CBS’s Clarice, a television sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, has a lot to live up to. Not only is it going to be compared to the acclaimed 1991 film, it also has to measure up to Bryan Fuller’s cult-favorite Hannibal, which was canceled before it could adapt The Silence of the Lambs. Its greatest challenge, however, is not in matching the quality of past Thomas Harris adaptations, but in grappling with its source material’s most problematic legacy.
The primary antagonist, Buffalo Bill, is a serial killer who skins women to make himself a “woman suit.” This method of killing is based on the real-life serial killer Ed Gein, who was also the inspiration for Psycho‘s Norman Bates and Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface. While both the original Harris novel and Jonathan Demme’s movie adaptation make attempts to clarify that he is not a transsexual, Bill as a character nonetheless played into cultural fears of gender-nonconformity and was widely protested at the time as an offensive stereotype of queer or trans people. Ironically, the film’s attempts at dodging accusations of transphobia have aged particularly poorly, with the claim “transsexuals are very passive” being a false, if well-intended, stereotype.
The potentially homophobic/transphobic elements of The Silence of the Lambs don’t detract from its power as a thriller. However, to make any adaptation or sequel today demands serious engagement with these issues. Perhaps the best way for a modern retelling to handle it is one Clarice is not doing: Make Clarice Starling a trans woman.
Queer-coded or gender-nonconforming villains are only offensive if they’re the only representation available. The Silence of the Lambs was as heavily protested as it was because, in 1991, most LGBT representation in the media consisted of psychopathic villains, and at the height of the AIDS crisis, hateful stereotypes were that much more dangerous. LGBT representation has improved significantly, but Buffalo Bill so specifically parallels hateful narratives that accuse trans women of being inherently “violent” to cis women that any new Silence of the Lambs adaptation needs to counter this narrative with positive trans representation.
Rewriting Clarice Starling as a trans woman, and making sure to cast a trans actress in the role, could transform a story once used to attack trans women into one that celebrates them. The explanations that Bill’s not representative of normal trans people would be more convincing in a story with an actual trans protagonist. Just think of the dramatic possibilities of seeing a trans Clarice taking down Bill and coping with the aftermath.
The new Clarice is is decidedly not taking that route. Rebecca Breeds, who previously appeared on The Originals and Pretty Little Liars, has been cast to play Clarice. She might be great in the role. But so would Hari Nef from Assassination Nation, or Trace Lysette from Transparent, or Hunter Schafer from Euphoria in a few years, or any number of trans actresses. Hopefully the show will recognize the need to include some sort of positive non-stereotypical trans representation in this particular story, and include a trans character in the supporting cast. However, not going with a trans lead for a new Silence of the Lambs adaptation feels like a missed creative opportunity.
Clarice will air on CBS. The show does not yet have a release date.
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Perhaps the best way to modernize Silence of the Lambs is to do something CBS's Clarice is not doing: make Clarice a trans woman.