How ‘Twin Peaks’ Explores Toxic Masculinity and Male Violence Using the Supernatural
“Maybe it's the evil that men do”.
The first time I watched Twin Peaks, I was a teenager. When I saw it, I was immediately wrapped up by its campy, dark, and kitsch take on a tried-and-true murder mystery plot. A lot of it I didn’t really understand at the time: I’d find myself thinking “it’s made by Lynch/Frost Productions, of course it’s confusing”. In all fairness, I wasn’t totally wrong - some of the layers of imagery and allusions I’m still completely none-the-wiser to, even as an adult. When I re-watched it last year with adult eyes, the main things that hit me were the ways it explored masculinity, in all of its fragmented glory, and the way it dug into the topics of abuse and generational trauma.
I appreciate that it’s not exactly a fucking galaxy-brain moment to notice “hey, the show about a tragically murdered young girl is about male violence, masculinity, and trauma” - but a lot of the nuances had been missed on my younger self. I was a child, watching for the corny horror factor and the quirky characters. It was way before I came out, transitioned socially, and spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out what it means to be a “man” in the world while causing as little harm as possible. Seeing the show again, start to finish, as someone trying to navigate manhood felt like a hugely introspective moment for me.
The Answer to "Who Killed Laura Palmer" is "Everyone"
To recap quickly, collaborators David Lynch and Mark Frost constructed a complex and enthralling world following the case of the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Throughout the series, FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) unpicks the circumstances surrounding Laura’s death, while also unfurling the pacific north-western town’s litany of secrets. Inevitably, as with anywhere in the world (fictional or otherwise), gender politics and male violence are wrapped up among the town’s mysteries. The hidden meanings and themes of Twin Peaks have been debated extensively among fans, critics, and scholars since the show aired in 1990.
Initially, it seems like a huge shock that Laura has been murdered. She was the homecoming queen, she volunteered for charity, she had loads of friends, she was the living heart of the town. Everyone loved her, so surely no one would want to hurt her, right? Right. As the series goes on, it becomes bracingly clear that actually, the vast majority of the town took two sides in Laura’s life: they mistreated her, or they looked away while it happened. While not exclusively, the vast majority of the people who fall into that first camp were the men of Twin Peaks.
Several different men look like they could be implicated in Laura’s murder: Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe), violent trucker and drug dealer; Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), disgraced psychiatrist; Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), sleazy businessman and illicit entrepreneur. In a way, almost every man in that town was instrumental to Laura’s mistreatment throughout life, and her tragic death. However, it is ultimately uncovered that Laura’s killer was her seemingly devastated father and respected solicitor, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise). More specifically, it seems that Leland had been possessed by a malicious spirit known as ‘BOB’ (Frank Silva). BOB seemed to use Leland as a vessel through which to abuse and murder Laura in her final days.
Is BOB an Allegory, or an Excuse?
The omnipresent, malevolent being BOB can act as an allegory for male violence and toxic masculinity. BOB appears to only be able to embody men. Leland reveals that he let BOB into himself as a little boy when he did not know any better, and that he has not been able to rid himself of the spirit since then: “When he was inside, I didn’t know.” The gender roles we are socialised into, including toxic masculinity, tend to be learnt subconsciously throughout childhood. Laura, on the other hand, did not let BOB in because she was too “strong”, Leland reveals. Sometimes the men one expects to be ‘nice’ are equally dangerous and violent as those one expects to be ‘bad’; at least in part due to being tangled up in toxic masculinity. Although Leland struck the final blow, it could be argued that all men killed Laura Palmer; there is a paper trail of mistreatment spread out between many men throughout the pacific north-west – when allowed to run free, the consequences of unchecked toxic masculinity can be all-encompassing.
However, it is possible that BOB creates the perfect scapegoat for the good, or morally mediocre, men of Twin Peaks to dismiss the issue of male violence among their community with. Women are persistently tormented by men throughout the series; by their husbands, fathers, and friends. Male violence ends up shaping and shaking the whole community. Many of these men are not possessed by BOB – when Leo tries to murder Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), or Hank Jennings (Chris Mulkey) hurts Jocelyn Packard (Joan Chen), BOB is nowhere to be seen. BOB could be the essence of toxic masculinity and male violence – or it could be convenient to blame the violent actions of bad men on BOB without holding them truly accountable.
In the scene after Leland’s confession, a conversation between four disparate men outside of the Sheriff’s Department debates the plausibility of BOB’s existence: were Leland’s horrifying actions the consequence of his own issues, or were they driven by a darker force? The men cannot come to a unified conclusion, with Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) seeming particularly perturbed by the idea that this was not simply an example of a bad man, doing bad things. Cooper poses the question: Which is easier to believe – that BOB exists, or “that a man would rape and murder his own daughter?” BOB acting as a figurehead for male violence just makes it altogether too comfortable to shift the blame from the specific perpetrator themselves onto something else. It’s reminiscent of the idea that “boys will be boys”, or that men will inevitably become harmful beings - a deterministic excuse for male violence and abuse under a patriarchal system.
Men Need to Call Out Other Men
Ultimately, during this conversation, BOB’s presence is speculated as being “the evil that men do” by FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) – or, the embodiment of male violence and toxic masculinity. Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davies) raises the point that the cause of the violence brought about by BOB may not be important to address; purely the fact that it exists is shocking enough. Cooper rejects this idea, stating that it is important to address the root cause of BOB, because it is “our job to stop it”. This underlines the importance of the theme of unpicking and untangling toxic masculinity throughout the show - starting with men addressing their own kind.
Male community, such as the Bookhouse Boys, is instrumental to finding justice in Twin Peaks. Breaking down barriers around intimacy and affection with other men inherently diverges from toxic masculinity, and so this sense of comradery may in fact be fundamental to weakening BOB’s power. Even during the scene in which Leland confesses, Cooper and Harry attempt to comfort Leland using verbal reassurance and physical affection. It’s at this point when BOB leaves Leland’s body, rendering Leland a sobbing mess on the cell floor. Additionally, this scene seems to underpin the notion that as men, it is crucial to handle violence and toxicity, or that it will tear apart both the lives of women and the wider community, like it did in the case of the Palmer family. In the words of Jenny Holzer, “abuse of power comes as no surprise”, and it is critical that this power imbalance is dealt with from within to intercept and prevent abuse – whether BOB is at the root of the abuse or not.
The person who is brought in to head the investigation of Laura’s murder is Agent Dale Cooper. From the jump, the audience sees Cooper as an outsider to the often highly macho and traditional men of the town of Twin Peaks: he is gentle and enthusiastic in his behaviour, speaks fluently and extensively, and presents in a somewhat effete manner. While these traits and toxic masculinity are in no way diametrically opposed from one another, they do create a sharp contrast from many of the ‘manly men’ we sometimes come across in the fictional Washingtonian town. This alternate take on masculinity that Cooper performs means that it is perhaps little surprise that he is also the one who is chosen to see through the multiple dimensions and decode the mystery of Laura Palmer.
Many of the clues that Cooper obtains in regards to the case are from visions and intuitions. Because of this, it could be said that he has abilities relating to Extra Sensory Perception (ESP). ESP, as a trope, has a tendency to be somewhat more prevalent in women characters, suggesting that it is a “feminine trait”. Of course, the idea of gendering tropes - or magical powers, for fuck’s sake - seems ridiculous, but in a town full of burgeoning macho behaviours and toxic men, it’s difficult not to see the intuitive, empathetic touch that Cooper has as being at least a little non-conformist. Traditional gender roles within a patriarchy pertain to the fact that men are expected to be coldly logical and analytical, while women are anticipated to be driven by emotions or feelings: it is this emotive, or even feminine, power that Cooper taps into that eventually unlocks Laura Palmer’s case.
During shots wherein Cooper has visions, he is presented in soft, warm lighting. Typically this kind of soft-focus is saved in cinema for 1940s and 1950s actresses to portray them as beautiful, feminine, and desirable. Cooper is given the starlet treatment every time that he’s visited by the Giant (Carel Struycken), where he receives guidance on the investigation. In a sense, Cooper is bathed in this ‘womanly light’, allowing him to see through the smoke and mirrors of male violence and abuse. During Episode 17 (Arbitrary Law), Cooper is visited by the Giant again, after forming a circle out of an assortment of men in the Roadhouse to divine who the murderer is. During this event, no one else in the room appeared to be able to see Cooper’s vision: Cooper is, in some way, set apart from other men.
Is it Enough?
In the heart wrenching end of season two, Cooper seemingly enters the Black Lodge. When he leaves, he isn’t the same: he’s been taken over, or reconstructed entirely, with BOB’s energy. Ultimately, this alternative manhood that Cooper appears to have been presenting as wasn’t enough to escape the all-encompassing damage of toxic masculinity. How could it be? It’s a structure we’re all socialised into; as with all other systemic injustices and inequalities. Without consistent, deliberate efforts, we can’t escape this socialisation. It takes constant unpicking and work to become a “good man”. It’s an ongoing process.
Cooper’s fatal flaw was that he wouldn’t unpick and unpack his own toxic masculinity - instead it was brushed away and swept over by his eccentricities, by his own diversionary masculinity. This failure to manage his issues, his white knight complex, his repressed feelings - these factors all meant that he ultimately became another perpetrator; another cog in the wheel in the endless cycle of male violence. Sometimes, being a “good man” is not enough. We, as men, can only prevent harm through unpicking our own internalised bullshit, alongside calling out harm within our own circles. It’s on us now.
The ideas explored here are all presented with the caveat that Twin Peaks is, in no way, perfect. It is a deeply flawed, and often offensive programme, laden with pitfalls in both its storytelling and its attempts at social commentary. I also want to firmly establish that I'm not making the argument that it's a perfect representation of abuse, masculinity, feminism, gender politics, or in fact anything else. But, revisiting the tiny fictional town of Twin Peaks for the first time since telling the world I'm a man made for a remarkable experience, completely shaping my enjoyment of the show and thoughts and feelings towards the themes of the show.
Re-watching the show post-coming out laid my fears about becoming a man, about the harm I could inadvertently extenuate, about my changing place in society completely bare in front of me; as naked as the day we were born. It isn't enough to just be a "good" man by rejecting overt acts of toxic masculinity: we have a responsibility to unpack our own bullshit, we have a responsibility to hold other people accountable within our communities, we have a responsibility reject the systems that enable injustices and abuse, of all kinds. We need to do better.
Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.