Smear the Queer: 'The X-Files' Reboot and Stereotypes in Speculative Fiction
If Fox really is going jump-start The X-Files, it better not pull any of the stereotypical homophobic crap again.
Recently, Fox Television announced that it's giving The X-Files another go around. Because this was one of the best speculative fiction (SF) television shows from the '90s, as well as one of the most disappointing SF films of all time, I'm both excited and concerned. The X-Files, like so many other shows featuring monsters and aliens, has simultaneously appealed to diverse audiences for its thoughtful metaphors of otherness, and later repelled those same audiences by turning those metaphors into stereotypical character archetypes and lazy plot tropes. It is for this reason that I ask: Is anyone else as worried about this reboot as I am?
People all over the internet and social media are talking excitedly about The X-Files reboot like it’s the greatest thing to happen to televised entertainment since Betty White. I suspect it will be more like the greatest thing to happen to soft drinks since the New Coke. Now don’t get me wrong, The X-Files was a pretty great show back in the day, but it tanked at the end.
More concerning to me than the show’s lukewarm last few seasons though, was that awful second movie. My final memory of Mulder and Scully is 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe: a disappointing film filled with the worst kinds of stereotypes, transphobia, and heteronormative dullness. (Also, there was a really disconnected side plot about a kid with a terminal disease, which I think was supposed to be a metaphor for Scully’s internal conflict about religion versus science, but was mostly just confusing.) I loved The X-Files television show, and that movie broke my heart.
So, once again, something I love from SF is getting an unneeded do-over. (Don’t even get me started on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.) Not only was that last peep from Chris Carter and Co. a stereotype-ridden crap-fest, but stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have both been involved in other projects for the last 13 years. Is Anderson giving up on The Fall in order to bring us a ...what do we even call this thing? A rehash? A do-over? It’s not really a reboot, because it’s got the same actors reprising the same roles.
How will this show be anywhere near as good as what we fell in love with two decades ago, especially if it’s just a rehash of the same monster scripts and alien paranoia, or worse, tired stereotypes? Will Agent Doggett show up with some limp noodle side plot? Perhaps a somnambulistic romance between him and Agent Reyes? The last movie opened with Mulder and a very pregnant Scully in bed together, so their romantic tension is gone, girl. Didn’t they answer all the questions the first time around, anyway? Spoiler Alert: The government is covering up the existence of extra-terrestrials, Mulder has a borderline personality, and Scully is skeptical.
I just can’t stretch my suspension of disbelief to the extent that I buy into the idea of Mulder and Scully still toiling away in the basement of FBI HQ in DC after all these years. At some point they would have been retired, promoted, fired, shot, probed to death by aliens, or otherwise escorted from the building and/or planet. Will the writers actually create a period story where it’s still the '90s? Oh god, what if they actually “pull an Abrams” and create an alternate timeline where none of the existing canon even applies? My fear is that we’ll end up with a monster-of-the-week formula devoid of any substantive character development, bringing me back to my main concern: using two-dimensional stereotypes to represent real groups of marginalized people.
Before I present a laundry list of The X-Files movie’s sins, let me tell you that I'm a huge fan of the show. I watched it every week when it was on the air. I read the fan fiction. I had a big fat crush on Anderson (and even a little one on Duchovny.) The original series—at least the first six or seven seasons—was some of the best-written, well-acted SF ever on television, no hyperboles needed. Who could forget the fang-in-cheek vampire episode with Luke Wilson, the visual splendor of Peter Boyle as Clyde Bruckman in his final repose, or Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek as a man-in-black in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”?
My first exposure to the words “autoerotic asphyxiation” was from this show. Seriously, it rocked my world—fluke worm-human hybrids, little green men, humor, creep-factor, '90s pop song-worthy watching-it-with-no-lights-on-we’re-dans-la-maison-I-hope-the-Smoking-Man’s-in-this-one awesomeness. (I now owe the Barenaked Ladies royalties.) The show had it going on.
Then it took a big dump. I was still hanging on in season seven, but seasons eight and nine? Every episode’s alternate title was Where the F is Mulder? Studio contract issues with Duchovny aside, the storytelling was basically Fonzie in a swimsuit sailing over a great white. There’s jumping the shark, and then there’s “Jump the Shark”. Seriously, there was a ninth season episode actually titled “Jump the Shark”. Even the writers knew the show had put on water skis. I mean, I like Robert Patrick as much as the next Terminator 2 fan, but Special Agent John Doggett was a snooze of a character, and without the weekly tension between Mulder and Scully, what was left? A T1000 talking mechanically about “a bizarre plot to unleash a biological weapon via the use of grafted shark organs.” That's according to Wikipedia’s plot description.
I couldn’t bring myself to keep watching the show at that point. Even fan-favorite guest stars like Lucy Lawless couldn’t salvage those last few seasons. The show finally called it quits in 2002, three years past its expiration date.
Then, in 2008, the studio and the show’s creator, Carter, announced a new feature film. My excitement at that time approached the levels I’ve been seeing lately about the reboot. Perhaps that’s why I'm more cynical than most: I’ve been bitten by the promise of continuing The X-Files before. Fool me once, shame on you, and so on. Hurray, more Mulder and Scully! Hurray, more aliens and monsters! More, more, more! Yay! I was pumped. Then I saw the movie.
The Oscar for the most offensive stereotype-filled movie of 2008 goes to The X-Files: I Want to Believe. It’s so chock-full of the most offensive LGBTQ+ stereotypes, misrepresentations, and outright lies; I don’t even know where to begin. From the moment it’s revealed that the pedophilic Catholic priest, Joseph “Father Joe” Crissman (played by Billy Connolly,) is responsible for “creating” the gay serial killer, Janke Dacyshyn, who’s willing to do anything, especially kidnap and murder, for his ailing boyfriend, Franz Tomczeszyn, the audience is asked to believe that gayness is somehow caused by childhood sexual abuse and queers are murderous predators. No. Just no.
Unfortunately, this isn’t accidental. The filmmakers are manipulating the audience’s investment in these queer characters. Naming a Catholic priest Joseph “Father Joe” Crissman is a bit like naming a pastry chef Mr. Baker. They might as well have called him Churchy McChurch, since the audience is supposed to read him as a stereotypical Catholic priest, pedophilia and all.
The filmmakers further alienate the queer characters from the audience through the two lovers’ names. The able-bodied and apparently psychotic boyfriend, Dacyshyn, and the sickly Tomczeszyn, are given surnames the audience won’t possibly be able to keep straight (pun intended) or even remember. The casting choice further reinforces this alienation. Dacyshyn is played by perennial expendable character actor Callum Keith Renny. You may not remember him from such films as Memento, The Butterfly Effect, and Blade: Trinity, but his face is familiar as a background baddy. So naturally, everything Dacyshyn tells the audience that this guy is a monster and the fact that he is homosexual is unalterably tied to this intentionally created revulsion.
The film goes from bad to WTF???, as we learn of the unethical Eastern European surgeon (more stereotypes!) who is willing to perform the most ridiculous and gruesome of gender reassignments ever, and for the most incomprehensible and selfish of reasons. There's a weird comparison of the sick boyfriend to a dog with a second head grafted on its shoulders that “explains” the doctor’s motives.
The farm where the surgical procedure is to take place is also the seat of the doctor’s long-running organ harvesting operation. Few things trigger revulsion and disgust in audiences more than the idea that some creepy predator is going to kidnap them, transport them to a remote location, and carve them up like a turkey. It’s a plot straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As the FBI’s investigation unfolds, the agents discover body parts randomly scattered about the countryside —an arm here, a severed head there. Not only is Dacyshyn abducting and killing people, he’s randomly discarding their body parts for anyone to find. Given his seeming motive for the crimes, none of this even makes sense.
Something else that doesn't make sense: at one point Dacyshyn stalks Mulder with an axe. Doesn’t he have a gun? If Dacyshyn’s whole reason for all of this is his devotion to his lover, why would he kill with random implements and scatter body parts everywhere? Conversely, if his motive is that he’s gone crazy because he was molested as a boy, why all the tender concern for Tomczeszyn? These two reasons don’t even fit together logically within the fiction of the movie. The only explanation for this confusing illogic is that the filmmakers wanted the characters to be as monstrous as possible.
And the suspension of logic continues, as the audience is finally invited into the lab at the film’s climax. It’s so dark inside, it’s hard to tell what’s even happening. What half-way decent doctor (or mad scientist for that matter) performs surgery in the dark? The movie has intentionally darkened a room solely to make the big reveal of Tomczeszyn’s severed head even more shocking. A panorama of the room also reveals the unconscious body of the kidnapped FBI agent, naked in a vat of ice. She’s prepped and ready for a head transplant.
When we finally see the disembodied-yet-conscious head of the ailing lover hooked up, Frankenstein-style, to tubes and rusty medical machine parts, awaiting the head transplant onto his (her?) new body, there’s no room for doubt about who needs to die at the end of this film. The scene is straight out of a horror movie and its intent is to make the villains even more villainous.
Wait, what? LGBTQ+ folks are going to steal the bodies of straight people and graft new heads on them? What. The. Hell? For whatever reason, the entire film decided to portray gender and sexual minorities and their allies as hideous monsters with no conscience. Monsters that prey upon “normal” people. While the audience may have been given some reasons to sympathize with some of the queer characters, those characters are all ultimately beyond redemption. We may briefly feel bad for the terminally ill Tomczeszyn, whose body was failing him, but he’s still presented as a horrifying monster—terrifying even as he’s completely helpless. Similarly, Father Joe’s character may be repentant in his assistance to the FBI, but he, too, has committed crimes too horrible to go unpunished.
Even with this fleeting bit of sympathy for these LGBTQ+ characters the ultimate fate of all of them is death. The movie doesn’t end until even the repentant queer, “Father Joe”, dies. Also, he’s a priest who bleeds out of his eyes. Talk about using tired tropes.
Storytelling that relies on archetypes and tropes is common in the SF genre and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s fictional shorthand. Such literary devices make communicating a lot of information about a character or plot idea quick and easy. Luke Skywalker, Frodo, and Harry Potter fit easily into the orphaned hero archetype, giving writers a means of explaining their psyches without the need for a Jungian psychology lesson.
The not-quite-human monster/alien archetype is a particularly useful one for presenting a moral dilemma, and when the monster is contrasted with archetypes like the hero or the villain, it can provide additional depth and complexity to the hero’s victory, or it can engender sympathy that the villain would not. Often the monster’s loyalties are ambiguous (think Darth Vader, Saruman, or Hagrid) and sometimes even controlled by others. At times, the monster can even be a victim of circumstance—pitiable rather than malicious. The point of having monsters and aliens in stories is to represent characters that are “abnormal” or broken in some way to convey a lesson about trust, repentance, or betrayal.
The problem with these archetypes, though, is that since the monster is abnormal— unnatural, reviled—it becomes easy for fiction to graft real marginalized identities onto them. Despite earning an audience’s pity, the monster is still not-quite-human, and probably in need of destruction. That’s the function of the monster/alien archetype. The monster is fated to die so that the hero (and thus, the audience) can learn a lesson. C’est la vie. But in The X-Files, the monster archetypes have been replaced by monstrous stereotypes. This is especially dangerous because the monsters, now just placeholders for real identities, are easily vilified. And once they’re vilified, they’re easier to kill.
Contrasting the queer monsters in the film with the heterosexual "normalcy" of Mulder and Scully drives home the message that gays are monstrous and need to die. The story shifts from “cautionary fairy tale” to “Caution: fairy.” Even when monsters are given sympathetic motives, they are still killed off at the end.
This is hardly a new invention of The X-Files; Hollywood has made a mint portraying homosexuals as monsters for decades. From the beginning of film as an entertainment medium, movie audiences have been invited to witness the spectacle of the monster-who-is-also-homosexual, and then to cheer at its death. Throughout the 100-plus years of celluloid history, the fates of monstrous characters have been disturbingly similar: the monster is eventually destroyed, usually in the most gruesome way possible. The resolutions of stories using this trope hinge on the destruction of the queer monsters, even when audiences have been invited to sympathize with them.
And here’s my concern about The X-Files restart: the troubling and downright lazy writing that pinned a movie’s entire plot to a worn out gay-as-monster storyline. A well-written show slumped, initially grasped at just plain bad shark jumping lameness, eventually grabbed hold of actual queer smearing levels of terribleness. Are all the queers dead? Straight couple heading off into the sunset? Roll credits.
While some might argue that The X-Files: I Want to Believe is just entertainment and I’m reading too much into it, I would remind those apologists that the purpose of archetypal storytelling, for SF especially, has always been to explore how we understand human identities and moral concepts. When a film intentionally equates LGBTQ+ people to monsters and then kills those monsters, the message that queers should be feared and reviled is reified in our collective unconscious.
Televised entertainment has real world consequences. If Fox really is going jump-start The X-Files, it better not pull any of the stereotypical homophobic crap again. But who am I kidding? I’ll probably still watch it. It’s got to be better than the planned Coach reboot, right?