by Anna Wermuth; illustrated by Walker Walls-Tarver
At the Double R Diner, pleasant waitresses in pressed baby-blue dresses pour mug after mug of 25 cent coffee and brighten the days of their patrons with exquisite cherry pies and white smiles. At the sheriff’s station, a quirky young receptionist named Lucy fields baffling phone calls and supplies an excess of donuts to the deputies and detectives. Inside quiet homes in the hills, mothers keep clean and make futile attempts to supervise their teenagers, while the fathers go off to be doctors, lawyers, military members and sly entrepreneurs. This is Twin Peaks, a small town in eastern Washington invented by Mark Frost and David Lynch for their acclaimed cult classic 1990s television show of the same name. When beloved homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee) is found dead, the subsequent murder investigation reveals threads of violence, abuse, drug smuggling and sex trafficking that run covertly through the town. Underneath the quiet routine of life in the forested Pacific Northwest, diabolical conflict weaves together the involved and the ignorant.
By creating a town that obsesses over the death of a beautiful young girl, writers Lynch and Frost perpetuate sexist notions of women in a society that preys on them. (Even the title “Twin Peaks” is an insensitive reference to female anatomy and has been used to name a knockoff Hooters restaurant.) The show is incredibly well-produced and remains popular today—it is set for a revival season in 2017—but as a fan of the show and a feminist, I am disturbed that the vast majority of the female characters are portrayed as blatantly weak and helpless. As the show progresses and the story unfolds, the attentive viewer notices that every female character is a victim, and in her suffering, she is either ignored or pitied by those around her. In turn, the principal male figures are either perpetrators, rescuers or passive bystanders.
Duality is a recurrent theme in “Twin Peaks.” Public and private, good and evil, inner and outer identity—characters grapple with these dichotomies in every episode. Many of them lead “double lives” of respectable behavior and deplorable undercover activity. Mark Frost recalls working with Lynch to develop the preliminary concept for the show: the girl next door leading a “desperate double life” that would end in murder. Their idea is inherently tied up in the double standards that women face in everyday life. Laura is superficially seen as an innocent, well-behaved young woman. She is a dedicated tutor and student—admirable qualities to local adults. She gets along well with her parents and is popular among her peers. But she cheats on her boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), captain of the football team, with biker James Hurley (James Marshall). Bobby resents Laura for it, even though he’s seeing married nineteen-year-old Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) on the side. This is a classic example of a double standard, wherein women are accused of immoral actions while men are socially excused from the same ones.
The sexist persecution Laura experienced runs even deeper. In the weeks leading up to her death, she prostitutes herself to truck driver Leo Johnson (Shelly Johnson’s abusive husband, played by Eric da Re) and drug dealer Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz). She was working at a brothel, One Eyed Jack’s, across the Canadian border. With the help of Leo and Jacques, she smuggles cocaine back into Washington and becomes addicted to it herself. We eventually discover that Laura’s childhood was not safe either; she was molested by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), who was possessed by an evil demon named Bob (Frank Silva). It’s rather confusing, but Bob was a real-life serial killer. Leland met him as a child, and Bob’s presence inhabited Leland’s body for many years. Laura’s father brutally rapes and kills her, severely injures her coworker Ronnette Pulaski and later murders Laura’s cousin, Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee).
Laura Palmer: the ultimate victim. As is often the case, she appears partially responsible for the horrific things that happen to her. Most notably, her psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby (who was also infatuated with her) says “maybe she allowed herself to be killed.” Later, when Laura’s secret diary is found, her close friend Donna reads aloud to the detectives: “If I die, Bob can’t hurt me anymore.” If Laura knew she was going to die on February 23, 1989, it’s because she was desperate to escape the constant torture inflicted by the men around her. This does not make her at all to blame for that torture. The trauma she lived through as a child contributes greatly to her depression and drug dependency later in life, and these factors make her more vulnerable to men who act with harmful intent towards women.
If you’ve seen the show, you know it doesn’t end there.
The casino/brothel One Eyed Jack’s is owned by Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), the wealthiest man in Twin Peaks. He also owns the esteemed Great Northern Hotel and Horne’s Department Store, with a perfume counter he uses to pipeline young female employees into prostitution. He has a daughter, Audrey Horne, (Sherilyn Fenn), who is Laura’s age. In season two, episode one, Audrey finds herself a sort of sexual prisoner at One Eyed Jack’s after going there to investigate Laura’s murder–in order to win affection from Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the suave FBI sleuth assigned to Laura’s case. At One Eyed Jack’s, she is forced to accommodate a very important guest: none other than her own father, Ben Horne. The image of a grown man playing cat and mouse with his masked daughter on a lavish bed surrounded by blood-red curtains makes for a revolting scene. This dynamic mirrors the sexual abuse that occurred between Laura and her father. After Ben Horne leaves, oblivious to the identity of his newest escort, Audrey prays to Agent Cooper for help and rescue. Audrey is shown as helpless without the aid of a more noble man.
In contrast to One Eyed Jack’s, there is a community spot that feels welcoming and friendly to almost anyone. The Double R Diner is one of the safer, more empowering spaces for females in the show. It is operated by Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) and Shelly Johnson, implying that the two of them have financial independence. They have to deal with flirtatious advances on a daily basis, and one could say they’re confined to gender roles because of their position behind the yellow counter. Nonetheless, they enjoy making “damn fine coffee” and good food for their customers, so they are ultimately more empowered than most other females in Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, their team of girl power is disrupted when, halfway through season one, Norma’s husband Hank is released from jail and begins work at the diner. His presence gives Norma emotional distress and frustration in the workplace; as a result, she distracts herself with another man, Ed Hurley (Everrett McGill). The Double R is also invaded by Lynch’s cameo role, FBI Regional Chief Gordon Cole. Cole speaks loudly and obnoxiously because he is deaf in one ear. He takes up physical space by ordering enough pie to fill an entire table. He also claims that Shelly’s incredible good looks allow him to hear her voice better than anyone else’s and asks her on a date while she is at work. It seems that Lynch had no qualms playing a character who displays an overbearing male presence.
This brings me to the infamous man David Lynch himself. What were his intentions when creating these victimized female characters? Was he conscious of the misogynistic bombardment? When asked by Warner Brothers in 1986 to make a film about the life of Marilyn Monroe, Lynch said he was “sort of interested. I loved the idea of this woman in trouble, but I didn’t know if I liked it being a real story.” Lynch is well-known for working within the realms of surrealism and darkness; is a “woman in trouble” simply a creative foundation for him? Sheryl Lee has spoken of playing the iconic dead girl who washes up on the shore of a lake, naked and wrapped in a sheet of plastic: “David hand-placed those granules of sand on my face and played with the plastic as if it were a bouquet of flowers.” This chilling image leads me to think of Lynch as someone who is disgustingly fascinated with the sight and manipulation of a dead woman’s body, even as it functions in the context of a television show. (Or perhaps he’s just a control freak.)
In a 1990 interview with author David Breskin, Lynch commented on the portrayal of women in his films. “Everyone can picture in their mind a situation where the girl—for one reason or another—went along with the situation. And everyone can picture in their mind where the girl said, ‘I’m not into this one little bit!’ and got out. And then there’s a borderline, where it’s right on the edge for a person: where it’s interesting, but it’s sickening, or it’s frightening or it’s too much, or almost, or not quite. There’s every different combo in this world. When you start talking about ‘women’ versus ‘a woman,’ then you’re getting into this area of generalizations, and you can’t win.” I was quite upset when I read this. Generalizations are harmful, but women share the experience of sexism and do not choose to be “in” or “out” of a situation beyond their control.. Every woman has experienced sexism in the course of her life––and, hate to break it to you, Lynch, every woman in your beloved story experiences it, under your direction and writing. You may have been aiming for a surrealist vibe, (and you achieved it) but the way your female characters are treated is a very real and serious issue. Of course, this patriarchal representation is not uncommon in movies and television shows today, including the ones many people enjoy. Though it makes us uncomfortable, I think it is worth noticing and scrutinizing the unsettling aspects of the media we like to consume in order to have a fuller picture of its societal effects.
So, if you watch “Twin Peaks,” whether you revisit seasons one and two on Netflix or start fresh with the new season to premiere on Showtime in 2017—as I know I will be doing—pay close attention to the female characters. Since many of the original actresses are choosing to return for the show’s revival, maybe they weren’t treated so badly on the set, or perhaps they weren’t uncomfortable playing such submissive roles. But I’d like to argue that it is the viewer’s responsibility to be conscious of the bias that contributes to a storyline and not to sit back in a trance as it all unfolds.