The Sisterhood of The X-Files Fandom
I could safely fit three episodes of The X-Files on one VHS tape in Long Play mode.
And I did. In the late 90s and early aughts, I collected and categorized episodes in much the same way one would arrange a mixtape. Some episodes go together chronologically, others go together thematically, but maybe a few belong together instead? In the endless stream of new episodes and nightly reruns that existed when the show was running full force, I built a collection of bootleg tapes and created customized labels for them from low resolution stills I found online. In the prehistoric pre-streaming media internet, this was the only way I could preserve and re-live my favorite moments in the series.
Now the wonders of Netflix and YouTube combined with mega high speed ubiquitous internet connections have replaced the need for careful VCR programming and delicate analog formats. Animated gifs appear moments after an episode airs (or during the commercial breaks, if you’re one of the few viewing it live) so you can re-watch your favorite 10 second moment over and over, no rewinding required. Hashtags connect us in a constant torrent of feedback we don’t even have to refresh to see. So many more television shows are airing today, and on so many different services. The X-Files, which returns this weekend, hasn’t aired in 14 years. Many shows have sprung up to replace or build on its science fiction conspiracy stories.
And yet, the internet fandom — “The X-Philes” — is as strong as ever, even growing in intensity with each year since the series finale. And it’s the same as it’s always been: clever, thoughtful, and largely female.
I can divide my own participation in this fandom into three distinct periods. By the way, some spoilers ahead for season one through nine.
I am in the awkward summer between 8th grade and high school. I have made a habit of watching X-Files double feature reruns on FX every single night. Before the summer television break, I watch new episodes every Sunday night, following the fan reaction through frantically refreshed message boards. Some boards are powered by the FOX network, and end up heavily and frustratingly moderated. Others — the good ones — are deeper in the ‘net. You know when something really good happens because a dozen new posts show up all at once, all in caps. It’s here that I read my first internet spoiler — wait, Mulder ISN’T DEAD?
I begin to recognize the same usernames over this period, and I befriend a dozen of my favorite posters. We’re all about the same age, all female. Some are planning college soon, studying forensics or medicine or science. All are as serious about their studies as they are about ‘shipping (hoping and looking for a romantic connection between) Mulder and Scully, and seem to talk about both equally. I never really learn any of their real names, which is fine because “AgentScully1013” and “KrycekLvr” are better identities anyway. We share fan fiction on Gossamer and create tribute videos and photo collages. We talk about school. We argue over which song lyrics best fit the Mulder-Scully-Relationship (aka, the MSR) and debate noromos (people that think romance destroys story tension) about the nature of the relationship and when it became romantic and also oh my god they kissed but it was maybe a dream sequence?
As the series pushes forward into season nine, I watch live episodes with my cousin over AOL Instant Messenger. Sometimes her television broadcast is a little ahead of mine, which annoys me deeply.
DRAGON-CON — 2014
In the years since the show ended, my online X-Files related activity has mostly ceased. After a disappointing reprisal in the form of a not-that-interesting movie with a Monster of the Week plot in 2008, my appreciation for the early seasons grows as my hope for ever seeing the characters reunited in new stories wanes. In the decade without new X-Files, I have graduated high school and college and established myself as a professional. As I go deeper into filmmaking and post production, I return to my favorite X-Files stories occasionally and marvel at their construction. I take an ungraded online class on film noir and write a paper on the season four episode “Detour”. I am still as engaged with the characters as ever, but it has become a solitary activity.
With luck and good timing, I find myself at Dragoncon in Atlanta, a large convention celebrating pop culture and science fiction/fantasy that’s not so mainstream as Comic Con. I attend panels and sessions on the universe and black holes, about post-apocalyptic survival techniques, and about fantasy books. I line up around a hilly city block to watch the cast of Battlestar Galactica reunite. I make eye contact with Adam Baldwin. I attend a Hobbit book versus movie debate and cross paths with a brilliant gender swapped Rosie Cotton/Samwise Gamgee cosplay couple. I consider buying a box cutter and an autograph from Giancarlo Esposito.
I walk to my last session of the day: a celebration of the 20th anniversary of The X-Files. There is no cast or crew in attendance, just a fan-led discussion of favorite episodes. I expect a small group of die hard fans in a tiny room. I find just the opposite. The session is standing room only by the time I squeeze in, but I manage to find one empty chair. While the panel of writers and scifi bloggers is 50–50, most of the attendees are female. Much of the room has red hair, including me. I doubt that’s a coincidence.
The session is just what it says it will be, a fan-led discussion of the best episodes. A woman at the front of the room makes a list on a large poster board as attendees stand up one by one and make a impassioned case for their favorite episode. The collection of X-Philes and leadership of elected experts passes collective judgement in a way that reminds me of Parliament. Arguments break out. People clap and yell. I’m surprised blows aren’t thrown. But everyone is eloquent, and those who aren’t in Dana Scully cosplay are unusually professionally dressed for such a con. The session ends with a satisfying list of twenty or thirty episodes scrawled on the oversized board, and I’m thrilled and impressed that so many of the girls I “grew up” with have turned into gifter orators…at least when it comes to X-Files.
TODAY — 2015–2016
In response to the rising cynicism of social media, I swear off sites like Reddit and spend most of my unprofessional internet time on Tumblr, embedded in a flow of snapchats of aesthetically pleasing tea cups and David Bowie photos. I am slowly absorbed into the “X-Files” tag, where young women share pictures we all loved (see: Rollingstone photo shoot) or missed altogether (see: Gillian Anderson’s season one continuity polaroids). In between posts about self-doubt and self-empowerment, they reblog fan art that reaches new heights of artistry or satire. There are Spotify playlists inspired by specific episodes, or hypothetical micro-fanfics. Many of the women are my age, but many more are younger and discovered the show well after it ended.
It is here I first discover hints of a possible revival. Netflix carries the entirety of the series in newly mastered high definition, so I begin to re-watch it from the beginning. You can create a drinking game from every piece of outdated technology that appears on screen, from phone booths to library cards. While some plot points don’t quite work the same way under the lense of TV binge culture, many of them work even better somehow. Maybe it’s because it feels like the origin of modern conspiracy, or because TV has given us more depressingly realistic art than stylized conspiracy theories in the years since the attack on the World Trade Center. We’ve been drowning in post-apocayptic stories for the last decaide, and X-Files is a return to the pre-apocalyptic — even when the villains win for the moment, there’s real hope in the myth arc that Mulder and Scully will find the truth before colonization day.
The revivial is announced — six new episodes with the original cast — and the online fandom collectively loses its mind. I find myself with renewed enthusiasm. Yeah, maybe season nine wasn’t the best. Maybe the second film wasn’t great. But who cares? We crave these characters more than ever.
When you see a mostly female fandom of a show like The X-Files, you might be led to believe much of the motivation for worship is of Fox Mulder, for his “All-American features” and “dour demeanor”, as he is accused by the innkeeper in the season two episode “Humbug”. And while the charisma brought to the character by David Duchovny is widely appreciated and does not go unnoticed (heck yeah), it isn’t the tall, lanky G-man with the unimaginative necktie who draws us in. It’s his much smaller partner, Dana Scully — one of the first powerful, flawed and real female television icons of the internet message board age.
Many young female fan bases are dismissed as boy-crazy and silly when in reality, they’re incredibly sophisticated viewers of the show like any other demographic. And they’re often connecting with an aspect of the show beyond the given plot because of the way it makes them feel. How many of the young women I traded junky JPEGs with in 1999 went into engineering or science after seeing Scully exist in those fields with confidence and acceptance? Gillian Anderson has said countless women have told her they decided to go into a scientific field because of her portrayal of the tiny medical doctor (seriously, she’s like half the size of Duchovny when she isn’t perched on a box) who can also tackle people to the ground. How many more took the inspiration into different but similarly male-dominated fields? The artistry of The X-Files having almost as much of an impact as the character of Scully, I certainly did when I entered the post production industry. (As a bonus, about 100 of the original 201 episodes were edited by women — yeah, I counted. Like today, only about 18% of the editing workforce was female then, so that’s a significant number.)
Young women are still not recognized as avid fans of science fiction, even though they love the media — books, movies, TV shows — seemingly more openly and less cynically than nearly anyone else. They’re accused of being fake geek girls or not enthusastic enough in a way that reflects other gender-related catch-22s. But without the on-going intensity of a female-led fandom, would X-Files be returning?
Though references to her immortality by characters like Clyde Bruckman have been accompanied by a wink and a nudge, I think most of us feel like Dana Scully will actually never die. She will live forever because of the impact she’s had on girls and the portrayal of female characters. And the sisterhood of the X-Files fandom (lead by our queens Gillian Anderson AND Dana Scully) will keep on debating the canon and creating fan art and finding one another, the impact of these six new episodes being equal to pouring rocket fuel on an already raging bonfire.