I have identified 10 female characters – including Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) – with pivotal roles throughout the series’ two season run. In comparison, there are at least 15 male characters with equally important roles, and at least five more who have significant contributions to the plot, if not frequent ones. There is also one character – Denise/Dennis – who is a transgender DEA agent played by David Duchovny and comes in for three episodes during the second season, playing a significant role in how gender-power is conveyed in
Twin Peaks. The show
exemplifies van Zoonen’s statement that, “women who do appear in media content
tend to be young and conventionally pretty, defined in relation to their
husband, father, son, boss, or another man, and portrayed as passive,
indecisive, submissive, dependant, etc.” (van Zoonen, 1994, p. 17). The
perpetuation of these characteristics creates a gender discourse for how the
viewer is supposed to understand female characters within Twin Peaks and the reality
The Log Lady – uncommonly referred to as Margaret – is eccentric, anti-social, and maybe even mentally unstable. She is quite possibly the oldest female character on the show and is not conventionally attractive. The Log Lady carries a log around with her every where and it is implied that her current mental state set in shortly after her husband’s disappearance. She first comes to agent Cooper in episode two to let him know that, in regards to Laura Palmer’s death, “One day, my log will have something to say about this. My log saw something that night.” What her log did see was revealed in episode six, and provided important information to solving the murder. She even goes back to Cooper in episode seven of season two to tell him that, “we don’t know what will happen, or when” but only that something will happen again. This is a valuable prediction of Maddy Ferguson’s murder by the same murderer. Although the Log Lady talks for her log, it is suggested the log is giving these tips, not the Log Lady herself. She refers either to her log, or as herself and her log as “we”, but she never refers to herself singularly. She does not exist without her log. Lafky writes of the Log Lady that she, “limits most of her socializing to a log that she believes offers her wisdom, companionship, and – perhaps – protection from patriarchal violence … her log seems endowed with phallic potency” (Lafky, 1999, p. 11). The Log Lady is the only female character in the show not relationally linked to an existing male character and so instead must be linked with an inanimate object taking on masculine qualities of power (the log “tells” her what to say). The only female character existing outside of
Twin Peaks’ gender
discourse, the Log Lady is made to seem batty and undesirable.
It is also important to discuss the one male-identified character that exists outside of the male gender discourse. In Deputy Andy Brennan’s first appearance, he is seen sobbing over the death of Laura Palmer upon the sight of her body. Later on in the same episode, he also sobs hysterically by the spot where Laura Palmer and Ronette Pulaski were raped, saying to the police dispatcher, “Tell Harry I didn’t cry.” It is completely understandable why any character, regardless of gender, would cry (in fact, Leland Palmer is seen crying hysterically on many occasions), however Andy’s purpose in the show is to provide comic relief. He cries often, and it is often ridiculed or portrayed as shameful – he is weak. Furthermore, a large segment of the first season regarding Andy depicts his inability to fire a gun. Several lessons and hours at the shooting range eventually lead to his ability to wield a gun, and he eventually saves a comrade’s life. However, this small example is necessary to understanding the gender discourse that Andy falls into. He aligns more closely with the female gender discourse than the male discourse due to his weak emotions and his inability to work a gun (a power symbol). Despite his power as a cop, he is generally portrayed as the least intelligent of the deputies, bumbling and dependant on his cronies. FBI agent Albert Rosenfield even comments, “Where do they keep his water dish?” Although Andy is a likeable character, he is not supposed to be understood as the hero, or even as someone who the viewer would want to be. Similar to the way in which The Log Lady is portrayed outside of her gender discourse, Andy is comic relief and not to be taken very seriously.
Three female characters – Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Maddy Ferguson (Sheryl Lee), and Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) – decide to take the mystery into their own hands after feeling like they should be granted some power in this case (indeed, all people directly working on it are male). Donna Hayward is Laura’s best friend and the daughter of Dr. Hayward, while Maddy Ferguson is Laura’s cousin and niece to Leland Palmer (Ray Wise). Both of these characters are introduced as relationally linked not only to male characters, but also to Laura – something that others officially on the case do not have. The first time that the girls try to help with the case is when Donna, along with boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall), breaks into the office of Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), the town’s psychiatrist, to steal an audio tape that Laura Palmer recorded shortly before her death. In order to do this, they employ Maddy to dress up as her look-a-like cousin and summon Dr. Jacoby to a new location by calling him on the phone and seductively talking like Laura. This is only episode seven, the first escapade of any female character actively trying to solve the murder, and we already know that the purpose of the girls in solving the mystery is to use their bodies to get what they need. In the second season, Donna pretends to be in love with shut-in/botanist Harold Smith (Lenny von Dohlen). In episode six she makes out with Harold while Maddy tries to steal a copy of Laura’s diary in his possession. Once again, we see a female character using her sexuality to get what she needs for the case. Furthermore, Donna is reprimanded by Sherriff Truman for her detective work when he calls it a “game” and compares her information to the story of the boy who cried wolf. Because she is a young woman actively trying to work on the case, Donna is given no credibility and all her efforts are demonized or made foolish.
Audrey Horne, daughter of
Twin Peaks businessman
Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) – business partner of Leland Palmer – decides
to also take part in the case. Although it is never explicitly stated why she
wishes to do some sleuthing, and she is never linked to having been close friends
with Laura, it is implied that Audrey’s desire is in hopes of pleasing Cooper,
who Audrey yearns to be romantically attached with. In Audrey’s case, she does
not seem to have any desire for power, but rather just for a man. In episode
seven, Audrey gets a job working at the perfume counter at her father’s
department store and eventually goes undercover working as a prostitute at the
brothel One Eyed Jack’s, where both Laura and Ronette worked. Once again we see
a female character in the show using her sexuality to help uncover the secrets
surrounding Laura’s murder in a way that no other male character has needed to
do. This escapade also turns Audrey into a damsel in distress character after
she is caught sneaking around and is forcefully drugged with heroin. Cooper and
the Bookhouse Boys, a band of vigilantes, must rescue her from the brothel.
Audrey’s efforts are hardly celebrated and are more or less ignored.
In episode 13 of season two, the transgender DEA agent Denis/Denise takes on male identity as Denis to go undercover in a drug bust because it is “more appropriate” – it will be more believable for a man to be in that power position. However, when the drug bust goes wrong and Cooper is taken hostage, the DEA agent takes the female identity of Denise as a way to seduce the two men holding Cooper hostage. Even when a character moves between genders, the power position is the male identity, whereas the only power the female identity assumes is through sexuality.
In season two, after Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) wakes up from a coma, she is granted superhuman strength. No other female characters have been given any type of physical power. However, even with this superhuman strength she is rendered physically harmless when she wakes up thinking that she is still in high school. Despite a scene in episode 13 of season two when Nadine uses her strength to save husband Big Ed (Everett McGill) during a violent attack, her superhuman strength is entirely focused into the wrestling team at school to impress a boy.
When trucker Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe) is shot in the head and loses all cognitive and physical capacities, he remains a threat to wife Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), who he battered and threatened with murder before his handicap. Shelly purchases a gun for herself but is unable to shoot it properly, rendering the gun, and all power it represents for her, useless. When Leo is stabilized after his attempted murder, Shelly allows him back into the home because her boyfriend, high school football player Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), convinces her to do so for the insurance money. This demonstrates the little power that Shelly holds over her own life, much less the life of her catatonic husband. Leo Johnson is the epitome of male patriarchal violence, even when he is constricted to a wheelchair, unable to speak and being spoon fed like a baby.
Within this discourse of gender, the female-identified characters in
Twin Peaks are required to surrender power in
exchange for sexuality. Men, regardless of physical capacities, are still more
powerful and given more option to choose than are women. The only power that
women hold within this discourse is the power of their sexuality. Even their
power of sexual consent is robbed from them in many cases. All female
characters (except the Log Lady, and even that is unclear with the gender
identity of the log) are at some point in relation to a male character. Without
this male relation, women are powerless, “positioning all women vulnerable to
male violence and in need of protection” (Meyers, 1997, p. 9). This discourse
demonstrates the hegemonic structure of power in Twin Peaks. As written by
Stuart Hall, “hegemony is accomplished through the agencies of the
superstructures – the family, education system, the church, the media and
cultural institutions, as well as the coercive side of the state – the law,
police, the army, which also, in part, ‘work through ideology’” (Meyers, 1997,
p. 20). Despite Twin
Peaks being a
detective show, there are no female police officers and no female FBI agents
(Denise works for the DEA, and even there, her “power” position is suggested as
male). The only women on the show who work outside the home are Norma Jennings
(Peggy Lipton) and Shelly Johnson, who both work at the local diner – not a
major political power position in the community. Although both Laura and
Ronette worked at the perfume counter, that was played as only a cover for
their prostitution at the brothel. All other women on the show are seen either
working in the home as wives, or as daughters who are students. By allowing
women few – if any – positions of power, men will always be the most powerful.
Women, as the subordinate group, will always need protection from the dominant
group, and by doing so, they consent to being told where their limits lie.
Even when considering the two business women of
Twin Peaks – Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) and
Josie Packard (Joan Chen) – it is difficult to call them very progressive. It
is implied that Catherine Martell is pairing up with Benjamin Horne over the
saw mill property. The only time the viewer sees them discussing business,
however, is after they’ve had sex. The line between business and pleasure is
not entirely clear, and Catherine’s business strategies are muddled by her
affair. Perhaps she, like so many other female characters, is using her
sexuality to get what she needs. Shortly after the saw mill fire, Catherine
disappears and comes back disguised as a Japanese business man. She proposes
something new to Benjamin Horne, and then blackmails him. As a man, Catherine
is powerful and business savvy. As a woman, she is sexual.
Josie Packard is hardly an example of a progressive female character, either. Although she can, at times, be understood as business savvy, her motives are never clear and she double crosses many people. She frequently flees to Sheriff Truman and more often than not comes off as a helpless child and a vain woman (there are many shots of her staring wistfully into the mirror). In episode seven, when the viewer finds out that Josie hired a hit man to kill her husband – supposedly for land and money – it’s suggested that she perhaps has some power or control over not only her own life, but the lives of others. However, this quickly dissolves in a confusing plot line where her power is also muddled. In an effort to clear my confusions, I retreated to Wikipedia, where it is written of Josie that she, “ultimately dies of heart failure from ‘fear’ after an encounter with evil spirit Bob after having shot and killed Thomas Eckhardt, a long-time tormentor of hers due to his obsession with Josie” (List of Twin Peaks characters, n.d.). This description is hardly progressive. Although she does kill Thomas Eckhardt (David Warner), her former abuser, she immediately dies from shock after seeing – just seeing – Bob (Frank Silva).
As the mystery of Laura’s death draws nearer to a conclusion, the viewer is given more and more insight about the murderer – an evil spirit named Bob. Bob appears first in episode two when Laura Palmer’s mother (Grace Zabriskie) has a vision of Bob – a long haired, middle aged man with primate-like stature – in the family’s living room. She screams hysterically but no one else sees him. In episode two of season two, Maddy Ferguson sees Bob in the same living room, advancing towards her, climbing over the couch like a monkey. The only male character in
Peaks to see Bob is Dale Cooper, who has a vision of this
“evil spirit” in his vivid dreams. Otherwise, the rapist exists purely in the
minds of women, who fall into hysterics at the very sight of him. In fact, Mrs.
Palmer is portrayed in later episodes as nearly incapable of living. In episode
seven of season two, she is seen crawling down the stairs, panting and desperate,
where she crawls into the living room and envisions a white horse, similar to
the way she envisioned Bob, before passing out. This scene seems to demonstrate
the absurdity of Mrs. Palmer’s visions – including that of Bob, the rapist. When
Cooper has a vision of Bob in his dreams, he is represented as keeping a clear
mind about the vision. He is presented as strong and stoic; the women weak and
hysterical – to the point of death. By keeping the rapist as an imaginary
figure, this also places the rapist (and the rape) purely in certain characters’
heads. By not giving him a stable form, at least immediately, he – and the rape
he committed – is merely an apparition, something that isn’t real.
Furthermore, by suggesting that Bob is an “evil spirit” and something incorporeal – a monster, even – this encourages an idea that “men who rape, murder, or otherwise commit acts of violence against women are ‘sick’ or in some way pathological ignores the social roots of violence” (Meyers, 1997, p. 10). By constructing Bob as some beast from another world, the links between rape, hegemony, patriarchy, and misogyny are completely cut off.
It is at the end of episode seven of season two that Bob is finally revealed to us, the audience. As Maddy Ferguson runs downstairs thinking that she smells something burning, she is greeted by Bob at the bottom of the stairs, who then transitions into Leland Palmer, as he grabs Maddy and begins strangling her. During the graphic attack scene, the attacker transitions between Bob and Leland. While the character is Bob, everything is in slow motion and under a spotlight. The noises being made are animalistic, as is the way that Bob attacks Maddy. The noises and the technique that Bob uses in his attack are similar to lions hunting their prey. When the character turns back into Leland, the extra effects are gone, and Leland picks Maddy up as if hugging her, spinning in circles and crying while whispering “My baby!” He then turns back into Bob, kissing Maddy on the face and neck while making animalistic noises. You can no longer hear any protest from Maddy. Although she is conscious and looks as if she is making noises, the only sounds you can hear are those coming from Leland/Bob. This avant-garde technique reduces the pain and fear felt by Maddy, and instead focuses on the emotions that Leland and Bob feel. This scene could even suggest sympathy for Leland, as he sobs uncontrollably in the victim’s hair. It also reinforces the idea that the Bob is not human, but rather a beast.
This scene, and further scenes depicting Leland/Bob in similar ways, confuses what Bob represents. Is Bob really an evil spirit that possesses people? Is he an alter ego that Leland assumes when he rapes and murders? Is Bob figurative of prior history of rape that Leland was victim to? None of these questions are ever addressed, and all answers are left up to the viewer to decide. Since it could be any of these three, or possibly more, I will discuss the implications of all three of these representations of Bob.
As discussed before, if Bob truly is an evil spirit who simply possesses people, then that places not only the rapist but also the rape in a realm of the unreal. If Leland truly is “possessed” then he is, under this context, innocent, despite being the physical person to rape and murder. This interpretation suggests that rape does not happen under normal, human circumstances, and those who do rape and murder are “possessed” and furthermore, cannot be physically held responsible.
Bob could also be figurative of prior victimization from Leland’s childhood. In episode nine of season two, Leland says to Cooper, “I was just a boy. I saw him in my dream. He wanted to play. He opened me, and I invited him inside, and he came inside me.” This could suggest that Leland was raped as a child and Bob represents the anger and confusion that Leland has lived with ever since.
It’s also plausible that Bob could be an alter ego that Leland assumes when he rapes and murders. Considering that the rape of Laura Palmer by Leland was incest, it wouldn’t be an entirely baseless assumption that Leland takes on a different identity while raping his daughter as a way to make it seem more acceptable to himself. This interpretation would be plausible given patriarchal structures in American culture, however the show never clarifies the existence of Bob, thus breaking these structures.
The last two assumptions are made unlikely by further clues surrounding Bob which are revealed. Although Leland does confess to the murder of Laura, the attempted murder of Ronette, and the murder of a girl named Theresa in the surrounding area – he says that Bob made him commit all of these – Bob appears in additional episodes after the death of Leland. For example, he appears on the bed after Josie’s death, and the series finale suggests that Bob has possessed another character. These clues would make it seem that Bob indeed was possessing Leland only in passing and he was not figurative of anything more than evil. However, by not addressing any of these possible assumptions it is unclear who Bob is. This leads to an unclear understanding of rape in our culture. Although the entire premise of
Twin Peaks exists around the brutal rape and
murder of a teenage girl, the rape and the rapist are generally not addressed. The
assumption that Bob is simply evil does not suggest any social structural ties
to misogyny, patriarchy, or hegemony, all of which are directly responsible for
the existence of rape. FBI agent Albert Rosenfield briefly suggests that,
“Maybe that’s all Bob is – the evil that men do.” However, this insight is
hardly progressive, either. The “evil that men do” has a name, and Twin Peaks brushes aside any areas of discussion
for this evil.
Instead of asking, “Why did this man rape and murder Laura Palmer?” the question is rather, “Who was Laura Palmer that she was involved in such a gruesome attack?” Although it could be important to understand Laura’s life in order to find the killer, when the killer is finally exposed, there is little interrogation as to who he is. It is accepted that Bob was possessing Leland and that the death of Leland brought closure to the case. As previously suggested, this is problematic because it does not explore the implications of social structures which contribute to rape in our culture. Rather, what is revealed about Laura contributes to a culture of victim-blaming and creates a false reality about girls and women who are raped.
In the time that it takes to uncover the rapist, a lot is exposed about Laura and her “dark” past, including mysterious diary entries, a cocaine addiction, prostitution, appearances in pornography, and a safety deposit box containing $10,000. Not only is she portrayed as haven fallen into illegal activities, but it is even suggested that she wanted – and purposefully attracted – the rape and subsequent murder. Little is said about Ronette Pulaski, except that she, too, worked at the brothel with Laura, participated in BDSM with Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) and also that she appeared in pornography. Both girls are portrayed similarly, participating in acts that the majority of girls and women, and rape victims, would not otherwise participate in. This representation is extremely dangerous to how rape is understood in
Twin Peaks because it may suggest that only girls who participate in the
activities that Laura and Ronnette did (prostitution, drug trafficking, BDSM,
pornography, drug use) are raped. Of the 207,754 victims of sexual assault every year (Rape,
Abuse, & Incest National Network, n.d.) it is extremely unlikely that all,
or even the majority, participate in these acts willingly. The only
representations of rape in Twin Peaks deeply
incorporate these themes; thus, the reality created by Twin Peaks may suggest that
girls who do not participate in these
activities are not raped.
These representations of Laura and Ronette reflect the ideology of victim blaming that the victim is “…somehow responsible for her own suffering because she was on drugs, drunk, not properly cautious, stupid, engaged in questionable activities, or involved in work or exhibiting behavior outside the traditional role of women. Her guilt is signified through statements … that seek to explain why the crime occurred within the context of her activities” (Meyers, 1997, p. 61).
Twin Peaks does much to provide the viewer with
background information regarding Laura’s habits, work, and behaviors, which
instead of shedding light on the culprit, only works to convince the viewer
that Laura was responsible for her own rape and murder.
It is suggested that Laura wanted to be raped, and even that she sought it out by participating in these activities. Many of the responses to Laura’s activities are of pleasure, as if she deserved what had happened because she had been a “bad girl.” For example, in episode five Audrey is pleased over Laura working in a brothel. She also expresses pleasure in Laura’s use of cocaine, as though this information is a point of intrigue over what happened to Laura. Furthermore, although many characters are upset by Laura’s death, it generally does not come as much shock to those who knew her well. For example, in episode six, Laura’s ex-boyfriend Bobby Briggs explicitly says, “Laura wanted to die,” to which Dr. Jacoby replies that Laura “wanted to corrupt people.” This dialogue suggests that even Laura’s close acquaintances felt that she had deliberately sought out her brutal ending – something that the viewer is supposed to also feel.
Episode seven reveals a tape recording that Laura had made where she says of a mysterious man, “I think a couple of times he’s tried to kill me. But guess what? As you know, I sure got off on it.” This statement is ended with a giggle, downplaying the seriousness of murder, and encouraging the idea that Laura enjoyed the terror of her rape.
A diary entry revealed in episode four of season two reads: “Sometimes I worry that she wouldn’t be around me at all if she knew what my insides were like – black and dark and soaked with dreams of big, big men and different ways that they might hold me and take me into their control.” Whether Laura’s rape fantasy was conscious or unconscious is not revealed, but why it was necessary to be revealed in the first place is unclear. This diary entry suggests nothing of substance to the mystery, and the only value it has to
Peaks is to
perpetuate rape myths. Susan Brownmiller writes of rape myths, “They
deliberately obscure the true nature of rape … Once the proposition that all
women secretly wish to be ravished has been established, it is bolstered by the
claim that ‘No woman can be raped against her will’” (Brownmiller, 1975, p.
312). What these entries suggest to the viewer’s understanding of Laura is that
she not only sought out and enjoyed her rape, but that it was not – could not
be – against her will. Therefore, Twin Peaks may
be dangerously suggesting that there is no difference between rape and sex.
These suggestions are dangerous because they contribute to victim-blaming. By explicitly stating, or even simply implying, that Laura wanted to be murdered or raped, the viewer is led to a false understanding of rape and victims of rape. Furthermore, what we learn of Laura in Twin Peaks does well to keep with what Meyers calls “the virgin-whore or good girl-bad girl dichotomy” which “divides female victims of male violence into innocent victims or women who are guilty of causing or provoking their own suffering” (Meyers, 1997, p. 53). Instead of understanding Laura as an innocent victim, we are led to understand her as a tormented figure who not only wanted to do bad things to men, but who wanted men to do even worse things to her. The viewer is led to believe that Laura is to blame for her own rape and murder, and even that she potentially got off on it.