The Silence Of The Lambs Controversy Explained

In 1992, "The Silence of the Lambs" became the third movie to ever sweep the five major Oscar categories at the Academy Awards. As Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and director Jonathan Demme, accepted their awards on behalf of their work on the film, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a protest raged on. 

The demonstration outside of the Academy Awards was the culmination of non-stop protests throughout the year outside theaters across the country screening the film. Organizations like Queer Nation and ACT-UP had long spoken out about the problematic representation of the film, and felt awarding the film would have dire consequences. Hollywood A-Listers wore red AIDS ribbons on their gowns and suits throughout the night, and as Demme accepted his statue for Best Director, he was visibly shaken by the outrage surrounding the building.

To say "The Silence of the Lambs" is a beloved film is an understatement. In addition to its pop culture influence inspiring parodies everywhere from "Clerks 2" to "Family Guy," the film has also been turned into a spoof musical, spawned a successful franchise of films, and there surely would be no "Hannibal" TV series if it had not been for the success of this film, no matter how good Thomas Harris' books are. Since it's debut, "The Silence of the Lambs" has been a polarizing film for the LGBTQ+ community, and as our language evolved surrounding gender identity and the transgender experience, so too have our discussions surrounding Demme's masterpiece.

Why Were LGBTQ+ Groups Protesting?

While today the conversations surrounding "The Silence of the Lambs" are focused on the "copaganda" of a film glorifying FBI Agent Clarice Starling or the blatant transphobia of the characterization of Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, the protests in 1991-1992 were actually centered on homophobia, with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and gay critics believing audiences would read Jame Gumb as a queer man, and treat gay people in real life accordingly.

In Mark Dice's book "Hollywood Propaganda: How TV, Movies, and Music Shape Our Culture," he references a GLAAD leader who criticized the film saying, "The killer in the movie is a walking, talking gay stereotype." The leader continued, "He has a poodle named Precious, he sews, he wears a nipple ring, he has an affected feminine voice, and he cross-dresses. He completely promotes homophobia." Orion Pictures, the distributor of "The Silence of the Lambs" tried their best to calm things down by loaning out prints of the film for AIDS fundraisers, but continuing to promote a movie at a function filled with the very people feeling harmed by the film wasn't exactly the best way to put an end to the angry protestors.

What Did Demme Have to Say?

Before his death in 2017, Demme spoke frequently on the characterization of Jame Gumb, with his opinions fortunately evolving over time. In a 1991 interview with Film Comment, he was at first quite combative regarding the criticism:

We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people. [Gumb] is someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism, and behavior and mannerisms that can be interpreted as gay.

The problem with that statement, however, is that Jame Gumb is transgender, regardless of what Jonathan Demme or Dr. Hannibal Lecter has to say about the matter, and in 1991, the film was released against a backdrop of heightened anti-Gay violence. Demme's following film, "Philadelphia" starred Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer living with AIDS. It was one of the first mainstream Hollywood pictures to mention AIDS, and while Demme has claimed the backlash to "Silence" was unrelated to his decision to make "Philadelphia," many of his critics view the film as a half-baked apology. Playwright and activist Larry Kramer wrote a harsh op-ed after the film's release, going as far as to say, "After these two films, I wish he'd just go away and leave us alone."

Demme's Evolution on Criticism

As the years went on, Demme owned up to the critiques of his two films, rather than fighting them. In 1994, he was quoted as saying:

It's the job of militants to demand more of anything. If these people were satisfied, change would be hard to get through. Every one of them is right. There could have been more of this, or more of that, but now, maybe another film will take it further.

A few years before he passed, he admitted his shortcomings with "Silence," stating in 2014:

Juan Botas, who was one of the inspirations for "Philadelphia" said, "You can't imagine what it's like to be a 12-year-old gay kid, and you go to the movies all the time and whenever you see a gay character, they're either a ridiculous comic-relief caricature, or a demented killer. It's very hard growing up gay and being exposed to all these stereotypes." That registered with me in a big way." It's now become a part of the dialogue on stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies.

The Legacy of Silence of the Lambs' Transphobia

Unfortunately, while Demme's mind may have changed, the public consciousness' view of trans people was greatly influenced by the portrayal of Jame Gumb. My own wife has experienced a great deal of trauma from "Silence of the Lambs" writing in an article for Shudder: 

I was first exposed to the infamy of Buffalo Bill by my parents and our neighbors as they made jokes about a trans woman who lived down the street when I was little. I never met or even saw her, but there was never a shortage of jokes and references made towards 'shim' (as she was referred to) that I only fully understood after seeing 'Silence of the Lambs' in my teens.

Transgender writer, actress, producer, and activist Jen Richards painfully recounted the impact of Buffalo Bill in the Netflix documentary "Disclosure":

I was about to go through transition, and I worked up the courage to tell one of my colleagues. And she's a very, very smart woman, very, very talented musician, very well-educated, very worldly, and she looked at me and goes, "You mean like Buffalo Bill?" Her only point of reference was this disgusting, psychotic serial killer who hunts women in order to kill them and skin them, in order to wear their bodies — to literally appropriate the female form, which is exactly the feminist argument against the existence of trans women.

There are plenty of people even today that don't see "what the big deal is" with "Silence of the Lambs," likely because the harm this film has caused has never impacted their personal lives. It's important to remember that although "Silence of the Lambs" is an absolute masterclass in filmmaking, its problematic legacy still shines as brightly as all of the trophies it earned.