Alice's Academy

"That's Classified": Class Politics and Adolescence in Twin Peaks

Elizabeth Parsons

Elizabeth Parsons lectures in Children's Literature and Literary Studies at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. Her current research examining class dynamics in texts for children and young adults is part of a collaborative project with Clare Bradford, led by Elizabeth Bullen. Her research focus also includes the politics of risk society in children's texts and childhood resilience.

Airing on the ABC television network and running for two series in the early 1990s, Twin Peaks made playful fodder of all manner of American cultural icons and imperatives. The slow camera pan to a mounted deer head with the slogan "the buck stopped here" flags the comic significance of money, and it is bucks of the greenbacked variety that propel my reading of class politics as inflected by adolescent sexuality in the series. However, class, sex and age are tripartite functions of social location and, as Bourdieu says: "sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of a lemon is from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes...". He continues, "the true nature of a class or class fraction is expressed in its distribution by sex or age (qtd. in Lovell 20). These socio-cultural dynamics motivate my assessment of Twin Peaks and prevent the simpler concept of economic bucks from deflecting attention from the implications of age and gender in social mobility and the accrual of capital.

Twin Peaks arguably paved the way for the television programmes currently popular with adolescent audiences, like The OC and Veronica Mars, and it is therefore unsurprising that many of the issues and representational strategies in those later programmes have their earlier manifestation in Mark Frost and David Lynch's joint venture for television. Specifically, the Twin Peaks plotline evinces a set of cultural anxieties about class-difference, similar to those discussed by Bullen and Dudek in this issue of "Alice's Academy." Like both those later series, Twin Peaks creates a cultural microcosm of American society that is paradoxically writ large by the limited parameters of an isolated community. Within a constricted space, characters are depicted as both individuals and as archetypes of a class location.

The broad appeal of Twin Peaks across adult and adolescent (as well as alternative and mainstream) viewing audiences has produced a swathe of critical analyses of the programme addressing its semiotic landscape and postmodernist pretensions. However, my focus in this discussion is on the adolescent characters whose key roles in the story are perhaps the reason behind the cult teen following the series incited. Jonathon Rosenbaum claims the series is "characterized by the preoccupations of male adolescence" (presumably he means the sex, drugs, and violence) and that this adolescent perspective "makes the corruption of adults look fresh because it is viewed as if by someone who is innocent enough to be discovering corruption for the first time" (28). While his reading overlooks the longevity of the corruption experienced (and practiced) by central character Laura Palmer, his claims can be corroborated by the polarization of adolescents against adults that dominates Twin Peaks' narrative. Throughout the first season, there appears to be only adolescents and adults in the township. Children are an absent category, allowing for the viewers' gaze a virtually uninterrupted view of the interplay between two generational indices. Pre-adolescents, in fact, never figure in the main plot lines, namely those that directly engage the superhero-like FBI agent, Dale Cooper, and when they do appear, it is only in brief cameos.

In season two, the binary between adolescents and adults persists but is somewhat tempered by Donna Hayward's youngest sister who makes a brief cameo in episode 9 playing the piano, and a strange blonde boy (director David Lynch's real life son) whose magical ability to telepathically transport a pile of creamed corn (and whose instant disappearance) make him part of the series' supernatural space (episode 10). In addition to those minor exceptions, in episode 19 of the total of 22, the weekend foster child, Nicky, takes up a role in a subplot. However, given that he is figured as a pawn in a romantic battle between two men for the affections of the sheriff's secretary, Lucy, his own story is mainly subjugated to this function.

If Rosenbaum's contention about adolescents and corruption is accurate, his claim invites a close scrutiny of the plethora of teenaged characters as compared and contrasted to the adults in Twin Peaks. Drugs, violence, licentious or debasing sex, and extortion are shared equally across the two age categories so as to show precisely what the movement into adulthood will entail for the teenagers raised amid such malevolent forces and individuals. The editing that shifts the narrative between adult and adolescent plotlines is arguably precursive of the parallelism Bullen identifies in The OC. Similarly, where The OC uses the glossy surface of a wealthy and privileged community as its setting, in Twin Peaks, the visually stunning landscape of Washington State and an apparently wholesome small-town highlight the extent of the evil just under the attractive and innocent surface of this miniaturized America.

Although Tom O'Connor argues that the adolescents in Twin Peaks "embody cultural meanings that refuse ideological codification" (309), I wish to problematize his claim, particularly in the context of his reading of the programme as solely addressing what he interchangeably refers to as the bourgeois and middleclass myth. Like Diane Stevenson, whose work he references, O'Connor only names BOB, the force of evil personified, as "low-class" (318) presumably in response to BOB's denim-clad, long-haired, and unkempt appearance. This reading oversimplifies the question of BOB's class habitus because, as a supernatural entity who inhabits people and owls, and appears in visions, BOB's social location in any realist plain is obscured. Further, the realist characters of Twin Peaks do not present a singular and homogenous middle class location. The characterizations are ideologically codified (to address O'Connor's phrase) into a social hierarchy which shapes the power dynamics between people. O'Connor makes one reference to "the blue-collar and white-collar workers" (313) in the town, but his broad claim that Twin Peaks is simply an emblem of the bourgeois myth calls for a response.

To clarify the class positions deployed in the series, the middle class adolescents include: Laura Palmer, daughter of a lawyer; her best friend Donna Hayward, daughter of a doctor; Laura's boyfriend, Bobby Briggs, son of a decorated army major; and Laura's look-alike cousin, Maddy, who is middleclass by association (both visual and familial). Outside of this dominant group, there are local teens who exist in higher and lower classes. Where the middle-class families all have stay-at-home moms, James Hurley's single-mother is a dysfunctional alcoholic, which is presumably the reason he adopts the image (and machinery) of a leather-clad biker. He emblematises lower-class with options for upward mobility marked by sexual selection because he is first Laura's, then Donna's boyfriend and has flirtatious transactions with Maddy. James has much in common with The OC's Ryan and his relationship with Marissa in this respect (and Ryan's unmarried mother is also an alcoholic).

Shelley Johnson is almost 'trailer trash', to employ the slur she might encounter in the real world. She is married to a truck-driving criminal, Leo, who beats her and essentially enslaves her in an unfinished and ramshackle cabin on the outskirts of the town. As she says to Bobby, with whom she is having a secret affair, "does it look to you like Leo had any money?" gesturing at the abode with despair. In addition to doing Leo's laundry in a washing machine that is propped outside the back door in the open, Shelley works as a waitress in the double R diner rather than finishing high school. Shelley's reduced circumstances typically require only polite exchanges with the middleclass teens who frequent the diner and are served by her. Her closest friend, and the only person to visit her in hospital, is her boss Norma.

At the other end of the spectrum is Audrey Horne, daughter of the town's wealthiest entrepreneur, Benjamin Horne, who not only owns the illustrious Great Northern Hotel, but also the town's department store and the brothel/gambling den, One-Eyed Jacks, which is hidden from legal scrutiny over the Canadian border. Just as Shelley is distanced from the middle-class girls by serving behind the diner counter, Audrey's glamorous wealth means she is often aloof from the other teens, and as she says, she's not really a friend of Laura's.

The three class locations represented by Donna (middle), Audrey (upper), and Shelley (lower) are drawn together in the final episodes of the series when murderous Windom Earle is choosing which of them to kill as the queen in his deadly chess game. At this point, their sexual status intervenes. All three girls have demonstrated sexual desires and so Windom rejects them as victims. Instead he selects the recently arrived (and presumably virginal) ex-nun, Annie, as his victim. Laura, the sweet-seeming but promiscuous, even degenerate, homecoming queen whose murder begins the series, has, by its close, transmuted into the moral nun Annie. She is crowned queen as winner of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant for her stirring speech, not her superficial beauty.

That the other three girls are sexualised has important implications for social mobility, and not only their own. Adolescents in Twin Peaks make sexual selections that impel movements up and down class rungs and these are typically expressed by representations of the future ramifications of their choices. Sexuality in the narrative functions as a form of capital, but inconsistently, and girls' sexuality is judged (or classified) according to class. To locate sexual behaviour as a shape-shifting form of cultural, symbolic, and social capital, in tandem with Bullen's discussion of The OC, it is necessary to delineate the three forms of cultural capital as embodied, objectified and institutionalised. For adolescent female characters, embodied cultural capital codifies their sexual identity through the casting and camera work that foregrounds (always and relentlessly beautified) body images, narratorial fascination with the girls' sexual behaviour, and narratively implied promotion/critiques of their sexuality. Objectified cultural capital figures in the consumer goods of the households in which the girls are positioned creating the visual signifiers which locate them within class boundaries.

More interestingly, an assessment of the girls' institutionalised cultural capital (which refers to educational qualifications) highlights the significance of (low-class) Shelley's leaving school. By way of a comparison, Audrey Horne is enrolled but does not evince much interest in attending school. Her class means she has little need for education as she will be inducted into her father's business empire. Audrey does, however, need qualifications to gain employment outside her father's sphere, but that she needs sexual qualifications is of profound significance. Although a virgin at this point, she proves her consummate sexual knowledge when she twists a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue for the benefit of the brothel madam, Blackie, in order to secure an undercover job as part of the solving of Laura's murder.

Indeed, sexual knowledge or self-control of sexual desire also operates as learned qualifications in tandem with academic pursuit. Despite her stint in the brothel, Audrey definitively says to Cooper (on whom she had a crush) and to her later love interest, the entrepreneur Jack Wheeler, that she is a virgin. She does later 'lose the cherry', rather than knotting it, with Jack toward the end of the series. Jack is of Audrey's class, making him 'right' for her, and her virginity becomes chattel she can bring to the relationship, as her need to offer the disclaimer suggests, and as has been traditionally the case for women in patriarchal culture with its attendant control over female reproduction of heirs.

This representation chimes with Terry Lovell's feminist appraisal of Bourdieu's Distinction (1984), wherein she claims that women "feature, in his schema of the social field, primarily as social objects, repositories of value and of capital, who circulate between men and who serve certain important functions in the capital accumulation strategies of families and kinship groups" (10). Audrey's father had introduced her to Jack and he is particularly pleased with the match. The multiple sexual relations in Twin Peaks (where none of the key characters are permanently single in the plot line, and many have two or more sexual partners) can also be interpreted along these lines. The intimate social capital wrought between a couple also positions one or both parties so as to ensure membership of a particular social subset. Similarly, relationships can precipitate upward or downward mobility. The class-tiered social dynamic of Twin Peaks is profoundly affected by these various acquired and accrued capitals. Thus, while I agree with Connor's reading of the ways in which Twin Peaks disrupts middle-class myths of featureless but safe living, to disregard the town's internal class politics is to misread the complexity of the series' representation of the issue. That said, any such reading is particularly challenging in light of the programme's bid to reject binary oppositions through doublings and secret identities.

Twin Peaks, as the title implies and as many critics have commented, makes extensive use of metaphoric twinning in ways that create a specifically comparative logic (see Kunizar). This contrasting and equating of characters can be a means to assess the multiple functions of class, particularly with regard to its interplay with adolescent identity formation. The twinning operates both across and within class-lines for two main purposes. Firstly, oppositional twinnings signify that the same fate can befall individuals regardless of their class location. Secondly, and conflictingly, twinnings across adolescent/adult boundaries point to genealogies of class that work to heighten the impact of socio-economic boundaries.

The first of these patterns is underscored by the initial narrative concern of the series. The pilot episode offers up the dead body of teenage Laura Palmer and so begins the investigation that seeks to discover her murderer and the circumstances leading to her death. As with Lilly Kane's corpse in Veronica Mars.

The LA Weekly review of Veronica Mars makes the comparative quip "it seems the doomed innocence of Laura Palmer is alive/dead and well in TV mythology land.", a dead girl brings the diversity of people in the town into a close alignment because the investigation uncovers Laura's connections with the highest and lowest class echelons in Twin Peaks. Where Lilly Kane is the twin sister of Veronica Mars' on-and-off boyfriend, Duncan, in Twin Peak's pilot episode, Laura is twinned against another female adolescent body, that of Ronette Pulaski. Laura has been discovered on the shores of the lake, her naked corpse "wrapped in plastic" (a line quickly immortalized by the die-hard fan base). The same day, Ronette is discovered wandering along the train-line almost naked and non-compos, made mute by the horror of her experience. It becomes apparent that Ronette had been in the same abandoned train car as Laura, suffered the same abuses, and also witnessed her death. That Ronette is then trapped in a coma means that these two girls have been reduced to inert bodies.

In season two of Veronica Mars an adolescent teenage character is also in a coma following the narrative's pivotal bus crash. Against their similarities of circumstance, the profound contrast between these two girls is their class location.

Whereas Laura is firmly positioned in the town's educated and privileged middle-class, Ronette's parents, who are only very briefly glimpsed in matching red-checked lumber jackets, are clearly lower-class. They are metaphorically from the wrong side of the tracks along which Ronette staggers. Like Laura, she crossed the boundaries of social propriety, but it is the revelation of Laura's debauchery that amazes the townsfolk who have no idea that Laura dabbled in anything outside of middle-class and conservative "good-girl" behaviour. Yet Ronette is of little consequence. Her fall, not so dramatic given her lower class location, is rendered far less shocking. The series is driven by the question "who killed Laura Palmer?" not "who raped and abused Ronette Pulaski?". For these two girls, twinned at the level of behaviour, making the wrong decisions about their adolescent sexuality leaves them both destroyed by their pursuit of unsavoury pleasures, but the impact on only one of these girls is represented as significant.

As Connor argues, Laura's death works to frighten the middle-classes into recognizing they do not occupy the safe haven from deviance and violence that their mythologies imply. BOB inhabited Laura's father, and so it is he, the middleclass Leland, who physically rapes and murders his daughter. However, given Connor's reading of BOB as low-class, his argument is strained because the narrative implies that it is only when the middle-class has been infiltrated by the evil represented by low-class elements (BOB), that they are no longer safe. The lines are blurred, as is typically the case with double-vision, and in ways characteristic of David Lynch (the co-writer and producer whose is most often credited as the supreme auteur of the program). But it remains too facile to read the class politics with, to borrow Lynch's metaphor, one eye closed.

Laura is again twinned with her "identical cousin," Maddy, who is also murdered by Leland in a sexual frenzy. Because these girls occupy the same class, this twinning refers to sexual behaviours indicating that the femme fatale and the girl next door are equally likely to be victims of evil male carnality. Maddy's presence goes some way to redeeming the old-school gender politics encoded in the murder — punishment — of the sexually voracious girl, a common trope in horror films and other genres popular with teen audiences. That said, the rules for hegemonic feminine chastity are internalized by James Hurley who begins dating good girl Donna after Laura's death. Driven by jealousy about the increasing closeness between Maddy and James, Donna dons Laura's sunglasses, takes up smoking and dresses and plays the sexual temptress to James, who is behind the bars of his prison cell. He is appalled and his rejection of this behaviour tells a highly regressive story about adolescent girls who evince sexual desire. It is after this episode that James pursues sexually passive Maddy more rigorously (presumably for the thrill of the chase that chastity traditionally entices) and the two finally share some brief passionate kisses.

By way of a class comparison to the judgements James makes about Donna, if we continue to foreground sexual behaviour and then look outside Donna's middleclass location, more problems arise. As with Ronette, whose fall from grace caused little commotion, there is no narrative censure applied to the low-class Shelley who regularly commits adultery with Bobby Briggs. Her infidelity is acceptable because it is assumed to be the natural consequence of her unhappy marriage to a lower-class individual who has dragged her down to his level by sexual association. Her continued desirability is made most obvious when David Lynch himself plays the role of Dale Cooper's respectable and considerate FBI supervisor, Gordon Cole, and upon seeing Shelley falls madly in love with her. This may well also imply that as a lower-class adolescent woman, Shelley is fair game for sexual exploitation.

In terms of my second contention about the intergenerational twinning as illuminating class locations, Shelley is twinned with the older woman Norma, her attractive boss at the Double R diner. The two women wear the same uniform in ways that visually connect them and denote what is in store for Shelley in later life since she has chosen the same path as Norma. Like Shelley, Norma married badly in her youth, choosing the low-ranking criminal Hank, who is in jail when the series begins. For this reason, Norma's adulterous relationship with her teen sweetheart, Ed Hurley, is also seen to be justified and is duly romanticized as in the vein of star-crossed lovers. Like Shelley (but unlike the middle-class Laura and Donna), Norma suffers no stigma as a result of pursuing her desires. In order to demonstrate that the sexual decisions girls make as teenagers direct their futures, the narrative harks back to these characters' high school years to explain Ed's decision to marry Nadine, not Norma. Norma had absconded for a night with Hank while dating Ed. She had remained sexually chaste on the adventure, but before Ed could discover this truth, he had raced off in a fit of jealous rage and married Nadine to get back at Norma and to soothe his bruised ego. Norma then had to marry down and accept Hank.

This story about the ramifications for teenagers who pursue sexual trysts that compromise class distinctions is recycled in a similar reminiscence from adult characters Pete and Catherine Martell. Pete was a lumberjack working at the Packard Mill, owned by Catherine's family, and had married up into that entrepreneurial class as a result of shared sexual desire between him and Catherine in their youth. Catherine, like Norma, is made unhappy by this class disparity and, therefore, is sleeping with Benjamin Horne, a man of her own class (as well as sharing her predilection for capitalist machinations of a rather unsavoury nature).

Class location is then an imperative in reading the sexual behaviours exhibited by the women in Twin Peaks, and the relationship between choices made by adolescent girls with regard to sexual partners is made most explicit when Nadine tries to overdose on drugs and regresses back to her adolescent self. In this new identity, she insists on going to school, and joining the cheerleading and the wrestling squad, despite being 35-years-old. The wrestling is in reference to a superhuman strength that the town's psychiatrist attributes to adrenaline floods associated with her mental state. The questioning glances and smirks universally trafficked in Nadine's presence set her up as a mockery of the notion that adolescent girls can have any (physical/sexual) power.

My reading of Nadine as grotesque is at odds with Christy Desmet, who claims that "Nadine demonstrates that a girl can be strong and also popular, winning for herself the boy of her dreams" (106). In fact, Nadine is relentlessly derided, from her first scene in which her purpose in life is to create silent drape runners, followed by Ed's confession that he only married her out of vengeance, and topped off by the ridicule directed to her when she believes she is a teenager. She is not empowered by her circumstances, rather her role is to suggest that any notion that an adolescent girl could be strong and get what she wants entails a travesty of comic proportions. As J.P. Telotte observes, Nadine is a "pointedly absurd alteration" and she is "thus a transgressive figure" (165). She has already been punished for her teenage sexual transgression (marrying Norma's man) by losing an eye on her honeymoon hunting trip (and perhaps the joke is that she has been made into a female phallus by becoming one-eyed, as in the one-eyed jack pun).

Further, her new teen-jock boyfriend, Mike has a kiss and tell scene with Bobby which indicates that Mike is only with Nadine for the outrageous sex her adult experience and enormous strength can produce. He says he loves her in the final episode, but only when he looks close to losing her. By then, Nadine has come to her senses and is mortified that Ed and Norma are back together, and that they have used her relationship with Mike as justification. This epitome of Nadine's humiliation is a point at which any potential former empowerment is entirely overturned.

Where for the women in the town, transgressions are of a sexual nature, for adolescent boys, they are of a criminal nature - in particular, drug trafficking and physical violence. Bobby and Mike are trying to get their cut of the drugs that service Laura's habit and are thus involved with all manner of underworld dealings, including physically dangerous transactions with the ultra-violent Leo. Not only implicated in this real underworld, these boys are also twinned against BOB and MIKE of the programme's supernatural plain. BOB and MIKE have at one stage killed together but MIKE (also known as 'the one-armed man') had grown appalled and cut off his arm in what can be read as a bid to castrate himself as a remedy for sexually violent desire. MIKE then sets himself to the task of keeping BOB at bay — not too successfully, as it turns out, given that in the final scene BOB manages to possess and thereby defile one of the purest men in the cast, Dale Cooper.

Twinning Bobby and Mike as teenage hoods with BOB and MIKE as pure supernatural evil can be understood in relation to social theories about contemporary drug culture. In her feminist assessment of ethnographic studies of drug cultures that rely on Bourdieusian concepts, Nicole Vitellone flags a number of assumptions about male "social suffering...concerning alienation from a masculine gender identity, and a patriarchal socio-economic structure in crisis" that arises when women become involved in drug culture. In standard ethnographies, this situation must be remedied by positioning women as "dependent victims of drugs and abusive men" (132), a characterization easily applied to Laura's (and Ronette's) situation. The focus of Vitellone's critique of drug ethnography is Bourgois who depicts "the drug economy as a male domain whereby economically marginal males 'reconstruct their notions of masculine dignity around interpersonal violence, economic parasitism, and sexual domination' " (Bourgois in Vitellone, 132).

All facets of this typical ethnographic rendering of women in drug cultures are readable in Twin Peaks' representations (and repressions) of women. As I have argued, the programme's bids to debunk traditional assumptions about gender and class are at best flawed due to inconsistencies and a persistent reversion to male hegemonic-type. Perhaps this was a given for any narrative that depended so heavily on a homecoming queen cum prostitute, dead in the pilot episode, and a beauty-pageant-winning nun whose safety is clearly going to be dramatically compromised at the series' close. When Dick Tremayne says to Mr Pinkel (in a strand of subplot too convoluted to explain) "Using a stuffed animal to represent an endangered species...[is] the supreme irony", we can perhaps apply the same semiotic schema to murdered (or about to be murdered) and comatose female bodies. When young women are the endangered species in a patriarchy driven by the pursuit of wealth, using their physical bodies to embody class and its attendant pressures around sexual/social reputation, requires a supreme irony that does not necessarily help the cause of social justice for women or lower-class individuals.


Works Cited

Abele, Robert. "Eyes of Veronica Mars: Buffy teen heroine with the weight of the world on her shoulders." LA Weekly November 4, 2004.

Hayes, Christopher. "Veronica Mars, Class Warrior: Why this teen series is smarter than you think." In These Times June 9, 2006.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984.

---. "The Forms of Capital." Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, Ed. John G. Richardson, New York: Greenwood P, 1986. 241-258.

Desmet, Christy. "The Canonization of Laura Palmer." Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Ed. David Lavery. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State UP, 1995. 93-108.

Kunizar, Alice. "Double Talk in Twin Peaks." Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Ed. David Lavery. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State UP, 1995. 120-129.

Lovell, Terry. "Thinking Feminism with and against Bourdieu." Feminist Theory 1:1 2000. 11-32.

Frost, Mark and David Lynch. Twin Peaks, ABC television network, Burbank, California. Series 1 &2, 1990-1991.

O'Connor, Tom. "Bourgeois Myth versus Media Poetry in Prime-time: Re-visiting Mark Frost and David Lynch's Twin Peaks. " Social Semiotics 14.3 (2004): 309-33.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks." Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Ed. David Lavery. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State UP, 1995. 22-29.

Schwartz, Josh. The OC, Fox, KMSP: Minneapolis.

Telotte, T.P. "The Dis-order of Things in Twin Peaks." Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Ed. David Lavery. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State UP, 1995. 160-172.

Thomas, Rob. Veronica Mars, Warner Bros television, UPN: Burbank, California.

Vitellone, Nicole. "Habitus and social suffering: Culture, addiction and the syringe." Feminism After Bourdieu. Eds. Lisa Adkins and Beverley Skeggs. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 129-47.

Elizabeth Parsons

Volume 11, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2007

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"'That's Classified': Class Politics and Adolescence in Twin Peaks"
© Elizabeth Parsons, 2007.
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