A stylized tattoo of the Wound of Destiny with a hand next to it flipping the bird.

My Auntie Buffalo Bill: The Unavoidable Transmisogyny of Silence of the Lambs

Last week, our friends at Bitch Media published an ill-advised article celebrating the 25th anniversary of Silence of the Lambs and praising Clarice Starling as an influential feminist hero.

Like too many feminist takes on the film, this article relegates discussion of Buffalo Bill and the “transphobia inherent in the character” to a side note at the end of a long piece, treating the villain who motivates the entire story as an unfortunate problematic element “that doesn’t stand the test of time.” This ahistorical dismissal of one of the most significant and impactful examples of pop culture transmisogyny — all so cis feminists can claim Clarice as a hero — is wildly inappropriate in a feminist publication, given that the film’s feminist metaphors are so directly linked to the legacy of transmisogynistic feminism.

Far from inadvertently stumbling upon a transmisogynistic supervillan, Silence of the Lambs actually actively promoted a transmisogynistic idea, birthed by people operating under the feminist label, that trans women are the ultimate representation of male violence. I know the people at Bitch want their feminism to be inclusive of trans women. But they can’t do that by ignoring the real harm that’s been done to us by cis-feminism. Silence of the Lambs is so fundamentally a work of transmisogyny, one that advances ideas so inextricably tied to transmisogynistic Janice Raymond-style cis-feminism, that any truly feminist engagement with this film must grapple with these issues.

Rather than a minor aspect of a film from the ancient past of 1991 “that doesn’t stand the test of time,” Silence of the Lambs‘ transmisogyny was a major issue at the time of its release and part of the impetus for Queer Nation’s protest of the 1992 Academy Awards, where the film won big and activists clashed with police in riot gear. If feminists today think this aspect of the film can be relegated to a slight head nod, that suggests its bigotry is actually less of a controversial issue now than it was at the time of release.

Bitch’s article argues that Thomas Harris, author of the novel Silence of the Lambs is based on, “tried to dodge the transphobia inherent in the character by having Hannibal claim he isn’t trans at all.” The article calls this a “clumsy feint” before going on to accept the premise that Bill may not be trans by repeatedly referring to her as “queer.” The notion that this aspect of the story is a mess is used to brush it off as an issue that is not central to feminist analysis of the film. But this is no mess: the explanations for why Bill isn’t trans are, in fact, an accurate depiction of how medical gatekeepers tried to keep trans women they did not think would “pass” as acceptable women from transitioning.

At the time of Silence of the Lambs’ release, medical gatekeepers decided who got to transition and who didn’t based on incredibly sexist and homophobic criteria. Medical professionals divided those who came to them seeking to transition and live as women into two groups: transvestites and “true” transsexuals. Classification systems tended to divide trans women based on sexuality, but always came back to variations of these two broad categories. Gender identity clinics determined who could transition: those who wanted genital surgery, who didn’t disclose major trauma and mental health issues, who would live as straight women, who would be passive and demure like women should be, who would leave their pasts behind them, fabricating a new history for themselves (gee, I wonder where the idea of deceptive trans women comes from), and who could “pass” and achieve some level of normative attractiveness (that is, those who were hot enough in the eyes of gatekeepers). It’s not hard to look at the diagnostic criteria and see male gatekeepers dividing and categorizing trans women into those who should and should not be permitted to transition based on who these medical professionals wanted to fuck. In the 80s and 90s, when feminism had led to generations of women who actively rejected regressive gender norms, trans women were required to conform to 50s housewife stereotypes.

In discussing a profile of Buffalo Bill with Hannibal Lecter, Clarice explicitly states that, “there is no correlation between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive,” expressing one of the sexist requirements to access a diagnosis. Hannibal agrees that Bill fails to meet this stereotype: “Billy is not a real transsexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.” This is not supposed to be Hannibal the cruel monster but Dr. Lecter the psychiatric expert accurately representing the views of his field. Hannibal points Clarice to the three main centers for “transsexual surgery” in the US, saying Bill likely applied for surgery and was rejected. We even learn that Bill and Hannibal met at least once, after Bill had murdered a “transient” and was referred to Dr. Lecter by her boyfriend Benjamin Raspail, who Bill later murdered. Hannibal kept Benjamin’s severed head, which Bill had dressed up in drag, and gives Clarice hints for how to find it. After this, Bill’s violence apparently focused exclusively on cis women and using them to make what Clarice calls a “woman suit.” “Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice,” says Hannibal. “He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” Yes, even more savage and terrifying than being a transsexual. The horror. Experience of abuse was indeed used to bar patients from transitioning; not considered abuse here is the cruelty of medical gatekeepers whose rejection of Bill seems to have been her impetus to begin murdering and skinning cis women. In lines cut from the final film, Hannibal talks about Bill being too big to transition, which is why she finds fat women to skin. This is an excellent representation of both the requirement that trans women be normatively attractive to male gatekeepers and of the obvious double standard of requirements to be a woman placed on trans women: in this case that fat cis women can exist, but fat trans women cannot.

The medical establishment’s pathologizing of trans women is not something buried in the past, and its parallels with gender essentialist transmisogynistic feminism are still visible today. Ray Blanchard, an influential leader in the field of medicalizing trans women, put forward the two categories of homosexual transsexuals and autogynephilic transsexuals. Homosexual transsexuals were patients who would transition to be straight women (yes, the very category itself is misgendering.) Autogynephiles were those who were sexually aroused by the idea of being a woman. That’s it: you could be a good straight (but homosexual) girl or have a paraphilia. The concept of autogynephilia has had a cruel impact on trans women who aren’t straight, telling us our genders are actually just sexual perversions.

These ideas are not buried in the past, either. The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which contains official psychiatric diagnoses, has changed Gender Identity Disorder to Gender Dysphoria. But this does not mean trans people are no longer disordered in the DSM, which also includes Transvestic Disorder, a diagnosis that pathologizes trans women and crossdressers alike. As Julia Serano explained, “Transvestic Disorder can be applied to any person who is sexually active while wearing clothing incongruent with their birth-assigned sex.” Ray Blanchard chaired the paraphilia subgroup for the DSM-V, so of course he got Autogynephelia included as a modifier of Transvestic Disorder. The sexism of these ideas is extreme. Autoandriphelia, or a female assigned person being aroused by the thought of being a man, was proposed but not included in the DSM-V. Blanchard told Vice he didn’t consider autoandriphilia a real thing: “No, I proposed it simply in order not to be accused of sexism, because there are all these women who want to say, ‘women can rape too, women can be pedophiles too, women can be exhibitionists too.’ It’s a perverse expression of feminism, and so, I thought, let me jump the gun on this. I don’t think the phenomenon even exists.” Blanchard thinks of trans men as passive women and non-straight trans women as potentially violent men.

Sexist and homophobic standards for transitioning still have a great impact today, even if they are not how many gatekeepers operate: I know plenty of trans women who hide abuse histories and other issues relevant to their medical care because they are worried about being denied access to transition. Transvestic Disorder’s inclusion in the DSM-V is not a major issue for some trans women who live in large cities and are able to access informed medical providers who don’t follow outdated approaches to care. But the existence of a diagnosis just sitting there, waiting to pathologize non-straight trans women, is still dangerous to many, especially those who are, for example, isolated in rural areas and don’t have access to informed professionals.

As the film goes on, Bill’s actions make it clear that she was not diagnosed as a “true” transexual because she’s in the category of autogynephile. This includes making a woman suit, an act of fetishizing the idea of having a female body. Hannibal tells Clarice the key to Bill’s pathology is to look at what he “covets:” the female body. The biggest confirmation, though, comes when Bill dances in front of a mirror to Goodbye Horses, wearing the scalp of one of her victims and a women’s robe that she removes to reveal her nude body, tattoos loaded with transformational symbolism, and finally that she has tucked her penis between her legs, the ultimate visualization – even more than the skin suit – of her perversion. “Would you fuck me?” Bill asks her reflection. “I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me hard. I’d fuck me so hard.” The text of the film actively paints Bill as an autogynephile, sexually aroused by the idea of herself as a woman, one of the key reasons she was rejected by gatekeepers when trying to access medical transition. And, it seems, one of those gatekeepers was Hannibal Lecter – can you even imagine?

Buffalo Bill from the Goodbye Horses scene described in the article


Far from a “dodge [of] the transphobia inherent in the character,” Bill’s diagnosis is based in homophobic transmisogyny. Bill doesn’t just represent the pathologizing of trans women, but the specific pathologizing and ungendering of non-straight trans women. To accept the film’s dismissal of Bill as not really trans — and take this as an argument against the film’s transmisogyny — is to also accept that many trans women – include bi trans women and trans dykes like myself – are not really trans.

While the category of autogynephile is a construct of the medical establishment, Bill’s disturbing violence is very much representative of bigoted and hateful ideas about trans women advanced in the name of feminism. In Janice Raymond’s seminal work of transmisogynistic feminism, the book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (written under the supervision of influential feminist Mary Daly) she argues, “”All transsexuals [she means transsexual women] rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.” Raymond classified trans women’s very existence as an act of sexual violence against cis women, which supported the transmisogynistic feminist argument that trans women were violent men invading women’s spaces. These ideas were used by feminists to successfully exclude trans women from accessing women’s shelters and to successfully lobby to put legal healthcare exclusions in place. It is in no way an overstatement to say this work – which we have only very recently been successful in fighting – has led to the deaths of trans women.

Bill’s woman suit is Raymond’s idea that, simply by existing, trans women “rape [cis] women’s bodies” made gruesome flesh. Silence of the Lambs functions as a myth or fairy tale, telling a story that is specifically about gendered archetypes. And this tale deploys a feminist idea of trans women as the ultimate representation of male violence.

The Bitch articles quotes Jody Foster speaking about the importance of her character:

“The thing I really love about Clarice Starling,” Foster said, a few months after the film’s release, “Is that this may be one of the first times that I have seen a female hero that is not a female-steroid version of Arnold Schwarzenegger… Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, [her] intuition, her frailty and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.”

The article argues that Clarice is fundamentally good, in addition to her heroism being linked to traditional femininity. Clarice Starling has indeed had an undeniable influence on female heroes in pop culture in general. But this cannot be divorced from the fact that one of the two primary examples of male violence this impactful hero stands against is a trans woman. Clarice does in fact follow the mythological hero’s journey in fairly traditional ways, though it is a woman here descending into hell – Bill’s basement – to rescue the damsel in distress. Clarice defeats Bill, who crumples to the ground, curled into a shaking form clearly meant to convey (an ableist vision of) monstrousness. And Clarice rescues femininity from the darkest depths of male violence: the lair of a trans woman.

Incidentally, if you were to write a feminist examination of Clarice, there’s a pitch for you: what does it mean that the story of this hero who is lauded as feminist is about cis feminist triumph over the perverse, sexualized violence supposedly inherent in trans women?

Silence of the Lambs had a major cultural impact that has lasted to this day. As such, I’m hard pressed to think of a trans woman I’ve discussed it with who hasn’t had to grapple with the hateful ideas in this film. For a while as a teen, it was one of my absolute favorite movies. Outside of the woman suit, I didn’t totally consciously grasp other aspects of Bill that were supposed to make her monstrous, like the scene of her tucking. I thought very naively for a time that the film didn’t affect my understanding of myself. But then I look at my own history with feminism – for example, how I delayed medical transition because feminists told me I’d be supporting the medical establishment, an institution that has harmed women (interestingly, this same argument did not apply to trans men seeking to transition). This was just a piece of the version of Raymond’s twisted logic that was en vogue in a supposedly trans-inclusive feminism at the time. And of course I accepted this and other arguments that my desire to transition was about me invading and co-opting women’s spaces, identities, and even bodies – I’d been primed to buy into these feminist ideas by Silence of the Lambs. The film taught me how to understand my own gendered experiences and desires – it took my own moments of standing naked in front of the mirror as a child trying to see myself and cast them as monstrous, examples of my perversion instead of a girl trying to see myself in a world that told me I couldn’t be.

Obviously, in real life the making of a woman suit would be grotesque and unforgivable. But Silence of the Lambs is fiction, and particularly a fiction that advances dangerous and harmful ideas about trans women. Understanding Bill as someone denied access to transition because she was seen as an autogynephile, as someone who was pushed to her most heinous acts by the dismissal of medical gatekeepers, has opened up space for me to start to reclaim her character. I even share a tattoo with her, depicting Jesus’ side pierced by the Spear of Destiny, where blood and water supposedly flowed out of him separately (there are areas of Christian thought that discuss Jesus as having a body that is exclusively female, as he did not have an embodied father – there’s tons of trans symbolism there). Bill is part of the legacy in fiction of trans women like me, and I can look to her when thinking about my own experiences with feminism, the medical establishment, and all those who try to dehumanize me. And while she has been cast as a monster, I learned early in my transition from Little Light’s crucial piece of writing “The Seam of Skin and Scales” to recognize the power in claiming and owning the traces of those who came before me, represented as horrifying monsters in cissexist stories. This is part of my understanding of how to survive in a world surrounded by these kinds of messages about myself. Little Light wrote, “I am choosing to stay here, and it is mine to choose. And if that means changing shape, if that means putting together the unexpected, that is any monster’s ancient right. It is damn well traditional.” It is my prerogative as a trans woman to do what I will with a character designed to pathologize, vilify, and ungender me.

But, if people who aren’t trans women want to advance a version of feminism that values trans women and prioritizes our struggles, they must reckon with the real harm that has been done to us in feminism’s name. Cis-feminism does not get to brush aside or avoid culpability for the heinous ideas about trans women advanced in Silence of the Lambs, as these concepts are so fundamentally reflective of beliefs advanced in the name of feminism. Given the damaging impact is has had on the lives of trans women, from a feminist perspective Silence of the Lambs is ours to claim or reject, just as its bigotry is something cis feminists cannot ignore or brush away because it is not central to how they want to engage with the film. Any non-trans-feminist engagement with Silence of the Lambs perpetuates cis-feminist refusal of culpability and ongoing marginalization of trans women.

Header image: Photo by the author. Art by Annie Danger.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation