Twin Peaks’ woman problem is not new. David Lynch isn’t great to the ladies, and we need to talk what that means for the show’s place in the canon.
It’s true that David Lynch has written some of the most memorable and complex female characters in our shared cultural history. He’s created iconic female leads in both movies and TV, yet his preoccupation with their abuse and destruction is worrying. Twin Peaks‘ woman problem bears discussing, especially since The Return is quickly becoming part of the television canon.
The return has introduced quite a few female characters, old and new, and the sum of the their presence is leading viewers toward a recurring theme. The women in the Twin Peaks universe are merely symbols to indicate some larger idea. They stand in for something and are to props to further the male story or inform our ideas of a male character.
Take these ladies, for example.
These women are tools in a scene in which we are meant to process the brutality to the male pit boss. They have no other real purpose, other than to accessorize the action between the male characters. They watch in silence while a man is brutally beaten and then dragged out. Everything about their presence indicates they symbolize a version of femininity – the way they’re dressed, their body language, their demure stares.
Although he clearly enjoys writing the women in his stories, he almost unilaterally writes women through the male gaze. Audiences see them from the male point of view, and the women are reduced to disposable archetypes: blondes vs. brunettes; harpies vs. sirens; good girls vs. bad girls.
This occurs to me with the introduction to Sheriff Truman’s wife, Doris. It’s probably no coincidence that we meet the screaming Doris in the same episode that Nadine resurfaces. Lynch draws these women with the harshest of strokes, offering an editorialized version of a “wife.”
These married women are portrayed as harpies, nagging their meek husbands into submission. We know little else about these women, other than how they treat their husbands. It’s a version of the male gaze that perpetuates the stereotype that women morph into controlling monsters who chew up their husbands over the course of a marriage. It’s ugly and unflattering, but Lynch doesn’t seem to mind how diminutive it is. In fact, it seems like Lynch enjoys exploring the destruction and mistreatment of women.
Most of his body of work centers around the debasement of women and puts audiences firmly in the role of voyeur. Under Lynch’s direction, we watch as female characters are exploited. We see them murdered, tortured, stripped, and forced to act out antiquated archetypes. His 1986 thriller, Blue Velvet, abuses its female characters with horrific acts of violence, and 2001’s Mullholland Drive appropriates female sexuality through the lens of the masculine fantasy.
Twin Peaks exists solely on the shoulders of the “dead girl” trope, and uses Laura’s murder as a shorthand for a lot of its male characters’ feelings. Laura’s violent and disturbing death was the only thing we really knew about her, and remained the most important thing about her character (until Fire Walk With Me, of course).
Still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Showtime via official Twin Peaks YouTube
Lynch mined her death to help us understand how the men in her life felt about it. Her father, her lovers, and even Agent Cooper’s identity are informed by Laura’s death. We get to see how her abuse and death affected them.
Fast forward to a 2017 reboot, and Laura Palmer is nowhere in sight. However, Lynch is still sacrificing women to the narrative machine. Jade the sex worker, the junkie mom, Tracey the ghost’s murder victim, all offer their bodies up to tell the story of the men adjacent to them.
In the closing scene of part 5, a woman is terrorized and abused for the sake of establishing how awful her captor is. He threatens to rape her just so we’ll know how awful he is. Using rape as a shorthand to revealing the aggressor’s character is an offensive (and frankly, a little lazy) way around drawing whole characters. Surely David Lynch can find other ways of establishing the “badness” of a bad guy without relying on the threat of physical assault.
As I’ve said before, I really am a fan of the show. But I think you can love something and still be critical of it. Frankly, I think it’s really important to examine our cultural artifacts. The David Lynch universe has a major problem with women, and Twin Peaks: The Return is no exception.
Twin Peaks: The Return airs Sundays at 9/8c on Showtime.
I’ll be here every Monday to help us sort through our feelings about Twin Peaks: The Return. We’ll be okay, if we do it together.