Revisiting The X-Files: The Women Problem

Only 8 of the series’ 201 episodes were written by women. By the time Gillian Anderson got to write and direct her season 7 episode “all things” she was the 7th female writer of the show and only the 4th to get a sole writing credit. She was also the last. Her episode was the last one written by a woman.

This is not surprising considering male-dominated Hollywood, nor am I raising it as a criticism. In fact, it is a testament to the sensitivity and feminism of Chris Carter’s all-male writing room that the show was so even handed on gender. The horror and sci-fi genre to this day is notorious for sexploitation of female bodies and sexist stereotypes. The X-Files mostly avoided that. You could sense that the writers were actively balancing the number of times each partner got to rescue the other. If you add it up, you might even find that Scully rescued Mulder more times than he rescued her. Over the years, Scully went on dates. She had sex a few times without the story shaming her for it. When Mulder did act possessive of her, this was always done in a way that cast him in a negative light, like he was being petty or even creepy.

It is also a credit to the writers that they kept the narrative balanced between Mulder and Scully despite the fact that the show was about Mulder’s life’s work, not hers. Almost every episode is structured around Mulder’s crazy idea being right—this is part of the fun of watching. He’s like a paranormal Sherlock Holmes, which makes Scully his Watson. Watson’s narrative purpose is basically to show how smart Holmes is by comparison. Not so with Scully. She is Mulder’s counterpoint, her critical perspective making his methods stronger, and vise-versa. Unlike a lot of depictions of Watson, Scully is not a dolt or a buffoon. She always held her own.

And still… by Season 6 and 7 this relationship started to grate ever so slightly. By then she was not personally invested in many X-files because of her health or her family. It was just an all-consuming day job. She spent a lot of time whining to Mulder that what they were investigating was not an X-File, only to be proved wrong. Much of their work was on Mulder’s terms, and he gave her a lot of marching orders with every expectation that she would do as told. We were left to wonder, how long would a strong, independent woman—a medical doctor who can kick butt in heals—put up with this?

Anderson’s episode “all things” is a corrective to this Scully drift, and also a sly, brilliant maintenance job of the status quo in their relationship. Anderson tackles the imbalance head on from Scully’s point of view, and let’s Scully have some agency in deciding to keep the path she is on.

In the voice-over opening monologue she even uses the word ‘drift’ to name what is by then obvious about Scully: “How rarely do we stop … to consider whether the path we take in life is our own making, or simply one into which we drift with eyes closed.”

Anderson gives Scully a juicy backstory that dramatizes this choice. Before joining the FBI she had an affair with a married man that resulted in the dissolution of the marriage. She left him, but in this episode he reappears in her life offering to take her back. She contemplates the life she could have had if she stayed with him, and that she could restart now if she wanted. But by the end of the episode, she has chosen against this old flame. She tells Mulder, “I once considered spending my whole life with this man. What I would have missed” [Emphasis mine].

Here Anderson allows Scully to voice her reason for staying on the X-Files. Scully values what she has learned, how she has grown, in her years working with Mulder. She is saying: I chose this, and I continue to choose this for myself. It is an understated moment at the very end of the episode, but one that is the key to her character.

Anderson also has some good-natured fun with Mulder’s character. After 7 years of episodes of him always being right, she makes him wrong about everything in this episode. The episode begins after an autopsy of an X-File that is legitimately not an X-File. Scully says that the victim did not die “of inhalation of ectoplasm as you so vehemently suggested.” Mulder says: “What else could she possibly have drown in?” It was margarita mix.

But Mulder had already moved on to crop circles in England. In a well-shot scene, he is talking through one of his slide shows and the camera is on Scully picking through a salad not paying any attention to him.

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When he calls her on it she says, “I guess I just don’t see the point.” And besides, it’s Saturday so instead of flying to England to track down “some sneaky farmers who happened to ace geometry in high school” she’d rather be doing just about anything else, like taking a bath. You really get the sense of what her work life is like at it’s lowest. When Mulder is hot on the trail, he is brilliant and it’s riveting. But on an average day in the office, he can be nutty, pedantic, and boring—and she is expected to play along with every crackpot idea. Turns out Mulder flies all the way to England—Scully refuses to go—and he finds absolutely nothing.

In theories of literacy there is the concept of Landscapes of Action and Landscapes of Consciousness. The former is when the story is all about action, the quest, winning the prize, reaching the goal. The latter is all about what is happening in the interior of the characters, their hearts and minds, their inner-most thoughts. Literature uses both to tell its stories. Boys are supposed to respond better to literature that inhabits the Landscape of Action, while girls tend to relate better to the Landscape of Consciousness. The same goes for male and female writers, of course not 100% of cases fit this model. It is telling that Anderson’s episode contains no mystery to solve, no case to crack, no monster to capture. There is very little plot. There is a beginning, middle and end, but it maps onto Scully’s internal conflict: is she happy; has she made the right choices in her life; should she choose another path? As Scully has been telling Mulder all season: there is no X-File here. Except for the mystery of existence, and the role of fate in our lives, which the series, in its season 7 maturity, has been suggesting is the most important X-File of all.

The episode Duchovney wrote and directed in Season 6 was all about baseball, pure Landscape of Action. Of the two episodes I think Anderson’s, though flawed, was superior. His story was kind of a mess. He concocted a twin brother to Arthur Dales, presumably so he could work with an actor that he preferred over the original Arthur Dales. Admittedly that actor was great fun to watch, but the story was just a mess, even though it had an interesting concept: a gray alien in the 1940s rebels against colonization and shape shifts into a black baseball player before integration. It is the only time in the entire series when we get the point of view of an actual alien, but because the depiction is in such a silly episode and unmoored from the rest of the mythology, I don’t put much stock in it.

Scully does not factor much in this one, but there is a striking scene in the end when Mulder is teaching her to hit a baseball. It starts out as a sweet scene, but grows more cringe-inducing. Mulder holds her torso and forces her movements so that she swings the bat to hit the ball. He looks like he is manhandling her. First of all, I don’t think this is how you teach someone to hit a baseball. Second, it is a terrible visual that symbolizes Mulder as the puppet-master of her life.

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Duchovney started co-writing episodes with Carter in Season 3 and continued into Season and 9 (when he wasn’t even acting in the show). He had sole writing credit on episodes in Seasons 6 and 7. This is not evidence of gender bias as much as it is Duchovny’s personal desire to write for the show, born out by the fact that last year he published a novel and admitted he always wanted to be a writer. It is surprising that Anderson did not write and direct again, especially during season 9 when she had a lighter acting schedule. I can only hope that this did not happen because of her own wishes. In any case, I’m grateful we got her take on Scully in “all things”

Implications for the new season:

“all things” has a great teaser where we see Scully getting dressed in the bathroom and then walking out with Mulder asleep in bed. We later learn she fell asleep on his sofa the night before. Still, the moment was arresting. For the first time—after years of being against the idea and even denying it ever happened—I totally accept Mulder and Scully as a sexual couple. Not only is it plausible, it is also highly likely considering their close bond and complete lack of any factors holding them back from trying out a romantic relationship. Their flirtation has been building over Season 6 and 7. By mid Season 7 Duchovny and Anderson portray the characters with more affection for one another, with more outward signs of their love. And the scripts give them romantic lines like Mulder whispering to himself, “She still can surprise me.” They seem genuinely in love, but also afraid and unsure what to do with it. At the end of “all things” as they are musing about their life paths Mulder says, “One wrong turn and we wouldn’t be sitting here together… That’s probably more than we should be getting into at this late hour.” It’s a scene that, if Scully had not fallen asleep, would have ended in a kiss.

While it makes good character sense to put them together, the relationship would have fundamentally altered the show’s narrative. The love affair would necessarily become such a big part of the story that it would crowd out other elements of the successful X-Files formula. The writers could not have them chasing monsters and killers like they used to. We would always be wondering what they were doing together when they weren’t working: are they on a date? Do they go on vacation? Are they moving in together? Do they argue about the toilet seat and who does the dishes? If they were romantically involved, the show could never avoid the details of how they are as a romantic couple. So it is good that they got together at the end of the series, and in such a vague way. For the same reason, I am glad that Mulder and Scully won’t be a couple in the new season.

What has changed for me, upon re-watching the series, is that I now accept they were in an active romance. It lasted a few years but it did not work out because they are two different people who want different lives. When they reunite in the new episodes it will be as best friends who know one another better then anyone else, who share a deep love and history, but who have gone their separate ways. All the better since they can chase aliens without having to pick up toilet paper on the way home.

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