There’s a moment in the new season of “Twin Peaks” where it becomes clear that after more than three decades making movies and TV, David Lynch still has a prominent male gaze.
The iconic director and writer — known for surreal, small town soap opera “Twin Peaks” as well as films like “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” — has been the subject of criticism for years about his treatment of women onscreen. While he has created some of the most memorable female characters, they often become the subjects of voyeurism and also assault.
It happens early in the new Showtime series, in Part One, where we see young lovers Tracy (Madeline Zima) and Sam (Benjamin Rosenfield) begin a sexual encounter. The two sit awkwardly on a couch in between two dim lamps before the tension becomes too much. They start making out before Tracy stands up and starts removing her clothes.
Lynch chooses to frame this from Sam’s point of view, keeping the camera steady on his body and face as he watches his partner. Tracy, on the other hand, is placed with her back towards the camera, her face completely out of view. She’s positioned on the right side of the screen with only her lower back, buttocks and upper legs showing. As she slowly undresses, we see Sam’s eyes widen as Lynch offers a direct view of Tracy’s bare behind. This is the last we see of her before she is — spoiler — torn to pieces by what appears to be an extra-dimensional monster. Incidentally, Sam gets gruesomely bit up, too.
As “Twin Peaks: The Return” ramps up, we see that Lynch’s habit of killing women in horrific ways hasn’t gone away: Ruth Davenport, a woman from a small South Dakota town, is discovered to have been brutally murdered in her home, the killer having done away with her body but leaving her head.
Lynch isn’t horrible to women, exactly. While he revels in the physical torture of them, his female characters are some of his most complex. Take “Fire Walk With Me,” which puts Laura Palmer in control of her own story. In the original “Twin Peaks” series, Laura is no more than a body. Sheryl Lee — a woman who had never acted before being cast as the murdered teen — was only supposed to be an image wrapped in plastic. However, with “Fire Walk With Me,” she becomes the focus and we as the audience are finally able to bear witness to her trauma at the hands of Bob as well as her tragic death. You get to know her outside of how other people define her and that’s more than anything the original series presented.
However, before she got her redemption in a feature film, Laura was nothing but a symbol — the girl wrapped in plastic and covered in dirt. She was somebody that was a friend, a lover, or an ethereal icon — not a person. It was Sheryl Lee‘s performance that boosted her character, along with the natural evolution of the series.
The women in Lynch’s works are often the subject of brutal violence. In “Blue Velvet,” one of the main female characters is Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), who, in order to save her son and husband, subjects herself to the masochistic end of a non-consensual relationship with the man who kidnapped them: Frank (Dennis Hopper). She’s a tragic figure on both ends of the story — both the victim of a sexual deviant with an oedipal complex and the aggressive perpetrator to the protagonist, Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan). Her entire being is comprised of her relationship with sex and how men would only want to have sex with her, even if Lynch himself sees it as how a person would go to any length to protect her family.
Like many Lynchian women — from Lula in “Wild at Heart” to the multiple women in “Mulholland Drive” — Dorothy is a puzzle. On one hand, Dorothy is a victim of desperation and an avatar for Lynch to explore those motivations. On the other, she’s still a victim and becomes an object for the director to explore his knack for showcasing disturbing but unique violence.
Lynch guides his audience to explore their own voyeurism. He has said this over the years, admitting to some of this behavior himself, and it’s easy to see the running theme throughout his works.
“I’m convinced we all are voyeurs,” he said in a 1997 interview. “It’s part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows. And not in a way that we would use to hurt anyone.”
However, Lynch has also said in interviews that there’s something about the desecration of the female form and of women that intrigues him.
In response to a 1997 ClearBlue commercial that he directed (yeah that happened), he was asked his reasoning for signing on.
According to an Entertainment Weekly article, copywriter Lisa Mayer noted, “I said to him, ‘Mr. Lynch, you were attracted to this because it involves the psychological torture of a beautiful young woman.’ And he said, ‘Yes.”‘
The issue with Lynch isn’t that he hates women. In the new series, he puts a capable Constance Talbot (Jane Adams) in charge of investigating a murder scene. He simultaneously focuses on the swaying hips of sultry FBI Agent Tamara Preston (Chrysta Bell) — and we have yet to understand if she has anything of substance to offer aside from her good looks.
(He also includes an exchange between Gordon Cole — played by Lynch himself — and his now-boss, transgender woman Denise, played by David Duchovny. The scene highlights her competency and her status as the boss of the entire FBI bureau.)
But there’s something Lynch finds so fascinating about exploring and destroying the female form that rings uncomfortable in 2017. When his work is filled with so many watchable and relatable female characters, it’s a shame that a lot of them are reduced to their most basic parts.