Penny Wang | February 22, 2018
I was shocked while watching the penultimate episode of the third season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: the face of the only Asian-looking character—the eyeless and speechless Naido—cracked, and she was revealed to be Diane—Agent Cooper’s white secretary who only just made her first appearance in the final season in 2017. Far from being a one-time disappointment, this is only just the climax of the continuous frustrations I have experienced watching Twin Peaks’ problematic portrayal of non-white people. Considering the rather metropolitan setting of a large part of the third season, the show can no longer resort to the 90s excuse that the story is set in a tiny white town in the Northwest of the US to “exempt” itself from charges of racial discrimination and Orientalism.
The first time I saw Naido, I was pleasantly surprised: finally, a refreshing (albeit literally incomplete) Asian face among the almost all white cast, and a female one at that. The only other two non-white characters are the stereotypical “good Indian” Chief Hawk and the black prostitute Jade. However, this surprise was soon (indeed, too soon) replaced by my upsetting realisation that every aspect of Naido’s characterisation is fuelled by toxic Western stereotypes about Asians. At the place where her eyes are supposed to be are two shiny patches of bulging scar tissue, bringing the derogatory “chink” image up to its extreme—the eyes are eliminated altogether. The breathy noises she makes, like those of a trapped animal, appear to be her only way of communication. This is not simply an element contributing to her sense of mystery and otherworldliness, but a physical re-enactment of the long-standing and still extant Western impression that Asian languages sound savage and are like gibberish, incomprehensible if not detestable to the English ear. Also confirming the postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous contention, as a woman of colour, the doubly subaltern Naido aptly and literally “cannot speak”. The dehumanising effect of her grotesque physicality and her inability to conduct effective oral communication (in English) is spelt out by the white male police officer Deputy Broxford’s cry of horror: “What is this thing?”
The revelation that her “true identity” is Diane makes Naido’s inability to speak even more problematic. Prior to this revelatory moment, the importance of Naido has already been made explicit but never properly explained by some “higher forces”. It is only at this point that an explanation is given: Naido is important in that she is the shell containing Diane. Naido is not important in her own right; she is only important because of the white woman inside her, in other words, because of her potential to become a white woman. No longer a mysterious creature, Naido-turned-Diane is now not only capable of speech, of agency, but has also found her “true identity” as the white and legitimate lover of Agent Cooper who has also just been “re-Cooper-ated” from a formerly dumb and dazed state.
Interestingly, having witnessed the transformation, Gordon—played by David Lynch himself—tries most unnaturally to justify the “naturalness” of this revelation by pointing out the ostentatious “Oriental” elements of the clothes worn by the earlier disappeared Diane’s tulpa, which apparently suggested the connection between Naido and the real Diane. How is this supposed to be taken? Is the audience supposed to assume that he is simply parodying racist attitudes and practices? If this is the case, should we comment on the racists aspects of the show at all? Are we not stating the obvious and missing the point?
Truth is, if we don’t, we are just making Spivak’s subaltern more unspoken of and unspeakable. This is partly because some might not even be aware of what others already regard as common sense. When an article by Sezin Koehler, a woman of colour, complaining about the TV series’ troubling cultural appropriation was posted on an website featuring voices of non-white people, the first comment that comes up is by a white male who accuses her of spewing “rancid and bitter whine”. Given that Twin Peaks really is parodying racist attitudes, it entirely fails to “enlighten” this guy, nor has it improved the precarious and peripheral status of Asian women and people of colour in general, either discursively or in social reality. The troubling representations of race and ethnicity in the show need to be made explicit, even if just to let people know that “Naidos” around the world can and need to see and be seen, speak and be spoken about.
Penny Wang is currently doing an MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. Her academic interest mainly lies in postcolonial and diasporic literature as well as feminist studies. She generally likes having deep (but light) conversations about life and believes in the necessity and potential of empathetic connections.
Article edited by Vivek Santayana, Anna Kemball, and Valentina Paz Aparicio.