Remembering a momentous semester as Twin Peaks turns twenty-five and Sweet Briar closes its doors.
In 2012, I taught a freshman comp class called Myths About Women. The primary texts were Antigone and Twin Peaks. This was at Sweet Briar College, and as it happens, the students from that class will be among the last to graduate from the 114-year-old women’s college this May. Last month, the school’s board of directors voted to close it at the end of this academic year because of “insurmountable financial challenges.”
I’d been trying for a few semesters to arrive at a reading list that would help the students think critically about gender—this was a women’s college, after all. But Sweet Briar, in Virginia, is not like its northern counterparts Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke. Sweet Briar’s official mascot is the vixen; its official colors are pink and green, a color scheme long synonymous with preppy fashion. And everywhere there are the trappings of wealthy, white Southern culture: among the student body, pearls are imbued with an almost totemic power. The campus bookstore sells Lilly Pulitzer handbags.
I usually recycled my syllabus for this class, but the previous year I’d tried teaching Lolita alongside Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, which went over like the proverbial fart in church. One student called the novel an “immoral book.” What’s wrong with this Nabokov guy, the students wondered, and why does this Iranian woman love him?
And yet I still hoped to challenge them. I’d recently watched, for the fourth or fifth time, Twin Peaks, which turns twenty-five today. Past the dancing, backward-talking midget, the black coffee, and the cherry pie, I was starting to see some deeper issues that I thought might make for good classroom conversation.
Sure enough, Twin Peaks was a hit. My students looked forward to it, often asking as they entered the classroom if we were watching it that day. What emerged through our conversations and on the pages of their essays was an uneasy and fraught relationship with what it means to be a feminist in the twenty-first century.
The battle to save Sweet Briar is now being waged on three fronts. Lawyers representing #SaveSweetbriar, a grassroots alumnae group, have filed suit against the College, as has a firm representing the faculty and staff pro bono. Even the county prosecutor of Amherst, the rural county where Sweet Briar is nestled, is filing suit, alleging that the closing violates Virginia state laws governing nonprofits. It is, in short, a complete and total shit-storm. Though it’s been almost two years since I left, I’ve been having a hard time concentrating on anything else.
Twin Peaks begins, of course, with the mysterious death of a young woman, seventeen-year-old Laura Palmer. A beauty queen, tutor to a developmentally disabled child, and a volunteer for the local Meals on Wheels program, Laura’s death sends the community into a deep and angst-ridden mourning.
Sweet Briar, too, began with the death of a beloved young woman, Daisy Fletcher Williams, the sixteen-year-old only child of Indiana Fletcher and her husband James Henry Williams, an Irish émigré. Daisy died from a genetically inherited disease that attacks the lungs and liver, a condition that also killed her father. As a memorial to her daughter, Fletcher willed her plantation and her wealth to create a women’s college.
Sweet Briar opened in 1901, and any student will tell you the campus is haunted. Daisy shifts furniture and appears in mirrors. The founder’s brother, Lucian—the black sheep of the family, enraged by his sister’s decision to sink the family’s inheritance into the college—has appeared before terrified girls in their dorm rooms. And some believe the place is haunted by its plantation past—at one time about a hundred slaves worked the earth on which the college now sits. A few years ago, the Sci-Fi channel did a special on ghost sightings there.
Perhaps fittingly, in my six years at Sweet Briar the campus felt increasingly stressed, anxious, and precarious. There were no raises for nearly five years; our pension benefits were reduced and then suspended altogether for several months. Two students performed in blackface in the middle of the dining hall at the tail end of the lunch rush. One of my colleagues in the English department committed suicide. And the attrition rate for students between freshman and sophomore year hovered between 20 and 30 percent—concerning, for a school dependent on tuition.
Given the charged atmosphere, I was eager to see what my students would make of Myths About Women. The course began with Antigone, along with commentaries on the role of women in Greek society. Was Sophocles writing to caution the men of Athens about what would happen if women ran amok? Some of my students saw Antigone as tragically noble; others judged her to be a “crazy bitch with a death wish.” Their first essay asked them to choose which character they’d most identified with, and to my surprise, several students chose Jocasta, Antigone’s sister, who famously says at the play’s outset, “we are not born to contend with men.”
Before Twin Peaks, I wanted to immerse them in the history of feminism—tough sledding. No one knew that feminism had “waves”; they were aware of the suffrage movement, but unaware that suffragettes has been some of the fiercest opponents of slavery; they believed in equal pay for equal work, but they also believed that somewhere along the way the message had been perverted. The term feminist conjured angry man-haters and bra burnings. They felt not that they’d been divested of an inheritance, but that feminism was something they simply wanted nothing to do with.
Things began to shift after we watched the pilot and read “Lynching Women,” a 1991 essay by Diana Hume George in which she admits to being “seriously addicted,” so much so that she programmed her VCR to tape the show, allowing her to rewatch the episodes for clues she might have missed. Fans treated the series like it was a novel, something to be riffled in pursuit of secret connections. After the show was canceled, though, George realized that its sexual politics were “reptilian”; contrary to third-wave feminists who saw it as empowering, she thought it perpetuated misogyny. Her claim is founded on one of the biggest controversies of the digital age: Does media violence against women create an atmosphere that encourages or minimizes it?
The essay got my students’ attention. Since many of them were wary of feminism, period, the idea that a television show could be blamed for violence against women was difficult to stomach. “If you looked at the world in that way all the time,” one student said, “you would be really sad.”
Another student took issue with George’s critique, especially when it came to the show’s bitchy, manipulative, rich girl, Audrey Horne. She writes:
Could it be that Twin Peaks has created a character capable of both saddle shoes and red heels? George argues that a flaw of Twin Peaks is that it “breaks women in half.” On the contrary, I believe that the ability of Twin Peaks to cast light on the different and drastic layers of its female’s desires, drives, ambitions, intentions, and expectations, depending on the situation, is one of its greatest strengths. That Donna can switch from “ingénue to seductress overnight” adds to the depth of the show because it was not a move that we the viewers had been able to preempt.
I’d had the students read about transversity, Charlotte Krolokke’s term, which has something to do with transgressing or crossing over boundaries—but the catch is, not permanently. Transversity is, Krolokke believes, a post–Third Wave phenomenon, a way of being that allows women to inhabit more than one seemingly mutually exclusive role at a time. There’s a spirit of playfulness and subversion about it: you can be a stay-at-home mom and a political revolutionary; a saddle-shoe-, knee-length-plaid-skirt–wearing school girl in the morning and a cigarette-smoking, red-high-heel-, little-black-dress–wearing woman in the evening. What my students were seeing in Audrey wasn’t contradiction but willfulness. This was not an empty-headed surrender to behave in whatever ways will best attract men, but the expression of a modern, multifaceted person.
This was the kind of discourse I’d expected to find at Sweet Briar when I arrived, but frankly up until that semester my impression had been that the Pink Bubble—as students and faculty alike refer to Sweet Briar—was hostile to feminist thinking. The dining hall was often the scene of embarrassing skits put on by newly initiated members of the Tap Clubs, semi-secret societies with elaborate induction rituals and complex lineages. The newly initiated “babies” would parade through the dining room under the approving eye of their “moms” and “grandmas” wearing poster-board signs around their necks with their new club-given nicknames and rhyming odes describing their personalities. Mostly they were silly; sometimes they alluded to impressive or unimpressive alcohol tolerance and sexual prowess.
There were students who seemed to live for nothing more than this culture of sequined hats, ornately decorated robes, and puffy-painted cups—but then you’d hear from a colleague what dedicated students they were, or you would have them in class and see that there was much more going on beneath the costuming.
Watching Twin Peaks with my students made me rethink my perceptions. They were fascinated, and even cheered, Donna Hayward’s transformation from Laura Palmer’s goody-two-shoes best friend to canny detective and beguiling seductress. They shouted at the screen imploring Shelly, a young waitress at the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks, to get her shit together and leave Leo, her abusive boyfriend. And they expressed genuine empathy for Laura Palmer when her dark past was uncovered. They seemed to see the tragedy of her situation more easily than they had Antigone’s.
My own views on Twin Peaks and Lynch have definitely changed since my first encounter with the show, as a high school student in the nineties. Feminism then was a word I associated mainly with Rush Limbaugh, whose radio program I’d listen to while painting houses in the summer. High up on a thirty-two-foot ladder, too lazy to come down and change the station, I soaked in Rush’s rants about “feminazis” who were trying to undermine the moral fabric of America. Watching Twin Peaks it never occurred to me to think of David Lynch, or any director for that matter, as misogynistic—and yet twenty-some years later, having watched nearly all of his work, I do find something troubling in his vision of women. Women are constantly being driven to duplicity in order to succeed, or even just to survive. Then again, the men of Twin Peaks all have hidden lives they try desperately to conceal. Even the beloved Agent Cooper has skeletons in his closet. Ultimately, what keeps me returning to Twin Peaks and Lynch is that his vision of the world, while at times cruel and perverted, is accurate in so many ways. I don’t mean that duplicity is the nature of all women, or that all men are led to violence and emotional unavailability because they divert their energy to hiding their other lives—but as with all great fictions, there are kernels of truths here.
The moment that sticks out for me most that semester was when an international-studies student likened BOB—that demonic entity from the Black Lodge—to a rogue state harboring terrorists. There is something out there that wants to harm us, and it will not go away even if we ignore it—especially if we ignore it. That something, as Agent Cooper’s forensics expert theorizes, is “the evil that men do.” My student wrote,
Here, in rural Sweet Briar, Virginia, most of us do not feel threats from the outside world. Certainly not from a world as far abstracted and removed as Twin Peaks is. And yet we find ourselves … sitting a little bit closer to the edge of our seats because, as [Diana Hume] George says, “sweetness and light cannot quite maintain their power in the face of this other reality below the garden, the flowers, the picket fence—or ‘out there’ in ‘these old woods’ of Twin Peaks.”
Reading this paragraph in the late fall of 2012, I was impressed by her recognition that she and her classmates at Sweet Briar were privileged and protected. It seemed to me that for this student the plight of the women in Twin Peaks had begun a larger conversation about the need for feminism, even in places where we feel otherwise safe.
Rereading my students’ words one month removed from the announcement that Sweet Briar will close, I think of the photos posted by hundreds of alums: the pink and green spray-painted banners draped across the front of the campus bell tower that read SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS and LEAVE IT TO A MAN TO DESTROY SOMETHING A WOMAN MADE.
If Sweet Briar somehow remains open, then its leaders will have real work to do in figuring out what it offers and how it’s unique. Many colleges can claim that they prepare young women to be leaders in the twenty-first century—but it’s not clear that Sweet Briar is doing this better than its competitors, women’s colleges or otherwise. This was what was so frustrating about my time there. It often seemed that the college saw the successful education of women as something that only required a beautiful campus and promises that a women’s-only environment would make you, somehow, a leader.
The controversy and conspiracy theories around the impending closure threaten to obscure deep tensions and contradictions within the college, tensions that tie it to old views of a woman’s place in society. The crisis suggests an awakening that’s been a long time—outside observers would say late—in coming: a sudden awareness that the Pink Bubble, though a safe and nurturing place, must do more than hang banners to argue for its moral necessity. It has to become a place where every student is expected to think about why a women’s-only education is not a relic of the past, but a crucial asset to a world that’s still safer for men than for women.
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He lives in Northern Michigan, where he directs the creative-writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts.