Problematic Faves: The X-Files

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Jan 13, 2017

The first season of The X-Files began airing in 1993 and was revolutionary in many ways. One of the two main characters, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), has been heralded as a feminist icon throughout the many years since, and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) certainly treated Scully as an equal partner throughout the original nine-season run. The character of Dana Scully also impacted the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for women with "The Scully Effect" — an increase in the number of women going into STEM careers, which has been attributed to seeing Dana Scully on TV screens. And, in many ways, The X-Files influenced how we define and practice "fandoms" today.

The X-Files may have been ahead of its time in many ways, but unfortunately the show feels very much stuck in the past when it comes to a few issues. Luckily, we live in a world where we as an audience can understand the complexity of loving something that is problematic. I can praise the feminism of Scully while noting how terribly some episodes of the series treat rape or transphobia. The key to "Problematic Faves" is, of course, acknowledging the "problematic" part of the "fave." The X-Files is downright fantastic most of the time ... but it's not perfect.

Let's first examine the way the show treats gender and sexuality in a few episodes we'd probably prefer to forget. In the Season 1 episode "Gender Bender," Mulder and Scully begin working a case in which it appears the victims have been killed by receiving high doses of pheromones that contain human DNA. The problems arise early on, where Scully corrects Mulder's assumption that the murderer is male because there are victims of both sexes. There is no acknowledgment of bisexuality, just the assumption that the assailant is obviously straight. This ignorance as to the fact that there's more than just gay or straight is one of the first problematic aspects of this particular episode ... though it's relatively minor compared to the episode as a whole. That's right, it gets worse!

In addition to ignoring any sexuality that isn't straight, The X-Files did a crappy job handling trans characters, painting trans people as "other" in a couple episodes. In "Gender Bender," there's a sense that switching genders is a flaw or something unusual and strange. Technically this is the "monster" of the episode — someone that changes genders indiscriminately to murder people through sex. And one of the monster's victims is shocked to discover that who he thought was a woman was possibly a man. Considering that violence against trans women often stems from men finding out they had sex with a trans woman and getting angry, this makes for a particularly insensitive storyline.

If you're thinking that maybe this is more of a problem stemming from The X-Files being made in another time where writers weren't as knowledgeable, or at least as sensitive, you'd be wrong. Even in an episode of Season 10, which aired in 2016, there's a transgender character who is basically a caricature, having thrown all of the stereotypes together to present a crack-addicted sex worker hanging out at a truck stop. How sweet. This may be a genuine attempt to normalize the transition process, as Mulder mentions to the lizard man that it's something totally normal to transition from one gender to another — a marked improvement from Season 1. Either way, though, we should be done with these types of shallow characterizations.

The Season 5 episode "Post-Modern Prometheus" is one of my favorite episodes of The X-Files. The black & white photography is charming, and the episode ends with Mulder and Scully dancing to Cher's "Walking in Memphis." Yes, it's everything you could want from The X-Files — except for the fact that it's a terrible depiction of how law enforcement treat (or don't treat) the seriousness of rape. A woman contacts Mulder because after an intruder enters her house and appears to drug her, she ends up pregnant. Umm, this is rape and it’s a crime. However, it isn’t treated as a crime in the episode. In fact, Scully is skeptical (because she's Scully) that this rape even occurred and instead accuses the woman of looking for fame by concocting an incredible story. Sound familiar? We'd like to think that we have advanced beyond accusing rape victims of lying to seek fame, but it's all too real.

While Mulder does admit it's "a very serious crime" they're investigating, the tone of the episode doesn't match the urgency of the situation. Of course, it turns out the victim isn't lying, and when the monster is captured he's seen as sympathetic and adorable. Rapists aren't adorable. They're predators. He explains why he and his father planned to inseminate the women and everyone seems to agree that he's just a "nice guy," not a criminal. Glad the whole town could come to the wrong decision together. After he's arrested, Mulder and Scully feel bad for him because he's ugly and take him to a Cher concert instead of jail.

Rapists shouldn't be rewarded by being attending a Cher concert with Mulder and Scully. That reward should only be gifted to the best of humanity. Rapists should be in prison. And the fact that a hit TV show that is such a staple of pop culture treated the subject with such levity is a large part of how The X-Files landed its status as a Problematic Fave.

So The X-Files doesn't handle gender, sexuality or rape well. It also does a downright terrible job depicting different cultures. The very fact that many times these cultures themselves are at the root of an X-file is problematic. Treating a culture that isn't made up of white people as 'supernatural' is not a good starting point for an episode. However, The X-Files didn't get that note and often used cultural stereotypes to strengthen the case of paranormal activity.

There are a few episodes in particular where this is especially apparent. In the Season 1 episode "Shapes," Mulder and Scully are called to a Native American reservation where a shape-shifting werewolf is committing murders. Again, Scully is on-brand skeptical of the whole scene but still tries to use science to explain the murders. The tension between the government and Native Americans due to how poorly the government treats them is a point made in the episode, but the episode overall plays on long-thought stereotypes of Native American culture — which the show continues to do time and again.

Years later, The X-Files tried to show just how 'with it' it was when it came to current events in Season 10 with "Babylon." The episode features a storyline rife with Islamic stereotypes in a time when Americans are already scared to bring Syrian refugees into the country. There's a car bomb set off by basically another generic 'Muslim terrorist' and Mulder ends up high on mushrooms and dancing (terribly) in a country bar.

If the point of the episode was to make David Duchovny look ridiculous, it's perhaps the only way the episode succeeded. The attempts to tackle issues of religion and faith while showing that a surviving terrorist is actually a nice guy was a different route to take, which done well could've proved interesting but the episode is too packed with Muslim stereotypes we've seen a thousand times before to be anywhere near emotionally grounded. Add in the insanity of Mulder's psychedelic 'shrooms trip and the episode itself is a complete waste of air that only serves to more deeply ingrain the belief that David Duchovny is a terrible dancer and that Americans should fear Muslims. In actuality, only one of those is true.

Yes, there's still plenty to love about The X-Files. Dana Scully is one of the most badass female characters of genre television and made known to the world the perfection that is Gillian Anderson. Ultimately, The X-Files is yet another example of the importance of the relationship between audience and pop culture. We must be conscious consumers of media and unrelentingly point out unacceptable tropes, stereotypes and failures.