I’ve now reached the end of S4 of The X Files, and am happy to say that I’m still enjoying the show. Granted, it hasn’t improved on race issues, which has lead to some truly cringeworthy moments – as I noted before, with few exceptions, POC predominantly appear in the show as extensions of or vehicles for their supernatural and/or religious beliefs, with a strong tendency towards negative and/or highly stereotyped portrayals of both – and Scully is still being damselled in ways that Mulder isn’t by virtue of gender, but overall, the quality has remained impressively consistent. I’m especially enjoying the strength of the continuity: not only are there multiple regular callbacks, both large and small, to the events of previous episodes and seasons, but the way these references are braided together to form a cohesive background of conspiracies and character development is extremely well done. In modern television, a policy of as-you-go retconning seems to have long since become the default order of business, and as someone who appreciates background details, it’s refreshing to see them treated with the care they deserve.

But as before, what really stands out is the skill with which Scully and Mulder are rendered as characters, and the extent to which their relationship subverts the usual presentations of TV gender roles. Having observed in S1 and S2 how non-sexualised Scully is, for instance, it still came as a surprise to realise – or rather, to hear my husband observe – that Mulder is frequently sexualised in her place: often, he’s shown running around shirtless or wearing nothing but a towel, and as of the penultimate episode of S4, we’ve seen him naked in the shower. Skinner, too, is shown in a similar light, with multiple bare-chested appearances and one prolonged, overtly voyeuristic scene of him in his underwear. While I can certainly think of several more recent shows that feature male sexualisation as a regular component, I’m hard-pressed to think of any that do so instead of, rather than as an accompaniment to, female sexualisation, let alone where the male nudity isn’t filtered through the lens of an on-screen female gaze. By which I mean: in order not to frighten straight male viewers, men only tend to be sexualised on screen when in the presence of a straight female characters – their gaze, whether lustful or embarrassed, is overwhelmingly used as a barrier to protect straight men from seeing male bodies as sexual objects; that way, such viewers can continue to identify with sexualised male characters without actually feeling objectified themselves, because their identification is with the idea of being attractive to fictional women rather than unknown audience members. Take away the on-screen women, however, and what you’re left with is a man whose sexual appeal is only meant for the audience – an inherently radical prospect, when the most sought-after demographic are straight young men who’ve been socially conditioned to panic at even the slightest whiff of homoeroticism. And yet, this is exactly how The X Files runs its sexuality: shirtless Mulder and Skinner shown in contexts where neither Scully nor any other female character is there to see them, such that their nudity is for the benefit of the audience alone. (Scully does see Mulder in the shower, but it’s a profoundly unsexy encounter given his state of psychological shock, and she doesn’t react at all to seeing him undressed.)

It’s also notable that Mulder, while still a masculine character, is allowed to display emotions that are traditionally deemed feminine: he not only cries freely, but does so in the presence of other people, rather than at home, alone, while drunk, as a sign of repression. Similarly, Scully is allowed to display traditionally masculine traits without this compromising her femininity: she aggressively confronts congressmen, senators, generals, senior government officials and other powerful figures, and yet is never once characterised or described as nagging, bitchy or shrill – even her enemies respect her competence without slighting her gender, and that’s a rare thing. This dynamic is exemplified in S4’s The Field Where I Died, which deals with the idea of past lives: though not a fantastic episode in and of itself, the fact that Mulder was said to be female in one of his past lives, while Scully was male at least twice (once as Mulder’s father, and once his commanding officer, both positions of command and power over her colleague) says a lot about the show’s willingness to subvert gender dynamics – as does the fact that this information is presented without question.

All in all, then, I’m looking forward to the start of S5, and keen to see where the rest of the show is headed. Even if it starts to head downhill from this point (and let’s be honest – most TV shows tend to go a bit wonky in their fourth or fifth season) I’m glad to have seen this much.

  1. The show is strong right through season five, largely because the movie was made first and the season had a target to hit, making it one of the strongest seasons in my opinion. Season six wasn’t as good as some prior, but still strong. The slide really starts in seven. Eight is divisive amongst fans, but I enjoyed it better than six or seven. There are reasons nine was the last season; I’ll leave it at that.

  2. Personally, I would say the series stayed strong through season 7. Sure there were some clunkers here and there, but seasons 8 and 9 bordered on unwatchable for me. I don’t know why some fans disliked season 7 so much.

    I also felt, though, that with the exception of the series finale, which I liked, that The X-Files really had trouble ending it’s main storylines. Some of the worst episodes of the series for me (Two Fathers/One Son, Closure, particularly Closure which I would rate as the worst episode of the series it it weren’t for Jump the Shark) were when the series tried to end a major plot arc. Which makes your point about The X-Files having a strong overall narrative plot thrust, seem odd to me. Or rather, actually, I think they made it up as they went along. While some of the earlier mytharc episodes were brilliant, (EBE is one of my favorites, Patient X/The Red and the Black are pretty good as well) by the end though, the mytharc basically collapsed under it’s own weight.

    Seasons 6 and 7 probably had some of the better monstor of the week/standalone episodes though.

  3. Vivi says:

    Uh… I hate to tell you this, but this show is the grand master of “TPTB are just making shit up as they go” – it’s even called the “Chris Carter Effect” sometimes. ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheChrisCarterEffect ) He was just better at hiding that he had no plan than most modern writers are. At least until he actually had to deliver and solve some mysteries, in the later seasons.

    Another show recommendation for you:

    Sanctuary. They had an annoying habit of retconning character backstory and a few things that make no sense notably got glossed over and were never mentioned again, but they were pretty good about subverting traditional gender roles. In the first couple of seasons, all the leadership and tough action roles go to the female characters, whereas the male regulars fullfil the more emotionally sensitive, non-combatant, supporting roles in the team. The main character rooster is basically a genderflipped version of Torchwood, except that no-one is shagging each other within the team (because the younger characters are either bloodrelated to the main heroine or more or less adopted as her protéges). And if I remember correctly, we see the men shirtless or in the shower a few times, but the women are much more rarely sexualised – through tight-fitting leather clothes, at most. This may be because the main star (Amanda Tapping) was also the executive producer of the show.

    Warehouse 13 is similar in both regards. It’s the male main character who gets emotional and has intuitive “vibes”, and his actor seems to have an exibitionist streak a mile wide, which the writers indulge more and more as the show goes on. The female main character is a tough, no-nonsense, somewhat emotionally repressed secret service agent and I don’t remember seeing her underdressed more than once or twice during 4 seasons. The best part? There is no will-they-won’t-they. All the regular characters act like an extended family.

    (In the latter video the two main characters wake up naked in bed together because they had an encounter with an drunkeness- and amnesia-inducing artifact the evening before, and they arranged that scene on purpose to prompt themselves to investigate the next morning – precisely because they would never do that without outside influence. The scene with the blond guy looking freaked out at the male main character undressing went basically “You’re gay? Great! Finally someone who can appreciate my abs around here!”)

    • Vivi says:

      Ack, sorry, I didn’t know that the video links would result in automatic embedding.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I get that Carter is making it up, but at least he builds the new stuff in without massive obvious retconning; it gets more elaborate s time goes on, but so far, not actually contradictory.

      Also, I’ve seen Warehouse 13 and like it, but they do use a lot of male-gaze shots on Myka and have her do fancy sexy dress ups, as per the casino episode and the superhero leather catwoman outfit (for instance). But I do really enjoy the fact that the main leads have no sexual attraction and are overtly described as being brother and sister- style friends instead.

  4. […] fewer fanservice shots than her partner? Well, it’s time to flip that around. As fozmeadows at Shattersnipe puts […]

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