Silence of the Lambs spin-off Clarice addresses film’s harmful anti-trans legacy

Clarice Starling Julia Lawson

Silence of the Lambs spinoff Clarice is trying to counter and reframe the harmful narrative of Buffalo Bill as a “transsexual” serial killer, which resulted in real world harm to the trans community.

Clarice is based on the psychological horror novel The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and its 1991 movie adaption. Both the film and novel depict Jame Gumb, known as the serial killer “Buffalo Bill”, as having signs of gender dysphoria.

The CBS series explores FBI agent Clarice Starling’s past trauma after confronting and killing Gumb and encountering another serial killer, Hannibal Lecter.

The film painted Buffalo Bill as a “transsexual”, although Anthony Hopkin’s Lector told Jodie Foster’s Starling that Bill is “not a real transsexual”. Now, the new series is confronting the film’s problematic trans representation.

Trans activist and actor Jen Richards plays Julia Lawson, an informant helping Starling. Lawson, who is a trans character, has been living with transphobia caused by Buffalo Bill and ends up helping Starling on a case.

In the episode “Silence in Purgatory”, Lawson confronts Starling about the case. She explained the discovery and killing of Buffalo Bill suddenly resulted in the “biggest story on everyone’s mind” being that “transsexuals were monsters”.

Lawson then reveals that she is transgender, but she must hide the fact that she is because of “stories like Buffalo Bill”. She added: “I could lose my life. My job. I have to hide who I am because of stories like Buffalo Bill, and at the centre of all of those was you.”

Elizabeth Klaviter, who is an executive producer on Clarice, told Forbes that the trans narrative was especially critical because the Hannibal Lecter franchise has “done a great deal of harm” to the trans community, which is “already in a vulnerable position in the world”. She said the creators of the show felt the “weight of that” legacy.

Klaviter said they wanted to rewrite the complicated legacy of Starling, who is not only an “imperfect feminist hero” but also has a legacy that “kind of violates holistic and inclusive and intersectional version of feminism”.

She cautioned the creators did not set out to try to “fix” Starling’s legacy but instead try to envision a series that could be more trans-inclusive.

“I think ‘fixing’ is a strong word,” Klaviter said. “I wouldn’t use it because obviously we can’t go back in a time machine and alter what that movie was.”

She added the show’s creators and writers had “conversations about how to acknowledge that’s the legacy that it had”. Klaviter said she approached it by questioning how they could create a story that “includes a transgender woman that is positive” and move forward with the “kind of storytelling that honours the trans community” – or “at least doesn’t harm the trans community”.

Eleanor Jean, who is a writer on Clarice, told Forbes that she grew up as a young trans person in a “very conservative part of Texas”. She said she grew up only seeing representations of the trans community on TV and in movies. Jean, who came out as trans only five years ago, said it presented “such a limited scope” of the trans experience that she thought she “needed to be a sex worker and was probably going to be a drug addict” or “insane”.

Silence of the Lambs led her to believe her “transsexualism can make me a serial killer”, Jean said, adding that negative media depictions of the trans community “kept me in the closet for a long time”.