Silence Of The Lambs Director Understands Why Film Was Considered Transphobic

buffalo-bill-silence-of-the-lambs-gWell, Jame Gumb isn’t gay. And this is my directorial failing in making The Silence of the Lambs—that I didn’t find ways to emphasize the fact that Gumb wasn’t gay, but more importantly, that his whole thing is that Lecter’s profile on Gumb was that he was someone who was terribly abused as a child, and as a result of the abuse he suffered as a child, had extreme self-loathing, and whose life had become a series of efforts to not be himself anymore. The idea is that by turning himself into a female, then surely Gumb can feel like he has escaped himself. He’s not a traditional “cross-dresser,” “transvestite,” or “drag queen”—the various labels that respectfully come up for people who love to don the clothing of the opposite gender. So, Gumb is not gay, but there is a reference to a homosexual experience he had which is attributed to this quest. We were all banking a little too much on the metaphor of the Death’s-head moth—that Gumb is trying to achieve a metamorphosis through making his human suit. We didn’t fortify and clarify that enough.

That said, when the film was accused of continuing a history of stereotypical negative portrayals of gay characters, that was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker, and as a person. My gay friends who loved Silence of the Lambs, including my friend 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 veryhard growing up gay and being exposed to all these stereotypes.” That registered with me in a big way. That year, we got a number of awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, and at a certain point in the awards ceremony, a dozen young people came into the room with fliers and put them on all the tables and they said, “STOP NEGATIVE PORTRAYALS OF GAYS ON FILM.” I thought, “This is such a bonus.” Because the film is this big success, and it’s now become a part of the dialogue on stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies.”


Director Jonathan Demme, discussing the controversy surrounding the sexual orientation of the villain (Jame Gumb, dubbed “Buffalo Bill”) in his Academy Award-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs


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  • Pistolo

    What a magnanimous thing to do, I’m pleased with anyone who can eloquently admit fault like that. Still love the movie and I’m pleased there was no ill-will on his part. It’s ok.

  • Lefty

    He’s right about that great film giving people the opportunity to come out and protest. Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t ‘bad’ representations of LGBT characters in films but that there weren’t many alternative views of same at the time. There’s nothing wrong with having LGBT serial killers or evil/immoral characters, at all; quite the opposite. They should have protested the companies themselves to create more variation in their LGBT characters; not the makers of this one film.
    In targeting all bad characters what are LGBT they’ve created the current atmosphere where all LGBT characters are saintly white-washed, characterless unrealistic dullards.

    I think we should start picketing film-makers again and demanding more gay serial killers.

  • DuMaurier

    I totally agree with you, Lefty. I posted the same sentiments on a story about the GLAAD survey of LGBT’s in movies; when Hollywood tries to “make amends” for bad old stereotypes they’re so clumsy and earnest about it. Along with LGBT characters as you point out,the “savage Indian” of the old Westerns becomes the perfect, spiritual paragon of sage enlightenment without any flaws or idiosyncracies. The shuffling, lazy ignorant “Negro” becomes the upright, dignifed, mellifluously spoken and equally flawless cardboard cutout.

    Showing a complex, varied mix of fully-drawn characters is obviously the answer, as you indicate. But as is so often the case, that probably happens more naturally in European movies than Hollywood ones.

    (And BTW, I understood quite well that Jame Gumb wasn’t “gay”, and had no problem seeing the moth/metamorphosis theme. I don’t think Demme has anything to be apologetic about)

  • 1EqualityUSA

    Thomas Harris had the book published in ’88 and likely spent a few years concocting this tale of woe. The story is too engrossing not to have been made into a film, irrespective of Gumb’s hobbies.

  • Billy Budd

    @Lefty: Lefty is right.

  • hex0

    It was obvious Bill was deranged and not a transsexual.

    People moaning that it’s “transphobic” are basically saying that his life mirrored theirs in some way as a transsexual?

  • jmmartin

    I loved the movie and almost shouted out loud in the theatre “Can’t you see this is a great auteur, a leading filmmaker, set to make the Pantheon!” Unfortunately, I had just returned from a trip to Mexico and caught ill, with nausea, when I saw the film. Remember the first time Clarice goes to the institution to see Lector for herself. Well, the sound men kick up the bass in that DTS 5.1 and in the small theatre where I caught up with the movie the whole damn auditorium rattled. I could not believe the way Mr. Demme built up the suspense in that tracking shot; it’s the filmic equivalent to the first few minutes of a stage play where the lead star’s entrance is going to be dramatic. And BTW, I miss Mr. Demme’s brother. His last film was also a fine one.

  • jar

    @Lefty: I think it’s interesting that you applaud one stereotypical portrayal (the evil gay mentally-ill killer), but decry another (the pure gay). Neither of them have must artistic value IMO.

  • jar

    @jmmartin: Yet, Jonathon Demme is all but forgotten, like most of the auteurs.

  • Lefty

    @jar: Serial killers exist. Saints don’t. That’s the difference.
    I agree with jmmartin about Demme; he’s one of the greats. I re-watched ‘Something Wild’ again recently and it’s just such a beautiful film. And ‘Philadelphia’ of course. ‘Melvin and Howard’ was a huge influence on Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, he cites Demme as being his main influence and says he steals shots from his movies all the time.

  • allegiance2none

    Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me hard. I’d fuck me so hard.

    Still, Silence is still better than Hannibal where Julianne Moore says “Dr. Lecter” like 100 times.

  • jar

    @Lefty: You really don’t think there are an equivalent number of people who are “saints” as there are serial killers? We’re talking about a very small number of people here. I don’t find “saints” to be interesting characters, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Philadelphia, which you like, portrayed its lead character as a saint- driven by honor, with a perfect, perfectly loving family and a perfect partner. I found the film unconvincing and pandering for that reason. Something Wild was amusing (haven’t seen it since its release) and I do like Melvin and Howard. But I wouldn’t call Demme great. Chacun a son gout.

  • Lefty

    @jar: I shouldn’t have used the word “saints”, as that is a particular extreme. I guess what I’m talking about are those gay characters where there’s no personal character or flaws, they’re just kind of paragons of decency and blandness. Actors will often say they find it much more interesting to play bad guys and I think that’s obviously because the more flaws a character has the more humanity there is, the more character there is. These bland gay characters are everywhere now. I recently re-watched The Object of My Affection and while I really like that film and the performances, I think Paul Rudd’s character is a perfect example.
    I agree with you about Philadelphia but at least Hanks’ character actually had some personality and he slept around behind Antonio Banderas’ back after getting infected so he wasn’t perfect. We never really get to know Banderas in that film but I think that was as much to do with nervousness on the part of the film’s makers (I know there was a scene of the two in bed – just a dialogue scene – that was cut out because of fear of ‘going too far’, which is laughable now but a measure of the times maybe).
    I don’t know, I see a lot of people complaining about gay films where the characters die or something and I think it goes back to the old saying “Happiness writes white”, you know? Flawed characters, suffering, tragedy and so on – that’s the stuff of drama; and when we have an atmosphere where all the gay characters are ‘inoffensive’ then we just become like furniture in films and not dynamic elements of the plot/drama.
    On the other hand, I am bored by this fashion for moral ambiguity and ‘darkness’ in TV dramas (Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, etc) at the moment, so I don’t know…

  • rhino79

    The Silence of the Lambs is my favorite film of all time, so I feel compelled to defend it.

    First of all, art, in any form, should never be dictated by ideology, political correctness, or a desire for “positive representations” of a certain group.

    Secondly, the movie explicitly states the points Demme makes above: Lecter: “Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. 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.”

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