The Silence of the Lambs: Starling as a feminist heroine

Clarice Starling, in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, delivers a crucial message of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. There’s the all-important balance between working to professional standards, while dealing with some of the most soul-darkening situations imaginable – and facing up to the fact that the enemy is more sympathetic of your cause than your own establishment. Her awareness is a keen blade.

‘”Couple of things, Starling. I look for first-rate forensics from you, but I need more than that. You don’t say much, and that’s okay, neither do I. But don’t ever feel you’ve got to have a new fact to tell me before you can bring something up. There aren’t any silly questions. You’ll see things that I won’t, and I want to know what they are. Maybe you’ve got a knack for this. All of a sudden we’ve got this chance to see if you do.”
Listening to him, her stomach lifting and her expression properly rapt, Starling wondered how long Crawford had known he’d use her on this case, how hungry for a chance he had wanted her to be. He was a leader, with a leader’s frank-and-open bullshit, all right.

“One other thing: an investigation like this is a zoo. It’s spread out over a lot of jurisdictions, and a few are run by losers. We have to get along with them so they won’t hold out on us.”‘

‘”Sheriff, this kind of a sex crime has some aspects that I’d rather say to you just between us men, you understand what I mean?” Crawford said, indicating Starling’s presence with a small movement. of his head. He hustled the smaller man into a cluttered office off the hall and closed the door.
Starling was left to mask her umbrage before the
gaggle of deputies. Her teeth hard together, she gazed on Saint Cecilia and returned the saint’s ethereal smile while eavesdropping through the door.’

Against the oil-slick eyes of colleagues, the authority figures who would use gender as an angle in laugh-about-it-later examples of professional sexism, Starling holds her dignity in being able to continue with her work – primarily in the plot, saving other women – rather than be shredded by the constant dissection of her capabilities. She maintains control not only for her own sake, but for the vulnerable ones who are most at risk.

“In Clarice, we see an action/adventure character who is full of feelings from beginning to end, one who never doubts that feelings are an asset, a source of power. We watch her balance her intuitive clarity with a skilful manoeuvring of frank and intimate conversation. She has an uncanny ease with emotionally piercing scrutiny by her male bosses, peers and even the male killers. Close examination of her most private thoughts does not rattle her. If anything, she becomes more focused. She is responsive, not passive, in the face of male betrayals and holds a mirror for the transgressors to look at themselves.” – Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D.,
San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal

Something that’s come to my mind only recently, while watching the film again (and subsequently going back to the book), reflects a transition going on in my own life. Starling has always been a role model; this was based upon her intelligence, unassuming nature, and ability to stand up for herself in some truly excruciating situations. What I’d failed to note, was her femininity. The way she doesn’t try to disguise her gender, or play up to it for the sake of gaining ground with men, except where it suits her own needs:

“I understood you’d brief me, Dr. Chilton,” Starling said.
“I can do that while we walk.” He came around his desk, looking at his watch. “I have a lunch in half an hour.”
Dammit, she should have read him better, quicker. He might not be a total jerk. He might know something useful. It wouldn’t have hurt her to simper once, even if she wasn’t at it.”

She trains hard, applies herself in classes, works among and against men – and doesn’t try to be one of them. It’s worth noting that her best friend is another woman, equally as competent, and willing to go up against the everyday bombardment of male privilege/sexual entitlement for the sake of ambitions and the needs of others.

‘Ardelia Mapp saw the fatigue in her face. “What did you do today, girl?” Mapp always asked question as if the answers could make no possible difference.
“Wheedled a crazy man with come all over me.”
“I wish I had time for a social life – I don’t know how you manage it, and school too.”
Starling found that she was laughing. Ardelia Mapp laughed with her, as much as the small joke was worth. Starling did not stop, and she heard herself from far away, laughing and laughing. Through Starling’s tears, Mapp looked strangely old and her smile had sadness in it.’

It would have been easy for both Harris and Demme to cast Starling/Foster as a hard-line ice queen, or a vulnerable heroine in need of assistance from male colleagues, or as a rough ‘n tumble tomboy hinging her gags on perceived male weaknesses. Indeed, there are chances for Starling to take advantage when moments of vulnerability in her opponents arise – she uses the subtle-bitter sheen of that mirror, held up for them see what they are with their own eyes.

‘”When I told that deputy he and I shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that burned you, didn’t it?”
“It was just smoke. I wanted to get him by himself.”
“I know that.”
“Okay.” Crawford slammed the trunk and turned away.
Starling couldn’t let it go.
“It matters, Mr. Crawford.”
He was turning back to her, laden with his fax machine and briefcase, and she had his full attention.
“Those cops know who you are,” she said. “They look at you to see how to act.” She stood steady, shrugged her shoulders, opened her palms. There it was, it was true.
Crawford performed a measurement on his cold scales.
“Duly noted, Starling. Now get on with the bug.”
“Yes sir.”
She watched him walk away, a middle-aged man laden with cases and rumpled from flying, his cuffs muddy from the riverbank, going home to what he did at home.
She would have killed for him then. That was one of Crawford’s great talents.’

‘”What you’re doing is coming into my hospital to conduct an interview and refusing to share information with me.”
“I’m acting on my instructions, Dr. Chilton. I have the U.S. Attorney’s night number here. Now please, either discuss it with him or let me do my job.”
“I’m not a turnkey here, Miss Starling. I don’t come running down here at night just to let people in and out. I had a ticket to Holiday on Ice.”
He realized he’d said a ticket. In that instant Starling saw his life, and he knew it.
She saw his bleak refrigerator, the crumbs on the TV tray where he ate alone, the still piles his things stayed in for months until he moved them— she felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life— and switchblade-quick she knew not to spare him, not to talk on or look away. She stared into his face, and with the smallest tilt of her head, she gave him her good looks and bored her knowledge in, speared him with it, knowing he couldn’t stand for the conversation to go on.
He sent her with an orderly named Alonzo.’

Starling is a flawed human, like any other: willing to learn and to engage; straight-forward, and able to conduct herself with as much diplomacy in the face of afore-mentioned gender prejudice, as in unpredictable situations where her own life and that of others, are at risk. Her mind and soul stay resilient against the constant chipping-away at her gender.

It’s this sort of determined dignity that I relish in literature and on-screen – no overt attempts to pander to men’s goodwill, nor extreme agitation against their advances in tit-for-tat mocking. More than once, I catch myself wondering if it’s boredom at their behaviour that keeps the thin-lipped resolution in place. She’s able to withstand bullshit while exposing the “transgressors” for what they are, and to work through and around her internal knots as much as the external ones, for the sake of those in need of her help.

First and foremost, Starling is her own woman, getting on with more important things.

Starling ardelia


2 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs: Starling as a feminist heroine

  1. Love it! What a great critique with pertinent examples. We are messy, and that makes the Woman (or Man ~:-)

  2. joehefferon says:

    Very interesting take on a nearly forgotten book. And yes, once again, you’ve inspired me to do more thinking and (with hope) more writing. Merry Christmas Rachael Spellman.

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