Structuralist Theory Dictates
Structuralist theory dictates that a film’s meaning is unconsciously linked to social and ideological paradigm unique to the context of its time. Alternative readings emerge through viewership which define film as a non-fixed entity and are arguably as valid as the original autonomy of the auteur. This can be analysed in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film Silence of the Lambs, through the exploration of subjective interpretations which form the basis for a postmodernist portrayal of gender and sexuality.
With depictions of heterosexuality constituting the foundation of social and political values, legislation, and media representations, concepts of ‘normalised’ gender identity have dominated sexual politics and feminist dissent for decades. In the text Gender Trouble: Subversive Bodily Acts, Judith Butler argues how this unified model of behaviour is critical to the reproduction of identity and gender performance, stating that we create ourselves and a sense of worldly security through a process of excluding the ‘Other’ (Butler, ). Historically, LGBT people have had scarce chances to see their lives represented on screen and have used the concept of the Other as a means to interpret gay narratives through subtext and stereotypes.
The idea of creation through omission lends itself to the character of Clarice Starling and her apparent lack of sexuality. Through the exclusion of a heterosexual love interest, or rather, the inclusion of the constant rejection of male sexual advances throughout the film, the lesbian viewer is able to speculate that the intimacy of her friendship with roommate Ardelia Mapp may be romantic in nature. This is further legitimised when considering that dark and light women have traditionally been used to symbolise the butch/femme dynamic, with black lesbians partnered with lighter skinned or white femmes. (Gillis, Waters, 2011) Given the refusal to acknowledge that fixed and permanent identities exist within postmodern film (Hill, ), the hints at sexual desire between the two characters, which do not comfortably sit within heterosexual filmic conventions, are able to be latched on to to form a perspective which disrupts the narrative of normalised classicism and redefines platonic same sex representation.
The discourse surrounding the interpretation of Clarice Starling as lesbian is divided and reliant on the subjectivity of viewership. Feminist film theory has historically concerned itself with male spectatorship and heterosexually performed femininity ( ), and as a result there have been fractures within interpretations from both sides of the sexual binary. Many straight feminists have argued that the appearance of Starling as not overtly sexualised or feminine is a testament to “female experts whose professional struggles are effectively and implicitly reduced to a tension between their female bodies and their ability to do their jobs.” (Gillis, Waters, 2011) They maintain that the positive image of a woman working within the constraints of patriarchy, whilst refusing to prioritise male interests and subverting gendered expectations, barring any resemblance to lesbianism is reliant on conventional typecasting. (Staiger, 2000) While a strong female character does not equate to lesbianism, the multiplicity of lesbian identities and dynamics means there is often engagement with stereotypes which still hold importance when creating a sense of self amongst homogenised heterosexual society.
A further example of the disparity of spectatorship is that of the division between gay men and feminists, both lesbian and straight.
Reading alternative narratives through the perceived homosexuality of a film star is a postmodern variation on the auteurist theory, as the actor is the one inscribing real world attributions to the character. (Grant, 2015) This can be seen in the case of Jodie Foster and her ‘outing’ as a possible lesbian during the controversy surrounding the film’s release and it’s perceived homophobia. This extra-textual transcendence of lines between fiction and reality, causes a definitive blurring of homosexual and heterosexual tendencies within Foster’s character. As Claire Whatling argues “knowing a particular actress is, or is rumoured to be, a lesbian enables an appropriation of those films…regardless of the possibilities the films themselves offer.” (Whatling, 1997)