“Buffalo Bill’s conceptualisation of sex/gender — his notion of what they (it) are (is) — is no less and no more than a reflection of commonplaces in the culture that surrounds him.”

Discuss, including at least some reference in your answer to two or more of: mainstream human biology; Mackinnon; Firestone; Kofman; philosophical approaches to Essentialism.

In this essay I shall first describe Buffalo Bill as portrayed and constructed in the film and book, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, before turning to Kofman and Firestone’s theories for an explanation of his conceptualisation of gender and sexuality. Buffalo Bill’s idea of sex/gender is generally that of a transsexual, that is, he has the physical characteristics of a man, but, in his view, he has this strong [perhaps] psychological urge to be a woman, or to resemble a woman. The extent to which Buffalo Bill wants to become a woman is demonstrated by the fact that ‘he’ has attempted to undergo surgery to modify his sexual or reproductive organs so that he is no longer a man, but a woman.

The image of Buffalo Bill in the film, and the book is that “he” is definitely a man, he is not a real transsexual, he just thinks he is and he tries to be one because he hates his own identity and it is this loathing that he believes makes him a transsexual and has probably led Buffalo Bill to try to be a lot of things in the past — now he wants (or thinks he wants) to be a transsexual — a woman. He is confused and angry because ‘they’ will not help him to change. For Dr Lecter, Buffalo Bill’s ‘pathology’ is a much more savage and terrifying. Also, violence and destructive abnormal behaviour are not statistical ‘correlatives’ of transsexuals. For Lecter, the only tendency that is often seen in a transsexual is surgical addiction, because cosmetically, transsexuals are hard to satisfy. It is Dr Lecter’s view that Buffalo Bill tried to apply for sex-reassignment and his application was denied on the basis of either, a criminal record that indicates violence in his past, or abuse and that, Buffalo Bill failed the tests or personality inventories used to diagnose male applicants for transsexual surgery [T.Harris, 1988, p159–164].

For example [according to Dr Lecter], using the ‘House-Tree-Person’ test used, a male transsexual will always draw the female first and, typically, they pay a lot of attention to adornments on the females they draw — their male figures are simple stereotypes, and someone who would test differently from the way a transsexual would, would be someone who did not draw the female figure first. Also, with real transsexuals, you get two kinds of trees — flowing, copious willows and castration themes. The trees that are cut off by the edge of the drawing or the edge of the paper, the castration images, are full of life in the drawings of true transsexuals. Flowering and fruitful stumps — are an important difference. They are very unlike the frightened, dead, mutilated trees you see in drawings by people with mental disturbances — Buffalo Bill’s tree would have been “frightful”. With the house drawing, it would have been one without the trimmings — no baby carriage outside, no curtains, no flowers in the yard. On his drawing of himself, a transsexual will almost never draw himself naked. Those rejected for criminal records are more likely to be burglars and among those who tried to conceal criminal records, it would be those who had severe childhood disturbances associated with violence, possibly ‘internment’ in childhood [ibid].

According to Raspail (as Lecter recounts in the book), Buffalo Bill (or “Jame”) is not really a homosexual, it is just something he “picked up in jail.” He is just lacking in something that he wants to fill, and is very angry, exuding feelings of emptiness. He killed his grandparents when he was twelve [T.Harris, 1988]. Buffalo Bill sees woman as someone who has what he wants, he covets them because he covets being a woman. He distances himself emotionally from his “victims” and refers to them as “it” in an attempt to deny to himself that he is doing something wrong to another person. He sees these women as a means to an end, and cannot cope if they try to reach out to him emotionally in an appeal to his sense of humanity. Buffalo Bill’s idea of woman is purely about a warped form of performance, if he can act in ways he sees women as acting like and he has performed well enough, he can achieve what he wants, to be a woman. The character of Buffalo Bill plays into the most basic notions of what sexuality is. Bill is re-creating his idea of how he thinks a woman should be like, e.g.: make-up, hair etc. By transforming himself, Bill, is making an image of the stereotypical woman, he does the hair, the make-up and dances around singing with his penis tucked between his legs in front of a mirror and then considers his attractiveness to men, suggesting he finds his image of woman sexually attractive, which indicates he is still thinking like a heterosexual man and is only conveying an image. The portrayal of his pet poodle, “Precious” in the film and book as a feminine accessory that he can “mother” and “dress-up” and lavishes all of his affection and loving feelings onto is an obvious attempt to show how lacking Bill is in masculinity, but it is in itself negative in its intentions because it is making an appeal to stereotypes and is mocking in its intentions.

Influences of culture and society on such constructs as gender are ones that are not anatomical or biological. There are few, if any, differences in behaviour between baby boys and girls in the first weeks of life, but in nearly all societies and classes of society, the way a baby is regarded and handled by its parents and others varies according to its anatomical sex. Thus gender roles are assigned from an early age and, through contact with peers and society at large, most children soon become aware of gender stereotypes, which are important in the development of sexuality, especially during adolescence. In adult life, gender differences manifest themselves in the extent to which the attitudes and behaviour of men and women diverge in public and private life, in their choice of occupation, their ambitions, and their aspirations. Male and female roles can also vary markedly from one society or period in history to another, pointing to the determining influence of culture on gender roles. It has been plausibly argued, however, that gender differences are purely arbitrary, that societies with different child-rearing practices have different attitudes toward men and women and their roles, and that in an ideal world gender differences could be abolished and many of the inequities of present-day society eliminated.

According to Kofman [1985], Freud leaves the riddle of women’s femininity or sexuality unsolved — he makes many speculative claims and leaves them in abeyance, constantly contradicting himself. It his obsession with an “idee fixe” of penis envy that leads him towards sexual research, a sublimination of his own incestuous desire. Buffalo Bill’s conceptualisation of sex/gender can be seen to be due to the commonplaces in the culture that surrounds him, the ideas of woman that those such as Freud put forward that had the effect of influencing many, but at the same time causing injury to women’s position in society back a long way through arguing that women are inferior. Buffalo Bill’s conceptualisation of his own gender and sexuality is one that is warped, twisted and superficial in its essence — it is as if Buffalo Bill longs to possess the enigma of woman, the mystery that he sees them as holding. Buffalo Bill incorporates many of the elements that Freud details in his work into his “performance” of woman — his own “work” as Clarice Starling describes it in the film of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ [J.Demme, 1991]. For example, according to Kofman, using Freud’s thesis of bisexuality, it could be seen to make the implication that Freud himself could not have been “purely” and “simply” a man, and that he could not have had “purely” masculine prejudices — if this could be true of Freud, this could almost certainly be true of Buffalo Bill [Kofman, 1985, p14 & 15].

Freud’s emphasis on a lack of a penis to femininity could be seen to have similarities with Buffalo Bill’s desire not to have, or at the very least to disguise or hide the fact that he has a penis — it is as if Bill realises the only way he can become a woman is to have been castrated, where this would place him as far as Freud’s penis envy is concerned is questionable. Perhaps Bill is searching for his own truth in becoming a feminine woman — as it is clear from many philosophical texts (and Freud’s psychoanalytical texts are not an exception in this case) that woman represents an unattainable truth due to her mysteriousness. With regard to the terror that women’s genitals are meant to inspire in man and the fear of castration that results from this terror, homosexuality and fetishism can be explained and a “cure” found, according to Freud. Bearing in mind that woman is thought by Freud to have a disastrous effect on man (through her genitals) it is hard to comprehend why Buffalo Bill would be so drawn to become one [Kofman, 1985, p17].

As Freud does, Bill does not concentrate on the true essence of woman in his performance, he is only concerned with the superficial, how he sees them to be and he projects his feelings for women onto his “creation” of himself as a woman. He is mistaken and makes many assumptions of woman that renders his new/other persona an invalid one. Freud excuses himself, possibly because he is aware he is the criminal — this could be said of Buffalo Bill’s refusal to accept his victims as people referring to them as “it”, he is aware deep-down that he is the criminal and that his behaviour cannot be excused, be it by his turbulent and distressing past, or his alleged transsexuality and anger at the authorities/institutions for not helping him to transform fully into the woman he wants to become. The woman Bill holds captive before killing is the subordinate, and he is the master, in actual fact, he is the man. Bill wants woman’s power, but at the same time he finds it terrifying, he wants to be sufficient to himself, not dependent on the authorities to be who he wants to be, he is envious of women for having this self-sufficiency and has projected this envy onto the women he seeks [Kofman, 1985, p52–55].

Perhaps Bill is just carrying or acting out what he has experienced at the hands of cultural repression. Woman is only imitating nature, and Bill is only imitating woman. Bill wants to be able to charm men, he has previously attempted this through the use of homosexuality — something that manifested itself while he was in prison for murdering his grandparents. As Freud suggests in his work, if a woman has beauty, then she has every chance of seducing men — deflecting from the horror that is inspired from her genital organs — Bill wishes to seduce men through his newly-created femininity, but the horror his own male genitals inspires is something he feels about himself — anyone else’s feelings about his genitals is really a secondary issue. It could be that Bill seeks the narcissism that Freud discusses, the self-contentment that develops with women who grow up with good looks. Bill is ignoring or forgetting that this is actually compensation for the social restrictions that are imposed on them in their choice of object. It is a love of self that these women have — Bill does not have this important feature that Freud highlights in his work. Bill wants to inspire a fascination in men through femininity when in actual fact it is Bill himself who has this fascination, a fascination with the image he is creating in a mirror that he looks upon in a distinctly male way, not as the woman he should be trying to be if he was a “real” transsexual [Kofman, 1985, p31 & p52–55].

When a “neurotic” has the wish to become a woman, it gives the indication that ‘he’ is getting better, because it is a wish to be happy — and, only in woman does sexuality not carry with it such surrendering [Andreas-Salome; as cited in Kofman, 1985, p53]. This could be the key to how Kofman would consider Buffalo Bill to fit into the scheme of things. Buffalo Bill is the “neurotic”, he seeks the power a woman’s sexuality holds — the way he goes about obtaining this may be horrifying but the reasons why he does it are clearer through the use of Kofman’s exposition of Freud, in ‘The Enigma of Woman’.

Now, turning to Firestone [1971], ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, I will attempt to build on my discussion of Buffalo Bill’s conceptualisation of sex or gender and to decide whether or not his notion of what it is, is no less and no more than a reflection of commonplaces in the culture that surrounds him. Firestone sees some value in the work of Freud (like Marx and Engels), his work is still valid, if not of more value than that of socialist theorists for the building of a new dialectical materialism based on sex. It is Firestone’s aim to match the best of both Freud and Marx and Engels. It is my belief that Firestone would explain Buffalo Bill’s behaviour in terms of the fact that society is family-based and that repressions due to the incest taboo make a completely fulfilled sexuality impossible for anyone, and a well-functioning sexuality possibly for only a few. At present, homosexuality is as restricted and “sick” as our heterosexuality, Firestone argues that “a day may soon come in which a healthy transsexuality would be the norm”. If the family were abolished so would the repressions that mould sexuality into specific groupings. Of course, Firestone states “healthy” — and Bill’s transsexuality could not be considered “healthy” in the sense Firestone mentions, but it leaves us in no doubt that the family in our society has made Buffalo Bill what he is, the “culture” that surrounds him is centred on the family, and perhaps he never made the necessary passage from “mothercentredness” to “fathercentredness” and this is where things went wrong for him [Firestone, 1971, p14, p64–66].

Firestone highlighted the fact that children are also oppressed, which results in insecurity, aggression, and often “obnoxiousness” — this could be another explanation as to how Buffalo Bill became the person he is. Firestone wants to see a “cultural revolution” — one that creates an androgynous culture, but also one that abolishes the cultural categories themselves — which ends up with another culture in itself. This could mean that someone like Buffalo Bill would not have been placed in a category with an enforced or imposed identity that he would come to hate, because no such category would exist and he would not be behaving in such a dangerous way because the factors that cause such behaviour would have been abolished. In this “new society”, for Firestone, humanity could finally revert to its natural “polymorphously perverse” sexuality and, all forms of sexuality would be allowed and gratified so that the individual could now realise him/herself completely through the process of being and acting [Firestone, 1971, p66, p117,p216, & p236–237].


Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs: Film, Orion Pictures, 1991.

Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex — The Case for Feminist Revolution, Jonathan Cape, London, 1971.

Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs: Book, Mandarin, London, 1988.

Sarah Kofman, The Enigma of Woman — Woman in Freud’s Writings, Cornell University Press, London, 1985.

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