The Owls Are Not What They Seem

Essay, Research Paper

Twin Peaks was one of the most popular shows on television during its first season, aired in 1990. The show was based in small town America, and was easily related to by young and middle aged viewers. The series begins with the murder of an American icon, the Homecoming queen Laura Palmer. The entire series spawned from the single image of a young beautiful girl s dead body that washed up on the shore. This image led to others similar to it- the violence and contempt towards women. The women of Twin Peaks all seemed to have something in common, where they were all either murdered, portrayed as weak, deceptive, and/or abused by the male characters. The dangers that stem from showing such images on national television are that the audience, typically composed of males, would become desensitized to these images, and further, believe that the bold stance that Twin Peaks takes on femininity is true.

Twin Peaks treats domestic violence and abuse with a creepy insensitivity. The incestuous relationship between Laura and her father Leland is almost ignored- being blamed on the possessive spirit, BOB. After Leland s confession and suicide, Agent Cooper asks Sheriff Truman whether he would prefer to believe that BOB worked through Leland or that a man would rape and murder his own daughter. At this moment Twin Peaks articulates a revision of the seduction theory. Little girls are not abused by their fathers; if they meet an unhappy end, the reason must be sought outside the family circle (Desmet 98). This reinforces societies urge not to directly face its problems, but rather turn away in a convenient manner. Twin Peaks expresses this urge by hiding Leland s identity as the rapist/murder so well, until it is finally showed to the audience when Leland brutally murders his niece Maddy. Could it be that the reason it is impossible to identify Leland as the killer, is because the viewer does not want to? The audience knows that Leland is capable of murder after he is seen murdering Jacques Renault, but they still do not want to believe that Leland would kill his daughter.

There are clues, however, which do point the blame towards Leland, but these are never directly mentioned or formally addressed. Laura is seen crying out for help, but is too scared to come out and say anything, even to the ones she loves. This addresses American society s will to have its women be passive and voiceless. [Laura s] cocaine habit, her involvement in pornography, her career as a prostitute at One-Eyed-Jack s, and her desire to find a father substitute or male protector in Doctor Jacoby and others, all identify Laura Palmer as an incest victim asking for help (Desmet 94). It is typical in America for males to ignore the needs of women because they would rather help themselves and others of their gender. Twin Peaks reinforces this belief by feeding this idea to a mass audience, which, in this case, is typically composed of males.

The stance that Twin Peaks takes on the feminine, violence, and sexuality can be viewed as dangerous in a society such as ours. Throughout the series, women are viewed as sex objects, as well as objects that males can take their aggression out on in a violent manner without any consequences. In the series, Laura, Maddy, Teresa Banks, Caroline Earle, Audrey, Annie Blackburne, and Blackie O Reilly all die at the hands of men, who have no repercussions for their actions. Also, each of the women who die in the series, are at one time or another put into sexual situations, turning the women into objects (or in some aspects, whores ) used only for sexual purposes, which, in the male conscious, removes any responsibility to see them as real people. In a society as riddled with domestic violence as ours, it is risky business to feed a mass audience the idea that the girl next door might be a whore, that the seductive adolescent perhaps wants a real man to hurt her (George 115). The consequences for the visions that Twin Peaks portrays is that it is acceptable for men to sexual abuse, hurt or even murder women, without any repercussions for their actions.

The desensitization of violence and sexual abuse directed towards women, by men, is not without its consequences. In the US a woman is battered every fifteen seconds. A rape is committed every six minutes. Three to four million women are beaten in their homes. Over half of the men in a survey of college students said they would rape a woman if they were certain they could get away with it. Furthermore, one out of eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme, and by age eighteen, the average American youth has watched 250,000 acts of violence on television (Ms. 33-58). In the case of Twin Peaks, the violence towards women is extremely excessive. What is almost more disturbing than the actual violence portrayed, is that according to the viewer polls, the majority of the loyal viewers of the series were adolescent males. The viewing of Twin Peaks requires loyalty (most viewers who missed several episodes stopped watching the series), and therefore requires the audience to condone the violence directed towards women. Could it be a possibility that the violence in Twin Peaks has affected the conscious of young male viewers and had desensitized them to the actions and plots shown in Twin Peaks?

Female sexuality is important to analyze when viewing Twin Peaks because it allows the audience to see both how women view themselves sexually, and how men view women sexually. The most apparent contrast of sexuality appears be between Laura and Maddy. Laura and Maddy seem to illustrate the familiar patriarchal division of women into virgins and whores: Maddy is chaste where Laura is wanton, solicitous of her relatives where Laura brought them only grief, and is considerate of the teenage friends Laura exploited (Desmet 100). This division reinforces to the male audience that they must see women as virgins or whores. The effect of this in society is that males will be less trusting and more prone to violence towards the women they see as whores, and to ignore the women they see as passive virgins.

Although the series depicts such horrible images of the different abuse towards women, it is not the intention to condone these actions, but rather, to show the viewers the reality and wrongdoings in American culture. As Dr. Jacoby says to Agent Cooper, The problems of our entire society are of a sexual nature. To some extent, this is true. Unfortunately, Twin Peaks is no exception to these problems. What s new about television exploiting our love affair with the interfaces of sex and death, or our hunger for seeing women dead or maimed, or mutilated, or suicidal or raped or helpless, especially if they are sexually active (George 110)? Twin Peaks feeds off of the lust of society to see women in these situations, which can be seen as simply a means to receive high viewer ratings (which it did).

There are few, if any, strong women in the town of Twin Peaks. The only strong women to exist are Nadine (who is only physically strong), Catherine, Denise, and Norma. All the others female characters are seen as weak and helpless, in need of a male character for support. Nadine, who after attempting suicide, becomes physically strong due to an excessive adrenaline production. She is, at this point, also insane, thinking she is eighteen years old and in high school. Even though she is strong, she is still treated as an object by high school student Mike, who only dates her for the sexual gratification that only a woman as strong as Nadine could offer.

Catherine is seen as strong and devious, but must hide behind the costume of a man, Tojimura, in order to fulfill her desires of power and money. This is very reminiscent of how women in society, especially in the workforce, are treated differently from men. Women not only still have trouble advancing in the business world, but are generally paid less then men. This may stem from the men in the workforce not taking women seriously enough as to listen to their ideas. Twin Peaks reinforces this fact by Catherine always falling short to Ben Horn, the important and powerful businessman, and owner of the most important commercial activities in Twin Peaks- Ghostwood Estates and the Great Northern Hotel. By showing this, Twin Peaks forces its audience to believe that women are inferior in regards to business matters.

Denise has the strongest female role in Twin Peaks, but it comes as no surprise that the character is a transvestite played by David Duchovny. When Cooper nearly dies at Jean Renault s hands, it is not Audrey, but Denise, the transvestite Drug Enforcement Agent, who comes to the rescue. The only good woman, it seems, is really a man (Desmet 103). This is one reason why Denise makes so many men uncomfortable. They do not know how to react to Denise- they want to treat her like they would to any other women, but cannot, because she possesses the essential male organs. The message that this portrays to the audience is a strong, but confusing one. In order for a woman to be strong, she must not be castrated from the penis (see section on the Man From Another Place and Cooper s judgment in the Black Lodge ). Denise can succeed in Twin Peaks because she has the physical and mental capacity of a man, and therefore the audience sees this as true in society.

Audrey is a very important character to understanding women in the series. Audrey provides an excellent example of what happens in Twin Peaks when the woman transgresses by taking over the male role (Kuzniar 122). When she tries to help solve Laura s murder by investigating the whorehouse, One-Eyed Jack s, she ends up being captured, and causes Cooper to be emerged in legal trouble for crossing the Canadian border to rescue her. By Audrey attempting to take over the traditional male role, there are disastrous consequences for both her and Cooper. Only men are presumed either to know or to be intellectually or intuitively equipped to find out what they do not yet know (Kuzniar 128). What this portrays to the viewer is that when a woman disobeys her traditional passive role, she not only fails, but also ends up bringing devastating consequences to herself and the people surrounding her.

Norma Jennings remains the only female character strong enough to resist the oppression that the male characters try to place on her. She begins the divorce process against her homicidal husband (who is arrested for parole violation before the divorce takes place), and further does not allow herself to be put into any positions where she will be forced to depend on a masculine character. Norma does, however, appear as a submissive female, working (but still owning) at the Double R diner. She only appears to the audience in her blue work uniform, which resembles that of a maid (the quintessential model of a submissive female). So even the only real strong female character still appears as submissive, serving food to and cleaning up after the hungry men of Twin Peaks. Norma s character shows that the only way for a woman to succeed in society is to put up the fa ade that she is ready to kneel down and serve those possessing the male role.

Twin Peaks offers its own viewpoint on the masculine, as well as the masculine reaction to the feminine. The male characters in the series almost always have the same social outlooks on what is masculine and what is feminine. Men are thought to be chivalrous, strong, dominating- both socially and sexually-, and destructive. Women appear to be submissive, weak, viewed as objects, and appear almost evil. These points play an important role in the developments of the series and the characters (or lack there of).

BOB, who appears as a representative of the masculine in society, treats his women as objects, rather than people. He kills women without any hesitation or remorse. By planting the letters of his name under the fingernails of his adolescent victims, BOB brands them as his property even as he violates them (Desmet 102). This idea of women as property is not uncommon in American society. In a more realistic fashion, Leo also treats his wife Shelly as property rather than a spouse, which allows him to remove from himself any idea that Shelly is a person, and therefore can view her as an object. Leo constantly beats Shelly whenever his is angry about anything and diminishes her self-esteem by yelling and insulting her. Shelly herself appears weak when she finally garners the courage to finally shoot Leo. She takes one non-fatal shot at him, hitting him in the shoulder, then instantly bursts into tears, feeling an immediate remorse for her actions. When Leo realizes Shelly betrayed him by shooting him and having an affair with Bobby, he tries to kill her in the fire at the Packard Mill. BOB, Leo, and others all treat women as objects, symbolically showing them as representatives of masculinity in American culture. The damage of feeding such images on national television is that the audience would believe that these actions and ideas are okay, as there are few repercussions for these beliefs (both on television as well as in society).

The men of the Twin Peaks almost always think of the female characters as evil, whether it is symbolic or literal. Many aspects of the show can be viewed as a battle of good and evil- men representing the good, and women representing the evil, especially when regarding the conflicts between the Black Lodge and the White Lodge. Agent Cooper, Sheriff Truman, and The Bookhouse Boys, all are the masculine fighting the evil, which is feminine. The evil that the Bookhouse Boys and their fathers have fought for generations is woman herself. The owl, emblem of what lies hidden in the woods, is the bird of Athena, the female goddess of wisdom The war waged against the timeless evil lurking in the Northwest woods is entrusted to masculine fraternities: The Bookhouse Boys, the Sheriff and his deputies, and in Major Brigg s case, the army (Desmet 103). The message that Major Briggs delivers to Cooper, the owls are not what they seem, can be seen as a warning from the male patriarchy to resist female power- basically telling Cooper that he must not submit to female dominance, or he will be defeated. This message comes strongly into play at the end of the series during Cooper s judgment in the Black Lodge.

One main flaw in Cooper s judgment is his lack of understanding that he does not need to protect women, which eventually leads to his fall. Stoically offering his soul in return for Annie s safety, Cooper engages Windom Earle in a masculine psychomania, so that he is finally undone by his chivalrous code of honor and by the patriarchy s drive to destroy, rather than accommodate the feminine (Desmet 106). Rather than attempting to save himself as well as Annie, Cooper would rather become the martyr, than the actual protector. He offers his soul because he feels it is his duty as a man, rather than because he loves Annie. This may be the only redemption of the female portrayal in Twin Peaks- where part of Cooper s failure is based on the fact that he refuses the accommodation of women- however his failure is still due to a woman, as he would never have be put in that situation if Annie had not allowed herself to be captured by Windom Earle. The message of this aspect of the series is that although Cooper failed in the correct role towards women, it is still a woman s weakness that helped destroyed him.

When Cooper faces the final judgment in the Black Lodge, he symbolically falls victim to the dominance of women. In the Black Lodge, there are several statues of women as well as images of the women in his life, all representative of what is happening in Cooper s judgment. The Lodge is also decorated in red drapes, which can symbolize the uterine lining of the maternal womb. In reference to the Venus de Milo, Cooper s trial takes place under the aegis of mutilated women, whose castration validates the Freudian myth of sexuality. When he discovers the wound in his side, the Venus de Milo disappears, suggesting that Cooper himself has now become a martyred castrated female saint (Desmet 106). By symbolically becoming female, Cooper ultimately is overcome by the evil of BOB and the Black Lodge, and therefore fails in his judgment. What this tells the audience is that Cooper s failure is due to the fact that he is now seen as a woman- and as already explained in Twin Peaks- it is impossible for a woman to obtain the mental or physical capacity to succeed. The male audience, who all like and respect Cooper s character, has now become even more contempful of women, who help cause Cooper s failure.

Cooper s final judgment and his dreams are closely related- especially regarding The Man From Another Place. The MFAP symbolically represents the penis and woman s sexual mutilation. The small, wiggling, dancing, rosy figure has clear phallic associations. To make the association clearer, the little man of Cooper s dreams frequently undulates in front of a Greek marble female nude, such that he is often framed with the statue s crotch behind his head (Nichimson 152). In another way, the MFAP can be seen as a castrated penis himself. As the audience finds out in the Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, that the MFAP confesses that he is The Arm, meaning the arm that MIKE, BOB s partner at the beginning of BOB s killing spree, had cut off, or castrated, from himself- which in turn separated MIKE from BOB when MIKE realized that the killing of women was wrong. The audience is supposed to view the castrated MIKE as a helpful heroic character, while the MFAP is seen as the judge of Cooper, and in turn, the judge of Cooper s manhood. This feeds the audience that the male judges of society (in this case, the MFAP) would not accept Cooper, as he has become the castrated female martyr, and is there condemned to fail, and in turn become possessed by BOB (the last shot in the series is Cooper staring into a mirror with BOB s face in the reflection- as Lelend saw himself months earlier).

The castration of women, in addition and relation to MIKE s, is also very important in the symbolism of female characters. The woman s lack of a penis, in other words, her presumed mutilation, externalizes and displaces the man s fear of insufficiency and insures him phallic wholeness (Kuzinar 122). This is another reason why the men of Twin Peaks view their women as objects as well as a means to relieve aggression. The men are allowed to feel that they do not have to respect or fear women, due to their lack of maleness. However, This disavowal and projection of castration explains but does not absolve the show s transgressivity toward women, which begins and ends with Laura Palmer (Kuzniar 122). This tells the audience that a woman is really just an incomplete man, and should be treated as that. This justifies to males the abuse of women, as they are weak and inferior due to their lack of body parts.

Twin Peaks takes a bold stance on the portrayal of women in the media as well as women in society. The images and plots shown almost always portray women in a negative light. The dangers of showing these images on national television are the ideas that are imposed to the audience in real life. Twin Peaks feeds the audience ideas that women are weak, incompetent, evil, insufficient, and often objects of a male dominated society. The audience is sucked into the world of Twin Peaks and therefore will take a similar stance on what is feminine and masculine in society. David Lynch said in 1989, I couldn t care less about changing the conventions of mainstream television. Unfortunatly this is true. Lynch did not change, or want to change, the way that women are portrayed in television, and it is this kind of ignorance in our society that lets the desensitization of violence and scorn toward women continue in our mass media.


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