), where the blinding darkness of noir is reversed into a blinding whiteness (Holmlund), yet the visual tropes of claustrophobic, disorienting underworlds, mirrors, bars, and patches of light remain. Playfully updating the stock characters of the dissolute detective and the scheming femme fatale, Basic departs most notably from classic noir in its tone, as the requisite mood of inescapable despair is instead transformed into titillating thrills. We know from the opening scene that Catherine is the killer, so the emphasis of the film lies not in finding her but in her gradual sexual and psychological entrapment of the detective. In contemporary versions of noir that draw on the overlapping conventions of the film gothic, the woman worries, “I think my boyfriend might be the killer.” Here, however, in Basic’s gleeful take on sexual threat, the detective wishes, “I hope the killer will become my girlfriend.” Danger is transformed into a joyride that is voluntary yet riddled with anxiety.

Basic explores male anxiety over female sexual power. The most striking aspect of the film is Catherine herself, a neo-femme fatale as brutally aggressive as any male villain. As the opening credits roll, we see Catherine (or a Catherine-like figure) with her next victim, Johnny Boz. She ties his hands to the bedpost, then grabs an ice pick and falls on him with athletic intensity, stabbing him thirty-one times. She possesses all the visual attributes of normative femininity (slim, white, conventionally beautiful), but with the social power (an inheritance in the millions) and personality (violent, selfish, unemotional, sexual) of normative masculinity. Catherine (or, again, a Catherine-like figure, as the exact identity of the driver is left unclear, and possibly changes from chase to chase) can outrace Nick in her elite sports car, can outthink him at every step of his investigation, is more boldly sexual, and seems to be more of a man than he is: in response to the his and hers Picassos in Johnny’s mansion, Nick’s partner Gus quips, “Hers is bigger.” But although Catherine’s power is masculinized, Nick does not recognize it as such. Anxiety over female masculinity is instead transferred to Catherine’s lover Roxy. Although Roxy is as aesthetically feminine as Catherine, she is masculinized because, unlike Catherine, she doesn’t sleep with men.

This exchange suggests that the threat to masculinity the film explores is partially one of accessibility. Catherine is dangerous, but her transgressions are attractive to Nick because he believes he can contain them. He walks and talks as if he has seen lots of films noir, but he has clearly not seen enough of them to know that the detective’s attraction to the femme fatale is often fatal. In all his swagger, Nick’s embrace of traditional masculinity blinds him to the glaring evidence that the femme fatale does not really love him, that she is the killer. Basic’s meaning, ultimately, hinges on our reading of this blindness. The film clearly raises the possibility that Catherine is dangerous. Visually, there is an uncanny similarity between Catherine and the killer; the use of Sharon Stone in the opening scene (L. R. Williams 167; Cohan 270), rather than a body double, and the explicitness with which it is shot represent clear choices that shape the text’s meaning. There are also many clues in the narrative, as the plots of her novels foreshadow in great detail the murders Nick investigates. An even more telling clue is the obvious artificiality of Catherine’s occasional femininity, as she rocks, wrapped in oversized cardigans with her hair tucked behind her ears, quietly weeping that those she loves always “always have to die.” The falsity of this performance should be obvious to Nick, but, as Andrews notes, “Only a lazy egotism convinces Nick that their affair is more than a sadomasochistic partnership” (66).

The film’s outcome is so clearly foreshadowed, and so the inclusion of a narrative of detection provides a pretext for erotic spectacle. As viewers, we either identify with Nick and are drawn in through his masochistic voyeurism, or we know he is going to get picked but do not care, sadistically laughing with Catherine at his gullibility and arrogance – or perhaps a little bit of both. We watch him fall into the spider’s web for the fun of it, enjoying his self-destructive investigation because of its silliness (should we care why she kills, if the film doesn’t bother to?).

While Nick is merely a vehicle that allows us to experience Catherine and the thrill of being ravaged by her, both sexually and violently, Basic does problematize the sexual politics of the noirish investigation. Because he views sexual inaccessibility as the marker of a dangerous woman, for him Catherine’s cruelty is merely sexy, and this is where the film gets interesting. Heterosexual male viewers and characters alike may be enticed by the voyeurism of the cinematography and narrative into believing they have safe access to Catherine, but the film denaturalizes this process. Turning the tables, she looks back, and the power behind the gaze is commented upon and refracted. From the moralistic and voyeuristic tone of the police officers’ interrogations of Catherine, and from Nick’s personal fascination with her, we see that their investigation goes far beyond determining her guilt, into exploration of her sexuality. Catherine sees this too, and redirects their desire against them. When they ask about her sex life, she gives them more information than they want, with a taunting drawl in her voice that indicates her awareness of their voyeuristic interest. In the infamous interrogation scene, she displays her crotch as she crosses and uncrosses her legs, mocking their desperation. When she is videotaped during a polygraph test, she stares directly into the camera at the officers, and us, as if to say, “I see you watching me, and I’m watching you back.” And though Nick is in charge of a criminal investigation of her, she begins her own psychological investigation of him, for her latest novel. Each time he recites the official line, “I have a few more questions for you,” she responds that she has a few more questions for him as well. While we never really get to see Catherine’s subjectivity and interiority, her looks and comments at least register its existence, while she refuses all of us access to her. This is most explicit in the nightclub scene where she snorts cocaine in a bathroom stall with Roxy. Nick (and we, through the camera) head toward the stall, assuming the right to watch her and to participate. She gazes straight back at us, sneers, then kicks the door shut.

The film plays quite cleverly with the anxieties that uncontained female sexuality can produce, as it threatens to consume men, make them irrelevant, or even to kill them. Most films with a violent woman go to great narrative lengths to contain her as an aberration, by showing her violence to be provoked by extraordinary circumstances, or by including other female characters that are normative and therefore safe (Neroni 93). In Basic, these reassurances are noticeably absent. Catherine is paralleled visually and contextually by Roxy and Hazel Dobkins, who each woke up one day and, inexplicably, started killing people. Although the motives for their crimes are unclear, they are not random, as they are highly gendered: Hazel was “sweet as honey,” a happy suburban housewife who one day “out of the clear blue sky” killed her whole family with a wedding knife. At sixteen, Roxy suddenly “fixed” her two brothers with “her daddy’s razor.” These two crimes are framed as rebellions against patriarchal control, and what is terrifying about them, to the officers, seems to be their unpredictability and inscrutability.

A distinct anxiety grows over the course of the film as Nick and Gus become increasingly aware how hard it is to tell the good girls from the bad. Nick’s ex-lover, Beth Garner, is continually contrasted with Catherine, as an example of a good girl who mixes sex with love (“when that girl mates, she mates for life”). But her story of Catherine’s obsessive stalking of her in college is countered by Catherine’s parallel story of Beth’s obsession with her, and it becomes nearly impossible for Nick to decide who is telling the truth. Eventually, he does decide, and his final remark to Beth before shooting her indicates that he is indeed investigating and judging female sexuality. He yells, “Still like girls, Beth?,” implying that the evidence of her guilt is her (presumed) lesbianism. He thinks she’s the killer and mortally wounds her, yet masochistically feminine to the end, she whispers with her final breath, “I love you.”

Because Catherine occasionally dons masochistic femininity as a masquerade, (despite the fact that she spends most of the film in an opposite guise), Nick believes she can’t be the killer. Perhaps, like Radway’s romance heroines, he thinks her constant callousness is a sign of the depth of her true feelings for him (148). He mistakes her weepy remark, “I don’t want to lose you,” for feminine clinginess, when he should read it as a warning. Perhaps what tips her over the edge is his remark that now the crime is solved, they should “raise rugrats, and live happily ever after.” The likeliest interpretation of the film’s ambiguous ending is that Catherine delivers her response to his proposal with an ice pick.

The constant anxiety over “just what it’s that they talk about when we’re not around,” seems connected to the possibility that men are inadequate sexual partners for women (compared to lesbians), and perhaps to the recognition, however unconscious, that Catherine is treating her lovers in a classically masculine style. Thus female sexuality is laced with anger toward men. As Lynda Hart notes, lesbianism and violence have been incessantly conflated in popular culture because of a greater anxiety about women as a whole – the fear that all women are unconsciously angry at their patriarchal lot (18). In other words, what looks like a sexual problem (lesbians) is a gendered one (women). Whether you read Basic, as Judith Halberstam does (a film in which “homophobia and sexism are the targets of an elaborate and prolonged critique,” 199), or as Verhoeven himself does (see Cohan’s insightful parsing of Verhoeven’s DVD commentary, in which he clearly views Nick sympathetically, as an innocent harmed by his own excessive feelings, 273-74) depends in large part on whether you empathize with Nick’s quest to understand and access female sexuality, or with the film’s merciless punishment of him for his arrogance. While the film’s narrative tries to trap Catherine in a masculinist investigation, the visual and performative power of the femme fatale overpowers both detective and film. The spectacle of female violence has a politics of its own (Neroni), and in this case Catherine has the last laugh.


The Silence of the Lambs

In contrast to this erotic fantasy of male victimization, The Silence of the Lambs detects hostility through a more sociological (and realistic) perspective, a female detective anxious over not the promise of edgy sex but the realities of violence that normative masculinity can produce. The result is a surprisingly feminist interrogation of the gender of violence and criminal investigation. Set contemporaneously and combining elements of horror and noir with the police procedural, Silence adopts a similar narrative of gendered investigation to Basic’s (FBI trainee Clarice Starling – played by Jodie Foster – is tapped to assist with an investigation into serial killer Buffalo Bill), but one that examines the causes and consequences of violence far more seriously.

A classic trope of noir is the blurring and interchangeability of the identities of the investigator and criminal. Nick is more than willing to insert himself into the mind (and other body parts) of a killer to help the cause, but Clarice approaches her work with increasing dread. The sexual subtext of classic noir is made literal in neo-noir (Stables 172), where Nick is investigating the reality of Catherine’s sexuality yet is oblivious to the fantastic (textually unmotivated and unrealistic) violence he faces. Clarice’s literal investigation is of a somewhat fantastic case of trans/gender violence (Buffalo Bill skins his female victims to make a “woman suit” for himself), yet the insistent subtext of the film is the all-too-realistic traditional gendering of violence, and the psychological and physical danger she faces as a woman. While Nick voluntarily submits himself to consensual danger, as a woman Clarice is not immune from victimization, and so the pull of Silence is not an erotic lure but rather a sustained, terrifying, inescapable dread.

The music, cinematography, and narrative of Silence all place Clarice at the center of the story. She is a woman alone, maneuvering through a dangerous, masculine world. Her investigation of Buffalo Bill is part of a larger process of psychological development traced in the film, where she acknowledges her deepest fears of male violence and misogyny, and fights back against them. From the opening credits, Clarice is struggling against gender. At first we simply see her running through the woods, framed by the camera as the victim in a slasher film, before we realize she’s struggling with herself, trying to overcome her physical weakness on an obstacle course at the FBI training center at Quantico. We are visually reminded of her vulnerability and outsider status in several other Quantico scenes, when she is surrounded on an elevator by a group of men all several feet taller than she is, and when groups of men stop talking and stare as she walks through the building.

Throughout her work on the Buffalo Bill case, she struggles for a genderless respect, but the male characters continually remind her of her gender, either sexualizing or dismissing her because of it. Her femininity is inescapable and is the source of her vulnerability and her fear. The eroticism of investigation that is highlighted in Basic is noticeably absent in Silence, as sexuality is a source of humiliation and fear that the female detective has to walk through. At times the sexualized abuse is literal, as when Clarice is given the task of assisting the investigation by interviewing another serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). After her first interview with Lecter at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane, she walks down the long row of cells toward the exit, a kind of gauntlet of sexual harassment. Each prisoner offers unsolicited comments, each catcall implying a threat of assault. Despite her professionalism, and the iron bars between them, she is still sexually vulnerable to them.

While this assault is a dramatic extreme, subtler forms of threat surround virtually all the lead male characters, both “good” and “bad,” reminding Clarice of her place in the hierarchy. Her supervisor Jack Crawford dismisses her concerns, embarrasses her in front of others, and exploits her femininity in order to clear a room of officers or to extract information from Lecter. She is hit on (somewhat coercively) by the hospital’s greasy director, Dr. Chilton. Lecter luridly asks whether she thinks Crawford envisions sexual “scenarios” with her. Clarice responds, “That’s the sort of thing Miggs might say,” connecting his more refined sexualizing of her to the physical assault by Miggs.

From the earliest scenes of the film, then, we see that sexism pervades her interactions with the lead male characters. This linking of the horrific violence of serial killers with the more mundane violence of gender inequality comes not only in the narrative, but also in the mise en scene. The nightmarish, gothic, spaces of the underworld – basements, asylums, and storage lockers, full of rotting body parts, insects, torture, and insanity – are interwoven with the sad, cold, grittily lit above-ground spaces of run-down houses, office buildings, and parking lots (Tasker 58-65). The constant blurring of the criminal investigation with the larger social world suggests that the film’s largest theme is Clarice’s struggle to understand and resist the gendered threats around her.

The film begins and ends with her, and she is often seen in close, extended reaction shots that focus our attention on her interior transformation, rather than the factual unfolding of events. There is also an ongoing oscillation, through flashback sequences and her ongoing tête-à-tête with Lecter, between her present struggles and her childhood, which links the investigation’s progress to her own psychological development. After her first visit to the asylum, we see her crying in the parking lot, and flashback to a young Clarice greeting her father – also an officer of the law – as he gets off work. After Lecter’s humiliating dissection of her as a West Virginian “rube” with “a good bag and cheap clothes,” and the assault by Miggs, Clarice regresses to a happier time, before she was orphaned and alone, as a way to escape her degradation. The next shot is a close-up of her firing a gun straight into the camera. Although her situation is one of constant harassment and humiliation, although at times she feels like a vulnerable girl, Clarice fights back. We see her grow progressively braver over the course of the film, as she works to master the masculine tools that might keep her safe in a threatening, male-dominated world. Just as the camera often rests on her reactions, it also often positions us as the victims; in perspective shots, we are sexually harassed by Chilton, Lecter, Miggs. These moments of identification that humanize and give interiority to Clarice are very extended in terms of screen time, occur at key moments in the narrative, and are wholly unnecessary to the investigative plot, suggesting that the intended perspective of the film is hers.

The combination of Clarice’s bravery with her physical and psychological vulnerability works on both ideological and generic levels. The film version of Silence foregrounds the gender issues implied in Thomas Harris’s novel. While the novel makes Clarice a formidable hero, director Demme made many choices that intensify her vulnerability: casting the diminutive Jodie Foster, when Clarice is described in the novel as tall; adding new scenes that highlight her small size and weakness (such as the obstacle course, and elevator at Quantico); adding new scenes that emphasize her lack of skills (such as the failed training exercise, in which she “dies” because she forgot to check the corner) though in the novel she is highly adept; and modifying included scenes to make them even more hopeless (in the novel she is able to rescue a horse, while in the film she is unable to save the lamb) (all in Kotker 199-201). While Kotker views Clarice’s weakness as reducing her accomplishments, leaving her nothing more than victim who stops Buffalo Bill by sheer luck (203-04), in generic terms her vulnerability makes the film infinitely scarier. If Clarice had superhuman strength, size, and skills, our terror would be diminished.

The noirish aspects of the film’s look reinforce this terror. The noir motif of the half-hidden face is reversed, with characters repeatedly coming forward from the shadows, as when Clarice moves reluctantly forward to receive each of Lecter’s lessons. The bars of light that so often crosses faces in noir are literalized in the masks, straightjackets, and prison bars that restrain Lecter. The boundaries between safe and unsafe places are obsessively reworked, however, as he and Clarice pass objects to each other through a drawer in the door of his hospital cell, as Lecter can detect the smell of her perfume through its glass, as they pass papers through the bars of his jail cell (touching each other’s skin in the process). Apart from the physical ferocity with which he can shape other people’s bodies (eating someone’s tongue or liver, overpowering a policeman – disemboweling and flaying him, then wearing his face), he can control people with mere words (as when Miggs is panicked into swallowing his own tongue, or as Lecter halts, progresses, or misdirects the investigation with his clues) or even just with vision (as, in Sherlockian style, he mines Clarice for repressed information with a mere look).

What makes Silence scary, and makes it resonate with feminist concerns, is that Clarice cannot control the forces that threaten her. While Lecter seems to have total control of his voice, body, and senses, she often cannot see (either physically or epistemologically), and often cannot speak. Silence itself is present everywhere in the film, as Clarice is often stuttering, whispering, or mute, trapped in a reactive gaze (Clover 204-05). This behavior makes her final confrontation with Buffalo Bill more powerful; despite her terror, she is able to stop him from killing any more women, including herself. Following Clover’s enormously influential work, scholars tend to view horror as aligning the viewer with this reactive gaze of the female victim, as we enjoy the masochistic pleasure of being placed at risk. I would argue, however, that it’s the many noirish elements of Silence that mute the mood of scary fun (what William Paul has dubbed “Laughing Screaming”) that is present in straight horror and erotic thrillers like Basic. As Linda Williams has noted, the reception of horror may well vary by gender, as the possibility of violation that thrills men might hit much closer to home for women (193). All the investments the film makes in our sympathizing with women’s fear and vulnerability – the sad music, the bleak settings, the flashbacks, the terrified reactions of the one victim we see alive, Catherine Martin, as well as Clarice’s sympathetic and fearful reactions to the women’s suffering as she looks at their bodies in polaroids and on autopsy tables – all these elements construct a preferred reading which reminds us of the real costs of violence against women.

Much has been made of Silence’s treatment of Buffalo Bill (see Staiger for an overview of the contemporaneous criticism), which is often described as homophobic and transphobic. I would argue that with the figure of Bill the film is trying (however unsuccessfully) to emphasize the importance of gender to the experience of violence, which makes his scenes both dependent on and central to the larger meaning of the film. It’s easy to create a reading of the character as hostile to gay and transgendered men; as Fuss notes, Bill is visually linked with horrifying images of death and is fragmented into fetishized parts through extreme close-ups no other character receives (193-94). The unfortunate coincidental timing of the film’s release with the discovery of gay, cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes was an extratextual frame that may have further cemented in homophobic viewers’ minds the connection between homosexuality and death. By focusing so voyeuristically on elements of Bill’s persona that might seem frightening to mainstream audiences – nipple-piercings, tucking, tattoos, spooky alternative music – his sexual difference becomes an overdetermined, demonizing conglomeration of queerness and monstrous evil.

Yet the very nature of horror is “episodes of intense visual excitation” (Sconce 113), suggesting that the intensely phobic treatment of Bill may be an unintended ideological effect of genre. The film does make a somewhat half-hearted (in its brevity) effort to remind us that he is not in fact transsexual, and if he were, that transsexuals are generally not aggressive, but it seems likely that for many viewers, the emotional weight of the imagery would outweigh this fleeting narrative reminder. Another alternate explanation, given the centrality of normative gender concerns to the film, is that Bill’s spectacularity can be read as a fantastic exercise. As Ang notes, viewers use fantasy as a means of working through real concerns and desires in an imaginatory space, and it is the unreality of the fantasy that allows it to work. Just as women might use rape fantasies as a way of processing real fears of rape, Bill operates as a dramatic, fantastic uberexample of women’s fear of misogyny. It is important to note that the horror he generates is not only his (mistaken) transgenderism, but also, primarily, the way it intersects with his extreme callousness and dehumanization of his victims. The fact that Bill is not in fact transgendered may or may not register with viewers, but the fact that he is a man who exemplifies an ultimate misogyny, in a film that foregrounds the very issue, suggests that Clarice’s need to conquer him is centrally important to her broader concern with navigating a male-dominated world.

While others have emphasized the ways Bill’s violence is linked to homophobia and transphobia, I would emphasize the way it is linked to misogyny. These links occur in a variety of ways: his name, which began as a joke among policemen, who name him Buffalo Bill because he skins his victims, and, most obviously, when Catherine Martin is screaming in the pit in his basement. Bill howls along with her, pulling out the front of his shirt to create a pair of mock breasts, mimicking and perhaps mocking her womanliness and her pain. His limp wrists and high voice in this scene might seem to link him with homosexuality, but could also be connected to a hatred of (or complete insensitivity to) his female victims. The images are ambivalent precisely because they are not contextualized. Images of transgender might be horrifying to some viewers simply because they blur the lines between male and female, queer and straight (which is, as Dyer notes, a hallmark of noir itself, 129), but they might also be horrifying because women need to know where the threat lies. The violence that pervades the film is not neutrally gendered, but consistently linked to traditional masculinity, by which some men (like Bill) use physical superiority and psychological terror to control and destroy women. To connect this violence to transgender would contradict the entire drive of the film. This suggests that the preferred reading of the film is not the trans- and homophobic one that seems most apparent, though the subtlety of the distinction, buried as it is in the narrative, might well get lost in the mix.

This tension between meanings generated by narrative, performance, and imagery is evident with Lecter as well. While some have read him as an effete homosexual, I believe the film positions him on the side of traditional masculinity, as his interrogation of Clarice is abusive and sexualized. A key moment that highlights their divergent sympathies arises when Lecter asks her what it is that Bill does. Full of terror, she whispers, “He kills women.” Lecter rebukes her, “No, that is incidental! He covets.” Lecter dismisses the women’s deaths as tangential to Bill’s crimes, but the text marks them as significant to Clarice – not the intricate, peculiar methods of his crimes, not their bizarreness or their relationship to his (trans)gender or sexuality, but the women themselves, whose lives have been lost. Unlike the male detectives, who are professionally dispassionate or even perversely fascinated, Clarice alone seems to sympathize with the young victims and to wholly grasp the gendered significance of his crimes. As with Bill, however, the charm and presence of Hopkins’s performance of Lecter might leave a much greater impression than Foster’s passive, diminutive Clarice, particularly for those viewers lacking empathy for the female victims.

Clarice’s final confrontation with Bill is the film’s climactic moment, representing the culmination of her lifelong struggle to make herself feel safe in a world that’s demonstrably unsafe for women. With Clarice the figures of the hunter (the investigator) and the hunted (the woman) finally merge. Once she enters the dark, putrid basement and Bill turns on his night-vision goggles, the text’s point of view repeatedly shifts, framing her first as the classic female victim of the slasher flick, and then as the final girl (Clover). The victim-hero is able to out-aggress the Monster, defending herself by destroying him. Clarice fires, Bill is dead, and light floods the basement. She has passed this final test (a do-over of the original failed training exercise), has faced her deepest fears, and appears to have vanquished them. Her victory is short-lived, however. Clarice has graduated from the FBI Academy, has won the respect of Crawford, Buffalo Bill is dead, and Catherine Martin saved. Just as she begins to transcend her vulnerability, a haunting voice interrupts her triumph. It’s the escaped Dr. Lecter on the line, and he wants to know, “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?” From the look on her face, we see that they haven’t.


Conclusion: Models of Detection


Basic Instinct and The Silence of the Lambs represent men’s anxiety about uncontrollable women and women’s anxiety about controlling men. The end result of a man investigating a female killer and a woman investigating a male killer is drastically different in each film. In the former, the investigation model is used traditionally, as the detectives attempt to control women through voyeurism, while in the latter investigation is used as a form of self-defense. While Basic drips with Sharon Stone’s sexuality, Silence is strikingly asexual, drawing on the androgyny and ambiguity of Jodie Foster’s persona (Lane). While Basic draws on the neo-noir trend of a strong femme fatale who demonstrates gender performativity (Neroni 95), Silence suggests that, for the less powerful, gender cannot be taken on and off like a suit. As Bonnie Dow has argued, feminist criticism cannot just look at the strong female heroine, but must also pay attention to her relationship to men. Despite strong female leads that revise or evade normative femininity, the realities and fantasies of normative masculinity still largely shape their meaning. That is to say, Lecter’s admonition aside, gender is hardly incidental.


Works Cited

Andrews, David. “Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife: The Softcore Thriller in Its Contexts.” Cinema Journal 45.3 (2006): 59-89.

Ang, Ien. “Melodramatic Identifications: Television Fiction and Women's Fantasy.” Television and Women’s Culture: The Politics of the Popular. Ed. Mary Ellen Brown. London: Sage, 1990. 75-88.

Basic Instinct. Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Perf. Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. Carolco Pictures, 1992.

Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992.

Cohan, Steven. “Censorship and Narrative Indeterminacy in Basic Instinct: ‘You Won’t Learn Anything from Me I Don’t Want You to Know.’” Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Eds. Steve Neale and Murray Smith. New York: Routledge, 1998. 263-79.

Dow, Bonnie. “The Traffic in Men and the Fatal Attraction of Postfeminist Masculinity.” Women’s Studies in Communication 29.1 (2006): 113-31.

Dyer, Richard. “Postscript: Queers and Women in Film Noir.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 123-29.

Fuss, Diana. “Monsters of Perversion: Jeffrey Dahmer and The Silence of the Lambs.” Media Spectacles. Eds. Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock and Rebecca Walkowitz. New York: Routledge, 1993. 181-205.

Gross, Larry. Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Halberstam, Judith. “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representation, Rage, and Resistance.” Social Text 37 (1993): 187-201.

Harris, Thomas. The Silence of the Lambs. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994.

Hirsch, Foster. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir. New York: Limelight Editions, 1999.

Holmlund, Chris. “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Hollywood’s Deadly (Lesbian) Dolls.” Cinema Journal 34.1 (1994): 31-51.

Kotker, Joan. “It’s Scarier at the Movies; Jonathan Demme’s Adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs.” It’s a Print: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen. Eds. William Reynolds and Elizabeth Trembley. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State UP, 1994. 195-206.

Lane, Christina. “The Liminal Iconography of Jodie Foster.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 22.4 (1995): 149-53.

Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Naremore, James. “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.” Film Quarterly 49.2 (1995): 12-28.

Neroni, Hilary. The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005.

Paul, William. Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “Spectacles of Death: Identification, Reflexivity and Contemporary Horror.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Eds. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Collins. New York: Routledge, 1993. 103-19.

Stables, Kate. “The Postmodern Always Rings Twice: Constructing the Femme Fatale in 90s Cinema.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 164-82.

Staiger, Janet. “Taboos and Totems: Cultural Meanings of The Silence of the Lambs.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Eds. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Collins. New York: Routledge, 1993. 142-54.

Straayer, Chris. “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Différance.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 151-63.

Tasker, Yvonne. The Silence of the Lambs. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Telotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.

The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Orion Pictures, 1991.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Williams, Linda. “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema.” Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: A Casebook. Ed. Robert Phillip Kolker. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 164-204.

Williams, Linda Ruth. The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005.

 
Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2009 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
AmericanPopularCulture.com