Following on from Sara Yasin’s retrospective look back at Dawson’s Creek, Melissa Dunne revisits The X-Files and discovers a few feminist sticking points
Content note: Contains a discussion of attitudes towards rape and sexual assault.
I am a feminist and The X-Files is, without a doubt, my favourite TV show of all time. I grew up with it and loved it for a number of reasons, not least because in my heart of hearts I kind of wanted to be Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). And why the hell not? Not only is she a medical doctor but she also got into the FBI academy! Did I mention that her undergrad degree was in physics? I’m not a scientist but, as a precocious child desperate for a role model, this was a character that stood out for me.
Having recently re-watched all the episodes from the beginning, it is very odd to realise that Scully was actually originally meant as a sort of support role for Mulder, rather than an equal. In fact, I recently saw an interview with Anderson where she revealed that in the beginning she was told to walk a few steps behind Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) when on camera, a titbit that nearly had me spit my coffee out over my computer screen. With the benefit of hindsight, this feels wrong.
I remember how ground-breaking the series was in terms of gender role-reversal. Indeed, the show’s creator Chris Carter has explicitly stated that he wanted to “flip” traditional gender stereotypes and, contrary to conventional (or reductive) wisdom, The X-Files shows a woman relying on science and empirical knowledge to do her job, while her male counterpart is guided by intuition and emotion. He is the one who takes things personally and behaves irrationally while she is, to some extent, emotionally stunted to the point of being repressed. It is also Scully, not Mulder, who ends up being the real protagonist of the show.
When Gillian Anderson was originally cast as Scully, the network were apparently unhappy, as they wanted a more traditional beauty in the role. This seems ridiculous if you look at any photograph taken of Gillian Anderson in the last twenty years. I’m loath to comment on this in relation to an actress of Gillian Anderson’s calibre, but the fact that this was an issue at her casting, despite her evident talent, bears mentioning. During her time on the show Anderson won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for her portrayal of Dana Scully and has an impressive list of nominations for her acting work outside of the show. The unbelievably high standards female actors are expected to live up to both saddens and angers me and I don’t see why they should have to bear this level of physical scrutiny unknown to their male counterparts.
While there is much to admire 20 years on, there are also a lot of aspects of The X-Files that now make me uncomfortable as a grown woman, not just because of content but because I did not even register that anything was wrong while watching these episodes as an adolescent. Viewing the show now highlights to me how easy it can be to internalise dubious messages regarding the roles of women and men in society.
Another problem with the show is that it routinely and frequently displays a puritanical attitude towards sex. Indeed, it is striking to see just how many people in the show die or are seriously injured after having it: Mulder has sex with a vampire who ends up dead, Skinner sleeps with a prostitute who ends up dead and Scully sleeps with a really fit bloke who doesn’t end up dead but immolates his arm because he believes his tattoo is instructing him to commit violent acts. The list goes on.
The obvious exception to such puritanical attitudes is Mulder’s vociferous pornography habit, which is treated with blithe and casual acceptance. Yes, despite him being a government employee, no one (not least Scully) pulls him up on the fact that he frequently reads porn mags at work and leaves porn tapes lying around the office. In the current climate of the ‘No More Page 3’ and ‘Lose the Lads Mags’ campaigns, it would be hard to envision this being applauded as part of a central male character unless they were being deliberately portrayed in an unsympathetic light.
However, the shocking thing about The X-Files, when viewing it retrospectively, is its lackadaisical attitude to rape and sexual assault, not once but many times in the show. For example, in series four’s Small Potatoes and series five’s The Post-Modern Prometheus, there are men effectively using supernatural methods to sleep with several women, who are either unaware they are having sex or believe they are with someone else.
If these were self-consciously dark episodes approaching these crimes with even a modicum of seriousness, their inclusion would make sense but they are presented as funny. Indeed, at the climax of Small Potatoes, which frequently features in favourite episode polls by fans, a man who is able to shapeshift disguises himself as Mulder, shows up at Scully’s apartment, plies her with booze (in one shot he empties the remainder of the bottle into her glass) and attempts to make a move on her, only being stopped by the arrival of the real Mulder. This is presented in a jokey sitcom fashion in which the gag is that Scully would totally accept Mulder’s advances if he tried it on. However, what the episode fails to appreciate is that, essentially, this guy is trying to rape our heroine. And this is supposed to be funny? Is this appropriate in an episode that is otherwise self-aware enough to name-check the date-rape drug, Rohypnol? It all leaves a rather bad taste in the mouth.
Along with this, the dismissive way Mulder treats his colleague and equivalent, Scully, is pretty infuriating. During one row, Scully asks Mulder why he always has to drive, asking if it’s because he’s “the guy, the big macho man”. His response here is to state that he always drives because he isn’t sure her “little feet would reach the pedals”. His utter indignation and disbelief whenever someone shows any interest in her or she in them is also quite insulting.
This is particularly the case in one incident, which seems to involve more than a little good old-fashioned slut-shaming: on a rare occasion of letting her hair down, in series four’s Never Again, Scully goes out for a few drinks with a guy and then goes home with him. Unfortunately, her date turns out to be suffering from delusions and tries to kill her. This seems like bad luck for Scully and, watching the episode, I just end up feeling incredibly sorry for her and that she’s being unfairly punished for doing something that’s part of many women’s life experience. However, what I find especially offensive is Mulder’s attitude to the event. He is, after all, effectively meant to be her best friend but is horrible to her, presumptuously assuming her behaviour is related to a recent tiff between them. He also makes jokes about the attack when Scully shows up at work, shaken and bruised, days later. What lessons does an impressionable young woman take from this? That women who seek sexual emancipation deserve to – and should – be punished? That a woman can be professional, high achieving and respected but only if she negates her sexuality? It’s frightening to see such a pure and relatively recent example of how repression can become so easily embedded in the psyche.
Despite these issues, the most interesting thing I have realised, while watching The X-Files as a grown-up, is how little of what I loved about it at the time was actually about aliens and monsters. As in most stories that move me, it’s the characters that kept me repeatedly coming back and it’s their journey throughout the show’s nine seasons that still draws me to it years later. I now see that The X-Files is actually about existential longing, loneliness, urban alienation (pun intended) and the need for love, irrespective of gender. The characters and the show’s epic, universal themes have made it an enduring classic and if it made some mistakes in terms of its portrayal of a three dimensional female character, it’s probably because it was trying to represent something new about the challenges professional women face.
This is the cover of the 2008 box set containing the two X-Files films. This shows a blueish silver egg timer containing Scully’s face at the top (unsmiling, upright) and Mulder’s at the bottom (unsmiling, upside-down) against a black background. The X-Files is written across the middle point of this. On the left of the image is the film title “FIGHT THE FUTURE”, while the title “I WANT TO BELIEVE” is on the right.