Curator’s Note: We continue our three-post series of meta organized around Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” with tenebrica’s look at how Mulvey’s notion of the cinematic ‘gaze’ is deployed in the television show Hannibal.
Let’s talk Hannibal and feminism for a second.
Specifically, let’s talk about what makes Lecter’s character so appealing to a female audience and why that makes so many people uncomfortable.
(Takes the book & movie canons into account. TW for discussion of murder, cannibalism and violence as well as mentions of sexual violence.)
I have briefly talked about the extreme backlash women get for being attracted to villainous characters before, but let me say it again just for clarity: We wouldn’t be having this discussion if Hannibal Lecter was a woman and her fanbase was predominantly straight and male.
We are used to “sexy” villainesses. They are everywhere. In fact, very often a female villain’s power depends on her sexuality, or rather her sexual appeal to men. If you’re not familiar with the Evil Demon Seductress and Femme Fatale tropes, you should check out Feminist Frequency’s video on the topic here.
Femme Fatale type characters are so prevalent in fiction that no one cares when men draw porn about them or talk about how hot they are despite the fact that they, too, are villains, murderers and (in the case of Evil Demon Seductresses) often cannibalistic.
No one thinks twice about those men trivialising violence and murder. For one, because violence by and against women alike is already sexualised pretty much everywhere, but also because it’s simply assumed that men are rational enough to tell fantasy from reality.
Women on the other hand are viewed as irrational, overly emotional and controlled by their own desires. They have to be protected from “bad” men because they can’t protect themselves. I actually think this is the exact reason why so many women feel drawn to “bad guys” in the first place. It’s not about “taming” them, it’s about finding someone who doesn’t treat you like you are fragile and incapable of standing up to them.
It’s also about defying societal expectations of who you should want to be (or sleep) with.
There is one thing that will never fail to amuse me: Men’s reactions when they learn that most women are not attracted to the hunky hypermasculine beefcakesthey want to be. (Of course some women are attracted to that type of man and that’s okay, but it’s not like we all swoon over tall, blond, muscular superhero types with bleached teeth and a tan.)
Being socially conditioned to see men as people and not objects, many women are more likely to be attracted to be attracted to personality traits such as kindness, intelligence, confidence, a good sense of humour or unconventional beauty. (Just take a good hard look at Tumblr’s favourite beaus like Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Cilian Murphy, Ben Wishaw etc. – none of them look how they are supposed to look according to the patriarchy’s expectations in men, except that they are all white and thin.)
That’s where villains come in.
Male heroes are much more likely to be male wish-fulfillment than characters meant to be desirable to (straight and bi/pan) women – in fact, that’s the norm, while the same absolutely isn’t true for most female heroes – usually, heroines are still exploited for the male gaze and very rarely represent actual female wish-fulfillment.
Meanwhile, villains (especially male villains, since female villains aren’t being taken seriously 90% of the time) often represent traits that are looked down upon in society. Male villains are infinitely more likely to be effeminate (and, more specifically, queer-coded) than male heroes. They are more likely to be (for example) emotional, sensitive, vain, melodramatic and/or unconventionally attractive (often in an androgynous way), but also charming and cunning in ways that heroic characters just aren’t.
Many women out there project their desires onto villains because they are the only characters out there that possess qualities they find attractive because those qualities are being completely and utterly vilified (d’uh).
The thing that’s so “scary” about that is that it happens on accident. Most of the time, male villains are not written with the intent to appeal to a female audience, it just happens. And even though creators have caught on by now and have started to shamelessly exploit that phenomenon, they still write villains the way they always have and throw in some eyecandy “for the fangirls”.
Where are the Hommes Fatals? The men who use their sexualities to their advantage? Granted, there are a couple of male non-human characters (mostly vampires) in the fantasy genre that fit the Evil Demon Seductress trope, but still, they are the exception. (At least in Western media – interestingly there are plenty of anime and manga characters that qualify. Just look at Sebastian Michaelis from Black Butler who is that trope with cherries on top. [It helps that he is a literal demon.])
But human male characters (no matter their morality) that rely on the power of seduction are rare. Actually, I can’t think of a single one. (Captain Hook/Kilian Jones from Once Upon A Time started out as this, but he soon turned into a regular villain who happens to be attractive and uses rape jokes to affirm his “superiority” over the female characters he encounters.)
So what about Lecter?
At the first look, he seems much more like male wish-fulfillment than anything else. After all, as a rich, white, able-bodied, presumably straight cismale, he is not only as privileged as one gets in our society, he is also highly intelligent, eloquent, sophisticated, a talented artist, physically strong and charming to boot. (And also goodlooking, more so in the books and tv series than the movies – sorry, Mr. Hopkins!)
There is literally nothing about him that isn’t considered desirable – except, you know, the whole eating people thing. Being a cold-blooded killer is the only thing that stops him from being a blatant escapist power fantasy, and that’s only because he is presented in a way that makes it impossible to identify with him.
Empathise? Yes, certainly.
Identify? Not so much.
Not once does the narrative suggest you put yourself into Lecter’s shoes, and that’s true for all canons. Everything about the presentation screams: “Hannibal Lecter is better than you! (And also evil.)” Even when it’s his point of view (as in the entirety of Hannibal Rising, especially the book), you, the reader, are not him. You are watching him. And because he is still desirable, you still want him. The fact that he is this untouchable enigma only adds to his attractiveness.
By making all of his actions about the audience’s reaction to him, Lecter is presented to the reader (and the other characters) in a way that resembles the Male Gaze, but is gender neutral and curiously also surpasses sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter who you are usually attracted to – Hannibal Lecter will seduce you in some way. Not one that is explicitly sexual, but the undertones are there.
In other words, Lecter’s character effectively either queers the Male Gaze or destroys it completely, making it impossible to look at him as a male reader/viewer or through a male character’s eyes without the implication of homoeroticism and same-gender desire. Instead of getting to objectify a woman, a male reader/viewer will see their own gaze reflected right back at them.
In this context, it’s also worth noting that the traditional Male Gaze directed at female characters is practically non-existent in the movies and the tv show. All female characters act independently from the male characters, even when they are being manipulated or watched by them. Their actions are not about the men’s reactions. They also aren’t sexualised in any way shape or form, although they may encounter or be threatened with sexual violence. This is treated as disgusting, dehumanising and utterly despicable, not exploited or fetishised.
In the books, the only exception to the rule is Lady Murasaki, and only because Hannibal Rising is almost completely from Lecter’s perspective and it’s him who glorifies and objectifies her by putting her on a pedestal. As the audience, we’re meant to figure out on our own that Lecter is in the wrong here and that Lady Murasaki is just an ordinary human being who has been through a lot and is a first class badass because of it. She isn’t sexualised either, despite the pretty obvious crush young Hannibal Lecter has on her. He simply adores and worships her beyond all reason.
Now, the movie version of Hannibal Rising somehow felt the need to turn the whole Hannibal/Lady Murasaki thing into a romantic love story and it was pretty heavily implied that the two were having sex at some point, but this was never explicitly shown. I suppose that has to do with the fact that Lecter is not necessarily a sexual character. Sensual, yes. Sexually attractive, yes. But a big part of his appeal stems from being unable to actually have him. Not because he’s fictional, but because “Hannibal Lecter is better than you (and also evil) – deal with it!”
But “sexual” and “sexualised” aren’t the same by far. It’s possible for a character to be one, but not the other.
A sexual character is simply one that wears sexy clothing, flirts a lot and/or likes sex.
A sexualised character is one that is presented to the audience as sexually desirable or whose sexuality is exploited for the audience’s benefit.
Lecter’s character subverts the latter in a way that I, personally, find brilliant.
As I said earlier, Hannibal Lecter is a very sensual person. He enjoys food, wine, music and art. He canonically has an acute sense of smell that he makes use of in all adaptations. The only sense that is never explicitly spoken of is touch, despite the fact that it’s only natural to assume that he is sensitive in that regard as well.
This is a very interesting way to subtly draw attention to Lecter touching things because it rarely ever happens. Since it’s a very special occasion every time, Lecter drawing, handling a book or deliberately touching another person is always weirdly erotic. There is something taboo about it because it simply does not happen.
This is especially true for when Lecter kills someone or makes dinner from their inner organs. The audience is meant to find that strangely enticing – it’s not only a subversion of their gaze, it’s a perversion thereof.
For reference, just watch the first 10 minutes of Red Dragon when Lecter tries to kill Will Graham. Even when you’re not wearing Slash Goggles, you’ll probably notice how weirdly homoerotic the whole scene feels. And it’s not because Lecter puts a phallic object into Graham’s body and we’re treated to lots of blood and gore. Actually, you can barely see any blood at all. What you can see (in vivid detail), is Lecter holding Graham, whispering soothingly into his ear, laying him down gently and talking about he wants to eat Graham’s heart as a special honour because Graham impressed him. (This means a lot coming from someone who eats people to humiliate them. Granted, Lecter could have lied, but why would he?)
I think that scene perfectly illustrates one thing: When Lecter kills, the focus is never on the act of killing itself. It’s on him.
It’s not the violence that’s sexualised, it’s him.
It’s always strictly about him.
He, who represents privilege, power and integrity. He, who, on the surface, is everything good and beautiful in the world. He, who is so untouchable, so above everyone else.
He becomes an object to the audience and his actions become all about the audience’s reaction in a way that not only mirrors the Male Gaze, but also mocks our fascination with him and everything he stands for.
So naturally, we don’t like to admit how much we felt drawn to him in the first place.
But honestly, is there any harm in doing so? Is there any harm in admitting that Hannibal Lecter fills a gap most people wouldn’t even realise was there, even though in the end, his role is satirical?
Hannibal Lecter is not simply a male Femme Fatale. He is an Homme Fatal. His character rests on his gender and the privilege that comes with it. He wouldn’t have the same effect if he was female. He wouldn’t get under your skin the same way, wouldn’t make you question your attraction to him the same way, wouldn’t frighten you in a way that goes beyond primal instinct and appeals to the very foundations of your social conditioning.
Hannibal Lecter is an Homme Fatal and that is fantastic because there is no one like him.
“Hannibal Lecter and the Subversion of the Male Gaze” ©tenebrica, originally posted on May 23, 2013
Great post! But I’d like to suggest the BBC’s incarnation of Sherlock Holmes as another candidate for Homme Fatal. He’s not a villain, true, but he’s not quite a hero, either. Really, he is a classic example of the Byronic hero or anti-hero. And in s03e03, he quite explicitly uses his sexual wiles to gain access to an enemy’s office.
I would also say he fits almost all of this description, though some might quibble on “emotional” and “sensitive”: “Male villains are infinitely more likely to be effeminate (and, more specifically, queer-coded) than male heroes. They are more likely to be (for example) emotional, sensitive, vain, melodramatic and/or unconventionally attractive (often in an androgynous way), but also charming and cunning in ways that heroic characters just aren’t.”
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