Can the past change?
Two nights ago, Hubs and I re-watched the brilliant, Oscar-winning thriller Silence of the Lambs. The movie came out in 1991 and neither of us had watched it for at least a decade.
The movie I remembered watching in 1991 was a terrifying psycho-thriller, which I watched mostly on the edge of my seat and sometimes through the fingers covering my eyes. I remembered the savagery of serial killer Buffalo Bill, and the more refined horror Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter—a character that would become iconic and oft-copied in the years to come. I remembered my held breath as FBI agent Clarice Starling hunted Buffalo Bill in the dark while he watched her—almost touched her—through night vision googles. I remembered discussing Anthony Hopkins’s performance with friends and our poor imitations of that fff-fff-fff-fff-fff sound he made after telling Clarice about eating a man’s liver. That is the movie I watched 26 years ago.
The movie I watched two nights ago was not that. The elements were there, certainly, but the past had changed. I was surprised to see that the most memorable character was not Hannibal Lecter but Clarice Starling. My shock continued as I watched a compelling recreation of a story untold numbers of competent women have lived through: trying to make it in a man’s world. Where did this story come from?
Through scene after scene I wondered why I had not remembered the countless examples of the kind of bullshit Starling had to navigate just to do her damn job. A job she was more than qualified to do, by the way. In 2017, the scene which stayed with me after the credits rolled was not Hannibal’s creepy teeth-sucking noise but a quiet conversation in a car, between Agent Starling and her boss Agent Crawford. Crawford had used Starling’s gender as an excuse to get a sheriff out of the room and she was obviously upset about what happened. Here is the exchange:
Jack Crawford: Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.
Clarice Starling: It matters, Mr. Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.
Jack Crawford: Point taken.
This tiny moment was ground-breaking for 1991. Starling points out something many women have always known—that males take cues from their peers, and other men higher up the food chain, when it comes to behaviour and attitudes toward females—but, more importantly, Crawford doesn’t try to brush her off or get defensive. Crawford says, “Point taken”, and you get the sense in that scene that it really is, that he has been given a new perspective and respects it.
Hell, that’s ground-breaking for 2017!
The movie opens with a steady-cam shot following Starling as she doggedly runs through an obstacle course and I believe that sets the theme for the entire story. From the FBI cadets who ogle her ass as they jog by, to the nerdy entomologist who hits on her as she’s trying to solve a murder, to the serial killer who demands quid pro quo before he will assist her, this is a woman running through the obstacles of an archaic social system to simply, like I said, do her damn job.
Ironic, when I think about it, that in 1991 the story of Clarice Starling, which I see so clearly now, was lost behind the showmanship of the male lead. Hopkins was amazing, no question about that, but so was the rest of the story.
And here’s where the movie changed yet again. You see, I remembered the character of Buffalo Bill as creepy, twisted, and terrifying. I remembered the Death’s Head moth he used as a symbol of transformation. I did not remember that he was transsexual, nor did I make the connection between “transformation” and “trans”.
Through the infinitely more enlightened eye of 2017, Buffalo Bill’s character was awkward and problematic. The writers tried to deal with the problem through Lecter’s explanation that his former patient only “thought” he was trans and that he likely was rejected for gender reassignment surgery. But rather than making the plot easier for me to buy into that offhand dismissal made me even more uncomfortable. Who gets to decide whether someone is really trans or just faking it? What if they’d let him have the surgery? Would he have then not felt the need to go out and murder a bunch of women to make himself a new female skin? And what does that say about transgender people?
It’s all very dicey and ugly transphobic territory once you start digging.
Sad. Sad because the writer could have easily kept in all the details that made Buffalo Bill so utterly horrifying but with a different motivation attached to his actions. They could have steered clear of the gender quagmire and still had a story every bit as nail-biting. Sad because they told an incredibly progressive story about female empowerment but chose to throw transgender people under the bus to do it.
So how do I feel about Silence of the Lambs in 2017? Conflicted.
This movie did so much so right. There’s no wonder it swept the Academy Awards, taking home wins for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing. It pleases me that a film of this caliber featured a female protagonist who was never sexualized and who was allowed to be multi-layered. The scary parts still make me cover my eyes and hover on the edge of my seat, which is not always the case with aged thrillers. I tell myself that attitudes toward the LGBTQ community were vastly different in 1991—I know they were—but the transphobia in the story makes me cringe.
I took something else away from this movie: the past can change.
I bet that to many men out there, and to many conservative women, it feels as if there has been a sudden swell of feminism. A wave that came seemingly from out of nowhere. In practically the blink of an eye, great swathes of the female population started shouting about misogyny, #everydaysexism, the need for equity, sexual harassment, and on and on and on. The same language and behaviour that was no big deal ten years ago is now in the spotlight—and it’s not a flattering light. Women are vocal, they are frustrated, they are angry. Where did this all “suddenly” come from?
In large part, I think we can thank the internet. Speaking for myself, it was reading the stories of other women that showed me so much of what I have experienced over the years was not fair or even normal—or at least should not be considered normal. For the first time, large numbers of women could connect with each other, instantly, and share their stories. Patterns emerged and what so many of us had all just unwittingly gone along with because “that’s just the way it is” appeared now as a problem that could, and should, be solved.
When I look back on my life, it’s a different movie in 2017. Scenes that I had brushed off as unimportant, especially when looked at collectively, reveal a re-occurring theme. And there are so very many of those scenes. Some are small, some are large, but all keep telling the same story—I was Clarice Starling, running that obstacle course, over and over again.
I had three close male friends in junior high and highschool—one of whom was my on-again-off-again boyfriend and a much bigger story—who I have always remembered fondly. But in the past few years, more and more, I am remembering the times when maybe they weren’t such good friends and, more and more, I wonder why I put up with it?
Some scenes are comical. I recall playing a new video game at one of the boys’ houses and wanting my turn at the control. Little did I know that the three boys—as a joke—gave me the wrong instructions for the game just so that my turns would end quickly and they would get to play more. Harmless fun, right? You might even be chuckling right now, I get it. Then there was the time we were all goofing around about something and two of the boys grabbed me, tackled me, and then dragged me by my feet through a bunch of bushes. When they let me go and I climbed out, covered in dirt and leaves and branches, they were doubled over, laughing so hard they could barely breathe. Ha ha ha! Such pranksters. And then there was the time we went to their friend Mike’s house for lunch. Nothing unusual led up to the moment. We were all eating sandwiches or whatever, complaining about school, talking about teenager stuff, being kids. For a reason I can’t remember (or maybe there wasn’t a reason), one of the boys grabbed a knife out of the drawer and started heading toward me. Very funny. I laughed because these were my friends and they were being silly. But then another “friend” grabbed a knife, and I was backing away and trying to be cool and not scared at all. And then the four of them were chasing me through the house and no one was laughing.
No, the worst did not happen. It didn’t go that far. I don’t recall exactly how it ended but I know that at some point someone realized we had to get back to school and the “game” ended. Ha ha ha. Funny, right? But when I look back at that scene in the movie now, I wasn’t having fun. I was scared. I was confused—weren’t these boys my friends? I was mad at myself for not keeping my cool. I considered myself one of the guys and that was a guy kind of horseplay, so why did it feel so real and so legitimately threatening?
What you need to know is that I have a long list of scenes that were one thing in the past and have changed to something else in 2017. Or, rather, I have changed. I will no longer see four boys with knives chasing a girl around a house as fun or as play. I no longer need to subject myself to threats and bullying for the “privilege” of being one of the guys.
What you need to know is that I have given you just the smallest sample of scenes from one woman’s life. And guess what? At some point, some woman will read about my scenes and start looking back on the movie of her life and seeing her own scenes in a new light too. This, my friends, is how we got to here.
This sudden wave of feminism is more like a Tsunami. It starts deep and far off shore. As it travels through the ocean, it’s barely detectable on the surface—a slight change of current, a slight rise in the level of the water. It’s only when all that force finally hits the shore that you can see the real size and scope of the wave—but, make no mistake, it has been there all along.
You may feel as if this wave of female anger and frustration has appeared out of thin air but, make no mistake, it has been there all along.
My feelings about the past are no different than my feelings about Silence of the Lambs: conflicted.
I can’t ignore everything that was brilliant and good but I’m never again going to feel comfortable with what was wrong.
What I know is that we need to fix the script. We need to make a better movie.