"I do not gaze at Scully" The Rain King: The X Files’ Response to Laura Mulvey

This was written for the 2011 round of xf_is_love. I’m writing this much later than I’d have liked to, mainly because I forgot I was posting today until yesterday, and so it’s therefore shorter than I’d like it to be. There’s a lot more I could say about the male gaze and The X Files, but if you take a look at the bibliography you’ll find some of the articles out there covering this in more depth than I am in this essay.


This essay begins with an anecdote about how it’s possible to see The X Files everywhere. Most of you probably know I’m a PhD student, and my research question looks at why X Files fans (on the whole) love Scully and hate Fowley. The thesis will, eventually, go into a lot more detail in a lot more areas, but that’s the basis of my research. Because it’s a PhD I have to do a lot of reading, and on the train to university one morning last year I was reading Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), an important text in the field of feminist film criticism. Mulvey’s article makes political use of Freud to move film theory towards a more psychoanalytic framework, and I find it heavy going. But the area of most interest to my research, and this paper, is her concept of the ‘male gaze’. She argued that the way in which classical Hollywood cinema was constructed placed the viewer in a ‘masculine subject position’, with the woman on the screen as the object of desire. Women are inevitably a subject of this gaze, rather than active participants or even instigators of a gaze. And while I was reading, I kept thinking of our favourite duo. I’m sure by this point you can work out why. While I was doing my reading, I came across this: “within the film text itself, men gaze at women” which reminded me of this:

HOLMAN: I’ve been envious of men like you my whole life. Based on your physical bearing, I’d assumed you were… More experienced. I mean… You spend every day with agent Scully a beautiful, enchanting woman. And you two never, uh…? I… confess I find that shocking. I… I’ve seen how you two gaze at one another.
MULDER: This is about you, Holman. I’m here to help you. I’m perfectly happy with my friendship with Agent Scully.
HOLMAN: So according to your theory I walk in there, tell her I love her and the drought will end?
MULDER: Just tell her how you feel. And Holman. I do not gaze at Scully.
Which led to me sending a very excited text to [info]cadiliniel about the male gaze and how I was able to see X Files references everywhere. (It also led to some strange looks from the other people in the carriage as I laughed to myself.) Beyond this realisation though, were some more serious questions: is Mulder’s comment to Holman in Rain King a serious reference to Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze? Were the writers planting an in joke that only students of pop culture – and perhaps those who were most interested in how women are depicted in The X Files – would get, while keeping shippers happy at the same time? And if so, does their response to Mulvey hold up? This essay is an attempt to answer those questions by examining three main areas: how Scully is depicted in the series; whether Scully possesses a ‘female gaze’; and how Mulder (and the audience) gaze at Scully. I’ll look at the first of these to begin.

One of the ways in which Mulvey argues that women function as objects of the male gaze is through their depiction as glamorous, sexualised beings. Scully, certainly in the early seasons, is almost never coded as sexual. She wears little make-up, keeps her hair short and as anyone who follows http://fucknoshoulderpads.tumblr.com/ will know, wears some appalling pant suits. Even in later seasons, when her dress sense has improved, she can be found wearing over-sized t-shirts with leggings and jeans and hiking boots. Scully does not, it seem, pay overmuch attention to her appearance. There are far more serious things to worry about.

Likewise, though her social life is referred to briefly in season one and she does go out on a date in Jersey Devil, her position as Mulder’s partner removes much of her sexuality: they have little life outside of work, she leaves her date early to help Mulder on a case and both rarely mention a social life. As Hodges notes: “If anything, then, the show seems to go out of its way to desexualize Scully in the first season, though she is, of course, not completely divested of her femininity—it’s just not a central attribute of her character” (2005). Indeed, much has been made of how Scully is depicted as a strong female character in both fan and academic analyses of the show. Popular press discourse noted her scientific background, her job (as an FBI agent she was considered a woman in a man’s world) and her strength of character, and fans likewise commented upon these attributes. Gina Rumbaugh notes that “Scully is also someone with whom women can identify […] as a contemporary woman who faces challenges and doubts and who endeavours to achieve a fulfilling life” placing emphasis not upon Scully’s appearance, but on her ability to face up to challenges and doubts, and overcomes them. 

Chris Carter has said that

Scully’s point of view is the point of view of the show. And so the show has to be built on a solid foundation of science, in order to have Mulder take a flight from it… If the science is really good, Scully’s got a valid point of view… And Mulder has to then convince her that she’s got to throw her arguments out, she’s got to accept the unacceptable.
Carter argues that Scully is the lens through which The X Files is viewed by the audience; she is our link to Mulder, to the X Files, to the mytharc. And that suggests that a great deal of power lies with Scully. Far from being the object of male gaze, it is she who holds the gaze, both in terms of her power as an investigator, and by forcing the audience to focus on what she focuses on. Hodges notes that
In the pilot episode, Scully is established as the series’ connection to the rational and the real. She enters the series at the same place and time as the viewer—the viewer, like Scully, is expecting to “debunk the X-Files project.” She is the original screen surrogate and, through access to her inner thoughts as projected by the case reports that she writes while investigating with Mulder, she serves as the voice with which the viewer can originally identify.
Scully’s positioning as a medical doctor and FBI investigator further allow her to serve as an authoritative voice, as well as allowing her a gaze of her own under which to instigate inquiries: as Rhonda Wilcox and J.P. Williams note in “’What Do You Think?’ The X-Files, Liminality, and Gender Pleasure,”: “while women on screen often passively represent the body, Scully actively examines it.”
Mulvey argued that films were centred around a “main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify. As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto […] his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” But this fails to take into account those viewers who don’t identify with the male protagonist. There are lots of them watching The X Files. They identify much more strongly with Scully than with Mulder, and Scully is equally as able to project her look onto him as he is to project his onto her. Hodges, however, argues that both Mulder and Scully serve as ‘screen surrogates’ for the viewers. Mulder’s worldview is valued over Scully’s rational one, something which neither fans nor critics have failed to realise. Mulder is right most of the time, and Scully’s scientific explanations almost never pan out. Yet, particularly in the first season, the voiceovers which Scully gives when writing up her case notes lend her credence and authority, marking her as equally worthy of our attention. But does this actually make Mulvey’s analysis of the male/female binary as problematic as we might think? Wilcox and Williams argue that Scully’s investigative gaze is disempowered as a result of the show’s inversion of traditional gender roles. While Scully representing rationality and science (the realm of men) may allow her more authority, her failure, episode after episode, to see the supernatural explanation that Mulder does results in the disempowerment of her gaze.
More problematically, Scully is often coded as the object of the male gaze. Irresistible and Milagro and both examples of this, but it is to the Pilot that I wish to return. In her analysis of classical Hollywood Cinema, Mulvey contended that
the film opens with the woman as object the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film. She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised. But as the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalised sexuality, her show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone. By means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too.
And parts of this will certainly sound familiar to X Files fans (falling in love with the main male protagonist, anyone?). The Pilot episode opens with Karen Swenson as object of viewer gaze and male character gaze. Clad only in a nightgown she runs through a dark forest, camera focusing on her legs in close up, and her body in long shot. Tripping, she falls to the floor and lies there, lit by a bright light, as a boy walks towards her. Leaves swirl around them, and then we fade to white. Following this, we see Karen lying on the ground, face down. She is surrounded by men in positions of authority as they take photos and examine her dead body. But the scene then switches to Scully who, as I have already mentioned, is the lens through which the audience view The X Files. Hodges notes that the dynamic in this scene is complicated (one reason why The X Files is such as interesting text to examine in terms of gender): far from women being the victims, as depicted in the earlier scene, we get Scully – calm, collected and quite able to recognise and challenge the true motives of the men in front of her.
So far so good, one might think. We do, at least, have a strong female character who can stand up for herself. But then, of course, we later get a lot of scantily-clad Scully who rushes into Mulder’s motel room worried about lumps on her back. The setting up of this scene much more closely aligns with Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze: the viewer is treated to shots of Scully disrobing, standing in front of the bathroom mirror wearing only her underwear and a close up of her lower body. The framing of the scene when she enters Mulder’s motel room also positions Scully as an object of the viewer, and the male protagonist’s gaze Mulder quite obviously gazes at Scully as she asks him to examine her back, and the viewer has no choice but to do the same. Hodges notes that the scene does two things:
it makes Scully vulnerable and sets her up as an object for the gaze of both Mulder and the viewer. Up to this point in the episode, Scully is portrayed as strong and confident. In this scene, however, she is portrayed as emotional, and the emphasis on her mostly naked body highlights her femininity […]she is reduced to her naked body parts by the scene. Scully is no longer Mulder’s equal, and what disguised her femininity—namely her clothing and “macho” attitude—is shed. In this scene Scully is an object of erotic pleasure, both for Mulder and for the viewer.
Regardless of whether Scully is depicted with a lack of ‘feminine’ attributes, or as a scantily-glad young woman, she is consistently made an object of the male gaze by the structure of the text. This is further evidenced in the number of attractive women lists that Gillian Anderson, in her role as Scully, has topped. And references to the ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ clearly code Scully as a desirable, sexual being.
At the start of this essay I posed some questions that I was hoping to answer: is Mulder’s comment to Holman in Rain King a serious reference to Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze? Were the writers planting an in joke that only students of pop culture – and perhaps those who were most interested in how women are depicted in The X Files – would get, while keeping shippers happy at the same time? And if so, does their response to Mulvey hold up? The honest answer is I don’t think we’ll ever know. I would love to be able to say that Carter and co. were throwing a reference to Mulvey out into the big wide world of fandom, and given the amount of what Jonathan Gray calls ‘intertextuality’ (the idea that texts are shaped by other texts) it would be nice to think they were. The writers clearly aren’t stupid people, and they don’t treat the audience as though they are either. It’s certainly possible that someone on the staff had come across Mulvey’s idea and thrown it into the pot. After all, they’ve done it with the Bible (Amor Fati), Frankenstein (Post-Modern Prometheus) and Star Wars (Jose Chung’s From Outer Space), and looking at the language used in Rain King (gaze instead of look, for example) there might be an argument to make that say they were. But I’m leaning more towards the conclusion that it was simple coincidence. Nevertheless, it was an interesting question to ask and has made for what I think is an interesting analysis of The X Files. The answer to the last question, I would argue, is also a no. While much has been made of Scully’s depiction as strong female character, as I’ve mentioned throughout this piece, there are problems with the way she is coded in the series. Mulvey suggests that “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” The female characters in The X Files are firmly placed as bearers of meaning. Samantha doesn’t make meaning through being abducted; she is the bearer of a much larger meaning, which is slowly revealed through the course of the show. Likewise, Scully is the bearer of meaning – in a much more literal way. In two separate instances she holds something inside her which carries meaning that other, male, characters would do anything to have. The microchip implanted in her neck in Season 2 bears a much more malignant meaning than does William in the last two seasons, but in both of these instances Scully does not make the meaning they hold. Despite all of this though, the writers try. And returning to the quote that opened this essay, it is important to note one thing.
HOLMAN: I’ve been envious of men like you my whole life. Based on your physical bearing, I’d assumed you were… More experienced. I mean… You spend every day with agent Scully a beautiful, enchanting woman. And you two never, uh…? I… confess I find that shocking. I… I’ve seen how you two gaze at one another.
While Mulder’s response is to tell Holman that he doesn’t gaze at Scully, Scully is not there to say the same thing. Holman doesn’t accuse Mulder of levelling the ‘male gaze’ at Scully; rather he recognises the way that they look at each other. The equal gaze that illustrates partnership, not domination.
Bibliography
Ginn, Sherry. 2005. Our Space, Our Place: Women in the Worlds of Science Fiction Television. University Press of America
Helford, Elyce Rae. 2000. Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Televison. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Hodges, Lacy. 2005. “Scully, What Are You Wearing?”: The Problem of Feminism, Subversion, and Heteronormativity in The X-Files. MA Diss. University of Florida
Inness, Sherrie A. 1999. Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media, & Political Culture). University of Pennsylvania Press
Lavery, David, Hague, Angela and Cartwright, Maria. 1997. Deny All Knowledge: Reading the “X-Files”. Faber and Faber
Lipsky, David. 1997. “Chris Carter As The Beast Within.” Rolling Stone Magazine. Accessed at http://millennium-thisiswhoweare.net/cmeacg/crew_interview.php?name=Chris%20Carter&id=41
Mulveyr, Laura. 1975. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen v.16 (3): 6-18.
Rumbaugh, Gina Boyer. 2008. X-chromosomes within The X-Files: An Examination of Celebrity Role Models Agent Scully and Gillian Anderson, VDM Verlag Dr. Muller Aktiengesellschaft c& Co. KG
Scodari, Christina., and Felder, Jenna, L. 2000. “Creating a pocket universe: “Shippers,” fan fiction, and The X-Files Online.” Communication Studies: 51 (3)
Wakefield, Sarah, R. 2001. “‘Your Sister in St. Scully’: An Electronic Community of Female Fans of The X-Files.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 29.3: 130-37.
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