One of the most interesting characters in Lynch’s Blue Velvet must certainly be Dorothy Valens, the mother/wife of Donnie/Donald, the sexual slave of Frank Booth, and the lover of Jeffrey Beaumont. And if we admit this much, there can be no denying that the reason for our interest in her is bound up in her complex portrait of maternity and feminine desire.
Just as Lynch pushes back against normative modes of interpretation in Lost Highway when the question of “Wouldn’t you like to know why?” is posed to our then-protagonist Pete, Blue Velvet reframes this question in the context of desire. Here, Lynch pushes back against normative understandings of sexuality and desire as being sanitary, safe and, in many ways, sterile. But whereas Lost Highway delights in denying the audience a point of entry, Blue Velvet is more tolerant of naivete, generously entertaining simple questions as opportunities for instruction rather than mocking them. In particular, the film is interested in exploring the central question that Jeffrey asks Dorothy while in bed, “What do you want?“
As a mother, its clear that Dorothy wants her kidnapped son back. Nowhere is this more evident than in her two meetings with her son. The first of these reunions takes place at Ben’s apartment, also called (THIS IS) IT, and the second takes place at what looks like a public park at the end of the film. But where we’re driven to Ben’s apartment and thus understand it as situated in space and time, this second meeting comes as part of a montage and is unquestionably more dream-like.
Normally, the story of a mother trying to reconnect with her kidnapped son elicits sympathy and sorrow from its audience. And most audiences, cry as they might, expect the storyteller to toy with their emotions as soon as they recognize that the story they’re being told fits into this genre, even as they might simultaneously protest against this emotional manipulation as “cheap”. What makes Blue Velvet’s engagement with this “genre” fascinating is that it completely subverts this identification and instead forces the audience to recognize their complete unfamiliarity with this kind of mother-son relation.
Consider, for instance, the fact that we are barred from entering the room with Dorothy when she visits Donnie. If the film were looking to generate pity here, we might get a shot (like in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) of the child in captivity. Or perhaps we’d be given a flashback to a particularly fond memory of Dorothy’s when Donnie wasn’t yet being held captive. But such is never the case. We’re never allowed to see Donnie’s face, or to hear him speak; in fact, the only indication we have of his existence comes to us through conversations between Frank and Dorothy, who are some of our least reliable characters in terms of establishing narrative fact and fiction. As readers of the film, we must ask what this conscious denial of access to this relationship accomplishes: why is the mother-son relationship one that can only take place behind closed doors?
At the same time, we are always present for encounters with “perverse” desires which society usually requests take place (if at all) behind closed doors. In this sense, the film completely inverts a social hierarchy of acceptable desire, placing us in a world where the most universal “desire” (if we can call it that) of a mother for her son is considered too much to behold, while the most normally reprehensible or “perverse” is regularly on-display.
The film also exhibits a keen interest in the inversion of familial hierarchies, not simply here with the inacessible desire of the mother for her son, but also between fathers and their sons. Recall that Blue Velvet only begins because Jeffrey’s father suffers a stroke prompting his return home, filling in, as it were, for him as the father in the family. We might also say that Donnie does something similar to his father, Donald, through his mother Dorothy: he, too, inherits the empty throne of his father. We can say, then, that the film is firmly invested in exploring the son’s (Oedipal) replacement of the father, and that this is bound up triply in Dorothy through her son Donnie, her lover Jeffrey and her rapist Frank.
To properly read Dorothy’s desire in relation to her construction of family there is one more key component we must touch upon; namely, her longing for sexual masochism.
This is particularly difficult to stomach for most viewers. While on the one hand we see her brutally raped by Frank, we also see her demanding to be sexually punished by Jeffrey in that scene’s immediate aftermath. And part of the danger in addressing this side of her desire is that as we take notice of her enjoyment of (and indeed demand for) sexual violence from Jeffrey, we can’t help but wonder how this relates to her sexual victimhood at Frank’s hands: we feel guilty for even beginning to suggest that she desires her rape and we feel simultaneously irremediably stained for our misunderstanding. Hence, the question of what Dorothy wants in the film is a delicate one. As we approach it, we are repulsed by ourselves.
I think that Slavoj Zizek can help us in understanding the dilemma of Dorothy’s desire, through his writing on rape in “From Che Vuoi? To Fantasy: Lacan With Eyes Wide Shut”. The essential point is this one:
the problem with rape, in Freud’s view, is that it has such a traumatic impact not simply because it is a case of brutal external violence, but because it also touches on something disavowed in the victim herself. So, when Freud writes, ‘If what /subjects/ long for most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee from it,’ his point is not merely that this occurs because of censorship, but, rather, because the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us.
While it may not be the rape itself, there is undeniably some core of her fantasy that is realized when Dorothy is raped by Frank. Dissecting this further, when Frank rapes Dorothy, he physically dominates her, assumes the name “Baby” and bars her from looking at him. When Dorothy has sex with Jeffrey, parts of this are recreated: his childlike innocence mirrors what is embodied by Frank as a “Baby”, and the physical violence mirrors Frank’s sadism. We can say clearly, then, that Dorothy consciously understands that she wants to have sex with and to be be punished by Donnie, her son. We might even be able to assert that she understands that this desire is motivated by her loss of her husband Donald, and her desire to replicate their sexual union. But the piece that’s missing in this formulation is perhaps the unbearable core of the fantasy: namely, that Dorothy wants to not be able to see Donnie, just as Frank doesn’t let her look at him.
For proof of this, we can look to the moment when Jeffrey plays with Donnie’s propeller hat. We might think, errantly, that the closer he comes to embodying Donnie (and thus making him accessible to Dorothy), the more the fantasy would be realized and the more sexually appealing he would become. After all, if she is interested in removing barriers, this would be the logical extension of this fact. But such is not the case.
Dorothy, instead of being pleased or even sexually stimulated, is shocked and unsettled. Although she longs for reunion with her son, this represents a clear violation of a sacred contract. The hat—which we see featured in one of Jeffrey’s dreams and is one of the last shots in isolation before Jeffrey is forced to watch the primal scene between Frank and Dorothy, thus embodying Donnie, in some sense—is that unbearable, inviolable core of Dorothy’s fantasy.
Although this analysis will end here, having drawn up a rough portrait of Dorothy’s desire, further analysis would look the points of intersection between Dorothy and Jeffrey, specifically how Jeffrey’s fetishization of the propeller hat illustrates his desire to assume the role of Dorothy’s son and betrays his unconscious understanding of Dorothy’s desire for her son.