There's no precedent for what we're supposed to think about the story of Chelsea Manning. In the absence of an easy answer, our response resembles a replay of Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs. The facts run as follows: In February 2009, an army intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning turned a vast amount of damning classified documents over to Wikileaks, including a video of a Baghdad airstrike that killed two unarmed war correspondents, as well as a video of an even more grotesque Afghan airstrike that killed between 86 and 147 civilians, mostly children. After spending more than 1200 days in several solitary confinement facilities—including a cell in Quantico where he saw the sun for 20 minutes a day and was forced to sleep naked because of potential self-harm concerns—his case went to trial, he was found guilty, sentenced, and then the condemned soldier turned whistleblower (or traitor) turned icon announced to the world, "I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female."
The media can't get a handle on what feels like double treachery on Manning's part: just when justice closes in on a traitor, the traitor changes shape. America is choking on Manning's metamorphosis just like the moth chrysalis shoved deep into the throat of Buffalo Bill's victims in Silence—another narrative about secrets, justice, and perverse transformations. To really understand Manning's story requires subtlety and nuance: a deeply unhappy and conflicted young soldier, motivated equally by moral imperative, deep personal dissatisfaction, and a profound identity crisis, laid bare our military's most brutal failings. But why strive for a true understanding of reality when our pop mythologies will address our unease?
It's not an unthinkable parallel. The Silence Of The Lambs, made in 1991 at the advent of the first Gulf War, is a movie full of American flags—some where they're expected, like courthouses and government buildings and on the uniforms of law enforcement personnel, but many more in unexpected places. Flags manifest in violence and cloak its aftermath: peeling back a gigantic flag draped over a car in a storage unit belonging to Hannibal Lecter reveals a decapitated mannequin and a head in a jar. A pool of blood left after one of Lecter's killing sprees reflects the light glinting off prison bars, cutting the gory puddle into red and white stripes. Bright muzzle flare from Starling's gun reveals how Buffalo Bill's underground lair is full of stars and stripes, including a tiny flag at a jaunty angle that suggests the raising at Iwo Jima. (A vintage poster on a door nearby reads "America—Open Your Eyes.")
The first Buffalo Bill was an American hero, too: Medal of Honor recipient William Frederick Cody, hunter, showman, slaughterer of buffalo. Not the villain of our movie, the monster we meet first in a bold headline ("BILL SKINS FIFTH"), then as a stranger ensnaring a young woman (she's listening to Tom Petty's "American Girl" on her headphones), and then, in all his perverse, naked glory, croaking "I'd fuck me" while swooning over his own castration. This is what many shamed transgendered people recall from childhood as their first vision of "someone like me": It rubs the lotion on its skin or it gets the hose again. The script makes clear Buffalo Bill isn't a transsexual ("his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying," assures Lecter), but this is an empty reassurance that one forgets with a nauseous shudder after hearing the first bars of Q Lazzarus's "Goodbye Horses."
Buffalo Bill wants to become a woman by donning a home-sewn "woman suit," but he's not the only yearning butterfly (or death's head moth) in a movie full of transformations. Starling sheds her trainee sweatpants to become a full-fledged FBI agent. Lecter teases Starling with clues tucked inside anagrams, the verbal equivalent of a caterpillar inside a cocoon, and flays impostors attempting the same masquerade (his catty rejoinder to the mother-turned-senator: "Love your suit"), but he too escapes from his own prison by skinning a man's face and wearing it as a mask.
Did Manning think about this when she borrowed another face to try and escape from a military tour of duty full of harassment and abuse? Sending a photo of herself in a blonde wig and makeup to her master sergeant in an email entitled "My Problem" is a desperate act. It's true, she was disturbed. There's no shortage of documented violent incidents spanning her troubled life, including one in which she was found curled up on the floor of a storage room, a knife at her feet, the words "I want" carved into a nearby chair. ("What do we covet, Clarice? That which we see every day.") The desire to correct one's gender—or to take a stand against unjust military secrecy—isn't stimulated by something as simple as knowing about a fictional character. But if the virulent legacy of Buffalo Bill still floats through our culture, making life hard for transgendered people, maybe it also keeps the unusual, positive example of Starling's feminine heroism fresh in our collective mind.
The Silence Of The Lambs is ultimately the story of a woman who penetrates a world of underground chambers—basements, storage units, detention blocks behind endless locked doors, wells dug into dirt floors—because that is where the secrets are kept. Manning is tiny, elfin, 5 foot 2 and 105 pounds: birdlike, a Starling. She knew how it felt to be crowded in rooms full of uniformed men towering over her, harassing, bullying, badgering. Her fragile mental state notwithstanding, she felt the same dogged imperative to expose secrets in the name of justice, after finding out American soldiers were killing noncombatants with the same breezy impunity ("Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards . . .," "Good shot," "Thank you.") with which William Cody killed buffalo on the American plains. And she, too, knows what it's like to be imprisoned in small, dark spaces. Turning documents over to Wikileaks was the end of one cluster of secrecy, but unlocking Chelsea from the prison of Bradley—a transformation that was much longer in the works than its sudden public manifestation would suggest—was really the penultimate secret she needed to set free.
The media could have seen this parallel and cast her as a Clarice Starling. But that didn't happen. The aftershocks of a character as powerful as Buffalo Bill means her male-to-female transformation is met with exceptional revulsion. She is a turncoat monster, a shapeshifter so dangerous she must sleep, like Lecter, in solitary confinement, not even allowed flip flops or underwear because she could turn them into lethal weapons. Even when she refused to testify against Wikileaks in exchange for a plea deal, rather than honoring her courage the headlines essentially screamed BRAD PLEADS FIFTH.
To her credit she's not accepting this narrative. She issued a graceful public statement: "I hope that you will support me in this transition . . . I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back." She seeks a dialogue, not the recursive, narcissistic "I'd fuck me" of Buffalo Bill. William Cody was a hero in his time, but now we lament the slaughter of the buffalo. It's funny how our heroes rise and fall as our perspective changes. Manning got 35 years, but there's hope she'll be the hero whose pop culture example can replace the anti-transgender legacy of The Silence Of The Lambs. Buffalo Bill's defunct. How do you like your blue eyed girl?
Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.