“who killed laura palmer?”: gender, twin peaks, and a question of agency
this is an adapted version of an essay that i wrote for a gender and media course this last semester. don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie and the show.
Over the course of his esteemed career, David Lynch’s oeuvre has oft been panned for his portrayal of gender — in particular his depictions of femininity — within the worlds he creates. The perverse and vexing landscapes Lynch builds are undercut with female characters lacking agency in a highly misogynistic ambiance. Lynch relies on violation and violence directed toward his female characters as a vehicle to move plots forward, and the audience is asked to accept it. Eraserhead (1977) is a not-so-subtle commentary on an arduous relationship between father and daughter; Dune (1984), though adapted from Frank Herbert’s homonymous novel, puts forth the looming threat of femininity to masculinity; Blue Velvet (1986) features a masochistic female character who suffers from acts of domestic violence, entrapment, and sexual abuse; Wild at Heart’s (1990) plot is moved forward by the rape of a continually hypersexualized female character; Twin Peaks (1990–91) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) are both catalyzed by the drugging, raping, and brutal murder of a young girl; and Mulholland Dr. (2001) ends with the female protagonist taking her own life. Lynch’s work is quintessential dark Americana, right down to the way it uses its female characters and casts them aside.
Lynch’s gender portrayals are particularly harrowing given the surrealistic and transcendental nature of his creative vision that takes realities and alters them to operate outside of the conventions of decency and normalcy. In avant-garde atmospheres where concepts such as “demonic serial killer possession” and “reptilian babies who open other dimensions” are given room to percolate, Lynch’s proclivity for writing stories that feature female leads without agency and whose points of view are more often ignored than acknowledged is particularly glaring. This is especially apparent in Lynch’s cult-classic television series Twin Peaks, which begins as a classic neo-noir detective show and devolves into an absurdist tale of the metaphysical and the supernatural clashing with the seedy corporal world. The town of Twin Peaks is one filled with predominantly binary depictions of gender that place women outside of positions of power, which — when placed in conversation with the hypersexualized bodies of young teenage girls operating within a disturbing incest narrative, the looming threat of female-centered violence, and the “dead girl” trope driving the narrative — illustrates the way in which Lynch’s portrays his female characters as having little agency.
A brief contextualization of Lynch’s construction of gender as it pertains to gender theory
In order to evaluate the role of gender within Twin Peaks, a carefully condensed application of Judith Butler’s (1988) work on the performativity of gender and Liesbet van Zoonen’s (1992) work on the technologies of gender is necessary. Butler’s (1988) contention that gender is a product of culturally influenced repetitions that amount to a fluid spectrum of performances was, and remains, a groundbreaking recontextualization of the lens through which we view gender and its construction. Butler (1988) refers to gender as “what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure” (p. 531). Gender then is not to be understand as something one is born with, but rather a product of socializations that result in the enacting of gender rather than the being of gender (Butler, 1988). Butler’s understanding of gender as performative and socialized further elucidates gender as a site upon which power dynamics are enforced — i.e., dominant cultural systems influencing the ways in which traditional masculinity and femininity are created and, in turn, are able to be rejected. Van Zoonen’s (1994) work on the subject of gendered media and technologies is an extension of the performativity framework, echoing the scholarship of other media theorist in saying that media images impact performances of gender (p. 41). These images work to create a “discourse of gender” heavily steeped in binary depictions that illuminate differences and deviation from “normalcy” when it occurs (van Zoonen, 1994, p. 33). In essence, traditional understandings of what constitutes how one should enact masculinity and femininity are reinforced — and those who operate outside of the traditional understanding suppressed — by media images.
As to how Butler (1988) and van Zoonen’s (1994) work applies to Twin Peaks, Lynch is infamous for his subscription to traditional gender roles in his work — the men are violent and dominant; the women are submissive and dominated — and Twin Peaks does nothing to curtail these criticisms, with its litany of characters falling victim to stereotypical portrayals of gender. All the male characters in the town of Twin Peaks are either businesspersons, doctors, or involved with the criminal justice system (detectives, police officers) in some capacity; whereas, the female characters are diner employees, secretaries, students, or seemingly unemployed. The performances of gender often fall along the stereotypical spectrum of the stoic male and the hysterical female (save for the virtuoso performance of David Duchovny in season two as the non-binary character, Denise Bryson, and Andy Brennan [Harry Goaz], who fluctuate between the two). The male characters of Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) are viewed as the saviors despite assistance from female characters like Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and Lucy Moran (Kimmy Roberston) who are never given due credit. Male characters (Bobby Briggs [Dana Ashbrook], Leo Johnson [Eric Da Re], and Leland Palmer [Ray Wise]) are the enactors of violence, both emotional and physical, and the female characters are the recipients (Shelly Johnson [Madchen Amik] and Laura Palmer [Sheryl Lee]). Even stranger, a bizarre proportion of female characters in Twin Peaks battle a handicap of some kind: Eileen Hayward (Mary Jo Deschanel) is wheelchair-bound; Margaret Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson), referred to as “the Log Lady,” carries around a log to which she routinely speaks; Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) wears an eyepatch; and Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) suffers from hysteria. These female-afflicted ailments demonstrate weakness; whereas, the ailments the male characters face (namely violent, demonic possession) make them stronger.
Laura Palmer and the trope of the dead girl
Death, by proxy of being the cessation of life, is the paramount removal of self-agency. Those who are dead are no longer able to dictate their personal narrative and, more often than not, take on a new life after death as a result of the stories we tell about them. It can be said then that the dead occupy a complicated space of rhetorical in-betweenness, a type of othered and displaced subject. Twin Peaks is catalyzed by the death of Laura — the stereotypical small town darling who volunteered for the needy and was named Homecoming Queen of her high school — whose dead body, blonde-haired and blue-eyed with soft, pale skin wrapped neatly in plastic, washes upon the shore of the lake by the Blue Pine Lodge (“Pilot,” 1990). The series is structured around a simple question: Who killed Laura Palmer? Laura is at once the driving force of the story and reduced to the background — a dead girl on the table of a mortuary who’s later buried out of sight, but never out of mind. Writer Sarah Marshall (2014) says of Laura, “A living woman groomed for passive stardom may easily accommodate the public’s wishes; a dead woman is utterly incapable of offering up even the most cursory contradiction to the narratives that entomb her as readily as any casket” (par. 4). Laura is to be viewed as both alive in the narrative sense and dead in the physical sense, operating within a dichotomous space of having and lacking agency.
Twin Peaks is not so much the story of Laura as it is a pastiche of small vignettes of Laura’s life and the stories the town projects onto her. The viewer is invited along the journey of finding Laura’s killer, one that pulls back the veil on Laura’s “good girl” image and reveals a dark, scandalous, secret life, in classic Lynchian fashion. Laura is a cocaine-addicted brothel worker who was routinely abused as a child by her father and powerful male figures within the town. This isn’t our story to know, but, rather, Laura’s to tell, and the postmortem revelation of this without her consent is a violation of her agency. Moreover, this depiction of Laura draws on harmful stereotypes of sex workers: a tired, well-worn, and frequently male-written narrative of childhood abuse leading to drug addiction leading to working at a brothel. This juxtaposition places “sex worker” as the opposite of “good girl,” which, in turn, reinforces dominant ideology that sex workers are to be seen as lesser-than. Additionally, it allows for Laura to be seen as deserving of death — or, in a sense, her death being somewhat justified — given her ‘criminal’ secret life. After all, Laura was no angel. The story of the helpless young girl whose life is cut short is an all too familiar story that occurs because culture views femininity as weak and doesn’t like complicated depictions of female characters as much as they do the brooding male anti-heroes of shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and True Detective, another show about a dead, troubled, young girl (Marshall, 2014, par. 10). Marshall (2014) succinctly summarizes this by penning, “mourning a once-troubled young woman is easy, but trying to understand her actions is always difficult” (par. 11).
Laura’s positioning as the dead girl who progresses the narrative affords Lynch the ability to tell a story about her without having to grant her character any agency or nuance. Marshall (2014) refers to this as a “utilitarian” and “comforting” narrative, one that allows for Laura’s death to be “an affront to social order, but her body is a ledger on which a deviant may record his desires, a route toward the greater safety that will follow when good and dogged detectives inevitably locate the killer and lock him away” (par. 8). Lynch reveals to us over the course of the series that though Laura’s father physically killed her (when possessed by a demonic, serial killing spirit), her death was the accumulation of injustices propagated by a predominantly male town where “…everyone she knew contributed to her death, through abuse, willful ignorance, or sheer blindness. Even those closest to her seemed to recognize that she would be, on some level, better off as a corpse than a homecoming queen…” (Marshall, 2004, par. 7).
Marshall’s (2014) assertion that the “story had to end with the young woman’s killer brought to justice, the righting of the wrong, the return to grace” isn’t so much about finding justice for the dead girl, but rather assuaging masculine guilt (par. 8). It’s why when the entire town gathers for Laura’s funeral in episode four of season one it ends in bickering and fighting — there is no catharsis in Laura being put to rest when the mystery of her death makes everyone in the town complicit (“Rest in Pain,” 1990). The men in the town of Twin Peaks have all violated Laura — some in the sexual sense at the brothel, but largely in the sense of the paternal nature of the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” Laura’s death is a reflection of their shortcomings as men who have been culturally coded to be protectors, especially over the bodies of young women, and as a result of her death, they feel as though they’ve failed collectively. Which is why “after the mystery is solved, patriarchy is still intact, and the bonds among women (some of them dead, some of them insane) are shattered” (Lafky, 1999/2000, p. 16). After Laura’s case is solved, the bonds between the men of the town “become even stronger as they celebrate their own roles in ‘fighting evil’ and maintaining a romanticized fraternity of men who bond together to protect small-town family values” (Lafky, 1999/2000, p. 16). Keeping in line with a feminist critique of the show, Laura’s death does nothing to restore agency to her vis-à-vis closure to her death narrative; in fact, it further strips her agency by making the resolution about the feelings of the male characters.
Young female bodies: Incest, hypersexualization, and the looming threat of violence
Young female bodies are the heartbeat of Twin Peaks’ narrative: Laura’s plastic-wrapped corpse washing ashore; the voyeuristic gaze cast upon Audrey’s highly sexualized virgin body; and the exploited teenage workers at One Eyed Jack’s brothel and casino, recruited straight out of high school after working the perfume counter at Horne’s Department Store. The common thread between these depictions and others in the show is a constant hypersexualization of young girls’ bodies that manifests itself in myriad incestuous and violent ways. It may seem strange to consider the body of a dead girl hypersexualized, but one must consider the way in which Laura’s body is portrayed in death. Laura’s death occurs after a violent rape and the outline of her nude body is shrouded, yet distinct, in the opaque plastic she’s wrapped in (“Pilot,” 1990). Critical media theorist Sue Lafky (1999/2000) argues an element of necrophilia (“clinical term for the sexual attraction to corpses”) in the presentation of Laura’s dead face that, “despite spending more than 24 hours in the river,” looks “serene, beautiful, and sexually available” (p. 13). Laura’s dead body is the perfect woman in the eyes of dominant patriarchal culture: beautiful and sexual, yet “unresisting and unrejecting” (Lafky, 1999/2000, p. 13).
As for Audrey, much of the show focuses on the balance between her purity, in the form of retaining her virginity, and sexualization, in the form of her fleeting and flirtatious near-relationships. It’s no coincidence that Audrey is a school girl clad in form-fitting sweaters, plaid skirts, saddle shoes, and red lipstick — a highly sexualized fetishization of young femininity so commonly portrayed in culture that it straddles the line of kitsch and cliché. Even “Audrey’s Dance,” the song crafted by the inimitable Angelo Badalamenti that plays in every scene in which she features, is an inviting, sexy jazz number that wouldn’t be out of place in a burlesque show. Audrey is simultaneously the object of Agent Cooper’s desire and the one thing that distracts him most — much of the allure being that she just turned 18 and is still perceived as being pure (“Realization Time,” 1990). Lynch uses Audrey’s sexuality to help her achieve what she wants, an extension of the scheming vixen stereotype of femininity so often present in noir (Holt, 2008). Audrey is Lynch’s twisted take on the Madonna-whore complex with Audrey’s body being in a state of constant surveillance by the male gaze and her virginity being yet another thing to fetishize. When Audrey does have sex for the first time, the audience is invited by Lynch to participate and breathe a sigh of relief as if they’re complicit in the process (“The Path to the Black Lodge,” 1991).
In many ways, Audrey and Laura are inextricably linked, two sides of the same coin, one alive and one dead, with the threat of violence surrounding both characters, as it does all female characters in the world of Twin Peaks. Media scholars Jason Graham Bainbridge and Elizabeth Delaney (2012) link the bridge between Audrey and Laura by presenting an incest narrative present throughout the show. Bainbridge and Delaney (2012) argue from a Foucauldian perspective that Lynch “treats sex as a site of ambiguity and the contestation of power” and the home is “the link between sexuality and violence” where “incest is not revealed to the wider community” (p. 640). Though not overtly mentioned, Bainbridge and Delaney (2012) work from Michel de Certeau’s work on spatial theory, acknowledging that the abuse between father and daughter occurs in loosely defined “domestic” and “family” spaces (p. 640). In this sense, home and “domestic” and “family” spaces are not to be considered physical, but ideological.
Because of this, Bainbridge and Delaney (2012) contend that Twin Peaks created a new type of incest narrative: “Laura is on the threshold of adulthood — and, potentially, on the threshold of leaving the family home — and by engaging in sexual activity with other men Laura further threatens her father with loss” (p. 644). Lafky (1999/2000) further supports this incest narrative by arguing that Leland jumping on Laura’s casket at her funeral “replicates sexual intercourse in the missionary position” by him “crying out in anguish as the machine that lowers it into the grave malfunctions, raising and lowering the coffin repeatedly” (p. 14). Audrey similarly operates within the incest narrative when she takes a job at the brothel and has to be “initiated in” by the owner, who turns out to be her father (“The Last Evening,” 1990). This incest narrative is important to consider alongside ones of hypersexualization and violence because it seemingly is the catalyst for all three within the series, if the entire town is viewed from the aforementioned lens of the paternal.
An application of Butler (1988) and van Zoonen’s (1994) work on gender theory alongside Lafky’s (1999/2000) work on feminist theory and Bainbridge and Delaney’s (2012) work in media studies finds that Twin Peaks is created from harmful and violent gender roles that position femininity as lesser than masculinity. Male characters have “important” jobs, are the storytellers, and enactors of violence. Female characters are shown in service positions, routinely afflicted with myriad ailments, are often needing saving, and are the recipients of male-initiated violence. The young female bodies in the town of Twin Peaks are hypersexualized and frequently violated, be it through physical violence or emotional. Similarly, there is an uncomfortable father-daughter incest narrative present throughout the series that places male characters in higher positions of power than female. The story is catalyzed and sustained by a dead girl trope that strips Laura of her agency all while making her the center of the story, but also neatly in the background. Instead of Laura telling her own story, the male characters of the town get to tell it for her, meaning she is simultaneously lacking her own agency, but given agency through male-dictated, incomplete vignettes of her life that reveal a story she never intended to tell.
Twin Peaks pulled back the curtain on the trope of suburban America as a utopian space and ‘held a mirror up to the American family and what we saw when we gazed upon it was a brutality that made many of us sick’ (Davenport, 1993, p. 255). The horror of Twin Peaks manifests from ‘its powerful suggestion that sexual violence is not pleasurable or natural but is common and is practiced by lots of seemingly average men’ and is unsettling ‘because it disruptively implicates its audience in the family violence that it simultaneously suggests is a customary, even banal, feature of the average, middle-class American family’ (Davenport, 1993, p. 255, p. 255–56). Lynch’s depiction of femininity in Twin Peaks then is both highly sexist and misogynistic, but reflects (and, at points, even critiques) a culturally dominant understanding of how femininity should be portrayed in male-dominated spaces. Lynch’s depictions aren’t contained to the small Washington town; rather, they’re an insidious result of centuries of systemic patriarchal power that, as Davenport (1993) suggests, can manifest anywhere there are men in power.
Bainbridge, J. G., & Delaney, E. (2012). ‘Murder, Incest and Damn Fine Coffee’: Twin Peaks as new incest narrative 20 years on. Continuum: Journal Of Media & Cultural Studies, 26(4), 637–651.
Butler, J. (1988). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), pp. 519–31.
Davenport, R. (1993). The knowing spectator of “Twin Peaks”: Culture, feminism, and family violence. Literature/Film Quarterly, 21(4), pp. 255–59.
Holt, J. (2008). Twin Peaks, noir and open interpretation. In Sanders S. & Skoble A. (Eds.), The philosophy of TV noir (pp. 247–260). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Lafky, S. (1999/2000). Gender, power, and culture in the televisual world of Twin Peaks: A feminist critique. Journal of Film and Video, 51(3/4), pp. 5–9.
Lynch, D., & Frost, M. (1990–1991). Twin Peaks. United States: ABC.
Marshall, S. (2014, April 10). ‘Twin Peaks’ and the origin of the dead woman TV trope. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/117323/twin-peaks-and-origin-dead-woman-tv-trope van Zoonen, L. (1994). Feminist media studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE