CBS’s ‘Clarice’ Begins a New Story for its Iconic Feminist Lead, but Misrepresents Important Disability Issues

A still from TV show 'Clarice'. Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) is shown though the window of what is likely a prison cell. She is peering into the cell, wearing her FBI uniform. Her hair is long and dark, she is white with dainty features, very petite. The scene is grimy and dark.

On February 11th, CBS premiered a new crime procedural focused on the life of Clarice Starling following her work with Hannibal Lecter on the Buffalo Bill case from 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. A year after the events of the film, Starling (Rebecca Breeds) leaves her job in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Lab and emerges back onto the field to investigate the deaths of women who appear to be the victims of another serial killer. In the pilot episode, Starling must deal with the rigors of active field service while facing condescension from most of her male colleagues and her PTSD from the Buffalo Bill case.

The series makes another space on television to tell the story of a brilliant and interesting woman and also gives us more understanding of an established and beloved character. Starling is an important icon in feminist film history, and Rebecca Breeds’ performance in this new series is no doubt its greatest highlight. Breeds nails the West Virginian accent and steely-yet-earnest gravitas Foster originally lent to the role, but Breeds also brings a new nuance for a different Clarice, one who is dealing with the trauma Foster’s character sustained during the film. Breeds shows up small on screen, and one character even tells her they don’t make FBI field agent jackets in her size, yet her presence in any landscape she trudges through shows a greatness in her; she’s no doubt someone to be reckoned with, week by week. Despite the pilot’s serious problems, Clarice may prove worth a watch for Breeds’s enigmatic performance as both someone warily closed-off but willing to open up and be vulnerable when it comes to reaching out to people in need of an advocate.

Although Starling’s on-screen history starting in 1991 is no doubt important, The Silence of the Lambs is a difficult film to update due to its harmful impacts on trans communities. Clarice showrunner Alex Kurtzman acknowledged that The Silence of the Lambs holds “a strange duality” as it bears “one of the greatest feminist legacies of all time, and one of the most damaging legacies for trans people of all time, if not the most.” In her article discussing Buffalo Bill (whose legal name was Jame Gumb, played by Ted Levine), Harmony Colangelo charts the ways the film fits into a long history of the medical field invalidating trans identity. Despite the film’s insistent that Gumb is not trans, it still uses queer imagery to make Gumb into a sensationalised monster who kills women in order to make a suit of their skin. In an attempt to address this issue in the new series, Kurtzman and his fellow showrunners reached out to trans actress and advocate Jen Richards about joining the team as a consultant, but they also decided to cast her in an on-screen role. Although she does not appear in the pilot or second episode, there is still plenty of time in the season for Richards’s work to help confront Gumb’s legacy.

For now, it isn’t in the depiction of trans folks where the pilot finds its most glaring issue, but in its representations of disability. In the pilot episode’s mystery reveal, it turns out that instead of a serial killer, a hired gun killed women who were planning to seek restitution after an experimental drug trial caused different conditions in their babies. The problem with narrative is that one child — the only one depicted on-screen — is autistic, framing autism as something that comes from a medication, and moving the episode into anti-vaxxer rhetoric. Of the other two children mentioned, one required a feeding tube and the other had facial difference. These three medical conditions are very different, and collapsing them into a shared side-effect erases the important distinctions between them. Although the capitalistic failures of Big Pharma are issues worth exploring in fiction, skimming over and misrepresenting disabilities for a procedural series case-of-the-week only furthers misinformation rather than offering a useful critique. The case is not fully “solved” at the end of the pilot, so there’s room to complicate this narrative, but it’s unfortunate that the pilot establishes a problematic disability arc from the start.

Because of the way the pilot skims over these important issues and turns them into plot mechanics for a case-of-the week, it’s difficult to recommend this show, particularly to disabled folks, but also to many viewers from vulnerable populations that could feel exploited if the series continues to lack attention to the nuances of these experiences. As a horror scholar and a person under the trans umbrella myself, I have decided to continue watching it because of Breeds’ compelling performance and out of an interest in seeing how the series addresses trans identity and the original film’s issues with trans monstrosity. Problematic stories can and do often manage to perform some important cultural work, and here’s hoping that will be the case for Clarice.

Clarice is airing weekly on CBS now

by Bishop V. Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

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