Monday, May 20, 2019

Review: 'The Women of David Lynch: A Collection of Essays'


Like almost all artists worth discussing, David Lynch is highly controversial. Some viewers praise his ability to place you in an unsettling, beautiful, transcendent, and completely realized world. Others dismiss him as a purveyor of weird for the sake of weird. He has also split viewers in terms of his treatment of women. Some feel that the way he portrays women is complex and ultimately empathetic. Many others have dismissed him as a misogynist who gets off on forcing his female characters to suffer.

This particular issue has continually resurfaced since the release of Blue Velvet 33 years ago and on through the debut of the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks just a couple of years ago. The argument regarding Lynch’s treatment of women is so pervasive that Scott Ryan decided to devote an entire issue of his Twin Peaks ’zine The Blue Rose to the women of David Lynch. Ultimately, he has devoted an entire book to that subject. Since Ryan is a man, he is not the most qualified writer to dive into this sensitive topic, and he very wisely keeps a low profile in The Women of David Lynch. Instead he cedes control to thirteen women to explore such topics as Dorothy Valens’s role in Blue Velvet, the roles of non-white women in Twin Peaks, and the roles of all of the female characters in The Elephant Man. There are also interviews with Mรคdchen Amick of Twin Peaks and Charlotte Stewart of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, which provide firsthand accounts of what it’s like to be a woman in Lynch’s world.

Most of the authors who contribute to The Women of David Lynch lean toward a more positive assessment of his treatment of women. They believe that he is generally intent on presenting a realistic idea of what it is like to be a women struggling through a patriarchal society. Understandably, the writers who tackle his treatment of non-white female characters are less forgiving, particularly Melanie McFarland, who is the only writer who is very emphatically not a fan of Lynch’s work. However, even she admits that it’s all a matter of interpretation as she cites other women writers who continue to admire Lynch’s work. Lynch is certainly an artist who demands active interpretation from those who take in his often confounding and troubling work.

As much as I love that work, I am one of those fans who is often troubled by the ideas behind his dreamy/disturbing imagery, and I found it very enlightening that many of the women of The Women of David Lynch found some of Lynch’s more controversial characters, such as Dorothy Valens and Mary X of Eraserhead, worthy of empathy and praise. I guess it does come down to interpretation, though just as a guy like Scott Ryan is not the ideal assessor of Lynch’s treatment of women, a guy like me is not the best assessor of the conclusions of the women who contribute to The Women of David Lynch. I can say that several of these writers confirmed some of my negative assessments, but some challenged them for the better, helping me to gain a more thorough appreciation for work I already loved with definite political reservations. While a couple of the more experimental essays didn’t work for me at all (one is written in the parlance of a Facebook post complete with excessive all caps and “LOLs”; another briefly reviews each of Lynch’s features from the pov of a misogynistic murderer on acid), most of these essays are accessible and enlightening, though I’m sure this particular issue will continue to be debated as long as people continue to study the work and women of David Lynch.

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