(this text accompanied the exhibition "In defense of pure evil", which was on view April 26 through May 10, 2019 at the Anderson Gallery in Richmond, VA.)
In a central scene of the 1991 psyche-horror film Silence of the Lambs, the film’s transfeminine antagonist, Buffalo Bill (aka Jame Gumb) dances erotically in a basement to the upbeat, synthy pop hit “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus. The scene is iconic of cinematic horror; it perfectly profiles a hateable character.
Tbh I only saw it in 2015 and I never read the 1988 book, but bits and pieces of this movie have always trickled into the public consciousness since its release 28 years ago. It’s difficult for anyone to see it, or any cultural anchorpoint, for the “first” time at this point; I don’t think I ever really saw it for the first time. Decontextualized references diffuse into media and social interactions: “Hello, Clarice”, “It rubs the lotion on its skin,” or “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.” It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it; the movie lives inside of you, regardless.
The sensibility surrounding public reception of these moments and of Buffalo Bill’s persona is always blurry, but the diffusion of these decontextualized bits raises a question: what is it about Bill’s transfemininity that compounds the structurally “evil” nature of this villain? And, at least in this dancing scene, what to do with a trans audience that ambivalently identifies both with the victim in the well along with the shame-ridden, joyful villain in front of the camera?
Cinema can’t be neutral, and Silence simultaneously perpetuated a pre-op/post-op dualism in its construction of Bill. Other wellsprings: In 1998, the release of the children’s animated television show PowerPuff Girls was marked by the introduction of the show’s most menacing character, Him: a transfeminine Satanic villain. Fast forward to 2019, fetishized transwomen online are categorized as “traps.” In defense of pure evil -- a tongue in cheek position when evil is the space that is carved out and made available to these villains.