“As brilliant as Dana Scully was, and as badly as young women needed her, she remained frustratingly beyond the grasp of the men who wrote her.”
Title: The X-Files
Episodes Reviewed: Entire series (Seasons 1-9, Revival Seasons 10-11, Fight the Future (1998), and I Want to Believe (2008)
Creator: Chris Carter 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Chris Carter 👨🏼🇺🇸 (75 eps + both films), Frank Spotnitz 👨🏼🇺🇸 (48 eps + both films), Vince Gilligan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (30 eps), John Shiban 👨🏼🇺🇸 (24 eps), Howard Gordon (20 eps), Glen Morgan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (17 eps), James Wong 👨🏻🇺🇸 (17 eps), Brad Folmer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Benjamin Van Allen 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), David Duchovny 👨🏼🇺🇸 (8 eps), Darin Morgan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (7 eps), David Amann 👨🏼🇺🇸 (7 eps), Alex Gansa 👨🏼🇺🇸 (6 eps), Jeffrey Bell 👨🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Steven Maeda 👨🏻🇺🇸 (5 eps), Greg Walker 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), various
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
I was not an original, realtime viewer of The X-Files. As a kid, the theme song alone scared the crap out of me with its haunting minor key creepiness, and when I finally watched the series as an adult, it took three seasons before I was able to watch without making sure my cat was nearby to protect me. But when I fall, I fall hard.
Within a matter of months, I was as much a fangirl as any, besotted by the idea of Mulder and Scully finally being together; perpetually angry at the show’s creator, Chris Carter; and completely, irrevocably enamored of Gillian Anderson and her portrayal of the brilliant Dana Scully.
Agent Scully has always been the show’s it-factor. On the surface, and in the majority of episodes, The X-Files represented Mulder’s quest, as he was hellbent on finding the truth about aliens, proving to Scully that evil dolls and weremonsters exist, solving the mystery of his sister’s abduction, and—only tolerable given the way David Duchovny played Mulder’s anguished desperation—saving Scully. Yet without Scully, the show would never have been anything but an exercise in self-indulgence. Moreover, without Scully to tether the show (and Mulder, to Earth), it would never have taken on the cult status it did or drawn in young women who found in Scully a new kind of heroine.
The trouble is, Carter created a phenomenon that grew bigger than him, but he continued to hover over it like a helicopter parent stunting his child’s growth. When Fox executives announced at the Spring 2018 Upfronts that there were no plans for a third revival, it was something of a mercy killing, even for Gillian Anderson, who signaled the same sense of frustration fans felt at the finale.
The X-Files will always hold a special place in television history: a thing of tragic brilliance tortured to death by its creator and left bleeding at the feet of the fans who loved it through more than three decades, two hundred episodes, and at least half a dozen reversed deaths of its main characters—as well as a #MeToo era it wasn’t ready for.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, 31% of the time
The X-Files originally premiered not long after the so-called “Year of the Woman,” the 1992 U.S. midterm elections that saw a groundswell of women elected to office inspired in part by the injustices women witnessed during the Anita Hill hearings. Those women had seen Professor Hill testify to the sexual harassment to which Clarence Thomas had subjected her before a committee made up entirely by white men who treated Hill with contempt, all on live television. In the wake of that debacle, Dana Scully was a perfect character for the moment. She was whipsmart, determined, and refused to back down before her male superiors. She thrived in a male-dominated profession, offering a rare glimpse of a woman in science who wasn’t the “token woman” and who played the logical counterweight to her partner’s irrationality. She became the heroine of young women who were tired of being reduced to sidekicks and two-dimensional love interests.
Where the show failed, however, was the way it treated its own creation. This should hardly come as a surprise, considering the near-total absence of women in the writers’ room. From its earliest days, Scully was repeatedly snatched from a place of power atop her Gilly box and flung into victimhood, leaving Mulder to chase after her. While both characters endured their share of beatdowns through the seasons, Scully bore a special cross in the form of an interminable string of torture, linked to her reproductive abilities. From harvested ovaries and biological offspring created without her knowledge to a miraculous pregnancy hounded by bad guys trying to kill her and/or steal her baby, the crux of Scully’s struggle chillingly became the exploitation of her reproductive system.
Framing this was the show’s undermining of womens’ credibility, best illustrated in Season 3’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” in which a young woman falsely accuses her boyfriend of rape. Not only do Mulder and Scully dismiss the woman’s claim, Scully characterizes the incident as a he said/she said between “two kids having sex before they’re mature enough to handle it.” She accepts Mulder’s premise that the whole incident is a matter of sexual trauma, pointing out that it makes sense given the conflicting stories and even explicitly refers to the act as “consensual sex.”
When the final season premiered in January 2018, it did so in the midst of another wave of women running for office, women once again spurred to action by the elevation of a sexual predator to a position of power. And though the episodes had been shot before the rise of #MeToo, it was impossible to ignore just how little the show’s grasp of female bodily autonomy had evolved over the course of two and a half decades. The “mytharc,” or central mythology of The X-Files, continues to be inextricably linked to Scully’s role as an unwilling and unwitting mother. In a phenomenally cruel move, Carter used the final season to reach back into the show’s history and twist that knife deeper, revealing that the child Scully bore was not Mulder’s, but the product of an experiment by their ultimate foe, the Cigarette Smoking Man. This violation—a literal one, done without consent to an unconscious Scully—drew justified fan outrage, and Carter responded to that outrage by doubling down and insisting that it was not actually rape.
As brilliant a character as Dana Scully was, and as badly as young women needed her, she remained frustratingly beyond the grasp of the men who wrote her. Even details as simple as affording Agent Scully her own desk—a glaring omission since she first partnered up with Mulder in 1993, and amidst very vocal calls from fans for change—went unacknowledged by series’ writers. And honestly, nothing spells out The X-Files’ treatment of women, and its failure of Dana Scully, better than that.
In eleven seasons, there were only two characters of color with any consequence, both of them Black: Mr. X (Steven Williams), a mysterious informant and successor to Season 1’s Deep Throat, and Assistant FBI Director Kersh (James Pickens Jr.), an institutional foil to Mulder and Scully.
Mr. X, like Deep Throat before him, was shadowy by nature, differentiated from his predecessor by his early declaration that he was unwilling to sacrifice his life for the pursuit of truth. Naturally, he would end up doing exactly that. Kersh, meanwhile, was one of a handful of characters to survive the entire series, and while his character was afforded a modicum of evolution, he was never much more than an obstacle for the intrepid duo to overcome.
A few episodes featured one-off characters of color, but they were never very well-defined or memorable. In shots of Bureau meetings, there was occasionally a non-white agent among the suits—which, in all fairness, is quite realistic for the FBI, but does nothing representation-wise. And even if the show had bothered to write in a non-white character with any sort of substantive role, they would still be the product by an overwhelmingly white writers’ room.
Perhaps this is why the few featured characters of color whose non-whiteness was openly acknowledged were drawn so poorly, and with such an insufferable levels of Orientalism. Season 3’s “Hell Money” takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown and, in addition to a group of East Asian villains, victims, and a young Lucy Liu, Chinese American actor B.D. Wong plays a local detective who acts as a sort of guide to Mulder and Scully as they fumble through a culture with which they’re unfamiliar. Everything about the “foreign” world is shrouded in a creepy paranormal vibe—not the sort of paranormal of which Mulder is so fond, but one that evokes a suspicion of “the Other”.
Slightly more credit is given to “the Other” when it comes to the show’s recurring (yet perpetually clumsy) exploration of Native culture, but there’s still a heavy reliance on the “magical Native American” trope, a variation on the “magical Negro” standard. In this paradigm, unfamiliar cultures are respected in a patronizing, imperialist manner, portrayed as a source from which to take wisdom without offering anything in return—a resource to be mined and abandoned.
Just as the series’ conception of women failed to evolve along with mainstream views, the revival’s wretched disaster that was Season 10’s “Babylon” proved that no great leaps had taken place with respect to people of color. In a scenario reminiscent of early-aughts 24, the monster-of-the-week is a young Muslim man who survives the suicide attack he carries out, only to be left in a vegetative state with knowledge of the next attack that the agents are desperate to prevent. Ignoring every other ridiculous element of the episode, Mulder on ‘shrooms and line-dancing shirtless among them, the episode’s blatant connection of the bombers’ ideology to their faith—which is as clear a perversion of Islam as is the Klan’s perversion of Christianity—shows a stunningly regressive view of non-white, non-Christian views. As with the show’s treatment of women, it reflects a flippant attitude that has real-world consequences.
The characterization of “Otherness” as sinister is a central assumption, and one that goes unquestioned throughout The X-Files. Its treatment of the few queer characters who crop up throughout the series reflect this. The first season’s episode “Gender Bender” depicts a killer who strays from an Amish-like community of aliens capable of switching genders, which they can evidently do both post-mortem and post-coitus, plus their touch works like Rohypnal. Welcome to The X-Files, where nothing really adds up, least of all when it comes to consent. The episode reflects a deep mistrust of non-binary or fluid gender that fails to recognize gender’s connection to identity, rather than to biology. Or, put simply: good, old-fashioned transphobia.
The one sliver of growth occurs in one of the revival’s best episodes, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Weremonster.” As is standard for the show, the only queer representation came by way of a stereotype: a trans sex worker who smacks the monster with her purse. Yet we’re treated to Mulder’s almost-touching explanation later in the episode of gender reassignment. It shows that there’s a flicker of modern social consciousness behind the scenes of the show. It’s just not something writers and creators deemed worthy of any real focus.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.25/5
The tragedy of The X-Files is that, as brilliant a show as it was and will always be, it could have been so much greater. The show had a constituency of its own: one that, in the early days of the Internet, helped to make online fandom what it is today. Fan names even appeared in the opening credit sequences in Season 9, proving that the writers were aware of their base, but this failed to translate into an awareness of or apparent desire for better representation.
While much has been made of the so-called “Scully Effect,” which credits the character with an influx of women into the sciences,* little consideration has been given to what it means for young women to see such an iconic character devalued and violated without consequence. In this new wave of feminist consciousness, it’s painful to look back at how Dana Scully was treated and recognize that the women who looked up to her—queer, straight, Black, white, Asian, Muslim, Jew—deserved better. And so did she.
Like The X-Files? Try these other shows featuring women working in the sciences.
* This claim relies entirely on anecdotal evidence. A recent claim by the Geena Davis Institute and 21st Century Fox that they had proven the theory has—rather ironically—no scientific basis and flouts the most basic academic standards. The claim, made for other shows of the same time period, including L.A. Law, is nearly impossible to prove, both because of the myriad variables and the inherent biases at play in survey research.