This article is part of a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers, artists, and musicians who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show Twin Peaks. To read more, or to learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.
The mountain that appears behind the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign in the show’s title sequence is in fact a real topographical feature, not a facade or even a composite image. The real “Twin Peaks” are Mt Si and Little Si, two of the most popular hiking areas in Washington’s King County. The gender parity on the trails is pretty impressive, even for the outdoor-recreation oriented Pacific Northwest. You are as likely to see groups of women in Lululemon as you are to see Boy Scout troops and families being dragged along by multiple purebred dogs.
Both the fictional wilderness of Twin Peaks and the real wilderness near my home are, without a doubt, male dominated, but progressive Seattle is working to lessen this gender parity. The REI flagship store – a sprawling complex complete with indoor bike paths and a climbing wall a few minutes from my downtown office – hosts climbing, backpacking and mountain bike classes just for women. There is a concerted effort to get women into the wild. Multiple regional nonprofits like the Washington Trails Association and Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust also have programs with this end in mind.
The popular trails 40 minutes from Seattle continue to play a significant role in getting urban women outside. These are safe, friendly spaces transformed into something abjectly unfriendly in Twin Peaks. Though the series’ iconic peaks reside in Western Washington, it would make the most sense politically and geographically to assume that the series itself is meant to be set on the Eastern side of the state.
In the pilot episode, abusive trucker Leo Johnson calls his teenage bride from the road (allegedly from Butte, Montana) and abruptly shows up in the driveway the following morning. He would not have been able to make it from Montana to Twin Peaks as quickly as he did if the town were west of the Cascades. David Lynch has also said that the town was somewhat based on Missoula, Montana, which shares a topography more similar to the right side of Washington than the left.
That level of specificity may seem nitpicky, but the east/west distinction is essential to understanding Washington’s political identity. Western Washington is liberal, the land of Microsoft, Boeing and multiple national parks. Eastern Washington is rural, mostly conservative, its industry is the land.
In Seattle when I go to Planned Parenthood for a pap smear, the street is quiet even though it sits fewer than three blocks from a Baptist church. Whereas, when I went to Spokane’s Planned Parenthood clinic to get birth control in high school, there were almost always a few protesters outside the clinic. It also seems worth noting that 80 percent of these protesters were men. My sample size is too small to be statistically significant, but I think taking note of this is important in considering the world in which Laura Palmer—the girl whose gruesome death sets the show’s plot in motion—was raised. In the conservative town of Twin Peaks, Laura probably would not have had access the necessary tools for healthy sexual exploration or for help as the victim of incest.
Within the world of Twin Peaks, we are not shown a single truly safe female space. Even the Double R diner, arguably the most feminist space in the show, is infiltrated by a male force. In the show’s sixth episode, Norma’s husband, Hank, is released from prison and quickly infiltrates the business that Norma has controlled so well on her own. In episode seven of season two when Agent Cooper’s boss, Gordon Cole, comes to town, he too invades the space in a way, even if his intentions are significantly more benevolent than Hank’s. Physically, he takes up a lot of space by ordering enough pie to fill up an entire table; he speaks loudly to the point that he can’t be ignored; and he actively makes advances toward Shelley, one of the diner’s waitresses, in her place of work.
On the other side of town, we have Josie and Catherine caught in a fight to win control over a milling company that makes its profit on taming wilderness through logging, but also has a vested stake in preserving it in perpetuity. The end goal is one of balance, in the crudest sense, a perfect cycle of destruction and regrowth, but because feminized space comes at such a premium in Twin Peaks, there is not room for two benevolent queens of the woods.
The show’s mill subplot is the one I find most symbolically rich. Even today, the timber industry is largely male dominated and part of a long history of man’s desire to tame the unruly natural world. There is a reason nature is so often feminized in art created by men. In the romance languages, nature/natura is a feminine noun. The wilds, like women, are imagined as unknowable – but conquerable – to men. And to maintain this ownership, men in power are invested in keeping women out of this volatile space. It can be seen in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, early American stories of the frontier, the Wild West, seafaring stories, and more.
The backstory is that Catherine’s brother Andrew was the owner of the mill before his untimely death and, though Catherine had been helping him run the mill to great success it was left to his young wife, Josie. Josie also possesses a certain amount of business savvy but there is not enough space for them to run the mill collaboratively.
Catherine and Josie are thus oppositional forces, each trying to take control of the family business, whose employees are mostly men. Through an elaborate double cross, the town’s business mogul, Benjamin Horne, tries to take the mill and the surrounding forestland for himself by having Catherine killed and setting the mill on fire.
Catherine thwarts this plan by using the fire as a sort of rebirth, seemingly feminizing the woodland on which the mill depends. Notably, to truly regain her power she has to first disguise herself as a man (in a fairly troubling case of yellow face in what was otherwise a diversely cast show for the early 90s).
Statistically speaking, women are probably safer in the woods than in the city. The numbers are lopsided even if we ignore gender of victims of accidents in nature. An average of two bear attacks occur in the US annually, 113 mountaineering accidents, and 80-90 fatal hunting accidents. Considering that there are more than 237,000 cases of sexual assault in the US each year, you’re safer in the woods than in a bar, on the street, or in a romantic relationship.
As Cheryl Strayed recounts in Wild, her memoir of spending months alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, she was only preyed on once despite encountering many men along the way. This is not to minimize her experience, only to say that I prefer my odds alone in a wilderness area over my odds alone in an urban environment, especially if alcohol is present. Still, men are out to convince women that a fear of the woods is warranted. “Sweetness and light cannot quite maintain their power in the face of this other reality below the garden, the flowers, the picket fence – or ‘out there’ in ‘these old woods’ of Twin Peaks,” Diana Hume George writes in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks.
In this way, the picket-fenced suburban home of Laura Palmer is the most overtly masculine space in the show. For all the lace doilies and pink wallpaper, the Palmer home is ruled by a quietly tyrannical man. The fence is there explicitly for the purpose of control, to keep the wilds out and the carefully manicured yard contained.
The women in Twin Peaks just can’t catch a break. The town, the school, the diner, the mill, the woods are all overrun with men. Laura Palmer was at home neither with people or the woods and she proved to her father that she did not fit in the container he created, so she was eliminated.
David Lynch has been criticized for his portrayal of violence against women. He is working in a tradition where the dead and/or maimed female body is sexualized. But there is plenty of evidence within Twin Peaks to show he is working with this tradition in a manner that exposes rather than emboldens it.
For the most part, we see the terrible aftermath of violence instead of the violence itself. Above all, we are made to understand that the danger in Twin Peaks is that there is almost a total lack of feminine space. More often than not, what little feminine-controlled space is available leaves women in competition, putting them in the role of the ruler or usurper.
I keep returning to the images of Laura Palmer outside: the video James takes of her on the mountain trail, his description of how she fled to the woods on the night of her death. I have never been made to feel unsafe in my home, nor have I ever trafficked drugs or done cocaine, but I identify at least a bit with Laura’s impulse to keep her secrets close to her chest, to try to find a safe space under a canopy of Douglas firs.
I tell my therapist that I would rather go hiking than to a party because nature’s variables are easier to prepare for than the variables of people. I am incredibly clumsy person, the kind who trips on flat sidewalk, but my best friend says I am more sure-footed on the trail. My social anxiety can get in the way of relationships, but at least I am permitted space outside.
The last time I went hiking on Mt. Si was with my husband and a pair of married friends. The pair of us women walked faster than the men and were sometimes separated from them. We passed through stretches of trail where she and I were the only women in sight and crossed paths with all-male groups of hikers who nodded and smiled hello as they went down the mountain and we went up. There was no implied threat despite of the fact that the pair of us have an average height of 5’ 3” and were not even armed with bear spray.
When we stopped to wait for our men, it wasn’t because we felt unsafe without them, only out of a slight annoyance that they might delay our picnic lunch on the summit. Mt. Si felt like a safe space—nothing like the wilderness that features heavily in the plot of Twin Peaks.
Frances Chiem (née Dinger) is a writer of fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in Fanzine, Small Doggies Magazine, and the Best of Alt Lit, among other places. She works in environmental advocacy and is also a co-organizer of the APRIL Festival, an annual event celebrating independent literature held in Seattle during the last week of March. She tweets @f_e_chiem.