When Twin Peaks initially took television by storm in 1990, I was a fourteen-year-old classic horror nerd hell bent on consuming every bit of popular culture that seemed at odds with my conservative hometown. In other words, I was the ideal audience for David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surrealistic tale of murder and debauchery in a small town. And while I initially tuned into the series for Piper Laurie, I (and most of America) soon became obsessed with the tragic backstory of Laura Palmer, the Prom Queen whose sweet smile hid an array of dark and seedy secrets. Since I was myself on the cusp of entering high school in a small town, Laura’s story was instantly identifiable, even as it also possessed an air of otherness.
Over the years, I have periodically gone back and rewatched the series, and it holds up remarkably well. But on Sunday, a new chapter of Twin Peaks will be written when the lauded show returns for a 9 episode run on Showtime. But while I am excited about the prospect of revisiting old friends–and old fears–I’ve been somewhat take aback by a couple of merchandising decisions designed to accompany the show’s return.
If there has been one criticism that has plagued the Frost/Lynch saga, it is that Twin Peaks almost singlehandedly ushered in the dead-teen-girl-as-spectacle trope that now plagues network and premium television at an almost incomprehensible rate. But does the show truly deserve that criticism?
In terms of narrative, I’d argue no. But in terms of recent merchandising decisions? Maybe.
I recognize that my belief that Twin Peaks is not a legitimate example of female corpse exploitation is not a popular one. Many a think piece has been written on the show’s role of fetishizing Laura Palmer’s body[i], yet these writers often consider the issue as a singular moment instead of part of an overarching narrative. I’d argue that the iconic moment of the discovery of Laura’s body was never intended to exist in a vacuum, a point underscored by the appearance of Maddy Ferguson, Laura’s almost identical cousin. But before we get into that, it’s helpful to take a moment to understand why the adolescent female corpse trope is so deeply problematic.
The spectacle of a deceased teen girl is complicated for both its reflection of antiquated cultural gender norms and for its asserting the finality of a life that had yet to be truly lived.[ii] This trope not only deifies female passivity (corpses are often shown being manipulated by law enforcement, usually men) but it also subtextually elevates the notion of young women as inherently more pristine (lingering camera shots on unblemished skin). Compounding the issue is that these bodies, almost without exception, are white.
Without question, the initial framing of Laura Palmer’s corpse reflects all the factors listed above. The camera lingers on her pale, white skin as multiple men touch and handle the body. Sarah Marshall pointedly referred to the moment in which Laura’s face is first seen as a local man lifts the plastic in which her body has been encased as being akin to a man lifting the veil on a virginal bride. It’s a legitimate comparison as the sterility of the body combined with the peaceful frozenness of Laura’s face work together to convey a calculated innocence. So in that moment, yes, the series is guilty of romanticizing the young form of a deceased female. But people often forget that Laura’s death is bookended by Maddy’s death seven months later[iii] and that ultimately makes all the difference in how the narrative is read.
Through Maddy’s death, we get to experience the moments leading to Laura’s death. In a sequence that is still shocking for its unflinching violence, the BOB possessed Leland bludgeons Maddy to death while calling her by Laura’s name. Prior to this moment, Maddy existed largely as Laura’s surrogate. Played by the same actress, Maddy was the viewer’s chance to experience life somewhat through Laura’s eyes, with one exception. Whereas Laura conveyed an innocence that was at odds with her hidden drug use and promiscuity, Maddy was truly the happy teen Laura could have been had BOB not entered her life. It is that dichotomy that makes Maddie’s death scene all the more interesting.
In stark contrast to the peaceful yet sterile shot of Laura’s face which marked the beginning of the series, Maddy’s face is shown bruised and bloodied. Laura, the perceived bad girl, is shown as the cleansed body while good girl Maddy is the one whose body is left visibly marred. A comparison of these two shots offers some pretty subversive commentary regarding cultural attitudes toward adolescent female sexuality and agency. As bookends of the good girl/bad girl categorization often applied to teen females, the fact that neither incarnation is able to escape male violence is pointed.
It should also be noted that we also get a visual representation of Maddy’s body after the fact when she is discovered, just like Laura, wrapped in plastic on a riverbed. Yet, this time when the plastic is pulled back, the image presented is not one of ethereal beauty but one of a body covered in bruises and grime. It’s a profound moment that really forces the audience to engage in their own culpability regarding their enjoyment of Laura’s murder and the subsequent investigation.
Perhaps it’s that complexity of narrative that makes the recent merchandising decisions all the more head scratching to me. Previous merchandise, such as The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by Jennifer Lynch, attempted to give Laura her own autonomy by allowing the events that informed the series to be told through Laura’s eyes. The 20th Anniversary Blu-Ray set used cover art that fused images of the living Laura with those of the deceased Laura to present a more complete characterization.
But Funko’s release of a deceased Laura wrapped in plastic as both a POP and as an action figure undoes a lot of the subversive quality of the show’s narrative. Yes, the image is an iconic one so in that respect Funko’s decision to capitalize on it makes a lot of sense. But it also marginalizes Laura by depicting her as just an idealized and pristine figure, something the show’s narrative attempts to counter at every turn.
Ultimately, the new episodes will inform how Twin Peaks is remembered by a new generation. But for this fan, the true beauty of the Frost/Lynch drama resides in how the show brought surrealistic horror into the homes of unexpecting middle America and forced them to confront the darkness that often lingers beneath polite society. I can only hope, merchandising aside, that the new episodes maintain that level of artistic integrity and social commentary.
[i] Some of my favorite pieces exploring this trope include:
Donahue, Anne T. “How Twin Peaks Gave the Beautiful Dead Girl Pop Culture Currency.” Esquire. May 15, 2017.
VanArendonk, Kathryn. “How 13 Reasons Why Twists the ‘Dead Girl’ Trope by Giving Her Control of the Story.” Vulture. March 31, 2017.
[ii] For an examination of this trope, see:
O’Sullivan, Jane. “Gals on the Slab: Fetishism, re-animation, and the dead female body.” Social Semiotics 6:2 1996, 231-246.
Pedersen, Anne Bettina. “Laura Palmer: A Monstrosity of Multiple Meanings.” Inter-Disciplinary.net.
[iii] This seven month time frame references the time span from when viewers first saw Laura’s body (April 8, 1990) from when they saw Maddy murdered (November 10, 1990).