Cinema as Skin & Touch

In Silence of the Lambs (Jonathon Demme, 1990), skin plays a hugely important role to understanding the characters psyche. The protagonist Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is under the constant gaze of men, this is suggested when seen in the elevator surrounded by much taller men, she is the only one not in uniform – stressing the gender divide. In Foster’s own words, Clarice is an “incredibly strong feminist hero”. This is shown on multiple occasion; as she insists on meeting Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) alone – rather than being escorted by a male, she is not displayed as an object unlike the other female characters and despite the scrutiny of men she goes after her goal. However, she is still seen as an object of pleasure by men as we see her sexually harassed by Dr Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), however, her sexuality is never announced with in the film.

Bill Buffalo (Ted Levine), the serial killer who kills overweight women to create a ‘woman suit’, is the criminal Starling is after. Through out the film it is revealed that Buffalo Bill is in fact a transgender woman. She has applied for all different types of surgery, cross-dresses and prefers to hide her penis. Though Hannibal Lector states “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying”. However, I strongly believe that you can’t say someone who says they are transgender is not transgender, it’s not a mental health issue to be diagnosed, you either are or you’re not and so I do find this problematic with in the story line of this film. In his rejection for his sexual reassignment operation, he is seen trying to achieve femininity on his own, he is driven by the obsessive desire to wear someone elses skin. Starling in a way is considered a reject with in her working environment and through out the film we see her try to prove herself worthy of a ‘masculine’ job and Buffalo Bill is her answer to this. Starling must overcome herself, the incomplete female, in the form of Buffalo Bill. Starling and Bill are a vital part of each others transformation into their desired genders, for Bill it is the literal sense of using skin and Starling it is the illusion of gender roles.

In Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004) we watched a series of characters stories intertwine with each other despite the lack of contact between the inhabitants of LA. It highlights ethnic prejudice, the skin colours of Asian-Americans, African Americans, Iranian exiles and Hispanics. This constant theme is one of the factors that keeps the film from becoming a series of episodes – it gives it a sense of fluidity. This is shown through the characters aesthetics and skin on skin contact between them. We see an African American woman being humiliated as she is sexually molested under the pretense of a strip search from a racist police officer and characters are stereotyped by their tattoos. Through out the film we watch the characters try to get under each others skin, past the exterior of the of each other, however it seems impossible to get past their surface – their skin. It’s not just a casing for the body, it is culture, history and a surface of communication.


Elsaesser,T and Haegener, M. (2010) “Cinema as skin and touch”, in Film theory; an introduction through the senses. NewYork: Routledge, pp. 55-81



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