Academic journal article Gender Forum

Becoming Unknown: Hannibal and Queer Epistemology

Academic journal article Gender Forum

Becoming Unknown: Hannibal and Queer Epistemology

Article excerpt

1In the fifth episode of Hannibal's first season, "Coquilles," Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), an elegant psychiatrist by day, cannibalistic serial killer by night, leans over and smells the neck of his patient, FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). This moment of intimacy follows a lengthy series of shots emphasizing a diagonal tie between the two men, Will Graham placed in the foreground, moving nervously back and forth while discussing the perversions of his latest criminal assignment. Hannibal stays grounded, in the background of the shots, moving in and out of focus. His presence is felt as an enormous weight, a vague binding grasp around Will Graham. The men only appear side by side in one shot when Hannibal finally moves, walking forward to slowly, sensuously inhale Will's scent. "Did you just smell me?" Will asks, perturbed. "Difficult to avoid" Hannibal quickly answers, redirecting conversation to the gauche stench of Will's aftershave. A queer moment has been activated, fully demonstrated, and then 'resolved' within the text. (Figures 1 - 4)

2No matter how libidinously the moment is played by Hannibal's portrayer Mads Mikkelsen, the added contextual baggage of Hannibal's cannibalism complicates the image of Hannibal smelling Will. The blurry mystification of boundaries between carnal and carnivorous desire is a primary tool in Hannibal's arsenal, used throughout the show's three-season run on NBC (2013 - 2015). And it all happens inside the closet. The queerness of Hannibal and Will's cannibalistic courtship was instantly archived by fans of the series, resulting in a prodigious well of fan-fiction and fan-art literalizing the queer flirtation of the show. The series avoided a direct verbal allocation of romance within Hannibal and Will's tortured relationship, at least until its penultimate episode, when Will Graham trepidatiously asks psychiatrist Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) "Is Hannibal...in love with me?," to the collective "OBVIOUSLY!" of Hannibal's viewing public.

3This closet romance marks Hannibal as an especially Gothic outlier to how American television engages queer topics in the 2010s. In a moment when liberal audiences put television under increasing pressure to nourish openly LGBTQ characters, Hannibal relies on antique methods of queer coding to hide its central romance in plain sight. This narrative choice runs contrary to the spirit of post-marriage equality LGBTQ inclusion in American television, favoring 'positive representation' of queer individuals that too often results in incorporative normative models of family, gender, and sexuality. In this article I will prove shows like Modern Family advocate an open transparency of queer characters that is never as liberating as it may appear. Hannibal demonstrates queer anxiety over forms of representation, an awareness that sexual freedom can never come from simply 'opening' the closet, a closet queerness never had any role in creating.

4In this article I analyze the show's re-appropriation of queer textual motifs throughout film history, in service of several guiding questions: what does it mean to be 'known' as queer on television, what are the political stakes of such knowledge, and why is a show about a decadent cannibal so comfortably queer? To contrast with the show's 'silence' on clearly marked identities, I focus on the visual expressiveness of Hannibal, and how its insistence on elaborate displays of murder performs the series' foundational anxiety of knowing. Ultimately this form of ambivalent un-knowing becomes a kind of resistance to the normative incorporation of LGBTQ cultures. Hannibal centers on the glamor and mystery of queer villainy to proudly defy a rhetoric of knowable normativity.

5Hannibal is the television incarnation, under the creative direction of Bryan Fuller, of a substantial corpus of characters and plotlines, introduced in novels by Thomas Harris, and later transferred to cinematic adaptation, most notably Jonathan Demme's 1991 film of the second novel, The Silence of the Lambs, which found immense success critically and at the box office. …

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