In “The Silence of the Lambs,” how does Clarice represent the struggle for female empowerment?

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), ambitious FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) displays a rigid work ethic and strong belief in crime fighting, motivated by her father’s early death at the hands of burglars. She is a highly capable student, as demonstrated by Jack Crawford’s (Scott Glenn) personally mentoring her throughout the film. Yet despite her potential, her early career is shaped by the pressures of her male-dominated work environment. Her male colleagues constantly second-guess, underestimate, and undervalue her—behaviors which prove all the more misguided when she turns out to be the most important element in the capture of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).

Throughout the film we notice examples, ranging from subtle to overt, that help us understand the watchful male gaze following Starling. In one of the opening scenes, Starling enters an elevator filled exclusively with men who are all about a foot taller than her. Later, Starling and Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons), the only other female FBI trainee in the film, are jogging around the training camp when a group of male runners turn around and stare, smirking to each other as the women pass. During one of Starling’s conversations with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), he asks her, “Do you think Jack Crawford wants you sexually?” The question raises the suggestion that Starling’s opportunities are the result of male attention. Before that conversation Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) remarks that Crawford’s strategy in sending Starling to talk to Lecter is to use a “pretty young woman to turn him on.”

The gym scene wherein Starling trains with the FBI is the most symbolic illustration of her struggles. She gets pummelled by a rotating group of men yet remains stone-faced and uncomplaining in the face of male judgement and pressure. Even when she is ordered out, another woman is told to fill her spot in the ring. In isolation none of these instances fully articulates the female struggle under male power, but together they paint the portrait of a woman who remains unflinching in pursuit of her goals despite expectations that she will fail.

The Silence of the Lambs also features many instances of Starling cutting through masculine pride to be effective at her job. After the local police and FBI meet up, Starling orders a group of men out of the room, as their loud chatter and lack of focus are detracting from the investigation’s effectiveness. All physically larger than her and accustomed to an all-male environment, these men are visibly irked by the thought of taking orders from a woman. However, Starling’s action is immediately justified, as Crawford—who was previously yelling and straining to hear his phone call—can now communicate clearly and effectively.

Ultimately, the true validation of Starling’s ability as a detective, irrelevant to her womanhood, comes through the courage and intelligence she displays in single-handedly capturing and killing Buffalo Bill—a feat that none of her male colleagues comes close to matching. What is most empowering about the character’s journey is that Starling’s achievement comes neither in spite of nor because of her gender; she succeeds due to her hard work and skill as a detective.