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Quid Pro Quo: How THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Has Informed Our Attitude Towards Chelsea Manning

How THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Has Informed Our Attitude Towards Chelsea Manning

There’s no precedent for
what we’re supposed to think about the story of Chelsea Manning. In the absence
of an easy answer, our response resembles a replay of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of
The Lambs.
The facts run as follows: In February 2009, an army intelligence analyst named
Bradley Manning turned a vast amount of damning classified documents over to
Wikileaks, including a video of a Baghdad airstrike that killed two unarmed war
correspondents, as well as a video of an even more grotesque Afghan airstrike
that killed between 86 and 147 civilians, mostly children. After spending more
than 1200 days in several solitary confinement facilities—including a cell
in Quantico where he saw the sun for 20 minutes a day and was forced to sleep
naked because of potential self-harm concerns—his case went to trial, he was found guilty,
sentenced, and then  the condemned
soldier turned whistleblower (or traitor) turned icon announced to the world,
“I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”

The media can’t get a
handle on what feels like double treachery on Manning’s part: just when justice
closes in on a traitor, the traitor changes shape. America is choking on
Manning’s metamorphosis just like the moth chrysalis shoved deep into the
throat of Buffalo Bill’s victims in Silence—another narrative about
secrets, justice, and perverse transformations. To really understand Manning’s
story requires subtlety and nuance: a deeply unhappy and conflicted young
soldier, motivated equally by moral imperative, deep personal dissatisfaction,
and a profound identity crisis, laid bare our military’s most brutal failings.
But why strive for a true understanding of reality when our pop mythologies
will address our unease?

It’s not an unthinkable
parallel. The Silence Of The Lambs, made in 1991 at the advent of the
first Gulf War, is a movie full of American flags—some where they’re
expected, like courthouses and government buildings and on the uniforms of law
enforcement personnel, but many more in unexpected places. Flags manifest in
violence and cloak its aftermath: peeling back a gigantic flag draped over a
car in a storage unit belonging to Hannibal Lecter reveals a decapitated
mannequin and a head in a jar. A pool of blood left after one of Lecter’s
killing sprees reflects the light glinting off prison bars, cutting the gory
puddle into red and white stripes. Bright muzzle flare from Starling’s gun
reveals how Buffalo Bill’s underground lair is full of stars and stripes,
including a tiny flag at a jaunty angle that suggests the raising at Iwo Jima.
(A vintage poster on a door nearby reads “America—Open Your
Eyes.”)

The first Buffalo Bill was
an American hero, too: Medal of Honor recipient William Frederick Cody, hunter,
showman, slaughterer of buffalo. Not the villain of our movie, the monster we
meet first in a bold headline (“BILL SKINS FIFTH”), then as a stranger ensnaring
a young woman (she’s listening to Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on her
headphones), and then, in all his perverse, naked glory, croaking “I’d fuck
me” while swooning over his own castration. This is what many shamed
transgendered people recall from childhood as their first vision of
“someone like me”: It rubs the lotion on its skin or it gets the hose
again. The script makes clear Buffalo Bill isn’t a transsexual (“his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more
terrifying,” assures Lecter), but this is an empty reassurance that one
forgets with a nauseous shudder after hearing the first bars of Q Lazzarus’s
“Goodbye Horses.”

Buffalo Bill wants to
become a woman by donning a home-sewn “woman suit,” but he’s not the
only yearning butterfly (or death’s head moth) in a movie full of
transformations.  Starling sheds her
trainee sweatpants to become a full-fledged FBI agent. Lecter teases Starling
with clues tucked inside anagrams, the verbal equivalent of a caterpillar
inside a cocoon, and flays impostors attempting the same masquerade (his catty
rejoinder to the mother-turned-senator: “Love your suit”), but
he too escapes from his own prison by skinning a man’s face and wearing it as a
mask.

Did Manning think about
this when she borrowed another face to try and escape from a military tour of
duty full of harassment and abuse? Sending a photo of herself in a blonde wig
and makeup to her master sergeant in an email entitled “My Problem” is a
desperate act. It’s true, she was disturbed. There’s no shortage of documented
violent incidents spanning her troubled life, including one in which she was
found curled up on the floor of a storage room, a knife at her feet, the words “I want” carved into a nearby chair.
(“What do we covet, Clarice? That which we see every day.”) The desire to correct one’s gender—or to take a stand
against unjust military secrecy—isn’t stimulated by something as simple as
knowing about a fictional character. But if the virulent legacy of Buffalo Bill
still floats through our culture, making life hard for transgendered people,
maybe it also keeps the unusual, positive example of Starling’s feminine
heroism fresh in our collective mind.

The Silence
Of The Lambs
is ultimately
the story of a woman who penetrates a world of underground chambers—basements, storage units, detention blocks behind endless locked doors, wells
dug into dirt floors—because  that is
where the secrets are kept.
Manning is tiny, elfin, 5
foot 2 and 105 pounds: birdlike, a Starling. She knew how it felt to be crowded
in rooms full of uniformed men towering over her, harassing, bullying,
badgering. Her fragile mental state notwithstanding, she felt the same dogged
imperative to expose secrets in the name of justice, after finding out American
soldiers were killing noncombatants with the same breezy impunity (“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards . . .,”
“Good shot,” “Thank you.”) with
which William Cody killed buffalo on the American plains. And she, too, knows
what it’s like to be imprisoned in small, dark spaces. Turning documents over
to Wikileaks was the end of one cluster of secrecy, but unlocking Chelsea from
the prison of Bradley—a transformation that was much longer in the works
than its sudden public manifestation would suggest—was really the
penultimate secret she needed to set free.

The media
could have seen this parallel and cast her as a Clarice Starling.  But that didn’t happen. The aftershocks of a
character as powerful as Buffalo Bill means her male-to-female transformation
is met with exceptional revulsion. She is a turncoat monster, a shapeshifter so
dangerous she must sleep, like Lecter, in solitary confinement, not even
allowed flip flops or underwear because she could turn them into lethal
weapons. Even when she refused to testify against Wikileaks in exchange for a
plea deal, rather than honoring her courage the headlines essentially screamed
BRAD PLEADS FIFTH.

To her credit
she’s not accepting this narrative. She issued a graceful public statement: “I hope that you will support me in this transition . . . I look
forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to
write back.” She seeks a dialogue, not the recursive, narcissistic
“I’d fuck me” of Buffalo Bill. William Cody was a hero in his time,
but now we lament the slaughter of the buffalo. It’s funny how our heroes rise
and fall as our perspective changes. Manning got 35 years, but there’s hope
she’ll be the hero whose pop culture example can replace the anti-transgender
legacy of The Silence Of The Lambs. Buffalo Bill’s defunct. How do you
like your blue eyed girl?

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

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Comments

Ugh

This article, inane as it is, deserves comment only because it makes a connection between Silence of the Lambs, which was filmed partly in Quantico, Virginia, and Chelsea Manning, who was tortured there before trial. Of course, the writer seems to completely miss this fact.

No

This article is so stupid and bereft of any illuminating ideas re transgender people that the author had to pick a film to justify her own stupidity.

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