Mild spoilers below for previously aired episodes of Clarice’s first season. Clarice returns tonight on CBS, continuing its ongoing trans storylines.
“Whose stories are worth telling? Whose are worth hearing?”
Clarice Starling asks these questions in the pilot of the new CBS show that bears her name. She’s giving a press conference after apprehending a man who murdered three women. Her boss tells her to take a victory lap for the FBI, but she does not comply. Instead she reveals that he’s part of a larger conspiracy. This is Clarice Starling after all — the wunderkind who single-handedly caught Buffalo Bill. She has principles. She’s a hero.
When I met Clarice Starling, I didn’t know I was her villain. The Silence of the Lambs was the first time I saw a trans body on-screen, but I didn’t identify with Bill. I identified with Clarice. I loved her for all the reasons cis women love her. She’s smart, she’s persistent, she’s brave. She’s also an underdog, probably gay, and just fucked up enough to feel human. The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect movie and Clarice is a perfect heroine.
But ten years later when I came out as trans, I realized what this longtime favorite had done to me. I realized that of all the horror movies that pathologized transness and all the comedies that mocked it, none crawled into the cavities of my flesh like Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar winner. None of the other films were as good.
You can debate Bill’s status as a “true transsexual” but I’m not interested in having a conversation still taking place in doctors’ offices all-around the world. Bill says she is trans and to me that makes her trans. And even if you don’t believe her, the film still uses signifiers of transness to illicit fear. Clarice is our cis woman hero and Bill is our trans villain skinning women to co-opt their gender. She’s a TERF talking point come to life.
Well, now thirty years after the film’s release, Clarice aims to rewrite that narrative. But the problem was never as simple as one character. The problem is the narrative itself.
It’s hard to let go of the stories we’ve been told. It’s painful to shift the way we view the world. We rely on these narratives to make sense of the senseless, to add order to the chaos. Gender is binary. The police protect us from serial killers. These kinds of fairy tales.
When our stories are proved fiction, it’s natural the first instinct is to try to assimilate the new information. Rather than abandoning the narrative, we try to adjust it. Gender can still have strict categories. Non-binary is just a new category. She, he, and they. The police are bad but some must be good. Women police? No? Okay then it’s the uniform. Detectives aren’t cops. Right? No? Well, then the FBI. They’re okay. Right?
To borrow a line from The Silence of the Lambs, the FBI has had a quid pro quo with Hollywood for decades. Much like regular police departments, they offer consulting, approve the use of their logo, and even provide locations in exchange for the opportunity to shape their image. Hollywood is a propaganda machine and Clarice Starling was an effective tool.
I want to believe that Hollywood is currently reckoning with their representation of and entanglement with law enforcement, but with several new cop shows premiering this year, it would be more accurate to say they are adjusting — at best. This isn’t new. Reform is easier than abolition. When Jonathan Demme feared The Silence of the Lambs was becoming “a commercial for the United States police department” he added a line about the FBI’s civil rights abuses. The usually strict agency remained eager in their collaboration, because they knew this one was worth it. Demme made the same call.
Clarice continues this work from so many years ago, but its goals are wider and its hurdles higher. Not only does the show aim to uplift white cis women, but Black cis women and white trans women as well. And not only is this being done within the confines of the FBI — it’s being done within the equally challenging limits of a network procedural.
The series does not portray the FBI or local police departments as perfect. In fact, it actively works to include corruption, incompetence, and discrimination. Clarice’s best friend Ardelia Mapp is given a larger role here as she grapples with how to rise in an institution set against her. When another Black agent tries to recruit her to join a coalition fighting back against discrimination, she says she prefers to change the system from within. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” he quotes. “Audre Lorde. 1984,” she says as if to prove she has already considered this and decided otherwise.
Ardelia, as played by Devyn A. Tyler, is one of the highlights of the show, and eventually she does decide to join the coalition and sue the FBI. But these moments address racism the way the original film addressed sexism. It gives the feeling of reality without confronting the core falsehood. In some ways, this is more harmful.
The show is at odds with itself. It’s trying to critique power structures while making a hero of an FBI agent raised by a cop who has untreated PTSD and thinks she’s above the law. The FBI of 1993 is shown to be flawed, but it’s still presented as an agency filled with brilliant minds who remain our only defense against the monsters of the world. It doesn’t matter that someone on Clarice’s team is a sniper and ex-military. “There’s a difference between being a soldier and being a killer,” she comforts. It doesn’t matter that Clarice makes a habit of asking to use people’s bathrooms only to snoop through their homes without a warrant. We trust her and we want her to succeed. And she does succeed. Every episode while working on the season’s primary case, Clarice and her crew solve something, save someone.
“The vulnerable of our country disappear and no one remembers their names,” says the female Attorney General in defense of the Violent Crimes Apprehension Unit. But is it really the FBI that can be counted on to change this? Is the Attorney General of the United States worthy of our sympathy simply because she’s being mansplained to by a senator? Is that feminism? The answer, of course, is no. She is bolstering a historically racist and homophobic agency by using the same fearmongering save-our-white-daughters language that leads to anti-sex work legislation — legislation that harms far more trans women than any serial killer.
But our inclusion is always conditional in these stories. Only certain types of trans women get to appear on CBS.
Clarice’s most obvious failure is its reprisal of Buffalo Bill.
Rather than altering the source material, the series directly builds upon the earlier events. Clarice is suffering from PTSD and the show effectively brings us back to Bill’s house again and again and again. It recreates lines and exact shots from the movie. We even hear “Goodbye Horses.”
Every time Clarice has one of these trauma flashbacks, I felt retraumatized myself. These are the exact sounds and images that haunt our collective cultural consciousness — that haunt me. It’s a choice to recreate them. A choice that alienates a potential trans audience and reinforces the fears of a cis audience.
It’s also a choice to reinstate one of the most specifically transfeminine lines of the book. After Bill is shot, as she’s bleeding out on the floor, she grumbles, “How does it feel to be so beautiful?” The dying gasp of a woman never afforded womanhood.
The Bill of the book and the movie was a trans woman. The series doesn’t change that — it clarifies it. Instead the show tries to make amends by introducing a new trans woman character, one who doesn’t wear the skin suits of cis women.
The intrigue of the season leads Clarice to the home of Julia Lawson, an accountant for a pharmaceutical company played by Jen Richards. Clarice asks if they can speak inside, and for the first time in the series someone asserts their right to say no. Julia and her “roommate” Erin’s distrust increases when they find out the agent they’re speaking with is Clarice Starling. Erin demands that she leave immediately. Clarice gives one last plea — three women are dead and you can help.
Julia and Erin are a couple, and the rarity of seeing a queer trans woman on TV — network TV! — cannot be overstated. Julia and Erin’s moral dilemma is given the weight it deserves and in just a few moments their relationship is shown to be real and tender. The show succeeds in creating a trans woman who feels real. And then, once again, it sets its ambitions higher. It attempts to confront the past. Erin tells Julia that if she’s going to help Clarice she needs to be honest about the damage she caused — the damage of Buffalo Bill.
“That case,” Julia begins timidly. “And all the press that came with it — your TV interview, the magazine covers — it created a story. A story that did a lot of damage for me.” Julia goes on to say that while Clarice didn’t write these stories, she also didn’t try to change the narrative. It’s a bit of a stretch to place the blame of Bill’s existence on Clarice not speaking up in the press. But this monologue allows Julia to directly express the harm done by that character. Jen Richards delivers this speech with a simmering rage. She gives a voice to the pain so many of us have felt for so long.
The problem with this framing is it creates a dichotomy between Julia and Bill. On the one hand, you have Julia — a beautiful woman with a stable job living a stealth life. On the other, you have Bill — a pathetic man with a deep voice and stringy hair who merely dreams of womanhood. Our acceptance as women — rather than serial killer of women — becomes conditional on how well we’re able to conform to a traditional idea of gender.
The attempt is noble, but this revision doesn’t work because once again it ignores the deeper truth — the original movie was right. Trans women and law enforcement are enemies. All it got wrong was the villain.
It is precisely because Clarice is good that it proves what it’s intending to do is impossible. Just like the solution to law enforcement will not be found in more diverse officers, the solution to law enforcement shows will not be found in more diverse characters. The reality will almost always get lost in the mechanics of the genre.
It’s not a coincidence that Ilene Chaiken’s new Law & Order series stars a Black lesbian within a year of more people turning toward abolition than ever before. Media is propaganda and when we’re desperate to see ourselves on-screen it’s tempting to make concessions. The police and FBI who shape our media know this.
I don’t begrudge Jen Richards or writer Eleanor Jean for working on Clarice, because I don’t believe art is either good or bad. I’m grateful their perspective and talents were on this show to make it better. But I do think it’s important to ask why these were the opportunities afforded to them and what narrative it is serving. What does it say when one of the most talented trans writers, performers, and thinkers cannot sell her Emmy nominated web series and instead gets TWO roles building on thirty year old sins? That is not a changed Hollywood — that is a Hollywood changing just enough that it’s allowed to stay the same.
There’s no denying that audiences love crime shows and procedurals. These stories will not simply disappear — they have to be replaced. The most obvious solution is to trade law enforcement for journalists. From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Sharp Objects, some of the best crime media of recent years has already done this. Law enforcement could also be replaced by activists, hackers, or literally anyone. Hell, the person who came closest to catching the Zodiac killer was a fucking cartoonist.
Film and television has spent decades turning law enforcement into superheroes by giving them abilities they rarely — if ever — have in real life. We can do that with anyone. We can choose new superheroes. On-screen and in life.
Whose stories are worth telling? Whose are worth hearing?