Gender, Power, and Culture in the Televisual World of Twin Peaks: A Feminist Critique

By Lafky, Sue | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Gender, Power, and Culture in the Televisual World of Twin Peaks: A Feminist Critique


Lafky, Sue, Journal of Film and Video


Porphyria worshipped me: surprise

Made my heart swell, and still it grew

While I debated what to do.

That moment she was mine,-mine,

fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around

And strangled her. No pain felt she

I am quite sure she felt no pain.

As a shut bud that holds a bee

I warily oped her lids-again

Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.

-Robert Browning from "Porphyria"

Just as this excerpt from Robert Browning's poem invites feminist scholars to critique male sexual fantasies about violence against women in nineteenth-century Britain, the television series Twin Peaks invites feminist scholars to continue their analyses of violence and necrophilic images in popular culture in the latter part of the twentieth century. This essay argues that Twin Peaks continues a tradition of art that depends upon recurring themes of rape, incest, domestic violence, murder, and necrophilia.

This article also examines Twin Peaks as a cultural event on commercial television and the reactions of (mostly male) critics who celebrated (and continue to celebrate) the show as a milestone in popular culture. In the pages that follow, I argue that the show's clever innovations in production, avantgarde techniques, and postmodern sensibilities obscured in-depth or on-going discussions about Twin Peaks's reactionary politics, regressive and misogynistic representations of women, and reinforcement of the dominant ideology-particularly in its representation of gender, violence and power. This essay seeks a negotiation between the "feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodern critique of representation" (Owens 59). As Susan Rubin Suleiman notes, it is important to look for the critical and political possibilities of avant-garde practices in general, and of postmodernism in particular; [. . .] women and feminists rightfully belong in the center of such discussions and practices. (190)

This essay also raises larger issues of artistic practices as potential sites for feminist struggle in an age of postmodern representation and culture that E. Ann Kaplan has described as building on and satisfying "already dominant masculine qualities such as violence, destruction, consumption [and] phallic sexuality" (39). Griselda Pollock argues for a feminist intervention that offers an "understanding of what specific artistic practices are doing, their meanings and social effects." Such an intervention calls for a dual strategy: first, locating the practice as part of the struggles associated with gender, race, and class; and second, analyzing the specific practice to answer the question, "What meaning is being produced, and how and for whom?" (7).

The analysis of images is an important step in any project linking feminist film and television theory with feminist practice in our everyday experiences. This study draws upon feminist theory to help formulate my critique. It draws upon feminist practice to urge the development of a critical consciousness that will continue the work of those who work to end violence against women not only in the world of fantasy but in the world of everyday life.

A "Meaningful Moment"

Although the ratings for Twin Peaks rapidly declined after the mystery of who killed 16year-old Laura Palmer was solved, the series maintains an international following to this day, turning the program into more than a blip on the cultural radar of the early 1990s. (As of 1997, Twin Peaks was being shown in Great Britain.) Even before the show first aired, there were qualities about the ABC miniseries that led some critics to accurately forecast its future reign as what John Fiske would describe as a "meaningful moment" (246-50) in popular culture. Typical in his enthusiasm for the show was New Yorker writer Terrence Rafferty, who reflected that On the face of it, the idea of David Lynch's creating a series for network television sounds like a joke. …

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