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The Evil that Men Do: on being a woman watching (true) detectives

Today marks the end of Meanwhile, the 25-year period that, according to Twin Peaks lore, Special Agent Dale Cooper has waited in the Black Lodge for Laura Palmer to return and end his torment.

(Spoilers.)

I have a special relationship with Twin Peaks. 25 years ago, my parents had just moved to a split-level house in a small town on unincorporated county land in Western Washington, not far from where the series was filmed. The countertops were orange, the linoleum was yellow, and the carpet looked like someone had skinned the Snuffalupagus to make it. Much like the Double R Diner, there was faux wood panelling everywhere. Being as I was five or six, I wasn’t watching the show. Instead, I watched news of the Green River Killer, who remained active as a serial murderer of women until I graduated high school. I also had the soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti, because someone had given one of my parents a cassette. I have strong memories of walking home from middle school in the rain, tricking the thermostat into coming on with a sack of frozen peas, stripping my wet jeans off and waiting for my mom to come home from work as I listened to this tape with my cold feet clinging to the vent under my desk. I remember keenly the first time I heard that big key change in “Into the Night” — how scary that sharp, sudden sound was. And I remember thinking that those moody, creepy, jazzy tones were exactly what the green and grey world outside my window sounded like. And that, eventually, this was also how adulthood would sound. Slow. Wet. Dark. Isn’t this music just too dreamy?

I didn’t actually watch any of the series until later, when my university friends and I went through our inevitable David Lynch phase and watched a torrented edition of Fire Walk With Me on a 17″ monitor perched atop an old Amazon delivery box. (That’s the most 21st-century sentence I’ve ever written, by the way. That one, right there.) It gave me that usual David Lynch frisson: something terrifying was always hiding just off the edge of the frame, waiting to grab you. Especially if you were a girl.

As a little girl, I was fascinated by very dark stories about women in trouble. I didn’t go outside. I stayed in, and watched Rear Window, and Vertigo, and occasionally North by Northwest. (When I was little, I knew I wasn’t pretty simply because I don’t look like the type of woman Alfred Hitchcock would trap in a predatory contract. Later, I learned all the other reasons.) I read a lot of Stephen King. Once this other girl got me in trouble for it and got my copy of The Shining taken away by the playground monitor. Then I started watching The X-Files, and later Millennium. They were made in Vancouver, about four hours away. The climate was still the same, and so was the light, which meant all those shows about dead kids in the woods looked like they’d been shot in the greenbelt at the end of my cul-de-sac. I read a lot of Sebastien Japrisot: The Lady in the Car with Glasses and A Gun; A Trap for Cinderella. One weekend at my uncle’s old double-wide on Puget Sound, I read The Silence of the Lambs. Mom had never allowed me to see the film, but I was three-quarters of the way through the novel before she noticed, and by then Miggs had already flung cum on Clarice’s hair.

When I finally did watch the film, it was a revelation. Here was this perfect film, basically, complete unto itself in the way that Casablanca is, about a woman who succeeds in her transformation from student to master in the way her enemy — a man who kills women so he can become one — fails to do. The film makes sure you notice this, by including a shot of a hanging ornament with a butterfly on it after Clarice succeeds in her quest — Buffalo Bill might have kept all those Death’s Head moths, and loved them, but Clarice is the one who actually emerges from her chrysalis. The Silence of the Lambs is the perfect psycho-horror kung-fu movie: everything is there, from the training montage to the teacher who speaks in riddles to the faithful friend. It’s what would happen if you made Star Wars: A New Hope about a young woman raised not in the desolation of Tattoine, but the deprivation of West Virginia. I watched it as obsessively as I had once watched the Star Wars movies, and the Hitchcock ones. AMC ran it a lot.

In 2012, I got my wallet and passport stolen in San Francisco. It included my permanent residency card. Without that card, I couldn’t come home to Canada. So I took a 12-hour Greyhound trip to Los Angeles, where my roommate from university lives. (“You took The Dog?” another traveller asked me, when I told this story. Yes. I took The Dog. I took the dog with a couple of Australian girls and a guy kicking my chair and blaring Nordic speed metal. On my period. In heels. Bring your worst, assholes.) When we got to her amazing place in Larchmont Village and the first thing I asked was, “Do you have a copy of The Silence of the Lambs? Because I want to watch it.” She didn’t, she said. “But I have Dragon Tattoo. The Fincher one. Do you want to watch that?”

I did. And then I wanted to watch it again, and again, and again. What people don’t know about TGWTDT is that it was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. It’s a story about misogyny. It’s a story in which misogynists are explicitly evil. They’re not misogynists because they’re evil. They’re evil because they’re misogynists.

When I got home to Canada, I started watching Twin Peaks. For the first time, I really started digging into it. I told myself that it was because on some level, I was homesick.  I wanted to look at a place that looked like home. (And it does, with that fog and those trees and every road slick with rain like loose spools of film.) But then I watched The Killing. And then Top of the Lake. And then The Fall. And then, eventually, True Detective. All stories about serial murderers. All stories about women in trouble. And as I watched, Company Town began taking shape in my mind.

Much has been written about how True Detective treated women. Almost as much as was written about whether or not it fucked up its finale. (That’s another post.) But what’s commonly left out of those analyses is the fact that for girls growing up, shows like it, and novels like the Millennium trilogy, and other pieces of media dealing with serial murderers of women, are what they are given instead of tales of heroism.

See, the representation of women in media breaks down this way: women don’t get a lot of adventure stories. They don’t get to be Indiana Jones or Batman or even Jim Rockford. They get to be Clarice Starling and Dana Scully and Olivia Dunham. For every single Ellen Ripley there are ten more Olivia Bensons. Women who have succeeded because they ironed their shirts and refused to show any feeling and got to the top of the class and got their shit together and didn’t fuck up, ever. Repressed women in trenchcoats with no families who get laid maybe once a year. That’s us.  That’s what we get. That’s as close as we get, in mainstream media, to having an adventure, unless we’re Katniss Everdeen — who’s really just a crack shot like Clarice. And shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are as close as we get to the truth: that the person most likely to rape you as a kid isn’t a stranger, it’s your dad.

Twin Peaks was the first show on American television to say this, explicitly. It made a lot of missteps, and it was awkward and zany and campy and soapy, but damn if it didn’t say something pretty basic about the long shadows cast by the upstanding men of small American towns.

So, if you’re a woman and you’re wondering about your allegiance to shows like True Detective, don’t. It may not be perfect. But it’s a representation of how the enemy thinks. And it’s the closest to a real heroine’s journey you might get. Until more stories are told.

Which reminds me. I have fiction to write.

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  1. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

     /  March 27, 2014

    Now you have me even more curious about COMPANY TOWN

  2. Alexa

     /  March 27, 2014

    I actually just finished Twin Peaks for the first time this week, kind of funny that that would coincide with the end of Meanwhile.
    Anyway, this is beautifully written, and I’m really excited about Company Town now.

  3. A thousand times yes. The stories that women get just kill me. I had a twitter meltdown awhile back about this. I saw a blurb about a UF series with a female lead character and it was some wacky hijinks, “Soandso gets in trouble on the way to the grocery store!” and I just got SO MAD. I had just finished the latest Harry Dresden novel. Harry stood at the gates of the universe and saw the end coming. UF_Heroine got in a fender bender at the grocery store and hijinks ensued. ARGH. NO. WHY. WHY can’t we save the world? Why do we have to be so fucking domestic? Why can’t we be Indiana Jones or Harry Dresden or Rust Cohle or even Hannibal Lector?

    Gah, I get all wound up on this topic. I’m tired of living in fictional worlds where women can be The Victim or The Frigid Bitch but never The Cocky Smuggler or The Swashbuckling Adventurer. Good on everyone who’s working to change that.

    • April Daniels

       /  March 30, 2014

      In my own writing, I’ve found that the solution to this problem is to deliberately fail the Reverse Bechdel: there can be more than one man in the story, but they’re not allowed to speak to each other about anything other than women, preferably women who are ether the heroes or the villains.

  4. Great post. TWIN PEAKS was one of the first shows that really proved to me what storytelling could do. Love it unconditionally, even the admittedly lesser second season. And I stand by this: the episode where you discover who killed Laura Palmer is the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen on television.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. You can buy her novels here. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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