What Made Twin Peaks’ Denise Such a Radical Trans Character on TV
At a time when trans characters on TV and film were killers, villains, or just mocked, the equality accorded to David Duchovny’s Denise in ‘Twin Peaks’ stood out.
That’s how Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) reacts in the second season of Twin Peaks when his former colleague Dennis Bryson (David Duchovny) reintroduces herself to him as Denise—not “Wow!” or “Huh?” but a prosaic, matter-of-fact “OK.”
Later that day at a wedding reception, Cooper slips up and calls the transgender woman by her old name again. She corrects him: “Denise.” He apologizes immediately and sincerely—“I’m sorry”—and makes it a point to call her by her new name afterward.
“Well, this is all pretty amazing disclosure, Denise,” Cooper says, with the same stupid grin on his face that he gets when he sips a damn fine cup of coffee or looks at a majestic Douglas fir tree.
To this day, it may be the most tender portrayal of friendship between a transgender person and someone who knew them before transition—and it was first aired in 1990.
The nineties were not a great time for transgender representation on film or television, to say the least. This was the decade when Ace Ventura threw up because he discovered he had kissed a transgender woman, when The Crying Game’s big transgender reveal was marketed as a shocking twist, and when The Silence of The Lambs gave us a villain who wanted to make a “woman suit” out of human skin.
Back then, transgender female characters tended to be “deceitful, disgusting villains,” as Meredith Talusan wrote for Buzzfeed. An ass-kicking DEA special agent in a critically-acclaimed surrealist soap opera didn’t exactly fit in with that trend.
But perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a show as revolutionary as Twin Peaks would also be ahead of the curve when it came to handling a transgender character. And it’s oddly fitting that a show flooded with anachronisms—that felt cut out of time and place—would somehow predict the future of transgender representation.
The representation of Denise—played by a truly breathtaking David Duchovny in era-appropriate stockings and a big-banged wig—has its fair share of problems, of course. The writers clearly wanted to squeeze a few laughs out of the new character, who comes to the town of Twin Peaks to clear Agent Cooper’s name after he gets falsely accused of drug-running.
“That’s a good color for him,” says Deputy Hawk of Denise in her first scene, after she leaves the room, misgendering her and giving the audience tacit permission to laugh at the character—especially because the line follows a deliberately long beat.
Later in Denise’s three-episode arc, the audience is shown a pair of black heels walking across the checkered-tile floor of the Double R diner before the camera cheekily reveals that they belong to the six-foot tall transgender woman. It’s a joke told at Denise’s expense, albeit in a visual grammar rather than a verbal one.
For a real-life transgender viewer like myself, there are pieces of Denise’s story that don’t quite add up. Denise tells Cooper that she transitioned because she discovered that wearing women’s clothing “relaxed [her]” while she was working undercover as a “transvestite” for a drug bust.
“Imagine how surprised I was, Coop,” she says. “It’s not exactly something you plan on.”
While I don’t want to discount anyone else’s life experience, most transgender people I know—myself included—don’t stumble upon this realization about themselves by accident but after years of internal agony. (In fact, when I first discovered Twin Peaks and watched the entire series in a weekend, I was in the middle of painful deliberations about how, when, and if to transition.)
It’s not immediately clear, either, that Denise’s transformation involves any sort of medical treatment. However, a line cut from one of the scripts reveals that she is in a program that requires her to “dress the part for six months prior to any further therapy, hormones, [and] electrolysis.”
At a time when most people still referred to gender transition as “sex change” and equated the entire process with surgery, that’s some pretty impressive attention to detail. But the same script introduces Denise as “MAN IN DRESS,” so I don’t want to give the writers too much credit.
Overall, though, Twin Peaks treats Denise with a remarkable amount of humanity—even by today’s slowly-rising standards.
The welcoming attitude toward Denise begins with Agent Cooper’s immediate acceptance of her transition and emanates outward.
As Rani Baker wrote in her 2016 ode to Denise—playfully titled “26 Goddamn Years Later, Twin Peaks Still Has One of The More Compassionate Trans Woman Characters on TV”—Cooper functions as “the conscience of the [show’s] narrative” and an “anchor point of stability and traditional (yet modern) American values.”
Cooper is the kind, decent, cherry pie-loving, crispy bacon-eating heart of Twin Peaks—so if Denise is all right in his book, then she’s all right, period. The other characters often take their cues from him, not just in matters of law enforcement but in matters of the heart as well.
For instance, Sheriff Truman makes a snide comment about Denise under his breath when he first meets her. But two episodes later, he genders her correctly and even figures out a way to use her womanhood to their advantage in a hostage situation, sending her in dressed as a waitress to disarm some unsuspecting bad guys. (The script describes Cooper as “surprised” and “proud” that Truman came up with the idea.)
In fact, apart from Hawk’s initial misgendering of Denise, I can’t find a single instance of her being referred to as “him” or “he” in the show itself—although the Twin Peaks episode scripts use inconsistent pronouns in their written descriptions of the character.
Young Audrey Horne is downright in awe of Denise, exclaiming, “They have women agents?” when the two first meet. (“More or less,” Denise replies, in one of those borderline-offensive laugh lines.)
And to the show’s credit, no one asks Denise invasive questions about her genitals—a lazy, transphobic crutch for film and TV writers that is still being used today in movies like Zoolander 2. Cooper even prefaces a broader question about Agent Bryson’s transition with a careful “if you don’t mind my asking.”
The show also corrects the misconception that one’s sexual orientation automatically changes following a gender transition. When Denise makes a remark about Audrey’s obvious infatuation with Cooper, Cooper says, “Denise, I would assume you’re no longer interested in girls.”
Denise replies, “Coop, I may be wearing a dress, but I still pull my panties on one leg at a time, if you know what I mean.”
“Not really,” says Cooper, still grinning.
But it’s not just how other characters treat Denise that makes her stick out in a sea of awful transgender characters; it’s how she handles herself. She is friendly, self-assured, and frequently hilarious. When she catches the bridal bouquet at a wedding, for example, she tells Cooper, “Unfair advantage. How many of those girls were varsity wide receivers?”
As Baker noted in her piece, “Denise is presented as actually being talented and confident,” which is a “pretty big deal” given the way transgender women were being represented at the time. Denise plays a key role in taking down series villain Jean Renault and extracting a confession from another criminal named Ernie Niles. In a series full of quirky Lynchian players, she more than holds her own.
That’s why most Twin Peaks fans seem thrilled that she’s apparently coming back in Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival, which premieres on May 21: she’s not just a unique transgender character but a great character, her undeniable sensuality and eminent capability undercut by David Duchovny’s dry delivery of her lines.
I have been waiting for Denise to return since 2015. When rumors were swirling about David Lynch bringing Twin Peaks back to life, Duchovny told the LA Times, “I hope my character comes back, I think she does.” (Note that he gendered his character correctly— something that cisgender actors in transgender roles still sometimes fail to do to do.)
Finally, this March, EW revealed an exclusive photo of Duchovny on the set of Twin Peaks dressed in a smart brown skirt suit with a more modern hairstyle: the bangs are still there, just side swept now. According to EW, Showtime and Lynch won’t officially confirm that the original cast are reprising their exact previous roles—but it’d be shocking if it weren’t Denise in that production photo.
But transgender representation looks a lot different in 2017 than it did in the nineties. Laverne Cox is on Orange is the New Black. Jamie Clayton is on Sense8. Shows and films featuring transgender characters like Transparent and The Danish Girl are being nominated for—and sometimes winning—Oscars and Emmys. But despite taking a half-step forward from nineties transphobia, this new transgender moment is far from perfect. Filling transgender roles with cisgender actors—still the most common casting practice, apart from notable exceptions like Cox and Clayton—not only deprives marginalized actors of work, it sends the dangerous cultural message that transgender women are really men—and that transgender men are really women—underneath it all.
The tide on this debate is only now starting to turn. Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who previously defended casting Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender senior a few years ago, has since said that “it is absolutely unacceptable to cast a cis man in the role of a trans woman.” And Tambor himself told the world in 2016 that he “would be happy if [he] were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female.”
That’s why, as blogger and Twin Peaks superfan Joel Bocko pointed out in his excellent primer on Denise Bryson, Duchovny’s apparent return to the cast “will be both celebrated and controversial.” Will we forgive Twin Peaks for giving us yet another cisgender man as a transgender woman because Duchovny is continuing a part he first played twenty years ago? Or should the casting choice be judged in the present with no consideration for the past?
At this point, it’s hard for me to imagine Denise Bryson’s heels being filled by anyone other than Duchovny. I am the first to criticize movies and shows for casting cisgender actors in transgender parts but there’s a special place in my heart for Denise’s wry quips, quick instincts, and killer legs. And in the grand calculus, Twin Peaks earned enough goodwill with me by setting itself apart from the omnipresent transphobia of nineties entertainment that it can afford to irk me today.
I’ll withhold final judgment until I devour the finished product like the Twin Peaks nerd that I am. But for now, the thought of seeing Denise on my TV again makes me grin about as wide as Agent Cooper contemplating a spread of jelly donuts.
Here’s hoping I get to give her re-reintroduction a big ole Agent Cooper thumbs up.
Or at least a simple, accepting “OK.”