Laura Palmer's high school yearbook, from David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
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Is Twin Peaks responsible for the dead woman TV trope?

From The Killing, The Bridge and CSI to True Detective - why do so many TV series open with the mutilated corpse of a woman? Sarah Marshall looks back to the trope's dark origins.

Laura Palmer has been dead for twenty-five years, but her legacy has dwarfed that of countless other living female characters. Now more than ever, seemingly every show on television replicates the question that “Twin Peaks” posed when it premiered on this day in 1990: Who killed the girl? We see it in countless episodes of “Law & Order” and its spinoffs, in “CSI” and its spinoffs, in “The Killing” and “Top of the Lake,”and most recently in “True Detective.”Again and again television narratives—to say nothing of other forms of media—use a dead girl as a point of entry into a story that the girl herself is powerless to tell. As the corpses multiply in this fictive crime wave, it’s time for us to ponder a more enduring mystery: Why this is one of the only narrative questions we feel so compelled to answer.

Even when we don’t have Nielsen ratings to tell the story, it’s clear that there’s little that interests the American public quite so much as a young woman’s body. For all the power we imagine stardom must grant—or, perhaps more to the point, for all the power we imagine we give to stars—female stars, for the century or so that stardom as we know it has existed, have usually become famous for an essentially passive set of attributes. This is visible in the earliest of silent films, in which men must do—must seduce, swashbuckle, prank, and pratfall—while women may simply be: be beautiful, luminous, still.

This type of stardom, though perfected via celluloid, has long since transcended the medium. Princess Diana, when she first emerged into the public eye as the nineteen-year-old bride-to-be of Prince Charles, was lacking not just in defect but in visible personality of any kind, allowing her admirers to imbue her with whatever attributes they desired. Her gaze could be tragic, thoughtful, maternal, icy, playful, or vixenish, depending on the kind of woman one wished to gaze upon in return. Yet the adulation Diana enjoyed in life paled in comparison to the outpouring of grief inspired by her untimely death: bouquets left by mourners outside Kensington Palace reached a height of five feet, while across Great Britain, businesses closed and streets emptied so Diana’s public could watch her funeral on television.1 Though Diana’s youth certainly played a role in the public’s near-universal mourning, it seems her death did not destroy her persona so much as it allowed it to reach a kind of apex: Diana, made famous by her passivity, was now as passive as it was possible to be, and all the more loved for it.

A living woman groomed for passive stardom may easily accommodate the public’s wishes; a dead woman is utterly incapable of offering up even the most cursory contradiction to the narratives that entomb her as readily as any casket. A wish for her public to tell the truth about her—or at least be willing to hear it—is only one of the many troublesome demands a living woman may make. Troubled women—famous or not, beautiful or not—need attention, therapy, rehab, prescription drugs, doctors, insurance, lease cosigners, rides to the airport, bail money, late-night phone calls, credit card payments, kindness, toughness, unconditional love, forgiveness, help from professionals, help from their family, help from anyone else who is able or willing to give it. Sometimes they get it. Often they don’t. But mourning is unquestionably easier than helping. 

A dead woman is utterly incapable of offering up even the most cursory contradiction to the narratives that entomb her.

If the first few astonishingly widely viewed episodes of “Twin Peaks”made anything clear, it was that Laura Palmer, the show’s star victim, was a very troubled young woman. (She was also a very busy one: I watched “Twin Peaks” for the first time when I was in high school, fretfully applying to college and cramming for AP exams, and spent more energy than I would care to admit feeling jealous of Laura and the surviving teens of Twin Peaks for apparently having so much time for motorcycle trips, affairs with married adults, drug trafficking, and all manner of other life- and GPA-threatening extracurriculars. They must, I concluded, have been content with going to Washington State.) In many ways, Laura Palmer was a precise analogue for the character of the town itself: pristine on the outside, but corrupted at the core. The Laura Palmer described in the show’s pilot was a beloved daughter and friend who dated the captain of the football team and whose homecoming portrait hung in the school trophy case.2 She was also the town’s darling: When her body was found, her classmates and teachers all but rent their garments in grief, and the lumber mill closed for the day.

The first glimpse viewers had of Laura’s blond and blue-lipped corpse came when the town doctor arrived and, as gently and insistently as a groom lifting a veil from his new bride, lifted away the filmy plastic cerement in which her body had been concealed. For the rest of the show’s highly rated first season, viewers were invited to repeat this action again and again, following Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by the excellent Kyle MacLachlan, his Dune-era Purdey haircut trimmed to a more presidential length) as he simultaneously uncovered the truth about Laura and her hometown. Among other things, viewers learned that Laura was addicted to cocaine, worked in a brothel across the Canadian border, and carried on affairs with all the most powerful men in town—along with a few others—and had enough material to blackmail seemingly every one of its 51,201 residents. And it was impossible for viewers to learn about Laura’s secret life without learning the town’s equally scandalous—and equally dark—secrets along the way.

If this were the extent of “Twin Peaks”’s narrative, it doubtless would have had no trouble keeping the audience it initially attracted: It is, after all, a time-proven and profitable formula, used to great effect in everything from Peyton Place to the eleven o’clock news: You think ____ is the real story. But the real story is actually ______. On the face of it, “Twin Peaks” merely mimicked this approach. The subject matter was salacious, surreal, and often disturbing; the formulaic premise was comforting, familiar, as American as cherry pie. Perhaps the most alarming revelations viewers encountered in the hunt for Laura Palmer’s killer concerned the fact that (without giving too much away) her murderer was not a stranger to her, and that she had died as a result not just of whatever trouble she had gotten into as a young adult but of ongoing abuses she had suffered since childhood. From these disclosures—darker even than perhaps the most enthusiastically morbid viewers could imagine—the narrative progressed to a neat conclusion: The killer was apprehended, justice was served, and the darkness that had led to Laura’s death was done away with once and for all.

Or so it seemed. After solving the mystery of Laura’s murder, the show turned to the greater darkness suffusing the town, presenting viewers with the beginnings of a broader mythology (while simultaneously making use of as many soapy tropes as it could muster). Some fans remained avid, but for the most part, ratings tanked. As a narrative, “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was impossible to outdo, and for good reason—but the hostility and indifference with which fans and critics greeted the Laura-less episodes of the second season might also have reflected an even greater perceived wrong. The real problem with “Twin Peaks” was not that it lost its energy after solving its central mystery, but that it dared to keep airing at all: In all the experience viewers had with such narratives, the story had to end with the young woman’s killer brought to justice, the righting of the wrong, the return to grace. In this way a young woman’s death, however horrific, can seem oddly utilitarian, even comforting, within the confines of narrative: Her death is an affront to social order, but her body is a ledger on which a deviant may record his desires, a route toward the greater safety that will follow when good and dogged detectives inevitably locate the killer and lock him away.

“Twin Peaks” appeared to obediently follow this narrative for its feted debut season. Yet closer inspection reveals something more. Laura’s killer—again, without revealing too much—is not really her killer. She may have had only one murderer, but nearly everyone she knew contributed to her death, through abuse, willful ignorance, or sheer blindness. Even those closest to her seemed to recognize that she would be, on some level, better off as a corpse than a homecoming queen: “It all makes some terrible kind of sense that she died—that somebody killed her” said James Hurley—the sweet, dense, low-rent James Dean who secretly loved her—in the pilot episode. James spoke these words to Laura’s equally sweet best friend, Donna Hayward, before the two fell in each other’s arms, finally free to start their treacly love affair, to mourn their miserable, troubled, troublesome friend, and forget the terrible world she had inhabited. Yet James and Donna’s relief is short-lived, as is the viewer’s: In a less complexly rendered narrative, Laura’s death would close the door to that terrible world. As “Twin Peaks” progressed, the door only widened—and the majority of viewers chose not to go through it. After debuting just a year before as the most talked-about show in recent memory, “Twin Peaks” finished its second and final season in hundredth place in the Nielsen ratings (to put it another way, it ended the year ninety places behind “Major Dad”).

Mourning a once-troubled young woman is easy, but trying to understand her actions is always difficult.

The conversation surrounding difficult women on television (and in fiction) often hinges on the question of likability, and given the overwhelming presence of dead women on television today, it seems all too likely that dead women are the most likable female characters of all. We have seen, recently, how hard a time audiences have with livingfemale characters who are flawed, difficult, troubled, and in other words real, as the early cancellation of “Enlightened” and the rancor inspired by “Breaking Bad”’s Skyler White, “Man Men”’s Betty Draper Francis, and “Girls”’s Hannah Horvath has amply demonstrated.

Even Laura Palmer, once as much the darling of primetime lineups as she was of her hometown, could not ride on the coattails of her corpse once she was revived as a living character in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Mea 1992 feature film prequel depicting “the last days of Laura Palmer.” The film showed not the idea of Laura but her reality: She walked, she talked, she hurt her friends, she gave up on saving herself. The film went largely unloved by both critics and fans of the show, no doubt in part because it confronted viewers with the reality the series had only hinted at: that mourning a once-troubled young woman is easy, but trying to understand her actions is always difficult.

Today, we pride ourselves on having entered a new era of programming, and on pushing the boundaries of how ambitious and difficult television can be. Breaking the unstated ban on realistic, unlikable women is one boundary we have only just started to push. If it makes the task easier, perhaps we can start simply be ensuring that more of the women we focus our attentions on are actually alive.

This piece originally appeared on newrepublic.com

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
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How Moonlight’s win led to the most shocking Oscars night in history

They gave Best Picture to La La Land first by mistake.

“This is not a joke by the way. This is not a joke.” You know things are bad when, at possibly the most anticipated cultural moment of the year, you have to keep insisting what’s happening is not a bad skit. Yes, La La Land was announced as the winner of Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards - but it later turned out that Moonlight had actually won the prize.

We often talk about “Best Picture shocks”, but this was an unprecedented moment in Oscars history: an extraordinary sequence of live television that ended in the makers of La La Land, led by producer Jordan Horowitz, having to hand over the most prestigious award of the night, mid-acceptance speech, to the Moonlight team.

But Moonlight’s victory is shocking in a more significant way than the deep, horrible cringe you feel watching the La La Land team’s celebrations turn sour. It’s shocking because a genuinely original and urgent underdog film about the coming-of-age of a black gay man won Best Picture. 

It’s tempting to see Moonlight’s win as part of a conversation that started last year, when the #OscarsSoWhite scandal began. But, of course, the Oscars has a much longer history of rewarding straight white stories and actors. This was the first Oscars in a decade with multiple black acting winners. Viola Davis became the first black person to receive an Oscar, Emmy and Tony for acting. Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win for acting, ever. In 2017.

This year's awards saw the continuation of a split result for the Best Directing and Best Picture gongs - something that was once relatively rare but has happened almost every year since 2013. But while La La Land did still pick up six awards, and Moonlight three, there can be no doubt that this was Moonlight’s night.

"All you people out there who feel like there's no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected… we have your back," director Barry Jenkins said when accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The biggest shock of the night wasn’t the seven-minute long fumble over who actually won Best Picture. It’s that a film about black gay love could move the voting members of an awards ceremony dogged by such a long history of racism. Oh, and that Suicide Squad is now an Oscar-winning film.

The full list of winners and nominees at the 2017 Academy Awards

Best picture

Winner: Moonlight
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Best director

Winner: La La Land - Damien Chazelle
Arrival - Denis Villeneuve
Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson
Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan
Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

Best actor

Winner: Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield - Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling - La La Land
Viggo Mortensen - Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington - Fences

Best actress

Winner: Emma Stone - La La Land
Isabelle Huppert - Elle
Ruth Negga - Loving
Natalie Portman - Jackie
Meryl Streep - Florence Foster Jenkins

Best supporting actor

Winner: Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges - Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel - Lion
Michael Shannon - Nocturnal Animals

Best supporting actress

Winner: Viola Davis - Fences
Naomie Harris - Moonlight
Nicole Kidman - Lion
Octavia Spencer - Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea

Best cinematography

Winner: La La Land - Linus Sandgren
Arrival - Bradford Young
Lion - Greig Fraser
Moonlight - James Laxton
Silence - Rodrigo Prieto

Best original score

Winner: La La Land - Justin Hurwitz
Jackie - Mica Levi
Lion - Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight - Nicholas Britell
Passengers - Thomas Newton

Best original song

Winner: La La Land - City of Stars by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
La La Land - Audition by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Moana - How Far I'll Go by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Trolls - Can't Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
Jim: The James Foley Story - The Empty Chair by J Ralph and Sting

Best original screenplay

Winner: Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan
20th Century Women - Mike Mills
Hell or High Water - Taylor Sheridan
La La Land - Damien Chazelle
The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou

Best adapted screenplay

Winner: Moonlight - Barry Jenkins and Alvin McCraney
Arrival - Eric Heisserer
Fences - August Wilson
Hidden Figures - Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion - Luke Davies

Best costume design

Winner: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Colleen Atwood
Allied - Joanna Johnston
Florence Foster Jenkins - Consolata Boyle
Jackie - Madeline Fontaine
La La Land - Mary Zophres

Best make-up and hairstyling

Winner: Suicide Squad - Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson
A Man Called Ove - Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson
Star Trek Beyond - Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo

Best documentary feature

Winner: OJ: Made in America
13th
Fire At Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated

Best sound editing

Winner: Arrival - Sylvain Bellemare
Deepwater Horizon - Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli
Hacksaw Ridge - Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
La La Land - Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Sully - Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

Best sound mixing

Winner: Hacksaw Ridge - Kevin O'Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi - Gary Summers, Jeffrey J Haboush and Mac Ruth
Arrival - Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye
La La Land - Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A Morrow
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson

Best foreign language film

Winner: The Salesman - Iran
A Man Called Ove - Sweden
Land of Mine - Denmark
Tanna - Australia
Toni Erdmann - Germany

Best animated short

Winner: Piper - Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer
Blind Vaysha - Theodore Ushev
Borrowed Time - Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
Pear Cider and Cigarettes - Robert Valley and Cara Speller
Pearl - Patrick Osborne

Best animated feature

Winner: Zootopia
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Best production design

Winner: La La Land - David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Arrival - Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock
Hail, Caesar! - Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh
Passengers - Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena

Best visual effects

Winner: The Jungle Book - Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R Jones and Dan Lemmon
Deepwater Horizon - Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
Doctor Strange - Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
Kubo and the Two Strings - Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

Best film editing

Winner: Hacksaw Ridge - John Gilbert
Arrival - Joe Walker
Hell or High Water - Jake Roberts
La La Land - Tom Cross
Moonlight - Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

Best documentary short

Winner: The White Helmets - Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
4.1 Miles - Daphne Matziaraki
Extremis - Dan Krauss
Joe's Violin - Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
Watani: My Homeland - Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis

Best live action short

Winner: Sing - Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy
Ennemis Interieurs - Selim Azzazi
La Femme et le TGV - Timo Von Gunten and Giacun Caduff
Silent Nights - Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson
Timecode - Juanjo Gimenez

***

Now listen to Anna discussing the Oscars on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.