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Journal of Popular Film & Television (1991) - The Transvestite as Monster: Gender Horror in "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Psycho"




Explores the close relationship of sex and gender problematics within the flourishing genre of horror films. Discussion of the films "Psycho" and "Silence of the Lambs."


Gender Horror in The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho

The close relationship of sex and gender problematics to the flourishing genre of horror films can perhaps best be traced to the groundbreaking Psycho, in which Norman Bates struggles with his horror of the feminine by alternately performing it and destroying it. At the end of the film, a psychiatrist hastens to assure everyone that Norman is not a transvestite, that Norman thinks he is his mother.1 The use of the word "transvestite" in pre-Donohue 1960 and Anthony Perkins' performance of Norman as a less than masculine "Mama's boy" who occasionally wears his mother's clothes, however, suggest that the subject of gender cannot be so easily dismissed. Although most serial killer films since Psycho have focused largely on masculine killers and their feminine victims,2 Jonathan Demme's film, The Silence of the Lambs, features a transvestite dressmaker, who has been rejected for transsexual surgery, serially killing large women for their skin. He wants to make a "girl suit." Many of the elements that made Psycho a horrific experience for its original audience have been magnified and in some cases collapsed into one another in The Silence of the Lambs in order to similarly horrify the more sophisticated (or jaded) audience of 1991. The film's popularity (it surpassed the $100 million mark by the twelfth week), the expected Academy nominations for two of its actors -- Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins -- and its filmic quality suggest that it marks a new point on the trajectory leading off from Psycho.

Carol J. Clover, in "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film," carefully catalogs key components of most slasher films, noting Psycho as the benchmark: the male killer in "gender distress," the "Terrible Place" -- either house or tunnel of some kind -- the "pretechnological" weapons, the alluring female victims, and the "Final Girl" -- last would-be victim who survives to be saved or to escape. Gender play is everywhere apparent in these components. Clover concludes that the "killer as feminine male and the main character as masculine female" may be a product of contemporary "massive gender confusion" and a consequent loosening of the categories of sex and gender.3 Although most of the "lower" films in the horror genre simply put the formula to work with few variations in order to achieve their shock effects, films like Dressed to Kill and, I would argue, The Silence of the Lambs more directly comment on the gender problematics at work in the genre by exaggerating the components Clover has outlined.

The Silence of the Lambs, furthermore, locates the arguably greater problem of its transvestite killer in a world altered by feminist thought. As women's power increases, the Freudian paradigm on which most slasher films are based, and, consequently, their villains, degenerates. The masculine female, after all, ...

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JULIE THARP is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Minnesota, concentrating on the writing of contemporary American women of color. She suffers from a lifelong fascination with horror films.


  1. A male transvestite is, however, by Freudian definition, expressing a desire to be one with his mother.
  2. Two notable exceptions are William Castle's Homicidal (1961) and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980), both of them self-conscious emulations of Psycho. Carol J. Clover argues that the gendering of the killer and victims is not nearly as absolute as it may at first seem. She notes that most slasher film murderers have some unresolved family issues, like Norman's, that keep them from attaining adult male status. Violence, according to Clover, is an alternative to sex for these men. See Carol J. Clover, "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film," in Misogyny, Misandry, Misanthropy, ed. R. . Howard Bloch and Frances Ferguson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989).
  3. Clover, p. 220.
  4. Clover, p. 209.
  5. A curious connection between Psycho and the Halloween series lies in the character of the psychologist, played by Donald Pleasance. His name too is Sam Loomis, surely not a coincidence.
  6. This comment and an "Enquirer" headline that shows up on both Jack Crawford's and Buffalo Bill's bulletin boards -- "BILL SKINS FIFTH" -- illustrate the very mythicization that Jane Caputi attributes to such publications. That the FBI agent and the killer should be linked in this way suggests both the wide-reaching impact of such press and the similarities in their characters. See Jane Caputi, "The New Founding Fathers: The Lore and Lure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Culture," Journal of American Culture (Fall 1990), pp. 1-12. Also, the irony of giving an effeminate homosexual male a nickname from the masculine, American West tradition of rough riders is never really explored in the film.
  7. Starling's fellow student and friend is also a woman of color, suggesting that women in general and people of African origin are both absolved of the charge of man-eating.
  8. Caputi, p. 1.
  9. This clip suggests not only the popular film sex, lies and videotape, but also the recent trend of couples creating their own erotic videotapes either for themselves or for rent. At least one implication is that sex, particularly in such a dangerous age, is more acceptable as a spectator sport. It limits the threat and the mess.
  10. Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence (New York: Harper &Row, 1982), p. 2.
  11. Griffin, p. 55.
  12. John McCarty, Psychos: Eighty Years of Mad Movies, Maniacs and Murderous Deeds (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986). McCarty notes other films that explore Ed Gein's psychosis as Deranged (1974) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975).
  13. Caputi points out that the dead but everpresent mother is almost predictable in accounts of real and fictional serial killers. For instance, Jason (from Friday the 13th) keeps a shrine for his mother's head. McCarty also notes that Ed Gein kept his mother's mummified corpse in the dining room. For Caputi, the mystery of the killers' paternity is necessary, "for their true father is indeed a collective entity -- the patriarchal culture that has produced the serial killer as a fact of modern life" (p. 8). Robin Wood's discussion of the monster as a product of repression, and therefore also oppression, suggests that the son who identifies with and even idolizes his mother is by definition a monster within patriarchal cultures; "An Introduction to the American Horror Film," The Planks of Reason, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984), pp. 164-200.
  14. Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), p. 357.
  15. Daniel R. Harris, "Effeminancy," Michigan Quarterly Review 30, No. 1 (Winter 1991), p. 75.
  16. Harris, "Effeminancy," p. 75.
  17. Lecter's indirect murder of Miggs is clearly in retaliation for Miggs's obscene comment to Clarice. Somehow Lecter gets Miggs to swallow his tongue.
  18. Clover, p. 198.
  19. Noel Carroll, "The Nature of Horror," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1987), p. 53.
  20. Carroll, p. 55.
  21. Carroll, p. 56.
  22. Harris, The Silence of the Lambs, p. 21.
  23. Anne Herrmann, "Passing Women, Performing Men," Michigan Quarterly Review 30, No. 1 (Winter 1991), p. 71.
  24. Herrmann, p. 66.
  25. Clover cites a number of film authorities to support her claim that the majority of horror film patrons are young males. See her essay for a more detailed analysis of viewer response.