As an old fan of the television show “Twin Peaks,” I was excited to see it returning to the small screen. The originality and uniqueness of the series that challenges the viewer really stands out again in the new season. Nonetheless, the show’s problematic approach to women continues too.
“Twin Peaks” constitutes a major milestone in the development of worthy TV drama as we know it today. Most of the series of this kind that were produced in America since “Twin Peaks,” which premiered in 1990, were influenced to some extent by its unique characteristics: The continuing story and surprising twists of the plot, a mix of genres, the eccentricity of the characters, the air of mystery, the distinctive aesthetics, the use of music and the reliance on soap opera.
One of the breakthroughs the series made possible was the subversive criticism of the American ethos, which was presented in the middle of prime time: The evil, horror and brutality that go on underneath the seemingly idyllic serenity of the “classic” American town and the patriarchal nuclear family.
The identity of the murderer, in a television drama at the center of the American mainstream, had a major symbolic influence on this criticism of the ideal American society. But as has been mentioned many times before, David Lynch, one of the creators of the series, opposed revealing the murderer’s identity and said it was only done under pressure from the broadcaster. This probably provides more than a hint of the priorities of the director and the forgiveness toward violence against women, compared to the artistic and aesthetic tools used to advance and shape the plot.
So despite the critical messages and the innovation, the series suffered from particularly troublesome values in everything concerning the female characters and their surrounding narrative: “Twin Peaks” of 1990 presented a wide range of characters, women and girls, in a town that the feminist revolution had seemingly skipped over. The women were dressed in a conservative to traditional manner, or stereotypically in a way considered to be sexual and enticing, most worked in stereotypical professions lacking any true social power, or they did not work at all outside the home. Most were very pretty and their outward appearance served to reinforce their characterization as sensual and sexualized, as objects for the male gaze by the male actors and the viewers both. Even worse, they were all the victims of male violence.
The influence of “Twin Peaks” on the television series that followed it is well-known and appreciated in many aspects, but also repressed: “Twin Peaks” was the first American television series in which aesthetics, complexity, originality and artistry revolved around the difficult issues of violence against women, and that is how the violence was handled and framed graphically and aesthetically, and details and screen time were devoted to this sophisticated plot.
Since “Twin Peaks,” and under its influence, we have been exposed regularly to more and more series with the bodies of young and pretty women as their focus and violence against women, as part of the new “high-quality” television. (By the way, Dennis Potter had previously created this problematic connection in his masterpiece “The Singing Detective.”)
Regretfully, it seems that not a lot has changed in Lynch’s world in his relationship to women: The new season of the series returns us to the world in which the protagonists, the good and the bad, are men, while the women are shown once again in the manner of the femme fatale on one hand, or as the victims of male violence on the other – while presenting them as aesthetic objects with a sensual nature, even in death.
Anat Sela-Inbar is the head of the television studies program in the School for Audio and Visual Arts at Sapir College.