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How The X-Files helped shape modern fandom — including shipping

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Mar 20, 2018, 1:30 PM EDT

The X-Files stands in a unique place in the world of fandom. While it is certainly not the first property to have a rabid fanbase, The X-Files premiered right around the time that the internet was becoming readily accessible. Because of that, it gave birth to a new type of fandom, with a new vocabulary and a new way of existing.

I know, because I was there.

The year was 1993. I was 13 years old when I first started watching The X-Files. It was Friday night and I decided to make some popcorn and finds something to watch on TV. I had seen commercials for this new show about UFOs and aliens, and I always liked the weird, the creepy, and the supernatural, so I decided I should check it out. By the time of the first commercial break, I was hooked. I don't remember how it morphed into obsession, but I imagine it was pretty fast. Around this time, I was also getting hooked on the internet. We first got AOL (back when it was still called America Online) around the time that The X-Files premiered. I spent every minute I could online, chatting about the show, joining message boards and fan groups, even writing fanfic for the show.

The X-Files episode Squeeze - Scully and Tooms

Credit: Fox

Back in the early days of X-Files fandom, the main place to chat was on Usenet groups. The early equivalent of internet message boards, Usenet groups were text-only, which gave way to lots of fun ASCII artwork, and forced users to come up with creative shorthand since we didn't have emojis. X-Philes (as fans of The X-Files are known) created an early shorthand that persists to this day. GA, DD, CC, XF were shorthand for Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Chris Carter, and X-Files, respectively. DDEB and GATB were two of the first email fan groups: David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade and Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade.

Even episodes and movies had their titles shorted to initials, and it was just known that PMP meant "Post-Modern Prometheus" or FTF referred to the first film, The X-Files: Fight the Future. ADBB was an acronym for "All Done, Bye-Bye," the message Mulder got on his phone at the end of the episode "Blood." This became the unofficial sign-off for Philes in chatrooms. The list goes on...

The most infamous shorthand has become well-known in other fandoms: shipping. X-Philes were the first shippers. It started as "relationshippers," those who wanted to see Mulder and Scully in a full-on romantic relationship. That was shortened to R'shippers, which eventually became shippers, shipping, and "to ship." There is an opposite to shippers: the noromos — those who don't want to see any romance between the two leads. To this day, "shippers" has become the de facto term for fans who want to see characters get together. This is across all fandoms, all genres. "I cannot be more clear about this... it's MSR [Mulder/Scully romance] or Shipper," insists Kelly, 40, of Plymouth Meeting, PA. "It's NOT Sculder or Mully. Ever. Period." So clearly, the OG shippers were not responsible for creating "celebrity names."

Shippers are an especially rabid subset of X-Philes. I covered a lot of what makes Mulder and Scully the perfect couple in my piece last month, but while researching this story, I found a lot of other people felt the same way. "I am and will forever be a die-hard shipper," says Lauren Sarlo, 38, of New Jersey. "But as much as I always wanted Mulder and Scully to become a couple eventually, the slow burn of all that hand holding, forehead kissing, and eye sex was shippy crack."

X-Files S10 episode Home Again - Mulder and Scully holding hands

Ed Araquel/FOX

Kelly describes herself as a shipper from the get-go, who was instantly drawn to Scully and Mulder's chemistry. Jennifer Heddle, 45, of Alameda, CA, started her online fandom with Star Wars, "but got turned off by how abrasive the discussions often were." When she found The X-Files forum, specifically the Relationshipper folder, she knew she had found her fandom home.

"I didn't fall down the rabbit hole, I jumped." adds Lacretia Lyon, 29, from Los Angeles, who remembers it was all about Mulder for her. "While 'normal' little girls had Nick Carter on their walls, I had a Fox Mulder poster."

One of the most important aspects of The X-Files is The Scully Effect. In 1993, there were few female characters on television that went beyond the traditional ideas of a woman. Most were wives and mothers, and if they did have careers, they were never in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] fields. Scully's expertise helped encourage young women to pursue careers in the field. In a 2018 survey by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 63% of women in STEM fields cited Dana Scully as a role model. I am not scientifically inclined, but I did consider a career at the FBI when I was younger. Then I learned that the X-Files was not a real division and that was the end of that.

Still, Scully did show me that it was okay to be intelligent, speak my mind, and not be intimidated by men. A lot has been said recently about Scully not being respected (i.e. she never got her own desk) or being put into jeopardy too frequently (Mulder got beat up just as much as she did). But I know that I wouldn't be the person I am today without Scully, and a lot of other fans feel the same way.

"I still felt the influence of Scully as I pursued my master's degree and my professional life after school," says Amy Imhoff, 34, of Connecticut. "She is one of my favorite characters ever and one of the most influential." Maia says: "Dana Scully was unquestionably my biggest role model as a teen, leading me in my love of science, my school and career choices, and my sense of feminism." For Sarlo, Scully resonated with her in a way other characters on TV at the didn't. "She was smart and strong, yet young and vulnerable. She just felt so real."

The X-Files episode Leonard Betts - Scully staring at corpse


The Scully Effect is not limited to women. "Mulder and Scully, especially in the early seasons, were always reading case files, skimming books, and doing research in order to better pursue the villains, and this made eight-year-old me want to be a researcher," says Andrew Husband, 32, of Boston, MA. "This initially translated into a career in academia, which then transitioned into a journalistic track, but both options relied on the same bases: reading and writing. I owe this show the world."

I was hardcore into The X-Files fandom for the first three years of the show. It started to taper off as I grew up, started to drive, and in general became a typical teenager. I eventually checked out of the show completely around Season 7, but was all in when Season 10 came around. By Season 11, I returned to the hardcore fandom life. While I keep it mostly on Twitter, I was impressed that I was so readily accepted back into the fold. I have been able to have adult conversations with fans about our favorite characters and luckily, have yet to be trolled.

I asked what had changed since I was first around, and it seems that the fans are both the best and worst things about the fandom. "It's weird to have conversations with folks who weren't even born when I started watching," said G.P. McKenzie of Sacramento, CA. "Although the black nerd community is now a vast wonderland, it wasn't back then. It took years for the internet to not just involve me in fandom, but for there to be [person of color] fandom as well." McKenzie loves the way The X-Files fandom brings people together, but hates the misogyny, the ageism, and "the inflexibility of minds because something isn't canon."

The X-Files episode Talith Cumi - Mulder attacks CSM


"I love that you can find a group of strangers from different countries, different socioeconomic backgrounds, who speak different languages and have different outlooks on life… and we can all share this one thing passionately and positively," says Karen Magnussen-Sarna, 43, from Orlando, FL. "There’s always a common ground." Unfortunately, she also sees social media as having caused as many problems as it has solved. "Some fans aren’t happy unless they make everyone else around them unhappy."

"I am so really proud of our fandom!" enthuses Daniel, 34, of Gottingen, Germany. "I think there's no continent, no country where there are no X-Philes! This fandom brings the world together! We are all getting close to each other. Americans with Russian, religious people with sci-fi fans. Everyone can discuss it in a friendly way with each other. That's stunning."

Of course, the sheer scope of social media nowadays does have its disadvantages. "I don't see the same intensity that I did when I first joined The X-Files fandom," says Nina Nesseth, 29, of Ontario, Canada. "That may be because we're more spread out now." Back in the day, there were just a handful of places to chat about The X-Files. Now, between Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and Reddit and YouTube and hundreds of other channels... it's a little bit overwhelming. I hate to think of what would have happened to me if I had access to all this social media when I was 13.

The X-Files episode 2Shy - Mulder and Scully


"I hate to be one of those hipster fans," says Kelly, "but there's something to be said for being there from close to the beginning. Sometimes I struggle with the accessibility that fans have now via Twitter and Tumblr and YouTube. If you missed an episode in 1997, you just waited until it aired again. Or until someone copied their tape and sent it to you. If you miss an episode now, you just download it or find it nearly completely gif'd on Tumblr. I've wondered a lot about what The X-Files would've been like if Twitter and other social media existed back then. To be honest, it sort of terrifies me." In other words, kids today didn't have to fight for the fandom that we did 25 years ago.

The X-Files is set to wrap its eleventh (and possibly last?) season this week. Yet the fandom will live on. With over 200 episode, two feature films, an avalanche of fanfic, and an unyielding fanbase that will pass the show on to future generations, The X-Files was born with the internet, and will probably outlive it.