I Can’t Watch: The Kitsch Sexism of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’

David Lynch as Agent Gordon Cole, demonstrating the respectful treatment of a female character on Twin Peaks: The Return.

Let’s start off with a bit of heresy, so there’s no confusion: Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s revival of the ’90s surrealist soap opera by which the weirdo director insinuated himself into the living rooms of the average, non-weird U.S. TV-consuming population, is not at all, in any way, worth your time, or mine. It is something like mandatory that, before I tell you about the various reasons why it may be flawed from a feminist perspective, I fawn over the show and its creator, everyone’s darling transcendental pervert-boy-scout, as if some degree of appreciation is a prerequisite to criticism. I’m supposed to begin by telling you that Twin Peaks: The Return, which premiered in May on the Showtime network and has basked in a predictably benefic sea of acclaim since then, is brilliant, formally; it’s pushing the boundaries of what TV can be, it’s audaciously experimental, it’s visually stunning, and, like, weird as hell, man, totally blowing my mind. Attaboy, David Lynch! I’m supposed to say this sort of thing before I proceed with “and yet…” then outline my timid tiptoeing case against Lynch’s new project, but I think I’ll pass because I don’t count “pushing the boundaries of what TV can be” as an innately intriguing endeavor — I’m in no rush to celebrate a more inventive re-imagining of the passivity-preserving, life-sucking narcotic spectacle that is Must-See Television — and also, The Return is stupid, I’ll even submit: without redeeming value. It is not good. I wish I hadn’t watched as much of it as I have. Having watched it, I feel I have lost something, some small but not negligible chunk of my life I cannot get back. I did not want to watch The Return. My plan was to be a conscientious objector. I read a piece I am reluctant to call a “review” of the first episode on the Artforum site and my curiosity wheezed once, spat up something bilious, a twitch shuddered through its shriveled carcass, and it died. I was satisfied that there was nothing to be gained from tuning in, that I could carry on unmolested by any sense of obligation to participate in this particular pop culture phenomenon.

Yet, being weak-willed or perhaps slightly depressed this summer and by constitution more than slightly drawn by the morbid lure of that which I fully expect to loathe, I toppled from my desert plateau of non-participation and in July, with resignation, I joined the herd. My friend had been watching the show in secret, keeping his viewership from me, and to abate my own sense of exclusion from everything due to being a chronic killjoy to the point that my friends are unwilling to share with me what they’re doing out of nervousness that I’ll object to it, in order to try to seem game and up-for-it, I sat down with him to take in an episode: Part 9 of Twin Peaks: The Return. What I saw was a small herd of buffoonish men in beige suits chasing a Bruce-Willis-in-Diehard mini-me assassin through the hallways of a budget hotel. I was not interested. I have an extreme lack of interest in midget assassins, in the use of physical difference as chuckle fodder. It’s boring, it’s easy. It is lame. My snap judgment of the new Twin Peaks emerged as a moan of exhaustion: “Men really can do whatever the hell they want.” Lynch gave us a midget assassin because he could and we the loyal viewers are expected to be happy about it. Because he’s David Lynch, it’s David Lynch’s midget assassin. A ponderous, far-out, surrealist midget assassin. He gave us this lame, boring, entry-level gag because he is David Lynch and no longer has to try to make what he does interesting; if he makes it, it will be declared interesting, because he is David Lynch—he is an interesting man. The more brazen that which he chooses to do is in its awfulness, the more suggestive of a lack of self-critical second thoughts, the more whatever it is he does testifies to his genius. This is the first lesson of Twin Peaks: The Return. If this had been the only lesson, I would not have continued watching.

But then there’s the second lesson, being: women are garbage people who scarcely deserve to breathe air. And it was this woman-hating subtext of The Return that hooked me, not its formal unconventionality, or its visual appeal, or its uncompromising “weirdness.” The show is, foremost, a hot mess of self-consciously vacuous, self-indulgent meandering; it’s the David-Lynch-is-a-Living-Legend show and I don’t care. It is also a sexist nightmare. And I care about that, I do care. Helplessly, I do. I have now watched 13 episodes, wasted 13 hours of my life, transfixed by the spectacle of Lynch’s newfound commitment to gross misogyny. I have nothing good to say. 

Twin Peaks: The Return has a violence-against-women problem. The violence that pervades women’s lives was the black pulse that drove the original Twin Peaks, the fruiting body in the basement from which all its tendrils of fungal horror proceeded. After all, it was a show that revolved around the sexual abuse and murder of a teenage girl: Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), homecoming queen. The first episode opens with Palmer’s corpse, blue-lipped, wrapped in plastic. As the story slithers along it is revealed that before she was killed, she was prostituted, the town fathers fucked her, she was raped by her own personal father (he was possessed, but possession is allegorical: the father is always “a different man” when he is brutalizing his daughter). Images//narratives of violence against women are not by default an index of misogyny, not even when they are the creation of a man. Men can confront violence against women without reveling in it. Depictions of violence can be applied to critical ends; inherent within these representations is the potential to illuminate the problem and incite the outcry that galvanizes collective movement in pursuit of solutions. I am not among those who would denounce all violent imagery as exploitative, an appeal to voyeuristic appetites, with its only possible outcome being desensitization. Images of violence, when wrought with care, can have the opposite effect: they can re-sensitize. The body responds to the pain of others, if that pain is portrayed realistically – as horrific – because we understand in our own bodies that we are no less vulnerable. Empathy is a natural and reflexive response to others’ suffering, and representations of violence have as much power to trigger as they do to dampen it. Whether violent imagery de- or re-sensitizes depends upon the artist’s approach.

In the original series, we saw Laura Palmer’s dead body, we knew that terrible things had happened to her, but we did not see her murdered. Her corpse radiated a dusky aura—it was horrible that she was dead. Something evil had happened. There was a brooding potency in the image of her corpse, the silence and stillness of her dead face bluing was a condemnation; there was seriousness, sadness, in Lynch’s handling of her death, as there was in his portrayal of the violence endured by another young woman in the show, Shelly (Mädchen Amick), whose scumbag husband beat her. Lynch also toyed with viewers’ voyeuristic proclivities, to be sure, and his use of the victimized young white blonde-haired female body as an object of solicitous fascination within the white middle class American imagination warrants skepticism. The eye he cast to the issue of men’s violence against women was solidly socketed in the white male gaze. But Lynch, in the original Twin Peaks, for all his male gazing, could not be accused of celebrating the violence he depicted. There was no slasher flick glee to the show’s female agony. The aim, it would not be such a leap of inappropriate generosity to speculate, could have been re-sensitization. While “Glee” is perhaps not the perfect word for Lynch’s treatment of female pain and death in The Return, the liberally administered violence does seem to be there to be savored. It is entertainment. Dread and horror have been replaced by a breezy detachment in the treatment of Lynch’s latest batch of women victims. Women get hurt. They die. Shit happens. So what. Two hours later, you will have forgotten the murdered female’s name. (By contrast: will we ever forget Laura Palmer?) And because the series has snagged a home for itself on premium cable, it is unhindered by the FCC restraints that circumscribe lower tier TV; hence, if the women are young and winsome, they are deprived of clothing before they meet their gruesome ends. A young woman disrobing for a man to whom she has for days been desperate to deliver coffee has her skull chewed into a bloodied ruin by some otherworldly entity. (The boyfriend gets brain-razed to death, too, but he gets to keep his pants on.) Another young woman is shot through a pillow as her killer smothers her with it. Dressed in the cutesy bra-and-panties set she wore strategically to seduce the man who kills her, she is lifeless in bed when he stalks out of the motel room. The violence of The Return is T&A splatter, blasé in its gratuity, the brand of violence that says women are best served sexed-up and naked, and it is fun to watch them get hurt. They are disposable and can be replaced. Women are garbage. Judging from the Showtime ads that bookend episodes streamed on Hulu, this nonchalant wastage of women’s bodies is the network’s raison d’être.

The women who survive Twin Peaks: The Return without being victimized, violated or annihilated should not be too grateful to their maker, since they are trapped within a universe wherein their destiny is to wander the Lynchian hellscape as one-dimensional non-people treated with unrelenting contempt. Few female characters are given more to do than epitomize classic misogynist tropes. The Return is clotted with bitches and bimbos serving no other purpose than to reinforce anti-woman stereotypes.

Of the tropes Lynch trots out, most rampant is the figure of the aggrieved wife who rages impotently against her long-suffering husband. We’ve got Phyllis Hastings (Cornelia Guest), the icy blonde, castrating bitch-wife of a school principal accused of murdering his lover. Then there is Doris Truman (Candy Clark), the Sherriff’s wife, a middle-aged woman who shrieks out in breathless hysterics an itemization of her husband’s failings while he sighs and nods with the kindly stoicism of a harassed saint. Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts) is another frustrated wife, representing the “Drill Sergeant Suburban Soccer Mom” variation of the type, although she perks up once her braindead husband – “Dougie Jones,” actually Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) returned from the spook zone of the Black Lodge in a state of severe cognitive disrepair – reveals chiseled abs at a doctor’s appointment and by coincidence lands her sitting pretty in a BMW convertible. She is all softness and kisses for him now that he’s ripped and she has a fancy new car, because women are shallow and materialistic.

Moving on from the Aggrieved Wives Club, Lynch has manufactured Sex Robots, like Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell), who would be more believable as an animatronic ‘60s airline hostess than she is as a living human officer of the law. Her name is Tammy, but it could be Bunny. It could be Cupcake. She doesn’t have a lot to say; her hips enswathed in painted-on pencil skirts and the sleek swish of her ponytail as she struts away do the talking for fair Agent Tammy, and her boss – Agent Gordon Cole, a heartwarming grandfatherly lech played by David Lynch himself – is satisfied. He expresses his satisfaction by guiding her to and fro with his hand resting against the small of her back. (The cringe that quakes to my marrows in these moments is like a grand mal seizure.)

The Dumb Blonde trope is personified by the tripartite creature that is Candie (Amy Shiels), Mandie (Andrea Lael), and Sandie (Gisele DaMier), a threesome of bubblegum satin cocktail waitresses who shadow the casino magnate Mitchum Brothers (James Belushi & Robert Knepper), conceivably employed by the men as personal assistants of some kind, more likely owned by them. Sandie and Mandie are mute. Unable to support themselves, they lean against walls. Sometimes they sway to lounge music only they can hear. Candie is the last among her sisters to retain the vestiges of verbal faculties, but in every other regard her advanced ditziness verges on terminal. In one scene she smacks her boss with a TV remote trying to kill a fly that lands on his face, then sobs for hours when she realizes she has injured her beloved superior. It’s worth a laugh, because women are twits.

Because no trope is too lowbrow for Lynch, there are also Comic Relief Fat Ladies, like the preschool teacher with a sunny disposition and a serious crush on pie (she is later almost beaten to death within her trailer, its piteous pastel cheer marking it undeniably the dwelling of a certifiable Lonely Fat Woman). The Bad Mother makes an appearance, as a woman living with her son in an abandoned desert subdivision outside of Las Vegas. She swigs Jack Daniels from the bottle and eats her pills crushed and passes out and rocks back and forth in her plastic chair and looks plague-afflicted while her poor little boy runs around pasty and malnourished. Even less relevant to the storyline are the Gossiping Biddies, women who fill the dismal void of their lives by gathering at the local bar to discuss the intricacies of dating men we have never heard of. Then there is the one Black woman to appear in the Twin Peaks universe, Jade (Nafessa Williams), a Sassy Black Hooker lifted straight from white supremacist patriarchy’s stock character file. Her role is limited to appearing naked (save for the acrylic nails pivotal in emphasizing she is sassy, Black, a hooker) and tying a man’s shoes.

Female characters sourced from the original Twin Peaks have fared no better, stripped of the details that gave them some modicum of passably human-esque depth and left to decay as pallid, purposeless skeletons of their former selves. Shelly Briggs (Mädchen Amick) has ossified into a career waitress, her pale teal uniform a second skin; once she was a sweet young thing and today she is a sweet slightly-less-young thing, a mother and a lover of men in leather jackets. She waitresses, she mothers. Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn) is back, too, unfortunately for her. She has aged out of slinky rebel babedom into wretched wifedom, fettered to a neckless man she understandably loathes. She barks orders at him, hurls insults, bickers, whines. She does not leave the house. And she is, as of Part 13, entirely immaterial to the plot. Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) is still ensconced behind the desk as the squeaky-voiced receptionist at the Twin Peaks Sherriff’s Department, and if she was absentminded before, she is now mindless. Cellphones confound her. She debates chair upholstery patterns with her village idiot husband, Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz). Of the returning characters, the most compelling is Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), Laura Palmer’s bereaved mother, but since what makes her compelling is that she is disintegrating, her existence should not be taken as evidence in contradiction of endemic sexism. She is messed up as a only a woman can be messed up. So pathetic she’s scary. There is a frightening scene wherein she is plunged into a psychotic episode by a turkey jerky display in a grocery store. Otherwise, she lurks at the margins of Twin Peaks as a chain-smoking alcoholic recluse, her evenings spent submerged in the blue light of safari carnage and glitchy old boxing matches that seeps steadily from the enormous living room TV screen.

I do not know how it would be possible to sit through Twin Peaks: The Return without coming away with the distinct impression that David Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost have a low opinion of women. What else could explain the glut of sexist tropes, misogynist jokes and caricatures, meaningless female death? It would be one thing if the bitches and bimbos, the nagging wives and broken mothers, the sad fat ladies and the taciturn sexy girls were of some apparent necessity to the storyline, but none are essential to the advancement of the oblique ramble Lynch asks us to accept as The Return’s central narrative. Trying to see the best in people, even men, and tie their bullshit to something other than pure nastiness, I have developed two theories to account for Lynch’s sudden passion for retrograde portrayals of women. The first is that David Lynch is fighting early onset dementia, the erosion of inhibitions is Phase One of his neurological degeneration, and the man is helpless but to expose the sexism that he, in healthier days, could somewhat more effectively conceal. I am not ruling out the possibility that this dementia could be ego-induced.

The second theory is that the barefaced sexism and misogyny that flows so freely through Twin Peaks: The Return is there for kitsch value. It’s Americana. Like cherry pie and oversized ceramic mugs of diner coffee, sexism is a throwback to simpler times in the American Heartland, when men were men and women were decorative, servile, irksome, or dead. By this theory the show’s representation of women can be understood as David Lynch performing an extended Archie Bunker impersonation. “You know I don’t really believe women are garbage,” Lynch says with a good-natured grin, “but wouldn’t it be a laugh riot if I did?” Oh, right. Hardy-har. And The Return’s nostalgic sexism is going down just as easy as cherry pie, because too many people do miss when openly loathing women (and everyone who is not a fine and upstanding White U.S. Christian Heterosexual Male) was more permissible in mainstream society—and such is one reason we’ve got a pussy-grabbing sack of pompously un-PC hate-spew making the White House his lair. Rebellion against social progress is the gimmick of the dominant class. Think Charlottesville. Sexism isn’t a good gag. Think the rape jokes men’s rights activists find so endlessly hilarious. Innocent misogyny is an oxymoron, and ironic misogyny an impossibility—as soon as you’ve seen the humor in a demeaning image of women, the irony is shot. David Lynch doesn’t get a pass simply because he is David Lynch, the unassailable, or because his denigration of women takes place in an alternate dimension of labyrinthine strangeness, prepared à la mode, with a wink and a smile.