Last night was the first time that I watched The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme, and what immediately struck me was how much more likeable Lecter was as a character than any of the other male characters presented. Although it’s true that Lecter is already a more interesting character in terms of depth, he is also altogether more respectful than any of the other men in the film towards FBI trainee Clarice Starling.
It cannot be argued that the male gaze features majorly in the film, with Clarice receiving many unwelcome and often objectifying glances from multiple men, including her colleagues and superiors. When Dr Chilton first meets her, his first comment is on how he can’t recall having encountered another detective “so attractive”, following this by asking her if she’s planning on staying the night. And while he is by far the most forward of any of the objectifying males that Clarice encounters, he is definitely not the only one. Every room that Clarice enters in her work is filled with men, immediately causing her to stand out. This does not go unnoticed by the men either, whose eyes are almost constantly on her. Lecter himself knows this without even having to witness it, prompting him to ask “don’t you feel eyes moving over your body”, as he is aware of how a male-dominated workplace will react to a young woman.
However, what Lecter does is to admire Clarice not for her body, but for her work. For while Dr Chilton states that Clarice was only hired by Crawford to “turn [Lecter] on”, therefore diminishing her education, expertise and hard work. Lecter himself does not do this, choosing to interact with Clarice as his equal.
Although the cryptic clues that he offers her surrounding Buffalo Bill could be seen as him toying with her, I choose to see them more as him trusting in her intelligence. While he could give her the answers she wants immediately, thus ending the process, Lecter wants to see her prove herself and demonstrate that she is as perceptive as he believes her to be. He gives her the clues because he knows that she can solve them. Thus, he recognises her skill, viewing her as a detective rather than a sexual object. He even goes as far as to punish those that objectify her, such as fellow prisoner Miggs, who tells Clarice that he can “smell [her] c***”. Lecter gets Miggs to bite his tongue in perhaps the most brutal way possible – by convincing him to swallow it. It is never explicitly mentioned why he does this, though the implication is that it’s a result of his vulgar language towards Clarice. It could even be suggested that the reason Lecter is seen following Dr Chilton at the end of the film upon his escape is due to his objectification of Clarice, though it is more likely due to Chilton’s work at the facility that he was held in.
Lecter is a character known for his dislike of rude people – with them often becoming his victims – however, his treatment of Miggs is particularly interesting in that he vocalises what many of the other male characters are implied to be thinking. Lecter is the opposite of this, choosing to punish those that act in this way and view Clarice as a professional. And though he does manipulate her in other ways, such as getting her to reveal things about her past and purposely using up time to provide little information, it is clear that he has respect for her. Clarice herself says once she knows Lecter has escaped that “he won’t come after me”, as even she is aware of his regard for her. She doesn’t fear him just as he doesn’t disrespect her.
Hannibal Lecter is definitively not a good person, though an excellently crafted character. His respect for Clarice is not meant to portray him as a well-rounded individual, but to shed a light on the commonplace disrespectful behaviour of ‘good men’ towards women. It is interesting for an audience that a serial killer-cannibal has more respect for women than her work colleagues, as it draws an interesting comparison between the two. We end up having more appreciation for Lecter than we do for the people responsible for his capture.
The Silence of the Lambs is by no means your all-round feminist film, nor does it contain some immensely powerful lesson about women. What is does, however, on some level, is examine the male gaze in its most common form and touch on what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. Not what you’d expect from your typical crime-drama, but not an altogether unwelcome observation either.