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What Is Going On In This House? Or, In Defense of Laura Palmer

I was halfway through watching the Twin Peaks again when it occurred to me to wonder why I like it.

One of the things that happens when you write about art you consider bad is that you start to encounter other folks’ defensiveness about their own taste: they like it, so it can’t be bad, so they need to accuse you of lying or advocating censorship or “not getting the context,” whatever gets them through the night and alleviates their fears that you are going to break into their houses in the middle of the night and steal all their DVDs in the name of Feminism. What it comes down to, all it comes down to, is people drawing the line in different places – one of my best friends is hugely into Tarantino, and liked Superbad, and I sure as hell can’t listen to the Country Teasers without getting irritated but I know and like folks who do – so I really am sick of people telling me I can’t draw my lines where I draw them or call them like I see them, because, shit: I don’t need to hear your 20,000-word dissertation on why you are allowed to like what you like. You were always allowed. I’m just calling stuff out, and letting you go wherever you go from there.

Still, when you hear this enough – and it comes from everybody, people you admire as well as your average Internet dick complaining about mouthy women – you start to examine your own taste a little more closely, wondering if you are the same kind of chicken. It’s rare, if not impossible, to find art in this problem-filled world that is not at least a little problematic. Still: it’s one thing to like something in spite of its problems. It’s another to like something and therefore insist that its problems do not exist.

Pretty much everything I complained about in that Tarantino post can be attributed directly to David Lynch: he’s a fetishist (Twin Peaks is, amongst other things, perhaps Lynch’s most extensive long-form documentation of his own foot fetish: shots of women’s shoes, shots of women’s feet, shots of people kissing or touching women’s feet, shots of female characters that begin with and pan up slowly from their feet, on and on and it just gets more disconcerting with each viewing), the characters do not act in any way that is recognizably human, everything is there on the screen because he likes it or because it alludes to other movies, and his female characters are memorably – and graphically, and sexually – brutalized on a fairly regular basis. The thing is, with Lynch – or maybe specifically with Twin Peaks, because God knows sometimes it is too much, I haven’t seen Fire Walk With Me because I’m really not looking forward to all the incest, and I don’t think I could sit through Blue Velvet again but if I did I would probably Have Some Issues with it – these things don’t register for me as problems.

My favorite moment in any Tarantino debate is when people accuse me of not “getting it” because I’m not into trash or camp or B-movies, because this is when I know these people have no idea what they’re talking about: I would rather watch an audaciously bad movie than a well-groomed and boringly competent movie any day, I look forward with great pleasure to the day when I can see Dead Snow (Nazi zombies! And you thought apolitical zombies were bad) but you couldn’t pay me to see The Reader. On this note, I would like to point out that one of the finer achievements of Twin Peaks is the hilarious way it riffs on teen films of the fifties and sixties, complete with thirty-two-year-old actors playing high school students, Homecoming Queens, Football Captains, sensitive motorcycling rebels named “James,” and the requisite scene wherein the heartthrob just out of nowhere sits down and sings a song:

Yes, there are microphones in the living room for no discernible reason. Let us never speak of this again.

Yet it’s not just that, not just intertextuality for its own sake or for the sake of being cute or cool or showing off all the awesome things you know: it’s complex and purposeful, silly and campy at the same time that it is sad and weird and deeply terrifying. Tarantino, for me, fails to be more interesting than his source material: I’d rather watch the stuff he is riffing on than the stuff he makes. That is not true of Lynch. When he uses something, he gives it more meaning than it had before he touched it, letting his images resonate in new and deeper and more interesting ways.

Here’s where we talk about the sexual brutality. Twin Peaks is built around a beautiful dead girl, Laura Palmer. She was the Homecoming Queen, she was pretty, she was perfect, everyone loved her, and no-one can believe that anyone would want to kill her. That’s how it stands in the first episode, anyway: after a few more have gone by, it’s apparent that pretty much anyone in the town could have killed her, that many of them preyed on her, and that her life was so filled with specifically sexual abuse and betrayal that she maybe even wanted to die.

It has been pretty widely pointed out that Blue Velvet is Sons & Lovers with oxygen masks: a story of family abuse and Oedipal pain, in which Mommy is Isabella Rosselini and Daddy is Dennis Hopper and you are a deeply troubled young man who hates what Daddy does to Mommy but kind of wants to do it also. What I haven’t seen pointed out to nearly the same degree is this: just as Blue Velvet is a story about men and their mothers, Twin Peaks is about girls and their fathers. SPOILER: Daddy is pretty bad news this time around, too.

Leland Palmer, Laura’s father, killed her. To be more specific, he killed her after raping her for most of her life. To be yet more specific, he did all of the above while possessed by the actual, literal Devil, who goes by the name of BOB. Yeah, it’s harsh to the point of being unbearable to think about, but what is most interesting is that the theme of daughter and abusive-father/predatory-father/dual-father is played out, again and again, throughout the show: Audrey Horne is Daddy’s little princess, and Daddy is the man who owns and patronizes the teen-prostitute brothel at which many of her classmates have been put to work. Donna thinks that her father is the lovable town doctor, but he’s actually brothel-owning Ben Horne. Laura turned to her therapist, Dr. Jacoby, for the care her father didn’t provide, and he repaid her by making her the star of his masturbatory stalker crush. Even the comic-relief plot, Lucy not knowing who the father of her child is and having to choose between adorable simpleton Andy and indeterminately European dandy fop Dick Tremaine, is about having two fathers and not knowing which one to trust. Young women are continually preyed on, hurt, fucked, and exploited in this show, specifically by older men in positions of authority and whom they have trusted to take care of or protect them: we can talk about scary scenes in Twin Peaks, because there are many of them, BOB in the mirror and the Black Lodge and the phantom bloodstain on the carpet, but for my money, the most terrifying scene in the series is Audrey Horne in the brothel, about to receive her first client, watching the door open and realizing that her father is coming into the room.

You can watch the series for the first time knowing about Leland or you can watch it for the first time not knowing: knowing, for me, makes it better, which is why I’m telling you about it now. When you watch it that way, you realize how much the series is commenting on or implicating the dynamics of abusive families. There’s a reason for Leland to be so hugely and creepily distraught throughout the series; there’s a reason why Laura’s mother, Sarah, keeps seeing “visions” of things she can’t or won’t acknowledge that she knows; there’s a reason she looks torn-up and on the verge of losing her mind from the first moment we see her, and there’s a reason she can’t stop screaming.

The thing is: when you watch this without knowing what’s going on, it’s pretty fucking weird. When you watch it knowing what’s going on, it is much, much weirder.

The figure of the beautiful virgin – Homecoming Queen, cheerleader, Good Girl – is a huge part of this particular patriarchy’s erotic consciousness. We fetishize the Good Girl and her purity, and we fetishize the idea of defiling that purity – often, but not always, by force – and the idea that there’s a dirty little slut in there, hungry and waiting for you, if you can just find it. Twin Peaks is, to a huge degree, about those two fetishes and how closely linked they are, and what betrayal and evil is inherent in playing that out on the bodies of actual young women. This, if I’m not missing something, is something we feminists have been harping on about for at least fifty or sixty years.

And because I want to Be The Change I Want To See In The World, which is people acknowledging that the things they like are problematic and calling them out, now is the time to address that Lynch’s handling of race, both in general and specifically in Twin Peaks, is just plain fucked. I mean, volumes could be written about Josie the Sexy Yet Treacherous Asian Woman and Hawk the Mystical Native American Man Who Shares the Legends of His People, let alone the fact that one of the white ladies on the show is pretty frequently in Asianface and at one point during a run of episodes I haven’t seen because the general consensus is that they are really, really bad, this white lady apparently forces Josie to become her housemaid, which: no, no, for oh so many reasons, no. It reminds me of this other show I like, and how it handles GLBT folks (short version: invisible or villains): I want to be having a good time, but here this is, and there’s no way around it. So, there you go.

(Here also is the point where I stopped writing to go re-read that David Foster Wallace piece on Lynch, because I worried that I was cribbing stuff from him. It is amazing, and you should read it! It turns out that, yes, I do agree with him on many substantial points, but there was way less focus on the father/daughter thing in Twin Peaks than I remembered, and that I’m actually disagreeing with him in several places, including his assertion that “we the audience” are titillated by the rape in Blue Velvet and that it “implicates us” – who is this “we” you speak of, sir? – and that the overwhelming whiteness of Lynch movies makes them “apolitical” because come on. What I did not remember, and the reason for this particular aside, is that the piece at several points unfavorably compares younger directors to Lynch and implies that they are imitating him without approaching his level of talent or his moral sense, and that the director he indicts most frequently, specifically, and hilariously is one “Q. Tarantino.”)

The female leads of Twin Peaks, Donna and Shelley and Audrey and Laura (who only exists in what people say and remember about her, and so is only presented to us as a mess of conflicting perceptions) cross back and forth over the good-girl/bad-girl, virgin/whore line so frequently, often several times within the space of an episode and without any apparent reason, that the line becomes completely blurred and we can’t categorize them as good or bad at all. They’re just girls: fetishized, confused, and trapped in roles that can’t begin to contain their actual complexity. The weight of transgression, indictment, and evil is always on the adult men who exploit, seduce, violate and betray them, not on the girls themselves, and the show doesn’t suggest that any kind of revenge can come close to erasing or making up for what those men have done. The show’s hero is Dale Cooper, and one of the reasons that we know he’s a good man is that, when Audrey propositions him – turning to an adult man for approval, and care, and protection, and thinking she can get all of this through sex and only through sex because HER NEGLECTFUL FATHER ROUTINELY FUCKS TEENAGE GIRLS, DUH – he says no.

I mean, I don’t think David Lynch or any of the writers and directors on Twin Peaks are specifically feminist. I have no reason to think that, and David Lynch is probably too weird to subscribe to any recognizably human political position. In fact, if I had to bet, I would say that Lynch, like most men and many women, has some severely fucked-up ideas about the ladies. I do, however, think that Twin Peaks is feminist: or, to be more specific, that it allows for my particular feminist reading. Which, after much self-interrogation, seems like a reasonably good explanation as to why I like it.

It’s also just a good show.


  1. amonitrate wrote:

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for about a week, enjoying the hell out of your posts.

    Good essay, I’ll have to re-read it in more detail and give it more thought.

    One point that struck me while reading is that although Lynch and his fetishes lie at the heart of the show, a lot of the weirdness of the second season can’t be laid solely at his feet — there was a co-creator, Mark Frost, who has his own hangups, a writing/directing staff, and Lynch (from what I remember) didn’t have much to do with the second season as he was busy on “Wild at Heart.” Teasing out these things on television shows is much harder than with films, because of the number of hands involved. Though it could be argued that Lynch/Frost set the tone.

    That said, Lynch has explicitly talked about how the show is about Leland’s crime, Laura’s victimization and attempts to fight back. She’s one of the most realistically depicted incest victims I’ve seen (especially in the film), which interesting given that both film and show are very surreal.

    I recommend “Fire Walk With Me” if you’re interested in this subject. It’s excruciating to watch, as a woman, but also, it’s from Laura’s point of view, which had been erased for the most part in the show. It still has the fetishization of women, but at the same time it tears the pg-television secrecy away from the abuse and portrays it as terrifying for Laura and audience alike.

    I have read interesting takes on the themes of domestic abuse in Twin Peaks, but I don’t think it’s been given the attention it deserves. Despite some of the other problematic elements (hoo boy, the portrayal of non-white people — it’s hard to tell what’s parody and what’s just racism, which is a problem), it’s one of the only in-depth treatments of the subject on television. NOt just Laura, but Shelly, Maddy, etc, are victimized by the men in their lives, and it’s not portrayed as sexy at all, but evil.

    All in all, a very complicated show, with elements that should be rightfully condemned as well as exposing elements that are usually taboo.

    I wrote a really, really long essay tangentially related to this subject (

    And there’s a good essay collection ( that might interest you, too, as a fan of the show.

    Friday, April 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Sycorax wrote:

    Supposedly the original plan *was* for Agent Cooper to take advantage of Audrey, but it was changed in response to Kyle MacLachlan’s strenuous objections. That’s why Heather Graham’s character was shoehorned in in the second season–she took over the plot functions that were intended for Audrey.

    Friday, April 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Teresa wrote:

    Oh wow was this post a relief. I was a little scared you were gonna make me hate David Lynch, whom I have a LOT more invested in than Seth Rogen…
    Great, great writing! Now I have to go back and re-watch Twin Peaks for the 500th time.

    Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 3:04 am | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    @amonitrate: Holy crap! Your essay was BRILLIANT. Yeah, I was a little concerned that I wrote almost exclusively about Lynch in this piece, since a TV show – and particularly THIS TV show – is the result of a huge collaboration involving many people. However, Lynch is the guy whose oeuvre I’m most familiar with, and whose contributions I can identify most easily – the foot fetish, for example, seems so specifically Lynchian – and since he did, as you say, set the tone and the vision for large parts of the show, that seemed like a basis for writing about Certain Tendencies in his work and why those specific tendencies work for me, especially in “Twin Peaks.”

    @Sycorax: On that note, I’ve heard that story too, and while I know that some folks are still upset that Dale and Audrey never got together, I wouldn’t give up the scene where he turns her down for anything. It’s so… sweet. And it stands as an example of sweetness, and genuine kindness, in an older man/teenage girl dynamic, that is rare if not unique in the show. I mean, I really liked “Battlestar Galactica,” and in that show, there was a Cylon (played by Tricia Helfer) who’d been repeatedly raped and tortured, and was freed by a man who had a severely creepy crush on her. She was apparently – or so I’ve read – supposed to make out with that man immediately once he’d freed her, and Tricia Helfer had to go to the writers and explain why that did not make sense for a woman who was dealing with severe rape trauma. That character’s resistance to sex, and her rape-related trauma, went on to be a defining part of her character and set many major plot points in motion. Helfer knew her character better than the writers did, in that instance. In “Twin Peaks,” I’d say the same: Kyle MacLachlan knew Dale Cooper better than the writers in that case, because one of the major defining things about Dale is his innocence and uprightness and purity – it’s what makes him seem so weird – and one thing Dale Cooper does not do is engage in a little statutory raping every now and again.

    Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  5. Chex wrote:

    Man, that was awesome. You are really good at the thinking and the writing. My friend Kevin has been watching Twin Peaks for the first time, which has already been making me want to re-watch it, but now the urge is unstoppable, and I’m definitely gonna queue it up right after I’m done with this 20/20 special on prostitution.

    The “Native American” in Twin Peaks really cracked me up. He had a major case of Cave Bear Corn Eagle Feather Medicine.

    Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Katherine wrote:

    See, I’ve never seen Twin Peaks, but I remember my parents being obsessed with it back in the dizay. Now that I’m officially a GrownUp myself, I shall have to netflix it. I love posts like this; they give great ideas for entertainment. Thanks for rocking, Sady!

    Monday, April 20, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  7. amonitrate wrote:

    @Sadie: OMG, you read the whole thing! Thanks! It started out as a little response to an old article and kind of exploded. And yeah, I’d say like 89% of the fetish type stuff in the show was at the very least influenced by Lynch.

    It was just refreshing to read your take on the show, because a lot of the other feminist takes I’ve seen are nothing but negative, and ignore what he was explicitly trying to do with the story, especially the movie.

    But yeah, I wouldn’t call Lynch a feminist in a million years. You’re absolutely right: too weird and obsessed with women, for sure. Nevertheless, he squicks me far less than directors like Tarantino, just as you pointed out.

    Monday, April 20, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Sady wrote:

    @amonitrate: Yeah, I actually looked up some feminist criticism of Lynch, and he’s been called onto the floor pretty often for misogyny. He does, yeah, have a lot of very eroticized scenes of women being abused or in other ways brutalized.

    Yet, with your recommendation, I steeled myself to watch “Fire Walk With Me” and I do think that Laura Palmer is maybe the most realistic incest/abuse victim EVER – even in the scenes where she’s sexually degraded, you can see it as a cry for help or a cry of despair. Just the bitterness when she says, “so you want to fuck the Homecoming Queen,” or how she pushes sweet James away but clings to shitty, shitty Bobby because that’s what she thinks she deserves. Or how about the scene with Donna in the club? It basically pushed me to the limit of what I can watch a girl take in a movie. Yet, oh my God, you really get the sense that she doesn’t give a shit what happens to her any more, and feels that she is worthless, and can only objectively realize the horror of what’s going on when she watches a friend (who, in her mind, has far more to lose – who still has the “innocence” that Laura’s lost) get into the same position. I mean, I’ve BEEN Donna, I’ve been in that relationship with another girl – thinking she’s dangerous and sexy when really she’s just flaming out, and being warned by that girl not to imitate her in order to seem “grown-up,” because what she’s doing is no fun at all. It freaks me out that this is one of the most surreal (and, you could argue, misogynist) scenes I’ve ever seen in a film, but also maybe one of the closest parallels to my own personal experience, which shed new light on something I hadn’t thought about in a long while.

    So, yeah, I think Lynch has some crazy weird fetishes and attitudes toward the ladies. I also think he KNOWS how weird they are, and is implicating himself and commenting on them pretty much constantly. I can save my in-depth analysis of “Lost Highway” for another time, I guess, but that one also seems at once an expression of fucked-up lady attitudes and a feminist statement about their fucked-upness. Which really saves it, and Lynch, for me.

    That said, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to watch “Wild at Heart” again, oh, ever.

    Monday, April 20, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  9. Sady wrote:

    @me: Well, okay, not a FEMINIST statement, that’s over-stating it, but a statement that I CAN READ IN MY FEMINIST WAY. Yeah, that’s more like it.

    Monday, April 20, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  10. Lisa wrote:

    I’m really loving your blog.

    I’m also a fan of David Lynch, but there are also plenty of aspects to his work that take me out of my comfort zone.

    Maybe that’s why I like his work?

    I’d be interested in knowing what you think of Mulholland Drive. I myself have been meaning to write something on that for a while.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  11. B. Michael wrote:

    I’ve known a lot of men and women who watch the show and take is as a better version of, say, Lost: A who, what, where, when, why-type reading. In fact, it had never really occurred to me to think about art in a feminist way until about a month ago…

    So my ideas about the show under a feminist reading are based on a recollection of the show and an outline of what I would take feminist thought to be. But actually no. Lots of other people have done that better than I would right now. I’d only want to add that I think David Lynch–not to get too interested in the author–probably is a lot of Dale Cooper: Hardworking Montanan, Eagle Scout.

    I think he has a similar optimism, because it’s difficult to be so disappointed, aesthetically, in life without having had a higher vantage. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are about a lot of things, but es claro que they’re about the destruction of something good, something that’s supposed to be good, and I don’t think this destruction is merely a construction–I think David Lynch really does think that love is enough, or that love is a possible form of resistance to the maelstrom of violence that the world harbors.

    Now, the fact that Lynch portrays love in a fairly patriarchal way–I don’t think that makes him anti-feminist; I think it makes him slightly too ignorant to bear out his conception on a feminist-theoretical level. Because I think if he were asking himself different questions his art would turn out differently.

    Someone like Tarantino, no.


    You should maybe look into adding disqus comments to your tumblr.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  12. Calvin Stephens IV wrote:

    Have you seen Lynch’s “Inland Empire”?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Calvin Stephens IV wrote:

    Have you seen Lynch’s “Inland Empire”?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  14. Masha wrote:

    I've just finished watching the episode where Leland dies, and the only problem I have is, well, it seems like they sort of prefer to blame a supernatural force than realizing the rapist is at fault, and nothing made him do it by itself. I know that in Twin Peaks, he is posessed by Bob, so you could say it doesn't apply, but while I think it was all very well done (even though some parts triggered the hell out of me) and the topic of abuse was well handled, that one thing just sort of seems like plain denial. I've been a victim of both family abuse and rape, and one of the problems is that all of the abusers were seen by almost everyone around me as good people that would never do such a thing. So yes, in response to the sheriff (I think it was?) I CAN believe a father would rape and kill his own daughter. No, it's not comforting, but at least it's the truth, and I'd like people to recognize that.

    Friday, June 5, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink