Recently, I’ve started watching my way through The X Files, a show that was big enough to amorphously dominate my pop cultural recollections of tween- and teenhood, but which, with the exception of two lone episodes circa the sixth or seventh season, I’ve never actually watched before. For a show that first aired in 1993 – which is to say, a show whose first season is now twenty years old – the overall feel is surprisingly undated, partly because of the massive stylistic influence it had on later programming, but also because, right from the get-go, Scully and Mulder have access to both mobile phones and the internet. This might seem like a minor detail at first, especially given the hilariously dated brick-style phones and grey box laptops everyone is using, but it’s incredibly significant in terms of plot: as others have pointed out, many classic Seinfeld gags would be voided now by the presence of mobile phones, while their virtual absence from Buffy meant the main cast spent seven seasons getting in trouble in ways they couldn’t now. But because The X Files was about characters with access to what was then exclusive, expensive technology, there’s a structural modernity to even the earliest episodes that sets it apart from other 90s shows.

By the same token, however, it’s impossible to forget that these early seasons effectively codified the relevance of multiple tropes whose usage is now ubiquitous in both its SFnal and crime procedural heirs – most prominently, the protracted UST between Scully and Mulder, arguably the ur-example of a narrative device so commonplace now as to be practically requisite for crime-fighting partnerships. Having only just reached the end of season two, I can’t yet comment on how the portrayal changes throughout the series, but initially at least, it’s striking to note how the cinematography treats their relationship in comparison to the default practice of more modern shows. In programs like Bones, Castle and Fringe, for instance, moments of intense physical and emotional connection between the male and female leads are almost invariably shown in closeup, replete with soulful reaction shots to underline their significance and further highlighted by the addition of meaningful glances and strong musical cues. By contrast, and despite the undeniable intensity of their relationship as shown through their actions, interactions and dialogue, Scully and Mulder’s closest moments are overwhelmingly shot in wideview, so that the audience watches from a distance: there’s no lingering focus on where and when their hands touch, no sudden cutaway so we can see the one gazing hungrily at the other, and no special score to help us infer attraction, which means that the audience isn’t constantly being hit over the head with Proof That They Secretly Love Each Other. Instead, we can get on with seeing them as individuals whose relationship isn’t their most defining quality, and while they’re still rescuing each other from dire peril every other week (more of which shortly), the end result comes across as refreshingly objective.

It’s also noteworthy how unsexualised Scully is in terms of her clothes and appearance. So far, with the exception of a single scene in the pilot episode where she appears in her underwear,we’ve never seen her in anything more form-fitting than a full length, long-sleeved dress – and even in the pilot, it’s notable that instead of sexy lingerie, she’s wearing sensible, comfy-looking white underwear with an elastic waist. Most of the time, she cuts around wearing a massive, shapeless overcoat; even her hair is a practical length to be worn loose, and when tied back, it actually gets to look messy. Accordingly, the camerawork isn’t overly concerned with her body: we see detail on her face and hands often enough, because her expressions and actions matter, but in two  seasons, I’ve never noticed a ‘male gaze’ moment where the camera sweeps her from top to toe, or else follows the line of a male character’s vision to indicate that he likes what he sees. In fact, I can only think of a single male character who has overtly passed comment on her physical attractiveness, and that was done playfully, in a way that was neither demeaning nor predatory. Which isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with female characters being presented in ways that acknowledge their sexuality – Kate Beckett of Castle, for instance, is very purposefully a woman who enjoys and owns her body, and that’s done extremely well. It’s just that overt sexiness and all the secondary trappings thereof have long since become a default setting for TV heroines, as has male gaze camerawork: any visible underwear is always sexy lingerie and usually shown gratuitously; long hair is always impractically long and often worn loose to  emphasise feminine beauty even in situations where any practical woman would tie it back; work clothes are form-fitting, cleavage-revealing and invariably paired with high heels, even for women who spend all day walking and running; and cosmetic disarray only ever enters the picture as a sign of emotional distress. It’s so low level and constant that half the time I just tune it out, but even so, it’s rare I can get through an action movie these days without gritting my teeth over female soldiers and scientists with perfect flowing princess hair, and oh my god, can we please have a fucking heroine with a ponytail or – let’s go crazy – hair that comes to above her shoulders? But Scully, though well-groomed, smartly dressed and physically attractive, if unconventionally so by today’s exorbitant standards, is still allowed to be practical; to look comfortable, rather than like she’s constantly on display, such that you can go whole episodes without being forced to acknowledge her body at all.

And then there’s Mulder: the handsome young hotshot who’s difficult to work with, but whose crazy theories and mad, brilliant deductions inevitably turn out to be right. That’s a character we see a lot of, now – The Mentalist’s Patrick Jayne, Greg House of House – and while the archetype by no means began with Mulder, Sherlock Holmes being a far more established and obvious antecedent, he’s nonetheless an obvious forerunner to many of the leads we currently see on TV. However, I find it interesting to note that, whereas more recent iterations of this character-type tend to be abusive, inconsiderate, rude, arrogant or some admixture thereof – traits which serve to justify why others find them difficult to work with – Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise. In much the same way that Scully’s treatment contrasts with the current default sexualisation of  female leads, therefore, Mulder’s kindness and willingness to listen contrast with the overt displays of arrogance and insensitivity which are increasingly normalised as acceptable and even justifiable when delivered by a particular kind of (straight, white, male, maverick) hero.

In combination, the effect is to make a twenty-year old show feel markedly more progressive than many which postdate it, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. When it comes to issues of race, however, the picture is much more grim. Specifically: the show has made a habit of introducing POC characters whose ethnicity and/or religious beliefs are a source of dangerous supernatural powers, or else of intimating that the religious and cultural beliefs of various POC groups are inherently magic or suspect. Thus far, we’ve had a Native American werewolf, an African American whose zealous Christianity has lead him to track down and kill his former associates, a white soldier using Haitan voodoo to perpetrate atrocities, and a community of cannibalistic white people whose Eebil Cannibalism stems solely from the fact that one of them spent time with a tribe of Indians back in the day and picked up their Eebil Ways. By contrast, white religious beliefs are given positive associations: an alien species living in disguise as a white Christian community, for instance, is portrayed as using Christian beliefs – or at least, the semblance of them – to curb their more dangerous impulses, while white Romanian priests use ritual magic to drive out evil spirits. I’d like to believe that later episodes will improve on this point, but given the extent to which modern shows are still rampantly perpetuating these same stereotypes, I’m not holding out much hope.

What’s really struck me about The X Files, however, is how rich a narrative resource it is for conversations about damselling and gender. Almost every episode, either one or both of the protagonists is put in life-threatening danger, which means that, more often than not, they end up requiring rescue. In terms of who ends up rescuing who, the scores are pretty much equal: both Scully and Mulder regularly go to extraordinary lengths to save each other, whether it’s from exposure to a deadly virus or death at the hands of a killer. There’s no notable imbalance in the hurt/comfort ratio, and nor are such incidents used as gratuitous fodder for emotional confrontations built on romanticised damage, which is very much a positive. In episodes where both characters are imperiled at once, the threat usually comes from a neutral source, faceless government agents and unknown toxic/biological agents being favourite. But when only one is endangered, the type of peril faced is markedly gendered. While Mulder frequently ends up in trouble from what I’ll call an excess of initiative – being first through the door, going off alone, taking risks, pursuing dangerous people – Scully tends to be targeted by male villains for kidnap, experimentation and abuse. Thus, while Mulder tends to save Scully from the predations of specific villains, Scully tends to save Mulder from the consequences of his own actions – meaning, in essence, that whereas male characters are targeted a result of their boldness, female characters are targeted because they’re female, or because they’re perceived to be weak. It does help that Scully is seldom a passive victim, fighting back even while terrified and frequently helping to rescue herself before Mulder arrives on the scene, but even so, the difference is striking.

Overall, then, despite certain qualms, I’m enjoying The X Files, both as a series and as a narrative exercise. Given that the entire collection is nine seasons long, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it the whole way through, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I plan to give it a try.

  1. Jam says:

    I remember adoring (and having a crush on) Scully in the early seasons, because she was competent, assertive, and beautiful yet not sexualised. I loved it when she saved herself and the moments where she saved Mulder or let Mulder cry on her shoulder etc. were some of my favorites.

    I do notice that the “Scully gets kidnapped by a rapist” plots become more and more common as time goes on. Eventually Scully has some kind of alien baby? I stopped watching after season 7 I think.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Oddly, the alien baby episode is one of the two I ever originally watched, so I was quite surprised to see it seeded way back at the start of S2. Weird!

  2. laura says:

    Thanks for this insightful piece. I have occasionally watched an episode of X files when I was younger. I always had a thing for Scully (baby dyke hehe) because she was very strong and interesting. Back then of course I wasn’t aware of the desexualized (or rather normal objective way) she was portrayed. Or the (romantic?) dynamic between her and Mulder, the UST or anything like that. Now, as a self-proclaimed feminist I am constantly analyzing contemporary (pop) culture. So I really like this piece. Also, cause I am an avid Castle watcher. It is weird to see how Beckett from season one (sturdy, practical, short hair) has progressed to what she is now (more emotional, in touch with her feminine side, long wavy looks, sexy in the typical sense). She is still very competent (although she loses her gun quite often to the bad guys…), workaholic and smart but she constantly wears her long hair loose and ridiculously high heels. Her beauty is always present and of course the actress is very pretty, but it is still the same woman as 5 years ago. So the show runners have intentionally made her more model-like. You can clearly see that in the season promotional shots. It’s good that Beckett, as a person, enjoys her own body and feels comfortable showing it. But it is too bad, because she is a cop. I think wearing 10cm high heels aren’t very helpful in chasing criminals. So it made it less believable. Season 1 Beckett (see the opening shot of the pilot) is way more credible in her job than season 5 Beckett with wavy curls and an endless closet of obvious designer clothes. Scully definitely didn’t have that. That show, with all it;s aliens, werewolves and other fringe science story arcs, was more believable than most current TV shows. There are hardly any shows that don’t focus on the beauty of the women (maybe Parcs and Rec, or 30 Rock)

    • fozmeadows says:

      It’s been a while since I’ve watched S1 of Castle, but I totally take your point about how Beckett has changed – I’d forgotten she started off with short hair and low heels. Sigh!

  3. laura says:

    in my eyes. S1 beckett was way more attractive. anyway check this out this picture that capture the diff between S1 and S later perfectly:

    • fozmeadows says:

      That pretty much sums it up, yeah. The one saving grace is that they’ve at least let her be a sexual being in her own right, rather than just glamming her up with no indication that she’s aware of it, but even so: GAH.

  4. Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise.


    I hate the way this side of Holmes has become neglected, and the crappy, privilege-cosseting trends that neglect has helped entrench in pop culture. Admittedly, I think you can make a canonical case for an abrasive Holmes with an emotionally abusive streak, (Holmes, locking your friend in a room so you can make him think you’re dying in agony is never cool) but you can just as easily make the case for Holmes as a prickly and introverted man who still has a keen sense of the importance of kindness and courtesy. But we never seem to see that any more, and increasingly it seems to be the bullying, rather than the talent and charm and sense of mission, that’s being glamorised. I can’t say I’ve never enjoyed arrogant, dickish, “maverick” white heroes in the past, but when they’re EVERYWHERE…

    Really interesting, nostalgia-stirring piece. I already missed Scully, you made me miss Mulder too.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Stephen Moffat’s portrayal of Sherlock as a high-functioning sociopath makes me want to tear my hair out. As you say, you can certainly read the original as abrasive at times, but he pretty much always takes care of his clients, being considerate of their needs and feelings, and really does love Watson, whereas Moffat’s version doesn’t give a shit and literally just shouts at people or makes them cry to get his way. And now that type of character is, as you say, EVERYWHERE. *rageflail*

      • Vivi says:

        I can’t really comment on The X-Files, because it’s been over a decade that I last watched that show, but I get the feeling that you could really enjoy Elementary. The show gets right a lot that went wrong with Moffat’s version (at this point, it atually looks like it’s an intentional deconstruction), and I’m surprised almost every episode how kind their Sherlock Holmes is to those who are vulnerable. He does initially start out angry and somewhat antisocial (he’s just out of rehab) and he does say some sexist and objectifying shit to rile up Watson, but the show doesn’t let him get away with it. And these last few episodes, he’s really mellowed out and his needling of Watson has almost disappeared, because he wants to keep her around now and he seems to believe in positive reinforcement as part of his teaching methods. It’s not perfect – they turned Irene Adler into an ex girlfriend and fridged her (or so it appears so far), and they turned Sherlock clearly heterosexual with his initial kinky-but-asexual behaviour in the pilot being explained with an ace-phobic “he’s afraid to let people close” – but you can tell the writers do honestly try to get at least more mainstream feminist ideas across. Watson also isn’t sexualised in her clothing or by the camera angles. The last episode featured her getting dressed under the bed covers, like they’re actively trying to make a point about this kind of thing. And they just introduced their version of Mrs. Hudson. She’s a transwoman (and an Ancient Greek autodidact whom Sherlock respects for her expertise, and someone suffering from OCD but also really good at organising things, and a former boy-scout, and a sort of ‘kept woman’ with romantic troubles who just broke up with her ex, which is why she needs a job…). It went surprisingly well.

        • fozmeadows says:

          I *really* like what I’ve seen of Elementary – it’s not airing in the UK yet, but I managed to catch the first few episodes online, and can’t wait to see the rest of it once it’s available.

  5. JJ says:

    I love your analysis of the show thus far. I am a lifelong X-Phile (as we used to call ourselves in fandom, back in the day), and even now, I can’t stress how much impact this show had on my psyche. (When I started watching back in 1993, I was 8 years old. When the show ended in 2002, I was 16. And I watched it RELIGIOUSLY.

    To my mind, the first 5 seasons of this show still hold up, and season 3 has some absolute GEMS when it comes to episodes. Anything written by Darrin Morgan is darkly funny and utterly BRILLIANT at turning the tropes of the show upside down and on its head. (Even that early into the show’s life, it was pretty good at poking fun at itself, but in a really smart way.) Vince Gilligan (of BREAKING BAD fame) was also particularly great at writing episodes that showcased just what it was the gazillions of us ‘shippers loved about the Mulder/Scully dynamic.

    That being said, post-movie the show begins to falter. I blame LA. (The show moved from Vancouver to LA then.) No longer does the show narratively make sense, but the tropes become stale, even as there are some fantastic individual episodes still.

    The issue of race never really improves throughout the show. There is one significant black character (A.D. Kersh) who replaces Skinner as their boss in season 6, but he’s more antagonistic than helpful (unlike Skinner), even if he’s not an outright villain. There are some EGREGIOUS episodes with regards to race (one involving Lucy Liu and B.D. Wong being reduced to mystic Chinese immigrant/Triad member tropes in season 3). However, late in season 8 and throughout season 9, we are introduced to a new main cast member named Special Agent Monica Reyes, who was born and raised in Mexico City, although her heritage is muddled and she seems to be Latin@ only when convenient.

    Still, I look forward to what you think of the rest of this show! 🙂

    • fozmeadows says:

      Sucks that the race thing never improves. LE SIGH. Will have to keep a tally of offences as the series progresses. But still, it does get a lot of other things right.

  6. Kagi says:

    I began a ‘re-watch’ of the show recently too, having never seen most of it, only scattered episodes, and I was continually shocked by not just how well it held up, but how far ahead of it’s time it was, and how often it ‘did it first and best’ – and the relatively neutral but still strongly connected relationship between Mulder and Scully, the lack of sexualisation and the fact that Mulder was allowed to show many feminine traits like emotion, empathy, and concern while still being a strong and confident man was very novel. The race issues did make me cringe a number of times (I’m only halfway through S2), but yeah…they’re still everywhere, so that didn’t necessarily make the show stand out.

    It was really interesting to see the way that tropes unfolded and were used, often things that are ubiquitous now but which were fairly original at the time and arguably codified by XF in particular. The technology is a bit dated in places, but they weren’t shy about going cutting-edge and using stuff that wasn’t quite there yet, like the episode where they’re using…what was it, facial-recognition software I think? Something like that, which is common now, but was barely heard of at the time. There was a few points where I was just really amazed at what they pulled off, and how well they did it.

  7. dancingcrow says:

    Apparently X Files rewatching is catching? I have had trouble getting into it, but I have really enjoyed Shaenon Garrity’s comic-blog of her rewatch. You can find the beginning here:

  8. The X-Files is perhaps my favorite television shows, so I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. I did always appreciate how Scully’s and Mulder’s roles are kind of reversed. She’s the rational hard nosed scientist, he’s the touchy feely intuitive believer.

    There is one episode, I think season 4, where they try and make a point about immigrants and invisibility, tying it in with, kind of, the EBE alien stuff, and just end up muddying the whole affair. Often cited as one of the worst episodes of the series, I can’t think of the name. The second movie, while having some interesting elements regarding faith, etc. also manages to regurgitate all of the most transphobic elements of Silence of the Lambs (in addition to borrowing most of the main plot points as well)

    While I think the X-Files did have plenty of problematic elements regarding race, gender, etc. there is also a strong undercurrent/subtext regarding alienation and othering, probably best brought out by episodes like “Humbug” and “The Unnatural”.

    In, fact I noticed you left out any mention of Humbug, what did you think of that?

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think Humbug was one of the best episodes of the season: original, well-constructed, and by turns funny, frightening and thoughtful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s