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.