30 Years Ago, The Silence of the Lambs Gave Us a Feminist Hero in Detective Clarice Starling

Tanvi Khemani
·5-min read

When you think of the classic film The Silence of the Lambs, you probably remember its terrifying villain, Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. Hannibal the Cannibal was a psychiatrist-turned-serial killer who literally ate people alive, sometimes with a side of some fava beans and a nice chianti. But the film, which celebrates its 30th anniversary on February 14, isn’t just about Hannibal. Its protagonist is actually Clarice Starling, a young FBI agent-in-training played by Jodie Foster in an Academy Award-winning performance. The film tells the story of how Starling tracks down a serial killer and saves a woman from becoming his next victim. Hannibal is just her sidekick in the whole shindig.

By the time I finished this film, Clarice Starling had become my new hero. The crime, thriller, and horror genres have generally relegated women to unidimensional side characters: Lois Lane-style helpless victims, over-the-top femme fatales, or dead wives and girlfriends who spur the hero on in his quest for revenge. To my surprise and joy, Starling defied these stereotypes. A badass cop, she battled monsters both inside and outside the FBI academy and proved her mettle in a misogynistic workplace. And she held her own against not one, but two psychopathic serial killers. How’s that for a feminist icon?

We are first introduced to Clarice Starling as she is jogging alone on a desolate obstacle course in the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Then she squeezes into an elevator full of men who tower over her and ignore her. These quiet visuals in the opening sequence clearly establish that Starling is treated as an outsider in the world of law enforcement – every woman who has tried to succeed in a male-dominated field will identify with this feeling of exclusion.

In the cat-and-mouse game of tracking down one serial killer while taking the help of another, Starling soon realises that doing her job has been complicated by the fact that she is a woman in a man’s world, and that every man she meets – agent, murderer, psychiatrist, criminal, senior, junior – can’t seem to wrap their heads around that.

Starling's male colleagues are threatened by her and by the possibility that she will be successful–yet they expect her to fail.

When Starling reaches the asylum Hannibal is housed in, she is briefed by a Dr Chilton, a much older, extremely creepy man who hits on her within seconds of the meeting. When she politely rebuffs his advances, he remarks: “Crawford’s very clever, isn’t he, using you? Pretty, young woman to turn him on... I don’t believe Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years... And oh, are you ever his taste–so to speak.” Clarice realises that he is implying that she has been chosen for this case only because of her beauty and gender, and she swiftly shuts him down with the rejoinder, “I graduated from UVA, Doctor. It’s not a charm school.”

When I saw this exchange, my heart broke for the idealistic, hardworking Starling and for other young women like her who have to deal with the unfairness of misogyny in our day-to-day lives. It also made me furious at the men – the “good” FBI agents as well as the “evil” criminals – who were using Starling as nothing more than a pawn in their dangerous game.

In another important scene, Jack Crawford, Starling’s boss, actually singles her out and tells the local sheriff that they shouldn’t discuss their observations of the victim’s wounds in front of a woman. She firmly and politely reminds him that his actions set the tone for how her peers will treat her as well as their other women colleagues. The scene is a painful reminder that benevolent sexism is just as damaging as hostile sexism.

In a post #Metoo world, we have begun speaking more openly about the myriad problems women face in the workplace: sexual harassment, glass ceilings, double standards, sexist attitudes, boys’ clubs, condescension, and so on. Clarice Starling is subjected to all these obstacles. Her male colleagues are threatened by her and by the possibility that she will be successful–yet they expect her to fail. As is the case with most women, she has to work doubly hard, be extra firm with her boundaries, and stand up for herself just to be treated properly.

What’s more, Starling’s beauty and femininity make her a constant target of the male gaze. At one point, Hannibal points this out to discomfit her, saying, “Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?” And the answer is, she does. Through her experiences, the film brilliantly portrays how women have to operate under a suffocating, relentless male gaze that constantly sexualises us.

The Silence of the Lambs isn’t about the depravity of criminals or the misogyny of men.

Though the men around Starling are frustratingly dismissive of her, she prevails. By (spoiler alert) putting together the clues dropped by Hannibal, she finds Bill, kills him, and rescues his newest victim. And in a very satisfying twist, she proves indeed to be to Hannibal’s taste: not as his dinner, but as a person who he has come to respect and even admire. After he escapes, he assures her that he won’t be coming after her because “the world’s more interesting” with her in it.

Ultimately, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t about the depravity of criminals or the misogyny of men. The way I see it, it’s about women saving other women with their sheer hard work, presence of mind, and courage. When the film released, the beautiful, diligent, hardworking Clarice Starling was an oddity. Now television shows and films are filled with her daughters – Kate Beckett in Castle, Amy Santiago in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and closer home, Rani Mukherjee’s Shivani Shivaji Roy in Mardaani.

With a new TV show centred on Starling coming out soon, we’ll get to cheer her on once again as she beats the bad guys. Ultimately, her story has important lessons for today’s young women: be your own hero, ignore the sexist men around you, help your sisters out, and don’t let the bad guys get away.