The Wonderfully Positive Masculinity of Dale Cooper
Question: is Dale Cooper the best man in the world? Discuss.
I’ve been re-watching the first couple of seasons (so, the original run) of Twin Peaks over the last few weeks, and it’s a query that has come up a few times watching the show again. I’ve seen Twin Peaks before, but this is the first time I’ve watched it since I’ve had my Great Gender Theory Awakening, so I feel like I’ve been approaching it slightly differently this time around. And something that’s really stood out to me is just what a damn fabulous man Dale Cooper (as played by Kyle Maclachlan) happens to be.
And I want to make it clear that I don’t just think he’s an interesting character (though he is) or a great lead (though he’s that too) or well-acted or well-written (though he is, of course, all of those things and so much more), but that I think Dale Cooper is a great example of non-toxic masculinity on TV.
Taking it from the top: Dale Cooper is a cop, an FBI agent, no less, a job that usually (and especially in American television) comes loaded with a specific kind of masculinity, one driven by a specific sense of retributory justice, an often near-emotionless exterior, and an ability and willingness to commit violent acts when required to. Cop leading men are usually stoic, strong-jawed, and upholders of the traditional view of white American masculinity.
But Dale is different, from the moment we meet him. He’s involved with spirituality, allows for his investigation into the Laura Palmer case to be driven by his dreams and other non-palpable evidence. He espouses self-care (“do something nice for yourself, every day”). He is openly kind and genial, consistently interested in the small parts of other people’s lives beyond the investigation, totally taken by small-town living and everything that comes with it. This isn’t a brooding big-city slicker; Cooper is a different kind of man entirely.
Perhaps one of my favourite scenes in the entire show comes in the form of this one:
Audrey Horne, a girl of the legal age of consent but still in high school, slips naked into Cooper’s bed while he is away in an attempt to seduce him. And I love the way the show deals with Cooper’s reaction. Men’s sexuality is so often treated as something wild, dangerous, aggressive, something that can actually overwhelm their morality or ability to even think straight. But that’s not how Twin Peaks presents it. Cooper is able to acknowledge his attraction to Audrey, that he could legally have sex with her, and also that he does not want to take advantage of the significant power differential caused by their respective ages and positions to do so. But this is not some man nobly, barely holding himself back from mad shagging by kicking out the teenager in question to uphold his own morals – he talks to Audrey, explains himself, is kind and gentle with her, and offers to take her out so that the two of them can talk in a less loaded scenario. He doesn’t humiliate, scold her, take advantage of her – he treats her like a person, his attraction to her an aspect of that instead of the only thing that matters about the way they interact.
Make no mistake, Cooper is not castrated by the show – he’s a sexual being with sexual desires and needs who is desired by other characters, too. Often, men’s sexuality is presented as at its “most” masculine when it’s aggressive and dominant, but for Cooper, that’s not the case. He wants and is wanted, but navigates those situations level-headedly and with a focus on the emotional wellbeing of his partner first and foremost.
And it’s not just his sexual relationships that have take this kind of approach. Perhaps Cooper’s most significant relationship in the original run of Twin Peaks is with Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean), the sheriff of the small town that Dale comes to work with on the Laura Palmer case. From the off, the two of them share a deep mutual respect for one another (alright, to briefly touch on this – there are a lot of people out there who read this relationship through a queer lens, and honestly, I think the evidence is there in the text to do so, but I’m going to be focusing on the explicit aspects of their relationship in this article), which later blossoms into a deep friendship. Dale shares a genuine love with Harry, their fondness for one another never hidden, their emotions often close to the surface, both physically affectionate with each other throughout the show. This isn’t the no homo male-male friendship that needs to delineate itself from anything Gay by scrubbing out all emotion or love between the two – it’s platonic (well, arguably) love shared between two men, not as a joke, but as a central and vital part of the way the Twin Peaks narrative unfolds.
And then you’ve got Cooper’s relationship with Leland Palmer. Leland is one of the most interesting characters in the show for me, not least because of his possession by the evil BOB spirit who has killed his daughter, but thanks to Ray Wise’s painful, vulnerable performance. It climaxes here, as Leland dies with Dale at the police station:
I find this scene particularly interesting, because it’s so unexpected for the climax of the central procedural narrative of Twin Peaks. So many stories like this end in retribution, the killer suffering a horrible death for their crimes, or being thrown in prison where they belong to rot for the rest of their lives. That retributory justice is a common centrepiece to the classic male cop narrative, but Twin Peaks subverts that again – instead of punishing Leland further, Dale joins him in his last moments, offering him grace and kindness, using a physical and emotional bond to free Leland of his guilt. When you consider how the BOB-Leland story is framed with the language of childhood sexual abuse, it’s even more powerful; Dale doesn’t seek revenge on Leland for what his body has done, but rather acknowledges the abuse he’s suffered and allows Leland to move past it and to his daughter.
I love the way that Twin Peaks consistently subverts the tropes of toxic masculinity with its leading man, Dale Cooper. I love that they indulge his kindness and his morality as an inherent part of his character, his loving relationships with both men and women as part of who he is. And I love most of all that the show never treats Dale as any less of a man for any of it; Dale is still masculine, still very much a leading man, but his kindness, gentleness, and loving nature mark him so far apart from so many others who took up similar roles in TV shows in this genre. Is Dale Cooper the best man in the world? Maybe, but I’m sure that he’s one of my favourite men on television.
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(header image via The Guardian)