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Podcast by: Jamie MacGregor
“Tell me, what are you becoming?”:
The Trans Body in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (2013-2015)
Content Warning: Violence
Throughout Bryan Fuller’s hit TV show, Hannibal (2013-2015), the metaphor of ‘becoming’ is used to describe a character becoming the truest version of themselves, a process which is often very violent. I assert that this link between violence and transformation makes Hannibal an example of Bakhtin’s ‘grotesque’. The idea of becoming is also used almost exclusively in reference to three characters: Will Graham, Randall Tier, and Francis Dolarhyde. In this paper, I argue that this becoming metaphor can also be read as characters ‘transitioning’ – here, transition refers to the process of changing one’s outward or physical characteristics to more closely align with one’s gender identity rather than birth sex. This may or may not involve medical procedures like hormone therapy or surgery. Thus, the language of ‘becoming your true self’ is also frequently used in reference to transitioning, making a connection to the characters mentioned and transness seem natural. To further explore this, I will use Jay Prosser’s discussion of transition in Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (1998), and Evelyn Deshane’s paper, ‘The Great Red Dragon: Francis Dolarhyde and Queer Readings of Skin’, which asserts that Dolarhyde is a potentially trans character. Alongside this, I will be using textual analysis to look at the representation of Randall Tier, Francis Dolarhyde, and Will Graham, who I argue are coded as transgender.
About the Author: Jamie MacGregor (they/them) completed their MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Jamie has varied research interests depending on when you ask them, but they are primarily interested in the horror genre across media, queer and trans theory as well as representation in media, and fan studies.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 3: Trans/Formations, which will take place at 3:50pm GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Jamie MacGregor. Jamie completed their MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Jamie has varied research interests depending on when you ask them, but they are primarily interested in the horror genre across media, queer and trans theory as well as representation in media, and fan studies.
Hi there! My name is Jamie MacGregor, and this paper is titled “Tell me, what are you becoming?”: The Trans Body in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (2013-2015), part of Panel 3: Trans/Formations at Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media. Thanks in advance for listening!
Vittoria Lion, in her essay about Hannibal as a Surrealist artist argues that “the living and dead human bodies, flora, fauna, and inanimate objects of Hannibal are in a constant state of ‘becoming’” (Lion 2019: 145). Here, she identifies the important theme of transformation that runs throughout Hannibal. She also notes that a love of creative destruction is seen in Surrealism, writing that “making the defilement of the body beautiful is a quintessential example of a contradiction that can give rise to the
marvellous, producing a feeling of wonder that pushes the limits of reason” (ibid.140). Throughout Hannibal the metaphor of ‘becoming’ is used, ostensibly in reference to a person becoming the truest version of themselves, though it becomes even more explicit from the latter half of the second series onwards. Crucially, this metaphor is used almost exclusively in reference to three characters, namely Will, Randall Tier, and Francis Dolarhyde. The idea of ‘becoming’ is often used in reference to transitioning, and in fact Halberstam describes transitioning as a kind of becoming: “Trans* bodies represent the art of becoming, the necessity of imagining” (Halberstam 2018: 136), though he also asserts that the trans body is a liminal one as they are “always under construction” (ibid.). This mirrors the use of ‘becoming’ in Hannibal, as it is always used in a present continuous tense, it is never explicitly said that any of the characters have ‘become’, so there is the sense that this is a continuous process. To clarify, transition refers to the process of changing one’s outward or physical
characteristics to more closely align with one’s gender identity rather than birth sex. This may or may not involve medical procedures like hormone therapy or surgery. The prefix ‘trans’ comes from Latin, meaning to cross or across, which is appropriate given as Jay Prosser asserts, the trans subject crosses “several boundaries at once: both the boundaries between gender, sex, and sexuality and the boundaries that structures each as a binary category” (Prosser 1998: 22). In Second Skins: The Body Narratives
of Transsexuality, Prosser is mainly concerned with the idea of shedding skin, but he also discusses transition extensively, saying: “Transition provokes discomfort, anxiety — both for the subject in transition and for the other in the encounter’ it pushes up abasing the very feasibility of identity. Yet transition is also necessary for identity’s continuity; it is that which moves us on” (ibid. 3) Prosser notes that although there is initially discomfort in transition, there is also comfort and that is often ignored. Prosser points out that transition and transgender people are most often discussed in queer theory “in terms of [the] deconstructive effects on the body and identity” (ibid. 6), and his argument is that narratives written by transgender people see transition as
the process of becoming more comfortable in themselves. This line of thinking is closer to my own argument that destruction is occasionally necessary for creation, and I am interested in the positive implications of this rather than the potential negativity of focusing solely on destruction or deconstruction. Prosser asserts that “to name oneself transsexual is to own precisely to being gender displaced, to being a subject in transition, moving beyond or in between sexual difference” (ibid. 2), thus he also implies that to be trans is to be a liminal figure, and that the trans body is a
liminal one always in the process of ‘becoming’. Stokes posits an interesting argument in ‘Hannibal as Therapist; Hannibal as Transformer’, arguing that Hannibal “depicts therapy as a process of destroying the old self in order to make way for the construction of the new self” (Stokes 2015), comparable to Bakhtin’s description of the grotesque as it is only through a lowering that rebirth and renewal can occur: “to degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously in order to bring forth something more and better” (ibid. 21). “Signing up for therapy with Hannibal is signing on to be transformed” (ibid.), though he is careful to admit that Hannibal does not just ‘transform’ anyone — as Hannibal says to Will in ‘Su-zakana’ (2.08), “With all my knowledge and intuition I could never entirely predict you. I can feed the caterpillar, I can whisper through the chrysalis, but what hatches follows its own nature and is
beyond me” (2.08). This quotation sums up the theme of becoming in the series perfectly as it notes that while Hannibal may exert influence at times (arguably to the point of manipulation on occasion), ultimately, he is just encouraging the transformation, becoming, or transition — whichever word you chose, the meaning remains the same. I feel it necessary to point out that moths and butterflies are often used to express metamorphosis as a metaphor when talking about transitioning (Deshane 2019: 138). Ostensibly, Hannibal genuinely believes he is helping people recognise their true selves and does not encourage violent behaviour in anyone that
he does not already see as predisposed to it — he never urges Franklin to harm people, presumably because Hannibal does not believe that he is capable. Hannibal helps his patients ‘become’, but the desire for transformation must be there in the beginning.
Randall Tier is introduced in ‘Shiizakana’ (2.09) as suffering from ‘species dysphoria’, believing himself to be an animal and having a hydraulic suit that he uses to kill people. Fuller has admitted that Tier’s diagnosis was intended to invoke transgenderism, but that this was a ‘‘terrible, terrible, inappropriate metaphor’’ (McLean 2015: 48). As much as I agree that it is a questionable metaphor, it should be noted that the
episode deals with the topic fairly well. Tier’s therapy provided by Hannibal is comparable to how a trans patient would be treated — Hannibal encourages Tier to embrace his identity, and talks about him very respectfully. At one point in the episode Jack asks if Randall was delusional, and Hannibal is quick to dissuade this. Upon meeting him again, Hannibal also actively supports Randall, though this could be dismissed as Lecter is shown to support the violent impulses of his patients on more than one occasion (a pattern Will notices and asks Margot about, who Hannibal has also encouraged to kill her brother). The first explicit use of the becoming metaphor is used near the end of Shiizakana, when Hannibal tells Randall: “You are becoming, Randall, and this beast is your higher self. Your bodies, voices and wills are one” (‘Shiizakana’ 2.09). This is continued in the next episode with the tableau of Tier, made into “A grotesque amalgam of man and beast, of long-dead bones and recently living flesh” (‘Naka-Choko’ 2.10: 6). Will arranges Randall just as Hannibal does with his kills, betraying the extent of Hannibal’s influence. The display of Randall serves two purposes though as Will says “I gave you what you want. This is who you are. What you feel finally matches the reality of what I see” (Naka-Choko 2.10). This implies that the only way for Randall to be himself was for him to die, or at least for some part of him to die. Randall’s voice over says, “This is my becoming…and yours”, but Will denies this and “…shakes his head, this is not his becoming. WILL GRAHAM This is my design” (Naka-Choko 2.10: 6-7). Given that Will has said “This is my design” from the very first episode, this implies that he has not fundamentally changed yet, and displaying Randall is something he was always capable of. This raises the interesting question of what is Will’s becoming? By all accounts, Will committing this murder means that he is a killer, just as Hannibal says he is. I argue that the difference is that Will hasn’t accepted his true nature yet, merely seeing his actions as a means to an end. The end being putting Hannibal in prison. Still, Will admits that he sees himself in Tier, and admits at the crime scene that “Randall Tier came into his own much easier than whoever killed him” (Naka-Choko 2.10) — Randall is comfortable with himself in a way that Will is not.
Deshane pinpoints Francis Dolarhyde as a potentially trans character in her essay ‘The Great Dragon: Francis Dolarhyde and Queer Readings of Skin’, using Halberstam’s theory about queer time and space to show how all of the characters, but particularly Francis, have been queered. According to Halberstam, queer refers to that which is nonnormative, so ‘queer time’ refers to “specific models of temporality that emerge within postmodernity once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety” (Halberstam 2005: 5). ‘Queer space’, then, is “the place-making practices within postmodernism in which queer people engage” (ibid.). Following this, the queer temporal body exists and is “imagined…outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience — namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (ibid.). All of this works together to create ‘queer futurity’ — the idea that because the queer body exists outside of the social order and is made to look different, it also has a different future (or no future according to Lee Edelman). Halberstam’s idea of queer time and space can be applied to queerness generally, but he focuses specifically on trans people. Deshane argues that Dolarhyde embodies this theory, and that this, along with his feelings of body dysmorphia, code him as a trans character. Like Buffalo Bill, Dolarhyde wishes to transform into something other than himself, which gave Fuller the opportunity to attempt to heal the wounds left by SotL according to Deshane — she posits that Fuller elected not to make Dolarhyde explicitly trans in an effort to avoid evoking the ‘deceptive’ trans villain trope (Deshane 2019: 133). As evidence for Francis being trans, Deshane points out that many common tropes used to signal that a character is trans are used for him, namely “the mirror, bodily distrust, and a highly developed alter identity” (ibid. 137). Overall, Deshane makes a convincing argument for Francis being trans, though I think she misses an opportunity by failing to address the theme of becoming that is central to Dolarhyde’s storyline. Dolarhyde’s becoming underpins all of his conversations with Hannibal, who Francis believes is the only person that will understand his transformation, though he does not elaborate why this is — my guess is that something about Hannibal urging his patients towards murder came out during his trial. Francis is given the name the Tooth Fairy, though he dislikes this and dubs himself ‘the Great Red Dragon’ because of his admiration of the William Blake painting. Similar to his support of Randall, a trans-coded character, Hannibal corrects Alana when she refers to Francis as the Tooth Fairy, saying “I think he's earned the right to be called by the name he's chosen. He's the Great Red Dragon” (‘…And Beast From the Sea’ 3.11). The language here is reminiscent of when trans people pick a new name. Dolarhyde later says to Chilton that “I am not a man. I have become…Other”, and discusses his ‘great becoming’, this becoming being his transformation into the Great Red Dragon. Transformation in Hannibal is a process that requires destruction before something new may be created, and Dolarhyde is no exception to this. Francis tells Lecter that his death will “meld with the strength of the Dragon”, which Hannibal says is “a glorious and rather discomfiting idea” (‘The Wrath of the Lamb’ 3.13). This exchange acknowledges the complicated feelings that can arise with ‘becoming’, or transition — even if a change is desirable, there is always an underlying feeling of anxiety as something has to be left behind for transformation to take place. Despite Dolarhyde’s words here, he ends up becoming the catalyst for Will’s becoming.
Though the metaphor of becoming is used for both Randall and Dolarhyde, it is used most often by Hannibal to refer to Will’s becoming his true self — to Lecter this involves Will embracing his darker impulses and becoming a serial killer. Will is initially in denial about his true nature, or identity, and refuses to accept what Hannibal is telling him. This denial is also experienced by many trans people, who go through a period of denying their identity. Will also experiences the discomfort discussed by Prosser and becomes noticeably more at ease with himself when he
accepts his nature — a far cry from the sweaty and unstable man of season one. Throughout season two and three, Will goes through the process of ‘becoming’, even being reborn in ‘Kō-No-Mono’ as ‘THE WILDIGO’ (‘Kō-No-Mono' 2.11: 1), a mirror image of the stag-man that Will sees Hannibal as in his imagination, suggesting that Will is becoming more like Lecter. This transformation is not complete in season two, as Will is unable to truly embrace his nature and run away with Hannibal despite wanting to. As such, Fuller describes Will’s portrayal in season three as follows:
For the new season, we have actually been talking a lot about classic horror and Universal horror, and the metaphor of Will Graham being a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. He dies, essentially, at the end of the season, and comes back from that
stitched together a new man. (Weintraub 2014) Susan Stryker famously links Frankenstein’s monster to transness in her seminal essay ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage’, so this comparison is particularly interesting to me. Particularly because Stryker wishes that the reader “discover the enlivening power of darkness within [themselves]” (Stryker  2006: 250), which Will seems to do by the end of season three. A time skip occurs in season three in ‘The Great Red Dragon (3.08)’, at which point Will has removed himself from the FBI and any other violence, although he is forced to return to the field by Jack Crawford when Dolarhyde starts killing. Will warns his wife that he will be different when he comes back, suggesting that he recognises that he is suppressing some part of himself. Being involved in the case brings Will back to
Hannibal, as well as the violence that he completely erased from his life, and both of these things remind Will that he is ignoring his true self. Hannibal tells Will as much on several occasions, even saying that he and Francis are just alike. Given that Dolarhyde is coded as a trans character, this could be taken to mean that Will is also trans. Dolarhyde is also ultimately instrumental in Will’s becoming, as it is his death that prompts Graham to finally be at peace with himself. Will does acknowledge his
‘becoming’, prior to his and Hannibal’s showdown with Dolarhyde, as he says to Bedelia in the final episode “This is my becoming” (‘The Wrath of the Lamb’ 3.13), putting emphasis on the ‘my’. However, at this point in the episode the audience is not clear if Will’s becoming will be killing Hannibal or running away with Hannibal as he leaves it ambiguous. Dolarhyde’s death, which is symbolic in itself as he gains wings
made of blood, finally becoming the Great Red Dragon, is at the hands of Will and Hannibal. It is also the event that makes Will accept his true identity, as looking over the scene of Dolarhyde’s death, Hannibal tells Will "This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For us”, to which Will earnestly replies, “It’s beautiful”, and embraces Hannibal. The scene is truly touching, with both characters looking noticeably content, particularly Will as the audience gets the sense that he is no longer at war with himself and is ready to truly be himself. Though the scene ends with Will tipping himself and Hannibal over a cliff, there is a scene after the end credits with Bedelia missing a leg and sitting at a table with three place settings. Fuller has confirmed the scene was intended to suggest that both men survive the fall. Elliott sees this ending for the hopeful one that it is, saying that: “This ending – one in which the queer monsters remain unpunished – is a radical departure from the moralistic endings of
Victorian Gothic texts” (Elliott 2018: 262). Will and Hannibal’s fall off the cliff is the ultimate illustration of creative destruction in Hannibal, as both characters had to kill their old selves in order to embrace their new lives and move on with each other.