'Wrapped in plastic: Twin Peaks, toxic masculinity and resolving my love of Lynch' by Timmah Ball

‘A couple of times he’s tried to kill me, but guess what? I sure got off on it. Isn’t sex weird?’ In David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s unsettling conversation with her therapist achingly captures the peculiar sexual atmosphere that festers through the small town. Considering that Laura is a male creation, imagined by David Lynch, there is something particularly uncomfortable about this admission in an era where violence against women is on the rise. Despite these unnerving elements, the show remains alluring to me. A dead girl, wrapped in plastic is the main draw card to the show, yet I watched eagerly as a teenager, enamored by the brutal romances. I’m not the only one; in Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks, Diana Hume George writes “I was instantly hooked...I lived for Thursday Nights, taped the episodes for repeated frissons.” David Lynch’s male gaze presents women in various clichéd troupes: victim, slut, good girl gone bad or, in the ultimate objectification, just dead.

The complexities of sex and violence are raised in Maggie Nelson’s astonishing nonfiction book The Red Parts, where she examines cultural obsessions with death and sexual deviation. In the book, the desirability of dead white girls is illustrated through her own aunt’s horrendous murder. She describes the stalker-like viciousness of a journalist, desperate to interview her on his true crime show in the hope she will reveal some of the more salacious details of her aunt’s death. But most compelling is the zealous behaviour the incident elicited in her life. From watching snuff films with her older sister to allowing a partner to replicate her aunt’s murder during sex; pain, curiosity and desire blur in The Red Parts with a level of honesty that is both devastating and reassuring. Sickened by what happened to her aunt but also obsessed in ways that are almost pleasurable, Nelson's feelings towards the shocking incident are never straightforward, and they reveal some of the complex reactions to representations of violence against women on screen.

In many ways, Laura Palmer’s violent needs mirror Maggie Nelson’s longings. But unlike Maggie, Laura is a fictional character created by a man. Watching a male vision of female sexuality can produce mixed feelings for the female viewer. In Twin Peaks, David Lynch paints a surreal portrait of small town America, haunted by a vile underground. It’s not surprising that the 90’s television phenomenon garnered cult status, given our fascination with death. Laura Palmer was brutally murdered, stripped of her clothing and dignity, but, as Maggie Nelson demonstrated, eroticized death has an appeal.

Laura was the good girl, the popular Homecoming Queen whose wholesome demeanor hid a secret affair with biker James Hurley and a coke addition supported by prostitution. While my friends and I on occasion flirted with danger, Laura Palmer slept with it voraciously. As young women, it was thrilling to watch; Laura embraced our pent up fantasies of rebellion and sex. The fandom was reflected in the shows merchandising – Laura’s secret diaries were released as a book, successfully tapping into our own hidden schoolgirl desires. Fan sites and memes dedicated to the show are still prevalent, and a zine, She’s Full of Secrets, is just one of many, asking fans to respond to the mysteries surrounding Laura Palmer’s death.

The series, as in much of David Lynch’s work, is about ordinary people exploring sexual taboos. There is something repellent and attractive about this; whether it’s Jeffrey hiding in Dorothy’s wardrobe watching her sadomasochistic lover degrade her in Blue Velvet, or Hollywood hopeful Betty in Mulholland Drive slowly sliding into moral chaos, or Renée who is brutalized by a husband she continues to love in Lost Highway, Lynch opens us up to worlds where sex, love and violence tangle, and good people are drawn into insidious situations.

When the Twin Peaks revival aired on Stan I was forced to confront my own peculiar attraction to the show and Lynch’s oeuvre. Conscious of his depiction of women, I wondered whether I was supporting the toxic male culture I despise. Writing for the Guardian, journalist Sarah Hughes picks up on Lynch’s troubling portrayal of women, commenting on actor Sheryl Flynn’s recent experiences playing Audrey in the new series. The actor “hinted on Twitter that the show’s much-loved female characters had been marginalised this time around.” Laura Palmer said she’d be back twenty-five years later, and, as I started to watch the new season, I wondered if I’d fall for it again, or if Sheryl Flynn’s experiences reveal a deeper misogyny that negates any charm that these much loved women inspired.

Episode one of the revival plays like a deranged nightmare, one where you’re seeing an old friend but their behaviour is so cruel you can’t be sure if it’s them or a disturbed doppelganger. This, in part, reflects the plotline we're introduced to: Laura Palmer’s murder has permanently changed Agent Cooper, splitting him into multiple identities. One remains trapped in the dreamlike Red Room, a bizarre alternate reality, and other, far more malicious versions are free to wreak havoc on the streets. By the third episode we are introduced to a mysterious glass box containing a demonic presence that bludgeons a young couple to death mid copulation. A child bleeds uncontrollably in his mother’s arms as onlookers stare, concerned but mute. And, in a comparatively sanitised sub-plot, a high school principle is accused of decapitating his lover. As Helen Razor writes for The Saturday Paper:

“Our auteur was finally at his liberty to let his freak flag fly, which he did, possibly after draping it over the corpse of a decapitated hottie. To call David Lynch’s latest work Lynchian is to truly understate the exquisite damage this man can do with a big enough budget.”

Helen Razor may question what lurks in the refuse of his unconscious, but, while watching Twin Peaks, I wondered if his ‘genius’ might just be an expression of his misogyny. In the lead up to the new season, Stan released a range of promo interviews. In one, Lynch explains the inspiration behind the show, casually remarking: “a dead girl, this is what got us going, me and Mark.” I perceive a glint in his eyes as he says it; like it’s sexy and a little funny, and not a carefully considered plot device. It is a disturbing revelation that represents toxic masculinity and the detached objectification society permits. How can a dead girl get you going? But, as Maggie Nelson revealed in Red Parts, our culture is obsessed with dead girls. And, when the infamous journalist asked Nelson to explain her aunt's death for his appalling television show, her answer was simple: “because men hate women.”

There is a particularly gruesome scene in the new Twin Peaks that seeps into my consciousness. A leather-clad version of Agent Cooper kills Daria, an unruly member of his gang. It isn’t enough to watch her writhe as he strangles her. The camera zooms in, framing her face as he shoots. It’s as if you can smell the gunpowder and warm clump of flesh that rests on the pillow as heat gently rises in the cheaply furnished motel room. He leaves quickly, entering the room next door to join his lover Chantal. His hand immediately reaching beneath her skirt telling her with cool detachment: “you’re nice and wet”.

Men hate women in Twin Peaks with shocking force. While men are also murdered in the show, the camera turns away, distancing us from their demise. Watching Twin Peaks is like being exposed to the darkest crevices of a perverse mind. As an ardent fan of the original Twin Peaks season I was disappointed with the reboot. Repulsed, I turned away regularly, but something in the darkness always drew me back; I deliriously binge-watched the first nine episodes with ease. It’s possible that the latest series is symptomatic of the wider rise of toxic masculinity in Hollywood. As reviewer Guy Lodge writes: “in the year of Brock Turner, Nate Parker and President-elect Donald Trump, cultural critics haven’t had to reach too far for illustrative examples of abusive patriarchy.” Referring to films such as Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals or Paul Veerhoven's Elle, male protagonists were remarkably vile in several films released in 2016.

Without a doubt, Twin Peaks is emblematic of an abusive patriarchy, yet an intoxicating soundtrack elevates the series beyond what we expect from television. Each episode ends at the aptly titled Bang Bar where bands such as the Chromatics, Au Revoir Simone and Sharon Van Etten play with magnetism and searing melancholy. They can’t erase the horror but remind us that there is something moving and almost beautiful in the stark landscape. As Razor writes, the damage he creates is horrific but it is also exquisite. My attraction to Twin Peaks is strange. I remain captivated; in love with the bleak romances and petrified by the violence.

For women, trans, non-binary and gender diverse people, this work may have alluring elements, but it also reinforces the cis-male gaze, a force that has impact beyond the screen. In an undergrad cinema studies class, a lecturer I admired regularly screened David Lynch. He also ran a three-hour class on pornography, savoring his own explanations of genres, sub-genres and his particular fixation with Annabelle Chong. Oblivious to his own power and privilege, we were provided with a content warning of sorts, in the form of an instruction asking that we close the blinds just in case someone walked passed and was offended. But, in the darkened room, there was something exciting about watching the graphic scenes with other students, a wild departure from the dry lectures where Baudrillard and other theorists washed over me. As we left, a friend told me that some of the images had made her sick. I shrugged at her comment; it had no effect on me.

Looking back, it’s alarming that I felt proud that I could withstand some of the more grueling depictions of sex – like it was a test validating my ability to please men. My friend had just ended a relationship with a much older man and I failed to see how our middle-aged lecturer showing us hardcore porn might have been triggering. But I also failed to see the uncomfortable position I placed my younger self in; eager to impress, but unaware of boundaries. These ambiguities are articulated in Diana Hume George’s essay on Twin Peaks. Reflecting on the prevalence of sexual violence on television, she bemoans: “even feminist let it go by, behaving like charmed backsliders involved with a man so charismatic that we couldn’t think straight.” We were feminist, but we also admired our lecturer greatly, falling over his poetic descriptions of films. It’s not surprising no one complained.

Writing about her own experiences with explicit content for Archer magazine, Ellena Savage states: “pornography can be a deeply ambivalent experience for women; for me it is the source of both pleasure and concern, shame and ingenuity.” The treatment of women in Twin Peaks veers on the pornographic – as it does in much of Lynch’s work. And while it is reductive and simplistic to negate the pleasure people may get, the non-cis straight male viewer is often compromised or pushed into situations which painfully reflects the lack of control we experience in a patriarchal world. Savage writes with reassuring honesty that “the reason I may seek out porn in the first place are the dark and depraved fantasies you wouldn’t expect a lover to perform.” This echoes my own attraction to Twin Peaks but it also leaves you confused. What is it about these male constructs and male fantasies that can lure the very people they objectify? Analyzing her own attraction to the TV series, Diana Hume George writes: “in a society riddled with domestic violence, it’s risky business to feed a mass audience the idea that a seductive adolescent might want a real man to hurt her,” particularly when this fictionalized desire is created by a man. But many of us watch on finding some pleasure in Lynch’s gaze.

Twin Peaks premiered at the Cannes Film festival to standing ovations, perhaps understandable given Lynches status and distinct ability to weave bizarre threads into something that resembles a narrative. But the director’s iconic style and bewildering evocations left me uncertain. A sinister violence runs through the new season pulverizing the occasional moments of joy. Lynch’s work is hard to walk away from filled with intoxicating imagery, which taunts and thrills. But I enter his world with caution, conscious of the toxic masculinity he unleashes.

  • Although this essay focuses on reactions to the white male gaze in Twin Peaks, it would be remiss not to mention the representation of First Nation character Deputy Chief Tommy 'Hawk' Hill, played by Michael Horse an actor of Yaqui Native American descent. In 2017 it was uncomfortable watching the excruciatingly clichéd way his culture is used to solve crimes and the crass questions he endures from his white colleagues. So much more could be said but perhaps it is best to be thankful for all the incredible American Indian writers and other First Nations writers globally smashing these stereotypes.

Timmah Ball is a writer and urban researcher of Ballardong Noongar descent. She has written for The Griffith Review, Right Now, Meajin, Overland, Westerly Magazine and won the Patricia Hackett Prize for writing. She is currently using zine making to critique mainstream publishing conventions and will produce Wild Tongue zine as part of Next Wave Festival in 2018.