A cross between a village idiot and an oracle, the Twin Peaks character cradling a piece of wood invites us to look beyond clichés of womanhood.
Text by Basje Boer
A man, Mister Antonio by name, finds a piece of firewood. The log, he thinks, might be suitable for fashioning a table leg. So he sets to work. But as soon as he plunges his axe into the log, he hears a small voice:“Ow, ow! You’re hurting me!” Mister Antonio is surprised, but he quickly decides that what he heard was pure fantasy. “It’s difficult,” he thinks, “when you have as much imagination as I do.” In the Disney version of Pinocchio (1940) it’s a fairy who brings the wooden puppet to life, but in this original story by Carlo Collodi of 1883 there is life in the log even before woodcarver Gepetto, who was given it by Mister Antonio, carves a puppet out of it. In this story it’s the wood itself that is magical.
The forests that surround the fictional town of Twin Peaks seem above all lucrative. In the series Twin Peaks (1990–1991), invented and created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, the trees are felled by lumberjacks, the timber is sawn in the local sawmill and the planks are used, among other things, to build the little town’s many log cabins. Twin Peaks, Lynch and Frost intend to imply, is an honest American town where honest Americans do honest work. But when a much-loved resident is murdered, it gradually becomes clear that something dark is lurking behind that wholesome facade — and that the lucrative woods are sinister too. Those first two seasons of Twin Peaks would acquire a sequel in the form of a film (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992) and later a miniseries was added (Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017), but the show would never again be as popular as it was in the 1990s. In its first two series, Twin Peaks was both funny and strange, both ironic and terrifying, with at the heart of it all a puzzle that cried out to be solved: who killed Laura Palmer?
The Log Lady was once married to a lumberjack, who was killed in a forest fire. Now she has only her log, which she takes everywhere with her. Was the Log Lady always like this, a cross between a village idiot and an oracle? Or did she get that way only after the death of her husband? With her serious expression and the log in her arms, the Log Lady is reminiscent of The Lunatic of Étretat, an oil painting from 1871 by French painter Hugues Merle. In his painting, Merle depicts a strange phenomenon, a woman with unkempt hair, the lunatic of the title, with a log in her arms. Might the log, which wears a small red bonnet, speak to her, as the log speaks to the Log Lady? Is the Log Lady, like her, a lunatic? Does the log say what it said to Mister Antonio — that you mustn’t hurt it? There is a difference between the woman in Merle’s painting and the Log Lady on the one hand and the story of Pinocchio on the other. The voice of Pinocchio was real. Mister Antonio was not alone in hearing the log speak; Gepetto and all those who came into contact with it heard it too. But the Log Lady is the only person who hears what the log in her arms has to say. She and the lunatic of Étretat are special, chosen. And there is another difference: Mister Antonio was scared to death by the voice that came out of his log, but the Log Lady is a badass.
A soap in the form of a nightmare, that’s the best way to describe the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. David Linch and Mark Frost serve up all kinds of sentimental clichés, especially about men and women, and turn them inside out. In the little American town of Twin Peaks, the women are innocent and the men want to save them. Or the men are violent and the women mad. So Twin Peaks is bursting with stereotypes: the sensitive rebel and the homecoming queen, the Nosy Parker and the bad boy. Lynch and Frost magnify the stereotypes into ironic caricatures. But at the same time they actually reinforce those stereotypes and repeat all kinds of clichés about female victimhood and male vigour.
The most poignant example of this is the character around whom Twin Peaks revolves: Laura Palmer. Laura is a dream of a teenage girl: helpful, popular, attractive, clever. When she is found in the water, stabbed to death, she leaves a gap in the community of which she is part. This is no ordinary girl; she is larger than life. Precisely the fact that she is dead lifts her above the everyday. After Twin Peaks this became a rehashed trope. The death (or disappearance) of a woman was the force that launched the storyline of many films and series. ‘Dead Girl Shows’, Alice Bolin calls those series in her essay collection Dead Girls (2018). The Dead Girl is always young and attractive, and usually white. The protagonist of the Dead Girl Show — generally a man — is active, while the Dead Girl is completely passive. She lives purely in the memories of those left behind and in the investigation that takes place into her death. She doesn’t speak for herself but is contemplated and examined. The Dead Girl is the ultimate object: a paragon of female passivity and a canvas onto which others project their ideas and feelings.
As a result, unintentionally, conservative notions creep into Twin Peaks. Extrapolating from Laura Palmer, a problematic magnification of the passive woman, you could say that the character of the Log Lady testifies to a bigoted view of the stereotype of the crazy lady. The Log Lady is, first of all, independent. She has no husband and is not a mother, a fact emphasized by the log that lies in her arms like a baby. Women like the Log Lady — childless, single, independent, old — have been regarded with suspicion for centuries, especially in small towns like Twin Peaks. Women like the Log Lady are always punished for their autonomy and mysteriousness. According to tradition, they were once marked out as witches. You can indeed see the Log Lady that way, as a witch. Whereupon the piece of wood in her arms also acquires a different significance — it might point to the broom we associate with witches, to a magic wand, or to the wooden spoons witches were said to use for their magic potions.