The X-Files continues to struggle with female autonomy and consent

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Jan 8, 2018

The X-Files finally returned in a much-anticipated premiere on Wednesday night, but unfortunately, it's not off to a good start.

After last season’s finale, those tuning in last week were watching in anticipation to learn how the show would resolve the cliffhanger that left Mulder and Scully staring down an alien spaceship. What they got at the start of Season 11 wasn’t resolution at all, but a retcon of the entire previous episode that proceeded at a breakneck pace, conjured up more questions than answers, and demonstrated that when it comes to certain problematic viewpoints, The X-Files has never fully evolved beyond its mid-'90s mindset.

As strong a heroine as Agent Dana Scully has been for female fans over the course of the series’ 10 seasons and two feature films, there’s always been one area of her life that The X-Files has circumvented time and time again: her reproductive autonomy. I’ve written before about how the sci-fi genre on the whole tends to struggle with addressing the reproductive health of its female characters -- in the past, shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation have used tropes like the “mystical pregnancy” to tell a story while bulldozing over the individual’s right to consent. Sadly, The X-Files is not immune from the continued usage of this theme, especially when it comes to its female lead. Although the invention of a character like Scully contributed toward positive representation for women working in STEM fields, the show’s tendency to base her importance in the viability of her reproductive system has occurred far too often to be anything but a tired plot device.

Scully’s road to motherhood has been a long and complicated one. When the character was originally abducted in Season 2’s “Ascension,” it was in part a storytelling decision made out of necessity due to Gillian Anderson’s real-life pregnancy. However, it was revealed two seasons later in “Memento Mori” that at some point during her abduction, Scully’s ova had been harvested by a group called the Syndicate in order to create alien/human hybrid offspring. When Scully inevitably meets the product of this harvesting in the “A Christmas Carol/Emily” two-parter, she is both shocked at the revelation that she has a daughter and horrified by the methods that were employed to create her. She’s only afforded the length of an episode to attempt to bond with Emily before the girl dies, leaving Scully devastated.

It’s later established that Scully’s desire to become a mother is not entirely hopeless, as some of her previously harvested ova are revealed to be viable. Mulder accepts Scully’s offer to be the prospective donor, and although that initial implantation procedure fails, fans had been under the impression that Scully’s ensuing pregnancy with her son William in Season 7 had been the result of a successful (and consensual) conception with Mulder. In the seasons that followed, both Mulder and Scully considered themselves to be William’s biological parents.

The series never did anything to conflict that belief until the Season 11 premiere, in which the Cigarette Smoking Man unexpectedly disclosed that he had impregnated Scully with alien DNA in Season 7’s “En Ami,” essentially leading to William’s conception. This reveal is disturbing for multiple reasons. First, it drastically retcons several seasons of the show in which William was, by all accounts and appearances, Mulder and Scully’s son. Second, it reduces Scully to a passive character within the plot once again, vulnerable and helpless against what the CSM claims to have forced inside her body. The show’s creator Chris Carter has defended the late-stage twist, denying that it constitutes medical rape in spite of the fact that Scully was unconscious and therefore unable to consent to what was happening. It’s merely the latest in a series of occurrences where Scully has been manipulated via her uterus in the supposed name of science, and given that the show is now up to 11 seasons one would think The X-Files and the minds behind it would have learned enough by now to evolve beyond a story that essentially removes a woman’s bodily autonomy or right to consent.

This disheartening trend doesn’t end with Scully, either. When it comes to blurred lines on The X-Files, there have been several more episodes that have refused to afford proper attention to narratives involving rape and female reproductive freedom. Episodes like Season 2’s “Excelsis Dei” and Season 5’s “The Post-Modern Prometheus” emphasize the disturbing motif of law enforcement's dismissal of rape as a serious crime, with Mulder -- and in some cases, even Scully -- insinuating that the victims may have fabricated their stories simply due to a lack of evidence. In Season 4’s “Small Potatoes,” a shapeshifter takes it upon himself to impregnate several women while in the guise of their respective husbands after learning they’re having trouble conceiving children. The humorous tone of the episode belies the more serious subject matter of women who were essentially raped, and even paints the Monster of the Week as a loser with low self-esteem who acted out of loneliness. The worst part? The X-Files refuses to call it what it really is in several instances, and seasons later still appears to be dancing around impactful subjects like rape and assault without giving those storylines the care they deserve.

The fact that The X-Files still continues to struggle with these issues, especially in light of the current cultural landscape, makes the outdated mindset of its creator painfully apparent. When the show was rightfully called out by many -- including Gillian Anderson herself, no less -- for its lack of women in the writers’ room for Season 11, the response was to add three female writers to the existing staff to write two of the season's 10 episodes. It remains to be seen whether this adjustment will have any significant impact in making amends for some of the show’s most disturbing inclinations, and there are nine more episodes that have yet to be aired to potentially address this storyline further, but in terms of this first return outing The X-Files still seems more content to retread antiquated tropes than break new ground -- especially in regard to its most influential heroine.