Although I am a child of the 90s, The X-Files is one of the many cultural phenomenon that passed me by. It was not until I became active on the internet as late as 2010 that I heard about the show; growing up in Europe, there was little discussion of American Television, and what there was, was mediated by my anti-tv parents. As a result, The X-Files was one those shows, like LOST, that I knew about. I knew it but I resisted it; I don’t want to watch it, I mumbled. when I started my tumblr as a fan of the tv show Castle (I’m still embarrassed about this an haven’t watched anything since the first 5 episodes of Season 4 so…….. it was a dark time in my life), there were a lot of references to The X-Files. Then I watched Fringe that same year; the discussion about the comparison resurfaced. Through these tv shows I got a very skewed idea of the X-Files, though; I thought that it was entirely a romance, with small indications of science fiction. When I finally got around to watching the first two episodes last summer, I was unconvinced. The show was dark, the mystery was confusing, and the conspiratorial element just didn’t grab my attention at the time. It probably helped that my sister, who is not a scifi person at all, was visiting, and she wasn’t liking it either, so together we decided to watch Arrow instead. So, ultimately, I didn’t get to watch The X Files until about a month ago, when I decided to use my best friend’s father’s netflix to watch one tiny episode. The episode was “Squeeze”, and I genuinely don’t know what it was, but I was hooked. Something about that episode engaged me; was it Scully’s practical rationalism? The ease of Mulder and Scully’s banter which did not scream “sexual energy,” but rather indicated a much more complicated, more platonic in the true sense of the word, relationship? Or was it Mulder’s immortal line of the episode? Either way, I was hooked. Three weeks later, I was on Season 7 and regularly sobbing about Gillian Anderson/Dana Scully. I wrote my final essay for my Marxist Literary and Cultural Theory about The X-Files, and with that I was exposed to the plethora of academic research that the X-Files spawned.
According to my research, when the final episode of The X-Files aired on May 19, 2002, there was a pervasive feeling, both on the internet and in general fandom culture, of melancholy. Something precious had been lost. This was an overreaction; the legacy of The X-Files (1993-2008) and its stars, Special Agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), is unmistakeably present throughout pop culture even today. Throughout the nine years that the show was originally on air, “there were numerous video games, novel tie-ins, comic books, magazines, various television specials purporting to reveal the ‘secrets’ of the X-Files, [two] feature film[s], and countless internet websites, chat rooms, and forums devoted to the analysis of the show and its characters” (Hodges 1). Ultimately, it is impossible not to characterize The X-Files as a mass cultural phenomenon of the 90s. In their essay, Picarelli and Gomez-Galisteo conclude that “The X-Files, regarded as the most-representative show of the 1990s, occupies a special place in the sf imaginary of the late twentieth century” (72). The Onion’s recent article “X-Files Stars Appear At Friendship Skills Seminar” is a great example of that.
My essay analysed The X-Files through the lens of two Marxist cultural critics, Fredric Jameson and Raymond Williams. Jameson and Williams, as critics writing in the 80s, responded to the Frankfurt School of German Marxism, which proposes that modernist writers, through their “formal experiments,” effect a distance and alienation that serve as an implicit critique of the late capitalism (Abrams 152). Jameson and Williams reconfigured this thesis to apply to mass culture, though they differ from each other in their methodology. Essentially both of these writers argue that even though the any piece of mass culture is by definition very consumable, this does not stop it from also holding some cultural truths. This was an interesting theory to apply to The X-Files, since it forced me to acknowledge all the over simplified and consumable elements of The X-Files, while still being able to explore its complexity. Because I think that The X-Files is one of shows that straddles this duality very well; at its best, the show balances the sinister fear of the unknown with the viewer’s unshakeable faith in their protagonists. Season 1 introduced this theme incredibly well with episodes such as Ice and Darkness Falls, while showing a more shadowy, diverse world with the beginnings of the conspiracy theory plot in Deep Throat and E.B.E. Right from episode one, though, the show showed Mulder and Scully working as a co-dependant team, with their belief a constant discussion. Ultimately, the show’s greatest success is its celebration of difference.
On one hand, Mulder and Scully are the archetypal lone-hero couple. They two are portrayed as analogous to the “self-righteous, square-jawed heroes [who] championed conformist values while fighting evil” in early sf television, because “no matter how cynical or sceptical [they]… become about America, they continue to uphold its values and institutions;” they remain tied to the FBI, and where the FBI does not hold up ideas of acceptance and hard work, they do (James and Mendelsohn 88). They are two wholesome characters who embody heteronormative white-middle class America at its best. Ultimately, The X-Files “drew a clear distinction between its FBI Men in Black [Mulder and Scully] and the “real” Men in Black- those agents of the shadow government working to assist (and sometimes undermine) the aliens to take over earth” (Tackas 18). The X-Files does not call on a viewer to stop trusting authority in its entirety; rather, it asks its viewers to only trust authority that looks as good as Duchovny and Anderson.
Ultimately, there are two elements of The X-Files which deserves critical praise; first and foremost, it’s the show’s interaction with the American fear of the Other. Almost always, Mulder’s assumption of supernatural elements underlying the given case in any given episode is ultimately given credence. In Season 5, Scully summarizes this conflict when she ends a report to Assistant Director Skinner with the statement: “I can neither confirm nor deny Agent Mulder’s version of events which occurred outside my presence”, to which Mulder replies “And I can neither confirm nor deny Agent Scully’s version of events” but “that is, essentially exactly the way it happened.” (“Bad Blood”). The episode, a humorous interplay of narratives, turns on one of the central conflicts of the show. Ultimately, there is not enough concrete evidence to debunked the X-Files, just as there is not enough evidence to confirm them. Many critics have claimed that through using metaphors of alien forces, government conspiracies and a general atmosphere of paranoia, The X-Files uses “imaginative scenarios to explore very real concerns about national and identity, power [and] vulnerability in an age of rapid globalization” (Takas 1). The rhetoric of the war on terror that Bush invoked in the early 2000s often used phrases such as a “clash of civilizations” in which the US was fighting the “parasitic” and undoubtable “evildoers,” though in this case Bush is referring to Muslim fundamentalists (qtd in Takas 1). Although most of The X-Files predates the politics of fear of the Bush presidential campaign, a lot of the metaphors Bush used evoke scenes of The X-Files. The colonialization of the shape-shifting aliens, referred to in episodes such as “Colony,” “End Game” and “Talitha Cumi” are part of a broader series arc, in which it is Mulder and Scully’s duty to protect humanity from this invasion. Alien substances such as the Black Oil from “Piper Maru” and “Tunguska” are undoubtedly parasitic in nature as they invade and control host bodies for their own bidding. Takas quotes political theorist Campbell, who notes that “the conflation of difference and danger has been central to the formation and maintenance of “American” identity. The identification and persecution of alien “others” is a national ritual that gives disparate individuals a sense of themselves as a shared political community” (qtd in Takas 2). Although The X-Files would be the ideal show in which to enact the ultimate American annihilation of the “Other” to restore the wholesome “American Identity,” The X-Files choses instead to complicate this binary of difference and danger through several different subversive methods, most notably through the storyline of Samantha Mulder, Mulder’s younger sister.
The attack on the family is one of the central motivations of Mulder’s crusade, which was inspired by the abduction of his sister when he was 12 and she was 8 (“Pilot”). He explains to Scully that “[he] can recall a bright light outside and a presence in the room. [he] was paralyzed, unable to respond to [his] sister’s calls for help” (“Pilot”). His sister was capture from within their living room, an invasion of both his privacy, and violating the safe space he considered his home. Thinking about this element of The X Files, I researched some of Bush’s speeches. What a mistake. In his speeches, Bush referred to Muslim fundamentalists as “evildoers” who have designs on American families. In an interview with the Daily Show in 2006, for example, he claimed that “What this government has done is to take steps necessary to protect you and your family.” The aliens that took Samantha seem to deserve the exact violence that Bush is calling for. The X Files, however, complicates this idea, as slowly it explores the idea that although perhaps aliens took Samantha, they did so as a result of governmental meddling with aliens, as a guarantee that she should return. Ultimately, the series incriminates the Syndicate, the evil trans-national shadowy governmental organisation mysteriously linked to the UN, specifically Mulder’s father, who betrays his own son in order to cooperate with the aliens. Lockheart points out that “the father chooses the “abduction” of the daughter, leaving the son driven to fill the traumatic gap with multiple suturing narratives” and never any conclusion (47). Throughout their struggles, Scully and Mulder are constantly reminded that the real criminals are not the aliens, but rather their own government, who works in tandem with this Other. Suddenly, “difference” is no longer a discrete category — danger can no longer be confined, but rather bleeds into society around Mulder and Scully, forcing them to rely on their instincts and judgement, rather than on the already pre-existing category of “Other” to determine their enemy. Interestingly enough, however, Gillian Anderson noted in New York Comic Con in October 2013 that this show could not have existed during Bush’s politics of fear exactly because of this, and in Kumail Ninjiani’s pilot podcast of his series “The X Files Files“, his guest Devin Faraci notes a similar thing when he pointed out that this show could not have existed during the Bush Administration due to its challenge of blindly following authority.
Recently there has been a new meme on tumblr, riffing off the academic practice of calling texts which are otherwise entirely conventional and ordinary “queer” because they are, in some way, interacting with the theorization of “difference” as a concept. As a result, this part of the essay, which refers to the “queer” in the title, will actively avoid this word (although I kept it in the title simply for the implied pun). One of the reasons that I ultimately did watch the X-Files was the constant positive remarks I heard about the show specifically from people in the lgbtqia* community. People who I identified with because I too am part of their community, told me that this show was good; initially, I was surprised. A show which I assumed was from the same family as Bones or Castle, hailed by people in my community? I needed to check it out.
What I found was a show which was nothing like Castle or Bones. The tenent of the X Files is not the romantic love; quite on the contrary, Chris Carter has been desperately trying to deny Anderson and Duchovny’s chemistry since Day 2 (as expressed in so many great tumblr photos, such as this one). Rather, the X-Files, in its first season especially, is about a man who is different. Mulder is spurned and mocked by his colleagues for his “interesting” adventures, but, as Hodges points out in her thesis, his world view is ultimately correct. In an episode in Season 1, an unimportant agent (credited as Agent Daniels) mocks Mulder when he claims he has some new information on the case; he raises his eyebrows and asks “What? An alien virus or new information on the Kennedy assassination?” (“Lazarus”). In Season 1, Alien viruses are a returning joke as the most ridiculous thing anyone could believe in; later seasons however, confirm the existence, and the danger of alien viruses in the form of the black oil. As a result, the program shows, through ideas such as these Season 1 barb from Mulder’s colleagues, that his difference, namely his belief which alienates everyone, is also what makes him not only unique, but also a good human.
So although the X-Files celebrates difference through two cishet white people, and the difference it touched on wasn’t queerness or anything radical, it gave you Fox Mulder. There is no explicit examination of Mulder as Other, but the show does give you Fox Mulder, an odd kid who takes pride in his weirdness. He is the FBI’s “most unwanted,” and he’s proud of that. Scully’s acceptance of the Strange is parallels with a queer person’s acceptance of herself in “all things.” Ultimately, Mulder and Scully’s very physiology is Different; they are alien, not trans, but the acceptance of them selves can be read as analogous. It’s one of the reasons why this show is so successful, despite its frequent problematic episodes and plot lines. The X Files existed when nerdom/sf stuff was fringe, and it made it mainstream; it was the first show that really used the internet with its message boards and communities.
As the show continues, The X Files becomes a story about two people, who share a knowledge and an understanding of something Different. Through very white, very middle class, and very heterosexual characters, The X-Files offers a theroization and celebration of two characters who never assimilate. Mulder and Scully exist outside of the traditional order of the FBI in the same way that trying to reassign them to either different sections (like in Season 2) or the same, equally boring sections, is ultimately impossible. Whether or not they are abducted by aliens or kept captive in Russian Gulags, Mulder and Scully continue to be different. Among a group of women who were all also abducted by aliens Scully was unique. Scully initially had no memory, then she survived the cancer, and then ultimately she was able to have a child. Scully was able to overcome the failings of her own body, overstep the limits of her own medical knowledge, through her difference.
Ultimately, I think there is something inherently problematic in, in any way, alligning Mulder and Scully’s difference (FBI agents who hunt aliens) with any experience of people who are pat of the lgbtqia* community. The comparison is useless, but I think that this celebration of difference is what allowed the X-Files to age well. Hodges MA thesis stresses that the X-Files still operates within a traditional patriarchal and hetero-normative system; even the Mulder/Believer and Scully/Skeptic dynamic is not radical in her analysis. Although I agree with each of her individual points, I do take issue with her conclusion. The X-Files can, even when it operates within a traditional patriarchal and hetero-normative system, have “utopian” elements (ie, elements that are worthy of celebration). These include the show’s discussion of difference, which is often tackled through narrative, and the Other. The X-Files is by no means perfect, and although all the articles that point towards the problematic nature of race and gender relations in the show are praiseworthy, I believe that not enough attention has been paid to subversive (probably accidental) elevation of Difference (whether that is Mulder’s belief in Aliens, or his love for pornography). I think that I’ve kind of gathered, through my interaction with the online community and the x files community right now that the reason the show is foundational is not because its progressive. Problematic elements like the “essential motherhood” the show argues for doesn’t mitigate some of the ideas of difference and acceptance the show incorporates. Its narratives of alienation from ones body, or the fictionalization of trauma, all allow the show to evolve out of its small “sf television” niche.