Nick Clarkson

Buffalo Bill: gay or trans?

Filed By Nick Clarkson | December 20, 2006 6:31 PM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex
Tags: movies

Jonathan Demme's 1991 Silence of the Lambs caused an uproar among gay and lesbian activists. GLAAD, for example, put out a press release condemning the film for its homophobic representation. Richard Jennings, executive director at the time of GLAAD said Jonathan Demme had "insisted in several interviews that the serial killer was not 'intended' to be a gay man. A graphic medium like film, however, speaks for itself, and a character who is described in the movie as having killed his male lover, and who speaks with an affected voice, wears makeup, cross dresses, and has a poodle named 'Precious,' will be seen by viewers as a negative gay stereotype." There are ways in which some of the pieces of Buffalo Bill's presentation could be interpreted as either signifying gayness or transness.

At the end of the film, one of the few times we really see Buffalo Bill, pretty much the only time we see him doing anything other than talking with Clarice or Catherine or sewing his "woman suit," he is putting on make-up, cross-dressed, dancing in front of the mirror, penis tucked between his legs. He has a nipple ring and a small tattoo over his ribs. The tattoo is entirely in black, but it looks like an incision in the skin, dripping blood. This "incision" in the skin, placed where it is, seems to be more reminiscent of FTM mastectomy scars that it does of an MTF embodiment. However, this incision tattoo could easily be considered to conjure images of transsexuality generally, given its connection to cutting the skin. The nipple ring may draw more heavily on representational conventions of gay men than on transsexuals, but the tattoo of a blood-dripping incision has a much more direct connection to transsexuality than homosexuality. The tucking of his penis between his legs may be understood within a gay context or within a trans context: he could be read here as a drag queen, hiding his penis in the interest of a more real performance, or he could be read as a transsexual, hiding his penis so that the image he sees in the mirror is more reflective of the body he would like to see, of the body he has been denied because he has been rejected as a candidate for a "sex change."

The dancing scene is the most significant visual evidence we have of Buffalo Bill's gender identity or sexuality. There are other brief moments, though. Earlier in the film when Catherine--Bill's latest captive--is screaming in the well, having seen the blood, fingernails and scratch marks on the wall of the well, Buffalo Bill studiously tries to imitate her shrill screaming. He then screams more mockingly, pulling at the front of his shirt where breasts would be. His first "scream" is reminiscent of MTFs doing vocal practice to feminize their voices (such as the opening scenes of Transamerica). His second "scream," though, seems much more misogynistic and mocking, untied to any reference to transsexuality.

Another uncertain moment of potential evidence of Bill's transsexuality is his shouting at Catherine, "You don't know what pain is." If we are already understanding Buffalo Bill as a transsexual in agony, "trapped in the wrong body" and denied surgery, this immediately seems to be a reference to the pain of not being able to resolve the mismatch between his body and his gender. However, Hannibal's testimony (his telling Clarice that Bill thinks he is a transsexual but is really not) has already given us a way out of reading this as a reference to gendered agony. Hannibal's suggestion of disturbances in Bill's childhood might lead us to understand this instead as a reference to Bill's violently troubled childhood.

Given a confusion in popular culture of transsexuality and homosexuality, there probably were quite a few viewers of this film who read Buffalo Bill as a homicidal homo. However, Clarice and Hannibal discuss transsexuality earlier in the film. Even though they are saying Buffalo Bill is not a transsexual, they have introduced transsexuality to the viewer's anticipations of Buffalo Bill. Bill's character also draws heavily on stereotypes of transsexuality. It remains unclear whether or not Bill was "supposed to be" gay or trans. I think it's illuminating to look at Buffalo Bill for examples of the way gay and trans issues and images both overlap and differ.

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