In the introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick discusses the instability of the ignorance/knowledge binary, which generally equates the latter with power and the former with impotence. She argues that ignorance (or the appearance thereof) can be a tool of power as well, citing as an example the 1986 ruling by the United States Justice Department that employers “may freely fire persons with AIDS” provided that those employers “can claim to be ignorant of the medical fact, quoted in the ruling, that there is no known health danger in the workplace from the disease” (5). That this very fact was made explicit in the ruling itself preposterously encourages and makes advantageous misknowledge of the law with regard to AIDS, and it implicitly facilitates discrimination against homosexuals, who at the time of the case were (and to some extent, are still today) conceived of as promiscuous, selfish vectors of contagion, imposing their scourge upon the heterosexual world. The ruling essentially sets forth that ignorance is safer than information, at least for employers, and that they ought to limit themselves to knowing or assuming only what serves them. Such a privileging of assumption serves to “enforce discursive power” by discouraging anyone to look past stereotypes—if one employs a gay man, evidently, it would be safest to presume not only that he has contracted HIV, but that he will also engage in behaviors that would put others at risk as well (6). Written and released during the peak years of the United States AIDS panic, both Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Jonathan Demme’s cinematic adaptation (1991) take the form of a detective story, the quest for knowledge incarnated in a search for serial killer Buffalo Bill’s identity. Every character, of course, has his or her unique background and methods, which in turn structure the way they handle knowledge and ignorance and their conceptions of not only Buffalo Bill’s identity but also their own, the instability, performativity, and ambivalence of which manifest themselves throughout. The movie presents endless chains of dichotomies both relational and conceptual, prompting the implied spectator to ask, “which?”—and the film invariably responds with, “some of both.” The question driving the plot is that of Buffalo Bill’s identity, an unresolved muddle of gender, sexuality, and the ambiguous link between the two, which sets up the implied audience to examine the complicated identities of Jame Gumb and the rest of the characters as they perform and function within the parallel real and diegetic worlds of 1991, both dictated by hegemonically-encouraged incomplete readings and self-servingly willful misinterpretations and oversimplifications.
Digital Commons Citation
Stahl, Lynne, "Assuming Identities: Gender, Sexuality, and Performativity in The Silence of the Lambs" (2014). Faculty & Staff Scholarship. 803.
Stahl, L. “Assuming Identities: Gender and Performativity in The Silence of the Lambs.” The Projector. Bowling Green State University Press. May 2014