In "Cimmerian Shade, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo DeAugustine sing about Autogynephilia... really
Yesterday, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo DeAugustine released their new album "A Beginner's Mind". In it they use the term “Autogynephilia” in their new song “Cimmerian Shade”. This term is an outdated, denounced, fringe word, a pseudo-scientific label, a hateful word to the community it purports to describe. Some listeners believe the singers use it intentionally as an era-specific disproven belief, in order to generate discussion and a more nuanced understanding of the character Buffalo Bill from the 1991 movie "The Silence of the Lambs": the assertion is that the singers use it knowingly, ironically, intellectually. It does not inspire any particular confidence in their "nuanced" knowing use of this loaded heinous term, when the official Asthmatic Kitty lyrics on Youtube misspell it as “Autogynophilia”. Nonetheless, let’s look briefly at the issues involved:
First of all, the album is called “A Beginner’s Mind”, referring to a word from Zen Buddhism “Shoshin” (which according to Wikipedia means “a beginner’s mind”: “Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher, outlines the framework behind shoshin, noting "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.”” Stevens and DeAugustine tried to keep open minds, perhaps like a child, in each song. As you can read in the references below, Stevens and DeAugustine gave interviews explaining how they came to make an album about a list of eclectic and often problematic movies they watched up in the Catskills where they made this album.
The list of films is readily available everywhere now: I tried to listen to Beginner’s Mind the same way I listened to Sufjan’s other collaborative theme-based album, "Planetarium": we tried to guess what planet each song was about by the cryptic lyrics. Like Planetarium, these 14 movie songs are just jumping-off points to write about the singers' internal feelings and thoughts while watching the movies.
It just so happens that between all of my family, we have seen every one of these films (my poor kids were traumatized by “Return to Oz” and still have bad dreams about that bizarre, upsetting movie… thanks a lot, Blockbuster Video!)
“Cimmerian Shade” is the next to last song on the album, presented, I believe, as the album’s defining single. The title seems to come from the definition “Cimmerian: Very dark or gloomy”, or “of a mythical people described by Homer as inhabiting a land of perpetual darkness”. So Cimmerian Shade is like saying “really dark blackness.” This probably refers to the darkness the killer keeps in his underground lair (in the well, in the basement, with the night-vision goggles, etc).
In his excellent review, Mark Redfern writes: “Cimmerian Shade” is sung from the perspective of Silence of the Lambs’ serial killer Buffalo Bill (aka Jame Gumb, as played by Ted Levine). De Augustine had this to say about the song in a press release: “Many authors have emotional attachments to the characters they create. But in this instance, I was interested in how a character felt about being created. In my imagination I was giving consciousness to someone else’s creation. The song is essentially a dialogue between creation and creator that seeks to find understanding to some of the same questions that we ask ourselves about existence, free will, fate, purpose, guidance and if anyone or anything out there is listening or cares.” (1.)
The entire song, in fact, is made up of low level word play based on the film: the lamb cries; my prison of shame; I’ll keep her safe in the well, tailor made; my Starling; Chrysalis; black witch moth, etc. Except for one shocking word we never expect to hear come out of Sufjan's mouth: Autogynephilia.
I’m no expert on these issues, but I was there when they filmed Silence of the Lambs (SOTL) all around Pittsburgh, often right in my neighborhood: they filmed the famous escape scene at Soldiers and Sailors Hall in Oakland, about a block from my apartment. The actors’ trailers never had signs like “Anthony Hopkins”, but rather just unknown names like “H. Lecter”. My friend Buddy was a true horror aficionado, and he was not fooled by such ruses.
In her excellent article, “The Ongoing Damages of The Silence of the Lambs’s Buffalo Bill 30 Years On”, Stephanie Markwell writes “This idea of the autogynephilic trans woman was popularised by The Silence of the Lambs – Bill’s mission to “become” a woman is entirely informed by his sexual perversions, as mentioned earlier. Much of the disgust levelled at Bill throughout the film is informed by this, with Lecter’s accusation of Bill and other gender non-conforming (GNC) people being ‘… savage and terrifying’ being at least partially influenced by a disdain for Bill’s autogynephilia.” (2.)
Julia Serano in her scholarly denunciations of autogynephilia(3.) writes: “It is generally accepted within psychology and among trans health providers that transgender people who transition do so because they have a gender identity that is incongruent with their birth-assigned sex, and distinct from their sexual orientation. In contradiction to this standard model, the theory of autogynephilia posits that transgender women’s female gender identities and transitions are merely a by-product of their sexual orientations. While subsequent research has yielded numerous lines of evidence that, taken together, disprove the theory, autogynephilia is still often touted by anti-transgender groups, including trans-exclusionary feminists.” (4.) and “Autogynephilia is a paraphilic model that states that all male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals who are not exclusively attracted toward men are instead sexually oriented toward the thought or image of themselves as a woman. The assertion that transsexual women are sexually motivated in their transitions challenges the standard model of transsexualism—that is, that transsexuals have a gender identity that is distinct from their sexual orientation and incongruent with their physical sex.” (5.)
I still think it’s a great album: just now every time I see a horror movie, I have to wonder what Sufjan would sing about it (eg. I just watched Malignant, and I’m already hearing the pretty melodies “in my head…”, pardon the pun...)
One would hope that Stevens and DeAugustine use the term autogynephilia ironically in an attempt to be intellectual or artistic provocateurs, but that’s not good enough. If just judging from the small number of people who have listened to the song on YouTube and responded to it in the Comments is any indication, it has already hurt people. From the comments:
“dudes why the heck are you singing about autogynephilia, get that word out of your mouths. making a song based on an infamously transmisogynistic film, this is painful to hear.”
“These people have no business singing about or even uttering the word “autogynephilia”.”
“Any mention of that pseudoscience is offensive and gross.”
“i think it was still a really poor and uneducated choice on both of their parts, but i don't think there's any kind of ulterior motive behind using the word.”
“Bonehead choice for sure.”
“Can anything about Buffalo Bill ever be well intentioned? It’s literally all the worst transmisogynist tropes rolled up into one character. I don’t think anything good faith can be made from that source material. Mentioning autognyephilia was just adding insult to injury.”
“id just like to know cause that word (and the movie too) have such a bad history”
“but the use of "autogynophilia" muddies all of that”
“you're absolutely right about that cursed word though they need to take responsibility for that”
So what does Jonathan Demme have to do with all this?
Demme became a great Hollywood Director, who had always tried to be aligned with marginalised people, like the gay community. When the film came out, in 1991, Demme was crushed to find himself denounced as having made a homophobic film (while today, it is discussed for it’s transphobic depiction). As GLAAD said to the press about Jame Gumb back in 1991, ““He has a poodle named Precious, he sews, he wears a nipple ring, he has an affected feminine voice, and he cross-dresses. He completely promotes homophobia.” Demme’s response to his film being labeled as homophobic was to next direct Philadelphia, about a gay lawyer dying of AIDS and fighting for his rights. Philadelphia was also roundly criticized, but Demme’s response was very inspiring:
“I expected it—actually hoped for it,” Demme said in 1994. “It’s the job of militants to demand more of anything. If these people were satisfied, change would be hard to get through. Every one of them is right. There could have been more of this, or more of that, but now, maybe another film will take it further.” As the years went on, he also seemed to understand why activists were so incensed by Lambs. “Jame Gumb isn’t gay. And this is my directorial failing in making The Silence of the Lambs—that I didn’t find ways to emphasize the fact that Gumb wasn’t gay,” he said in 2014. “Juan Botas, who was one of the inspirations for Philadelphia, said, ‘You can’t imagine what it’s like to be a 12-year-old gay kid, and you go to the movies all the time and whenever you see a gay character, they’re either a ridiculous comic-relief caricature, or a demented killer. It’s very hard growing up gay and being exposed to all these stereotypes.’ That registered with me in a big way.” He acknowledged, fondly, “It’s now become a part of the dialogue on stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies.” (6.)
In an interview with GQ (7.) Stevens explains that he met Jonathan Demme when the director brought his family to see Stevens’ show. Stevens is a big fan of Demme’s work. DeAugustine goes farther (too far, I’m sure) in adding “That song began when I woke up one morning and started to write on the ukulele. I’d been imagining this situation where the character [Buffalo Bill] could have a conversation with the director. What would be said between the two of them? Would the conversation be one-sided because they’re both living in separate planes of existence? Or could that barrier be broken and an understanding be achieved? I think [The Silence of the Lambs] is about wanting to be loved for who you are. We seek guidance all the time for what purpose our lives hold, and that movie can be helpful for understanding some of those things.”
Again, I’m no Psychiatrist, but the serial killer in SOTL is definitely NOT motivated by seeking to be loved for who he is; he is motivated by the desire to torture, terrorize, maim and kill his victims; he desires their fear and to watch them die, then to cut them up and use their skin for a “woman suit”: not to “gain understanding”. It’s just possible Angelo and Sufjan have overthought this song a little bit. Their story/lyrics don’t hold up at all: Jame Gumb does not know Agent Starling and never calls her “My Clarice”: that’s a different serial killer in the movie. Jame Gumb did not “just want you to love me”: he never even knew her. There is an exhaustive article about Buffalo Bill’s origins and narrative at HannibalWiki. (8.) The singers eulogize and lionize the killer here (unintentionally swerving over to Hannibal Lecter then back to Jame Gumb again) but Gumb had a (fictional) unmanageable mental illness from childhood: in foster care since the age of 2 when his alcoholic mother could not raise him, his grandparents took him home from a dangerous foster home at age 10: he killed both grandparents "to see what it would feel like". It only went downhill from there... He is the most severe sociopath describable, and his disordered thought process has nothing to do with the search for love or "to know myself" or to "change myself": it's the angry violent hiss of a sadistic, florid psychopath, not a gentle, rational cry for help.
But it is very interesting to have a fictional character wish they could have self-determination: Sesame Street used to have a simple line drawing character crying, and the character sobs “but I don’t want to be sad”… but they were drawn sad, and they are sad about being forced to be sad by nature; by their creator.
Cimmerian Shade would not engender all this discussion about Buffalo Bill, about SOTL, about Jonathan Demme, or about many important trans issues including the hateful and hurtful term “Autogynephilia”, if they left that word out of the song. My greatest wish, and the only thing I think that can address the harm using this word has caused, is to come out HARD against it: to make a strong, unambiguous statement right away, on the order of “We strongly denounce the concept of “Autogynephilia”, and any lingering credence anyone gives to this archaic and hurtful term. We use it here only to denounce the use of it by … and to hopefully make it even more unacceptable and rejected.” Sure, stir the pot, rile up all the greater non-trans public to raise awareness of these issues. But trans people are already hurt by this. Picture a listener (cis, trans, transitioning) hearing their hero Sufjan using the term in this song: “well, it must be acceptable or possibly even OK to believe in autogynephilia.” and from then on they keep their ears open for theories about trans people believing this is a viable discussion point. don’t play coy about it: that’s a JK Rowling maneuver. None of this “We won’t ever discuss our lyrics’ meanings, that’s for our listeners to interpret for themselves… artistic privilege etc” Blabla bla... They should just come right out and say “We completely condemn autogynephilia theory, we just used it in our discussion because it was part of a film from 30 years ago.”
I wrote to Sufjan, and Asthmatic Kitty asking for clarification. (yeah, like they ever read a letter from me, let alone respond to me…) “Suf and Ange, I don’t know what’s “right” or “wrong”: I just know using this term is hurtful to a lot of people and many of your fans are confused and hurt: that’s a good time to say something, don’t you think?”