Preface to long paper on female grotesques in David Lynch films

This is the preface to a long academic paper on female grotesque characters in Lynch films. I have been working on this paper for nearly a year, and soon will seek places to publish. I am submitting this preface here/now in hopes of getting some feedback from friends and other bloggers about my concept and claim(s).

Feel free to message me or comment with feedback.



This essay culminated after about five years of the general concepts swimming around, disjointedly in my head. It may have even been longer than that. It seems to me that like most people I first saw Eraserhead in college, reading it eagerly as a cult/art film. But from the first viewing there was something I found troubling. Why did women’s bodies, bodily functions (pregnancy) and fluids seem so problematic in this film?

For instance, when Mary X, reveals to Henry that she has born his child, she becomes like a hysterical, absurd monster to Henry. She almost seems like a demon, instead of a victim of a loveless sexual act that resulted in her “getting in trouble.” When she takes Henry to a most awkward and uncomfortable dinner at her freak-show parents’ home, her mother bullies Henry into marrying her, and then in a completely bizarre reversal, begins to flirt lasciviously with him, rubbing her undesirable, aged leg against his under the table. It is clear that Mary X distraught and she sobbingly asks him, “You don’t mind do you? About getting married?” Yet, there is so sympathy for her. There is no empathy with her. In her distressed state she has no agency. No one even asks her if she wishes to keep the child.

There are other ways that women’s bodies and sex with women began to take on terrifying undertones in Eraserhead, including fantasy sequences with the Lady in the Radiator and the Girl Next Door. I will examine them in more depth further in this essay.

The main thing that bothered me was wondering whether or not the filmmaker generally had a problem with women. Upon viewing a great portion of his catalog of films, I could always find several oddball women characters, many of them who violated social norms left and right with their behaviors, but others simply with their being. These women were not necessarily all mischief-makers (like Mary X—who has the nerve to get herself knocked up and thereby ruining Henry’s already droll life). Some of the other women in Lynch’s films were grotesque in their literal physical appearances or in their overt or non-normative sexual proclivities. Some of them were freaks in their dual slut/virgin natures, or in their ability to morph from one person to an entirely different character, complete with alternate storyline. Many of these familiar female character types were lifted straight from Gothic literature (doppelganger, mystic virgin, wise old crone, etc.) I will extract from the texts of David Lynch’s major film works in examination of what and why these gendered bodies are so problematic therein.

Meanwhile, I am also drawing from and applying critical reads from other cultural critics and film scholars such as Martha P. Nochimson, Diane Hume George, Diane Stevenson, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc, Tal Collem, Todd McGowan, Linda Williams and others. I do not consider myself a psychoanalytical culture critic, nor do I particularly subscribe to or enjoy applying Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic reads to any texts because both of these theorists have from time to time been criticized by feminist scholars and some of their theories debunked. But because ideas and derivatives which came from their observations are still in wide circulation, I do summarize, address and interrogate some of these texts here. To me, psychoanalytical analyses can oftentimes read/sound like a hastily invented new language where the symbols at the root have been lost or forgotten (rendering the codes indecipherable). For example, reading Nochimson without some understanding of psychoanalytic theory can be like listening to a mentally disturbed person chatter with her own ghosts, providing only vague symbols as entry points to her narrative. Even more confusing are the arguments that Nochimson, Schaffner and Stevenson make that Lynch’s films are, in fact, feminist, in the ways in which he “subverts dominant paradigms” and assumptions, and also in a few of the unlikely switches that female characters undergo once they obtain knowledge.

When I analyze these films, I tend to feel the same concern as critic and scholar Lucy Fischer looking at Hollywood films in the 20th century:

“… Literary and film criticism… has revealed the equation being sustained that by the ‘sheer magnitude of cases in which the established male canon’ produces work, it will continue to propagate sexist attitudes and beliefs whether or not all of the male artists are necessarily misogynistic or sexist” (8).

This is not to say that no male director could ever make a film work which is, inherently, a feminist text; I believe that has been done. And it’s not to say a male director is incapable of making a movie that is female-centered or female-driven. But, what I wonder is: Do feminine grotesque characters lead to a perpetuation of sexism? Is it misogynist? Or is it a cultural critique? Maybe we should read these films as entirely fictional, and derive from them only entertainment. If that’s the case, do we need to relate the female characters in these films back to some feminine ideal in our popular culture? They must come from somewhere.

Clearly, elements of the absurd in Lynch’s films are interspersed intentionally. But, why? Is he delivering his own critique on society? Or is he simply telling a joke? Can we benefit from trying to look deeper into the myriad symbols offered up to us by this self-described transcendentalist who admits that many of the visual clues he places in his films appeared to him in a dream?

Other scholars who have criticized Lynch suggest that his use of graphic depictions of violence against women and sexual deviancy is actually does commit harm to society (Hobart and Smith, Hume, Stevenson). But one could argue that showing these images may or may not have the result of propagating and advancing a culture of violence against women and relaxed attitudes against rape, or if he is simply mirroring the actions of the culture he experiences (and even criticizing those actions). It is hard to draw a line or find direct correlation.

Furthermore, I would like to embrace Fischer’s definition of intertextual space in film theory and take a look at the subject-viewer relationship when watching David Lynch films. It seems to me that since the dawn of cinema, women (as well as live entertainers performing on stages) have been entrapped on screens. They are manipulated into imags only—simply screens for us all to gaze upon (Gilbert and Guber). Therefore these players are valued mainly and mostly for their looks. Like the aging starlet in Sunset Boulevard, forced to desperately cling to youth, or lose their value.

In Lynchian film, the presence and action of the voyeur is amplified by thousands forcing the female subject to remain locked into the male gaze. And often the women willfully play along. (INLAND EMPIRE: “Hey! Look at me… tell me if you have known me before.” Blue Velvet: “Look at me/Don’t look at me/Hit me…). Gilbert and Gubar propose that we reject the precursor’s reading of Her (11). The philosopher Roland Barthes echoes this when he questions the trap of our predecessors and asks us to examine who paves the path of the dominant culture. In rejecting the reading and value assigned to women’s work, we can begin to build our own narratives and define our own values, outside of the commodity of the Gaze.

The best argument for looking through the lens again with a critical eye to be the fact there is one great limitation to the male gaze—what if the viewer (receiver of message) is female (Williams, “When the Woman Looks)? Is David Lynch not just perpetuating the sexist mythologies of old which problemetized women, our bodies, and our (sometimes) self-governed sexuality but giving them a modern update?

Again, Lucy Fischer cites Barthes: “To try to find the ‘sources,’ the ‘influences’ of the work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation. The citations that make up the text are anonymous, untraceable…” (15).

Find the door. Open the door.


2 thoughts on “Preface to long paper on female grotesques in David Lynch films

    1. Hi Roland,
      I have not yet fully completed the essay, but I will let you know when I’m done and when I’ve posted it somewhere. Thank you for the message.

      – Jenna

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