Unpacking Gender Anxiety Through ‘Malignant’s Gabriel and Madison

Gender anxiety and panic have long powered horror. But rarely has a movie been so enraged, confused, and divided by gender identity as James Wan’s Malignant. The 2021 film is essentially The Silence of the Lambs updated for a newly hopeful era of trans visibility and a newly virulent era of transphobia. Split against itself, Malignant can be read as a refutation of the former film’s fear and hatred of trans people, or as an extreme, panicked doubling-down on the disgust and prejudice of its predecessor.

Silence of the Lambs, released in 1991, drew on transphobic narratives pushed by trans-exclusionary radical feminists—TERFs. Janice Raymond in her 1979 screed The Transsexual Empire argued that  trans women, especially trans women lesbians, were men who had “discovered where strong female energy exists and want to capture it.” She viewed trans women as vampiric rapists devouring or feeding on women’s essence, in her own horror film plot of hate.

The antagonist in Silence of the Lambs steps right out of Raymond’s fever dreams. Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is a serial killer who seeks out women, murders them, and cuts off their skins to wear, symbolically becoming them. He’s opposed by FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a competent, no-nonsense woman with no romantic attachments and a studiously professional demeanor.  Trans women in this story are caricatures of femininity, defeated by an empowered feminist icon.

Trans and cis women are kept carefully separated from each other in Silence of the Lambs by a perverse but at least ambivalently benevolent patriarch. Clarice goes to the serial killer, and brilliant psychologist, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to ask him to profile Bill.

Lecter explains that Bill is not really a trans woman. This isn’t a denial of transphobia, but an example of it. As Jos Truitt explains in her brilliant essay on the film, medical gatekeepers have long “divided those who came to them seeking to transition and live as women into two groups: transvestites and “true” transsexuals.” Lecter is the knowing male doctor who rules on who is a woman and who is not. Bill does not qualify, but Clarice (who Lecter has a crush on, in his twisted way) does.

At the end of Silence of the Lambs, Clarice kills Bill, and Lecter escapes. The danger of trans identity is contained first through the elimination of the trans person and then by re-establishing male freedom and male power. Every gender is placed back in its rightful place.

Silence of the Lambs is a formally elegant, high production Hollywood mainstream film. It revels in its classiness, most notably in the scene in which Lecter beats his guards to death while listening to Mozart. Malignant is, for better or worse, an altogether more chaotic movie, filled with crappy-looking CGI transitions and cheesy special effects gore. In Wan’s movie, Bill and Clarice are literally squeezed together into a single monstrosity. And there’s no Lecter to explain them apart.

After being beaten by her abusive husband, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) begins to have frightening visions of people (like her spouse) being murdered. Slowly she realizes that she herself is the culprit—or rather, something inside her is.

Madison has a superpowered psychic male conjoined twin, a kind of sentient cancerous growth, attached to her back at the head named Gabriel, and/or Satan. Gabriel devours her unborn children for their own sustenance, and tries to kill her step-sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson). It puts her in trance and crawls out backwards to slaughter the medical professionals who tried to regulate and contain it. Bill, in this version of the story, tracks Hannibal down and reduces him to a puddle of genderless meat.

Trans people in Silence of the Lamb were an outside threat for the heroic feminist to track down and exterminate. By Malignant, trans people have crawled into feminism itself, appropriating female energy and female bodies to the escalating panic of Raymond and her heirs.

Gabriel is a terrifying thing, not even human, that must be cut out of the body of women and of feminism. Yet, as Sophie Lewis points out, the movie’s confusing mish-mash of theme and identity means you can’t pull apart the loathing of Gabriel from the identification with Madison, or vice versa. “If I squint, I can imagine Gabriel as an evocation of scuttling, proletarian, subterranean queer feminism, the antidote to Madison's property-owning, carceral, cop-loving, motherhood-fetishizing, domestic cis feminism,” Lewis writes.

The two of them, Gabriel and Madison, are joined at the brain; they’re the same person. Which means that the protagonist of the film is the person with their body on backwards. It’s the person who, in a stunning choreographed sequence by contortionist Marina Mazepa, eviscerates a roomful of cops in a graceful reverse ballet, or climbs into the room of the doctor who tried to destroy them and seizes vengeance through the throat.

At the end of the film, Madison realizes that she can turn the tables on Gabriel, putting her twin in a trance and taking control of its strength for herself. This could be read as a call to feminism to assault and destroy trans people in order to enter into true female empowerment. Gabriel will eat you; eat Gabriel first. To become a true feminist self, cis women must devour trans women.

Another, double reading, though, might be that Gabriel’s queer venom and strength is a resource for feminism and for women. Madison without Gabriel is forced into stereotypical feminized roles—battered wife, medicalized subject, victim. With Gabriel, on the other skull, she’s an androgynous reverse self, who has the strength to save her sister. As trans panic moves closer to the center of horror, maybe we also move closer to being able to imagine a trans woman who is the protagonist, rather than the monster, in a horror film.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.