Tonight on CBS, transphobia and the real-world troubles transgender people experience are explored in the serial crime drama, Clarice, spun-off from the Thomas Harris’s 1988 psychological horror novel and the 1991 film adaptation upon which it is based, The Silence of the Lambs.
Clarice Starling’s past trauma, tracking down and killing Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill,” has haunted the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program agent throughout this season. But thus far, she hasn’t been held accountable for her role in how the public perceived the infamous serial killer as a “transsexual,” even with Hannibal Lecter’s caveat that he was “not a real transsexual.”
That is, until now. Viewers should note: This report contains spoilers.
“Whether it was true or not, that word was in every headline, every story, every gruesome tabloid photo, next to ‘murderer,’ ‘maniac,’ ‘Psycho Skins Women Driven Mad by Transsexual Desire.’ That was the front page of the Baltimore Herald,” says accountant Julia Lawson in tonight’s episode, “Silence is Purgatory,” set in the 1990s, in the months after the events portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film.
Julia is played by Emmy-nominated actor, writer and producer Jen Richards, who also worked as a consultant on the series. She co-stars with Emily Coutts of Star Trek: Discovery, who plays Julia’s cancer-stricken partner, Erin, and is the first to recognize the famous agent who solved the Buffalo Bill case: “This is her! It’s Clarice Starling.”
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Despite Erin’s fears, Richards’ character makes a heart-wrenching decision: She is torn between risking both her job and personal safety, and wanting to help Clarice and her FBI unit crack a big case, especially after she learns lives are on the line.
Julia decides to help, but first confronts Clarice: “Overnight, suddenly the biggest story on everyone’s mind was that transsexuals were monsters.”
“And this affected you personally?” a confused Clarice, played by Rebecca Breeds, asks Julia. The answer comes as a surprise to the ViCAP agent, when Julia explains, haltingly, breathlessly, why she must hide the fact that she is, in the words of the period, transsexual.
“I could lose my job. My life. I have to hide who I am because of stories like Buffalo Bill. And at the center of all of those was you,” Julia tells Clarice. “You made my life harder.”
That is a line that echoes true for many a trans person, in terms of the real world impact both the novel and the movie had on their own life. Even Richards, who told reporters at an online junket in February that when she came out about a decade ago, a colleague asked her if being transgender meant she was “like Buffalo Bill?”
Richards applauded the production team for taking this step toward accountability, and how they did it.
“That’s a credit to how incredibly collaborative Elizabeth Klaviter was, who was running the writers room for Clarice,” Richards said in an interview via Zoom, “as well as Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, the show runners, all of whom had seen [the Netflix documentary] Disclosure and had a pretty good grasp of issues generally around trans representation, the pitfalls of the past, what needs to be done and done better, as well as the specific issues around the complicated legacy of the Buffalo Bill character in the way that’s impacted a trans lives.”
Richards was in a unique position in the cast, not only appearing on camera in a three-episode arc that begins tonight, but also playing an essential role behind the scenes.
“So, you put all that together, and then having a chance to be in the writers room and help construct the character from the start. And then fairly early, knowing that I was actually going to play that character, gave me a lot of freedom and latitude to shape the character. I also had the privilege of working with Eleanor Jean, who wrote the first episode that the character appears in, and who’s a wonderful writer and a trans woman and was also a writer on Mrs. Fletcher, which I’ve been previously on, on HBO. So all the pieces were there to to make this really engaged for me from the very beginning.”
Putting all those pieces together fell to Jean as the writer of “Silence Is Purgatory” and executive producer Kraviter, a cisgender woman who’s also known for her work as a writer and producer on the medical dramas Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and The Resident.
“As much as this is a love franchise, it also is a franchise that has done a great deal of harm to a community that is already in a vulnerable position in the world, in terms of being visible, in terms of being invisible and then in terms of visibility often causing violence,” Kraviter said in a recent Zoom interview.
“And I’m sympathetic to that and empathetic to that,” she added. “I don’t think that that should be the life experience of any human being. So, I think that we really, as creators Jenny [Lumet] and Alex [Kurtzman] and myself as their partner, really feel the weight of that, that this story that we care about and feel entrusted with of Clarice, who is an imperfect feminist hero, also has this other legacy that really kind of violates holistic and inclusive and intersectional version of feminism.”
The goal, Kraviter said, was not to try to “fix” Clarice’s legacy.
“I think ‘fixing’ is a strong word. I wouldn’t use it because obviously we can’t go back in a time machine and alter what that movie was. But I will say that we had long conversations about how to acknowledge that’s the legacy that it had” she said. “The way I approached it was, how do we envision a story that includes a transgender woman that is positive? How do we acknowledge that? How do we acknowledge that that’s the history of it, and then create a story that acknowledges it, but moves forward? How do we move forward with the kind of storytelling that honors the trans community, or at least doesn’t harm the trans community?”
That job fell into the capable hands of out trans woman Eleanor Jean, who wrote the words Clarice finally heard. The challenge for Jean was no less than transforming the character who did so much damage, in the words of editor Tracy Gilchrest in The Advocate, “perpetuating the trope of the murderous transsexual (one that notably appeared on film with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho).”
“I was drawn to this because the show runners wanted to address it head on,” Jean said in an interview via Zoom. “Alex Kurtzman, to his credit, said they specifically wanted to take this on so they could put it in perspective, and that was very outwardly stated from the beginning. The entire writer’s room was very much behind that.”
Jean, who came out as transgender five years ago, grew up in what she described as “a very conservative part of Texas” and said it wasn’t until she was in her 20’s that she met anyone trans in real life. All her perceptions of what a trans woman was were based on what she saw on TV and in movies: caricatures, and the most marginalized in society.
“Seeing those representations affected me in a very personal way, because when I saw the ‘Tranny of the Week,’ I was told that’s one of the ways I could express myself,” said Jean, now 30. “I didn’t get to be the cop. I didn’t get to be the detective. I didn’t even get to be just someone in the background, doing any kind of work, like unloading a box from a truck. It was such a limited scope and it really told me that if I wanted to be who I was, then I needed to be a sex worker and was probably going to be a drug addict. That I was probably insane. According to Silence of the Lambs, my transsexualism can make me a serial killer. That if I were to live my truth, that I would be something that deserved to be treated as ‘less than’ by society, and that kept me in the closet for a long time.”
Jean said she appreciated the opportunity to put a group of fictional characters in the position of addressing the real-world transphobia that Silence of the Lambs triggered.
“It was really kind of a unique situation, I thought, to be able to really follow the thread of that, of the harm that narrative from the movie can cause, that it caused in real life. But then we get to project that in almost a kind of meta way back onto it, by putting it on Clarice, and saying, ‘You could have done something in this fictional world where you are now, the superstar detective who’s on the cover of magazines. You rose to power, this celebrity. You’re getting great jobs off the back of this sensationalized story about quote unquote, ‘Crazy psycho transsexual.’ It felt like a unique opportunity to take the criticism we had of Silence of the Lambs and be able to funnel it into just a small amount, to Clarice, to see the effects, these are the real world effects. And then also with Jen’s character, to give her a chance to grow from that, and to give Clarice a chance to grow.”
Jean said despite being the only trans writer on Clarice and Mrs. Fletcher, she was never made to feel that she was a token. “But on the flip side, there’s the truth that I was the only trans person. And as anybody who knows me knows, my favorite thing to do is put immense amounts of pressure on myself. So, I didn’t need anybody to make me speak for the trans community. And I was very much panicking about that constantly.”
One spoiler Kraviter said she wanted fans to know about Richards’ character, Julia, before watching tonight’s episode: “No harm comes to her.”
When asked a question about balancing being a strong but also feminine woman in an industry that is still male-dominated, Richards took time to reflect. Although she is six months into being a newlywed, she responded by talking about the inspiration she draws from the other most significant woman in her life: her mother.
“I have to give credit to my mom,” said Richards, 45. “I grew up in the 80s and 90s. My mom worked in banking and was a manager and she was the only female manager in the region when I played sports in high school. She was the only mom on the sidelines. It was my mom and all the dads. My mom has been sued. She’s gotten fired. She is also very smart and very opinionated and she was very feminine. She’s a traditional Southern woman and very beautiful. But she speaks her mind, and she’s not shy about it. And growing up, I heard her called ‘bitch’ a lot. I heard that specific word about my mom a lot. And my mom kind of took it as a point of pride to her, and she framed this for me as a child. Like, if you’re a strong woman who stands up for what you think is right, who advocates for yourself and isn’t shy about your opinion or your ambition or your own self-worth, you will be called by others a bitch, and you should be proud of it. And so I think I’ve just internalized that kind of strong Southern woman working in a man’s world kind of attitude. That’s not something I’ve ever reflected on, but I’m certainly very grateful for that legacy from my mom and that I wasn’t burdened with with worrying too much about being delicate or overly feminine. I had a lot of really strong women in my family and I just wanted to be one of them.”
Richards said she has several TV projects in development right now. For the next few weeks, she can be seen in Clarice, on CBS, as a special guest star. Even though she doesn’t use that word for herself.
“I don’t think I’m a star. No, I’m not ready for that. That word,” Richards said. “I just want to work. I love working. I love acting. I love writing. And I want to keep doing it. And that’s that’s as far as my ambition goes.”
Clarice appears on CBS Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT, and is also available to stream on Paramount+.