Patriarchy and Scully’s motherhood arc on The X-Files

The alien mythology of The X-Files is well-known for its convoluted plot threads, the result of the writers having only the vaguest of ideas about it themselves. While this openendedness allowed for the story to develop in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise, for instance in creating the popular Cigarette-Smoking Man, eventually the mythology began to crumble under its own weight as the writers piled mystery upon mystery in an attempt to keep it going; even when they sought to resolve some of the mysteries that had fuelled the story, however, as in the case of Samantha Mulder’s disappearance, the resolution fell flat from a plot perspective because it had been teased and hinted at so much that I don’t think there is any revelation that would have been satisfying.

What saves the episodes that resolve the Samantha arc from utterly failing is Mulder’s reaction to it all; his grief at the loss of his mother, his desperation to find the truth, and his relief at his sister’s soul being at peace. Of course, it’s easy to criticise the myth arc from the age of Netflix, but the idea of not resolving everything at the end of the episode was rather unusual back in 1993, and for all its faults, the saving grace for the myth arc of The X-Files is its emotional and thematic resonance. Indeed, throughout the series the alien mythology arc’s greatest strength is its impact on the main characters, whom we grow to love through their behaviour and interactions on the Monster-of-the-Week episodes. The specifics of where Scully’s cancer comes from are not important; what matters is that it’s killing her, and it was knowingly caused by the Syndicate. The aftermath of Scully’s abduction is one of the best parts of the myth arc because it’s so focussed on how the shadowy conspiracy affects her, not only in the physical harm it causes her but the way it has forced her to question everything she believes to be true.

This leads me to another aspect of the continuing harm caused by Scully’s abduction: her infertility. This is a part of the arc that I have more issues with, not only because I’m not quite clear on the logic of it (what on earth do they plan on doing with the literally hundreds of thousands of eggs from each woman?), but because I can’t help feeling like the show wouldn’t have done it had Scully not been a woman. For all that I find Scully to be one of the best examples of a female character on television whom the narrative treats as a character first and foremost, I can’t imagine the show doing a storyline like that of ‘Christmas Carol’/‘Emily’ centred around Mulder. The way the alien conspiracy uses Scully’s body to perpetuate their own ends is disturbingly reminiscent of the patriarchal use of women’s bodies as vessels to perpetuate male primogeniture. And perhaps that’s the point, that human women’s bodies are viewed by the conspiracy as no more their own than they are by the patriarchal society they live in. ‘Per Manum’ is an excellent example of how the people women trust with their reproductive care can betray them, and even the men closest to them, like Scully’s partner, Doggett, don’t believe the things they know to be true. Nevertheless, there’s something strangely gendered about basing an entire episode of the show around a female character’s desire, and lack of ability, to have children.

And yet I cried my eyes out watching it. Because sexist or not, what this episode is about is a woman who has seen her sister die and her own health deteriorate at the hands of a shadowy conspiracy, only to learn as she regains her health that they’ve taken something else from her, something she never had but always wanted. And it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch.

What stops this from feeling wholly like a sexist footnote is that we, the audience, already know that Scully wants to be a mother. It’s hinted at as early as the fifth episode, ‘Jersey Devil’, with her godson’s birthday party and her subsequent date with the father of one of the children in attendance, and confirmed in season 4’s ‘Home’, when she tells Mulder she would like to have children at some point. Moreover, rather than feeling like her desire to have children is tacked on because she’s a woman and it’s expected, it brings depth to her characterisation and reinforces how much she sacrifices for the X-Files; not only has she now physically lost the ability to have biological children, but, as the social worker in ‘Emily’ points out, the demands of her career – and the dangers of collaborating on Fox Mulder’s quest – mean that her continued dedication to her work on the X-Files mean she can’t provide a safe, loving home for a child herself, and she hardly has the time to find a partner to raise one with. By her continued choice to work with Mulder, then, Scully is also choosing to give up marriage and a family – but there’s a world of difference between choosing a career that leaves little time for others and having the opportunity to have a child stolen from her because of that career.

Indeed, in a way the show had no real choice but to have the Syndicate violate Scully’s reproductive rights in some way, because such a major part of the myth arc is the Syndicate’s hybrid experimentation. To not examine the emotional consequences of this treatment of women would be to treat all the women involved as a mere plot point, where the narrative is using women’s bodies as tools as much as the Syndicate is. By having Scully deal with the consequences of this, then, the show acknowledges the deep emotional trauma the Syndicate are causing with their hybrid experimentation. Moreover, inasmuch as Scully’s infertility arc is carried forward by its emotional and thematic resonance, her pregnancy and motherhood have further issues that make this more difficult to fall back on.

The show’s attitude towards Scully changes after her pregnancy is revealed. Men like Skinner and Doggett – and even, to an extent, Mulder – who previously treated her as an equal now make decisions behind her back and keep her in the dark. When her life and her child’s are in danger, she’s taken away in the night, without being told where she’s going, without even bringing her gun. At one point Skinner assigns Krycek to protect her, because he’s the only person around, and apparently Scully can’t protect herself. If the intent was to show how utterly helpless Scully feels at being unable to run away, unable, even, to fire a gun (which is contraindicted in pregnancy, especially late pregnancy, though I’m unclear on whether that outweighs the risk of being attacked by super-powered alien replicants), then it fails, because there’s so much focus on the immediate danger and the physical risk that we don’t get a chance to see how incredibly terrifying it is for a woman with Scully’s skills, experience and personality to have to rely on men to protect her.

It’s as though women in the world of The X-Files can either be career-oriented, with masculine traits, or they can be family-oriented, with feminine traits. Indeed, throughout Season 8 Scully is more feminine than in earlier seasons, although this may not be related to her pregnancy; Doggett is much more masculine than the sensitive and intuitive Mulder, and in setting him up as the future protagonist the show seems to betray some of Scully’s existing development by giving her those characteristics. It’s done subtly enough that it can be argued it’s genuine character development, that 29-year-old Scully hid her emotions because she worked in a predominantly male environment, but 36-year-old Scully is past caring about that, and likewise she develops more paranormal intuition because it is rational to believe in the paranormal after everything she’s seen and experienced. Emotional resonance, however, hinges on having a connection to the characters as people, and if that’s the strength of the myth arc it’s undermined by changes to the character.

Arguably, this starts even earlier; this review of ‘Arcadia’ asserts that as Scully and Mulder’s relationship becomes more romantic the show seeks to heteronormalise it. It’s as though the series is saying that, yes, a woman can be rational and scientific, but at the expense of a sex life (as evidenced by ‘Never Again’), and in order to have a sexual relationship with a man a woman must become more ‘womanly’. It’s particularly unfortunate in that one of the strongest parts of Scully and Mulder’s relationship is that they are not stereotypes of their genders.

From a feminist perspective, a show like The X-Files with only two lead characters (with an equal gender split) comes up against two complementary but rather mutually exclusive critiques. On the one hand, there’s the reaction against the portrayal of feminine characteristics as inferior, but on the other there’s a desire to see women who embody stereotypically masculine traits, for the obvious reason that most women – and men – have some masculine and some feminine characteristics. The X-Files seems to model Scully in the latter mould, but neatly avoids the former issue by giving Mulder the more feminine side to some of Scully’s more masculine traits. By making the male protagonist sensitive and intuitive, the show legitimises these traits in a patriarchal context, and Mulder’s intuition is not lesser than Scully’s rationalism. Moreover, Scully is not ‘more masculine’ than Mulder; while she is the rational one in the duo, she’s also the more introspective one. Their dynamic works so well because both characters are well-developed, unique individuals.

And because Scully is such a well-rounded character, I have no issue believing that this reserved, rational, thoughtful, loyal woman might also want to be a mother, because we’ve seen that she has a close relationship with her family and her godson and we’ve seen that she has a nurturing streak. And in that context, I think her infertility storyline works very well on an emotional level, because it’s just one more way the Syndicate are destroying her life, and all because she refused to be the docile young woman who would participate in a cover-up that they wanted her to be; she refused to conform to feminine stereotypes, and as a result they took from her the chance to reach the holy grail of patriarchal womanhood: motherhood.

The alien conspirators use Scully’s body, and the bodies of thousands of other women, to further their own ends, clearly evoking the patriarchal underpinnings of American society. It’s actually suggested by Krycek that Scully’s pregnancy was deliberate, facilitated by the chip in her neck and, regardless of how much she wanted this child, her lack of consent in this matter should be an issue, and yet it doesn’t come up. And this is where my feelings about her infertility arc and her subsequent pregnancy and motherhood diverge sharply. Where her infertility was an indication of how the Syndicate stole her reproductive choices from her, the pregnancy is an equal violation, but by giving her something she wants the question of her consent and choice is irrelevant. The implication is that if a woman can’t have children it’s a tragedy; if she is unexpectedly pregnant, whatever the cause, it’s a miracle. Of course, it’s also heavily implied that the pregnancy was a result of a natural conception, with Mulder as the father (again, did they really take ALL her eggs?), but the fact remains that when confronted with the possibility that Scully was deliberately impregnated, the concern is over what the resultant child will be like, not the invasion of Scully’s body. In the ninth season her main arc appears to be finding out where her child came from, but out of concern for his wellbeing. This is natural, of course; she is a parent worrying for her son. However, her concerns about William overshadow the fact that the core of this investigation is the invasion of her own reproductive rights.

Scully’s struggle with infertility and her later pregnancy form a compelling character arc for a woman who can be stoic yet maternal, strong yet emotionally vulnerable, showing another facet of how Scully’s choice to remain with the X-Files and to uncover the truth has had a personal cost, and presenting us with a woman who, like most women, embodies both masculine and feminine traits. Yet it’s harmed by the show’s reluctance to fully engage with the misogyny evident in the alien conspiracy’s treatment of women’s bodies. Ultimately, I can’t quite silence the niggling feeling that it also shows that, no matter how independent and rational-thinking Scully may be, her deepest desires ultimately conform to those expected of women in a patriarchal society.


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