26 God Damn Years Later, Twin Peaks Still Has One Of The More Compassionate Trans Woman Characters On TV

Updated March 05, 2016 3:42pm PST

“...and it was wearing underwear.”

“Boxers or briefs?"

“Tighty whiteys, like I used to wear,” she says. 

A dramatic pause: “I transitioned last year.”  — The X-Files Season 10, Episode 3

Because that is totally how trans women talk.

I hadn't really attempted to catch up on the new X-Files until now and...were the characters always this cartoonish? Along with the trans woman sex worker that also conveniently happens to be on crack, there's a crusty old Freudian psychologist with an Eastern European accent and a skeezy motel manager literally drinking isopropyl rubbing alcohol from the bottle. All we need is a disgruntled property owner with a rubber mask.

Later in the episode, the “monster” claims the sex worker “hit like a man” and expresses wild-eyed distaste as Mulder patiently explains the concept of transgender existence. The monster also appears incredulous to the idea of changing sex, which is contextually strange because SPOILER: many species of lizards and amphibians change their sex based on environmental factors. We've been over this! It was the plot of the first Jurassic Park movie over 20 years ago.

"Can’t fool biology?" Life finds a way.

The conversation isn't particularly cringier than watching any other two cis guys (if we can really call an involuntarily transforming monster “cis”) talk about trans stuff, however. Hey, at least trans folks aren’t shapeshifting Amish murderers in this episode.  

Watching Duchovny as Agent Mulder explain this stuff reminded me of another scene from another show also broadcast over network television 25 years ago. A federal agent (the series protagonist) catching up on an old friend/fellow officer asks “what happened?” and listens compassionately as the agent (a trans woman) relates her initial struggles with gender identity that lead towards her life now. This character remained in the series for three episodes, well-liked and treated with respect.

The character, of course, being Special Agent Denise Bryson from the show Twin Peaks, also played by David Duchovny. It's weird how a surrealist detective series from 1991 still contains the most compassionate portrayal of a trans woman (a lesbian trans woman, even!) ever aired on network television. I mean, the portrayal isn't perfect: she's still white and wealthy and played by a cis dude. But it was something.

From the introduction of the character, Agent Cooper is respectful, politely curious and supportive of Denise's life and experience. Being that Cooper is essentially the conscience of the series communicates so much with this support.

COOPER 
Dennis, if you don't mind my asking, what the hell happened to you?

DENISE 
Not at all. It's good to talk about it. It's simple, really. Last year I was working undercover on a suburban surveillance, some Bolivians were moving coke out of a house across the street ... the seller had a few kinks, his rep was he'd only sell to transvestites. So my partner and I shacked up. I played the buyer and I found that wearing women's clothes... relaxed me. I continued wearing them into the night. My partner thought it was my consummate professionalism. It was a very confusing two weeks.

COOPER
To say the least.

DENISE
So one thing led to another and I'm currently into a specialized kind of program called Gender Relocation Inhibition Therapy, or G.R.I.T. Part of my treatment is to dress the part for six months prior to any further therapy; hormones, electrolysis -

COOPER
This is all a pretty astounding disclosure, Denise.

DENISE
Imagine how surprised I was. This isn't something you exactly plan on.

An almost aggressive sense of eccentricity was definitely a large part of Twin Peaks aesthetic. This sparse quaint US/Canadian border town has some surprisingly high demographics in drug-dealers, amnesiacs, mysterious characters and demon possession. Besides occupying a role as a the conscience of the narrative, Agent Cooper also serves as an anchor point of stability and traditional (yet modern) American values. As he compassionately absorbs Denise’s self-narrative, he invites the audience to do so through him.

However, not everyone is as accepting. Sheriff Truman and Deputy Hawk are surprisingly intolerant, but also strangely passive aggressive about it. They make sarcastic asides and comments behind her back. This is seemingly at odds with how they’ve behaved through the widely-varied experiences and characters they’ve encountered up to this point, but it does add tension to the story arc. However, the Barney Fife-ish Deputy Andy takes a liking to her, even slow-dancing with her at one point. The scene is actually kind of sweet.

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Two episodes later, Denise disguises herself as a male agent for a bust, but still clearly presents as Denise. It's actually a pretty marvelous bit of acting, definitely resonant to trans folks who have been obligated by an employer to present as their birth sex.

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In the end, Agent Truman hatches a rescue plan for Agent Cooper that involves Denise in a waitress outfit. This plan is later remarked on as evidence of his change of heart towards her.

COOPER
Quick thinking, Denise.

DENISE
Don't thank me. Thank Sheriff Truman. It was his idea.

COOPER turns to HARRY. Surprised, proud. He smiles.

COOPER
Harry S. Truman.

TRUMAN
(modestly)
I improvised.

Even now, this is still one of a handful of televised trans characters that managed to retain both her dignity and life by the end of the story arc. Not only that, Denise is presented as actually being talented and confident. She’s able to achieve things, rather than just show reacting to things happening to her. When her sexuality is invoked, it is hers to own rather than weaponized against her. This is a pretty big deal.

It's a pretty amazing story arc, altogether. Respectful and yet playful with the boundaries of the characters identity without a trace of the mean-spiritedness you would expect from anywhere else on television.

Of course, feel free to take my interpretation with a grain of salt. While I definitely have concerns about cis actors playing trans folks, I have a frequently admitted soft spot for certain portrayals reminiscent of what I was offered in my youth, back when you just sort of took what you got. As I mentioned before, it’s certainly not ideal.

But as far as problematic faves of mine, I feel this is one of the least so.

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Destroyed For Comfort frontperson. Gamedev of altgame titles like Never Go To Work and retro game enthusiast. Probably writing about something pop culture related. Born/raised Texan; slightly embarrassed about it. Weirder than you're probably comfortable with. Once had a Tumblr post reach 40,000 notes. Has a reputation, for good or bad.