The Knowing Spectator of Twin Peaks: Culture, Feminism, and Family Violence

By Davenport, Randi; Smith, Hobart et al. | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Knowing Spectator of Twin Peaks: Culture, Feminism, and Family Violence


Davenport, Randi, Smith, Hobart, Smith, William, Literature/Film Quarterly


Twin Peaks is unusual in that it participates in recent public conversations about the effects of child sexual abuse, the victimisation of the daughter, and the culpability of the adult male aggressor. I would like to suggest that in its exploration of the behavior of abusive men and the damage suffered by their victims. Twin Peaks is informed by, rather than at odds with, recent feminist discussions about sexual violence. Indeed, the series exposes the regularity with which women find themselves victimized by men.

By sympathetically focusing its audience's attention on the sexual victimization of women. Twin Peaks demands that its audience understand not just that sexual violence occurs, but that our culture tolerates a range of practices that serve to authorize violence against women.

Those who turned the series off because they were made uneasy by the incest, the wife battering and the pornographic pages of Flesh World have said they turned it off because it was "pandering" (Goldstein 742). Some have made the ludicrous suggestion that Twin Peaks was somehow aberrant in that it portrayed sexual violence against women on television. This is too disingenuous. Anyone who watches television gels a regular dose of pleasure from watching women sexually objectified, kidnapped, threatened, beaten, stripped, killed. In its familiar form, such violence is not hard to watch. Indeed, most of the time, the audience simply accepts as natural that such activities should cohere around the female characters of (he plot. What made Twin Peaks hard to watch was its powerful suggestion that sexual violence is not pleasurable or natural but is common and is practiced by lots of seemingly average men. Twin Peaks horrified us because it held a mirror up to the American family and what we saw when we gazed upon it was a brutality that made many of us sick.

Twin Peaks is thus unsettling because it disruptively implicates its audience in the family violence that it simultaneously suggests is a customary, even banal, feature of the average, middle-class American family. In the process, the spectator is constituted as sympathetic to the victim of incest and compelled to regard as unacceptable those behaviors that permit men to victimize women.

But Twin Peaks is also radical in that it provides an extended challenge to traditional understandings of the incest experience by displacing the pornographic trope of the Seductive Daughter. Some feminist critics have professed shock that the central female figure of a television series is a victimized teen-age girl and have questioned the morality of David Lynch and Murk Frost in their focus on Laura Palmer.1 But it's important to remember that an understanding of father-daughter incest in terms of aggressor and victim is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, one that arises from feminist discourse about child abuse and one that has been given wide support both in scholarly accounts of incest and the mass media. True crime texts sympathetic to real-life victims of incest, like the Cheryl Pierson and Shelley Sessions stories, have proliferated even as some fictional accounts of incest have recounted the evil powers of the incest victim, as in Mary McGarry Morris's Vanished (1988) and Anne Rice's The Witching Hour (1990).2 Unlike other fictions of incest and like the feminist texts, Twin Peaks lays no blame for the incestuous assault on the victim. Instead of viewing the daughter as a child with nearly supernatural powers of sexual attraction and seduction, both Twin Peaks and the feminist texts disrupt more traditional beliefs about incest by proposing that the daughter is a victim of sexual assault, that her father is her rapist, and that particularly complex power problems within the family make it difficult for her to escape the horrors of her existence.

As a temptress who corrupts men by forcing them to be sexual with their children, the Seductive Daughter is a well-established part of literary and religious tradition. …

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