“Twin Peaks” finally introduced fans to Diane, the oft-named but never seen secretary whom FBI Agent Cooper addressed his recordings to in the original 1990s series: David Lynch saved the plum role for one of his favorite actresses, Laura Dern, and her performance has been nothing short of thrilling and moving. Apart from the performance though, the character’s striking style is Orientalist, using Eastern images and themes to evoke a sense of exoticism.
Not much was known about Diane to begin with, since Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) only ever left recordings for her. It was a one-way exchange that left viewers in the dark. In “The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes” written by series co-creator Mark Frost, Cooper offers the only real description of Diane:
“I have been assigned a secretary. Her name is Diane. Believe her experience will be a great help. She seems an interesting cross between a saint and a cabaret singer.”
That summary of the off-screen, off-page character only added more to her air of mystery. Therefore, when we finally meet Dern as Diane, the impact is pronounced, with her striking and unusual appearance: The sleek, platinum blonde bob, the multicolored fingernails that coordinate with her ensemble, and those clothes. The glimpse of each of the three outfits that Diane has worn thus far are showstoppers. They also have a strong Eastern influence in their design.
Diane’s initial look can only be seen from the bust upwards, but its heavy and ornate gold embroidery is Eastern-inflected, and her haircut super-straight styling with heavy bangs is reminiscent of how Asians have been depicted in the past, such as with actress Anna May Wong. While this first glimpse at Diane in Episode 6 isn’t enough to tell her overall aesthetic, Episode 7 certainly gives a clearer idea of her taste.
When Agents Rosenfield and Cole (Miguel Ferrer, David Lynch) visit Diane’s home, she enters the room in a red, silky, kimono-style robe. At that point, the Asian influences cannot be ignored, especially once you add in her home’s decor. A glance around Diane’s house confirms a mix of mid-century modern and Asian pieces ranging from multi-panel screens/room dividers, vases, decorative cranes and black lacquer objects accented with mother of pearl. Even her third outfit, a red and black leather number shows samurai inspirations that gives the illusion of criss-cross styling and a gathered waist.
Diane’s tastes and styling aren’t the most racist or even overt example of Orientalism on the show, but the series does assign its characters quirks that are often the marks of marginalized people. For example, many characters have some sort of physical disability like an eye patch or hearing loss. Making that the most identifiable mark of their characters creates a vicious cycle of reinforcing the perception of their marginalized status: Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) isn’t described as the woman whose husband is in love with another woman, but as the kook with the eyepatch. Meanwhile, in the current season, the only Asian character is Naido (Nae Yuuki), the woman without eyes who doesn’t speak in the Purple Room.
Diane’s bold style is used to emphasize her strong personality (“Fuck you, Tammy”) but also her mysterious, exotic qualities that Cooper had tried to encapsulate in his description. Therefore, the Asian trappings are used as costuming and Otherizing to show how interesting and unusual she is. While this practice of using Eastern clothes as costumes was far more prevalent in the past, it still shows up in properties such as “Star Wars” (Princess Amidala’s costumes are very ceremonial Asian, down to the makeup) or critical favorite “Pushing Daisies.”
The Orientalism on “Twin Peaks” was far more pronounced when the show first aired in the 1990s. Although Agent Cooper was a white man teaching Eastern philosophy to solve crimes and Josie Packard (Joan Chen) fulfilled the stereotype of the Asian seductress, the worst affront came in Season 2. Josie’s sister-in-law Catherine Martell for some reason appeared in yellowface for several episodes as a businessman named Mr. Tojamura who sported a samurai hairstyle, spoke in a stereotypical accent and even invoked the bombing of Nagasaki in a conversation. Take a look at that trainwreck below:
“Twin Peaks” has come a long way when it comes to its depiction of Eastern cultures as merely costume or lesser-than. Sadly, it seems to have doubled-down on its brutality towards and objectification of women. But more on that later.
“Twin Peaks” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.