Friday, July 25, 2008

My love-circus includes some hesitations

I can't tell you how strange it is to suddenly see "The X-Files" everywhere.

I was a serious fan of the show back when it was still on the air and I was still just a pup (I was only 16 when the show ended, and 14 or 15 when I stopped watching). A year and a half ago, for reasons that were mostly about procrastination , I started rewatching old seasons after not having thought about them for years. Nabokov said that only the rereading counts,* and he was right.

In short, I was surprised how easy it was to come back to the series - and how rewarding. I became a casual viewer around the age of 9 or 10 and an afficionado by 12. The 22-year old me

Rebecca Traister owns up to her fandom and has mini-essay up about Dana Scully, crush object. Feministing Community member Starzki6 has a list of reasons why the character was great (both via).

Although I agree whole-heartedly with both articles, especially Traister's (she picks up on the sainthood arc, coins the helpful phrase "walking pheromone," and shares my opinion that Mulder 2008 would be in Guantanamo Bay right now), I'm a little surprised by the unequivocally positive tone of both pieces.

I suppose it's because in rewatching the series, I remembered what I think was my first self-consciously feminist moment - and it was in criticism.

There's an episode in season five called "Kill Switch," and in it, a hardcore-sexy techie named Esther Nairn helps the agents and their bizarro associates (the Lone Gunmen) hunt down a big artificially-intelligent eye in the sky that's trying to blow them all up. Turns out it lives in a trailer, go figure. Scully bristles in Esther's presence to the point of being catty, asking of her, "What was your role in this? Were you the bass player?". With all due respect to Kims Deal and Gordon, D'Arcy Wretzky, and Melissa Auf Der Mar, I remember thinking, "God, that's so typical. They've made her all territorial when other women are around." This feature of Scully's character - who could stare a sociopathic serial killer into the ground if he was a he - wasn't a one-time thing. In "War of the Coprophages," a series hilight, she doesn't give a thought to joining Mulder in person until she finds out Dr. "Her Name Is" Bambi Berenbaum is on the scene. Further examples exist; I'll have mercy on more casual fans by not listing them.

In my 'rereading,' I've found more than that to object to on feminist grounds.

This is the character who I still think of when I consider who I want to be as a professional woman. This is the character who helped me understand that there is sometimes reason in faith and madness in everything. This is the character who lived and thrived at the exact point where chaos intersects with order, who was able to find the infinite possibilities within the natural world both beautiful and horrible, who looked at a world governed by chaos and still saw human responsibility everywhere. I believe in the cosmology of this character, very seriously. She gave me the sense, back then, that some day, I wouldn't need to conceal my intelligence anymore,** and also that if you can run as fast as everyone else and are going to be the most competent person in the room anyway, you might as well wear those 3-inch heels; you go ahead and wear whatever you want.

But so many of the character's flaws were heavily steeped in gender stereotypes.

For one, she had a Daddy complex. I'm not referring to "Beyond the Sea," in which her father has just died - that episode is beautiful. I'll even forgive the uncharacteristically teary "Was he ever proud of me?". But he keeps returning, and with each stroke her family life (and its apparent effect on her psykollergy) gets a little more patriarchal - and pathetic. After she returns from being abducted ("One Breath"), at the moment she's closest to death, she has a totally non-sequitur vision of her father saying a bunch of crap that has nothing to do with anything except to present the possibility - assumption? - that the only reason she's thinking of letting go is that she wants to be back with him: "We'll be together again, Starbuck, but not now." No mention of anything she might have unresolved in her life, just a monologue about his feelings for her and then that.

And while I usually wouldn't dignify season seven with a reference, the episode "En Ami" has the single most cringe-worthy moment of the whole series, bar none, which completely reaffirms what I'm talking about here. You know it's bad because in the scene before, her building attendant provides totally unprovoked and irrelevant praise: "She's a great girl - independent as they come, you know, but a great girl." Nevermind what that "but" is doing there, we have a Smoking Man quote to get to.

And I quote:

"You're drawn to powerful men but you fear their power. You keep your guard up, a wall around your heart. How else do you explain that fearless devotion to a man obsessed, and, yet, a life alone? You'd die for Mulder but you won't allow yourself to love him."

Throw in the fact that her brother hates her boyfriend (yah yah, he's not her boyfriend, blah blah blargh) and that putting the star at the top of the Christmas tree is "man's work," and I rest my case.

Other than the Daddy complex, my major complaint about the way the character is written regards those few cases when she does start acting irrationally - and all of them, to a one, are about woman-stuff.

In season four's "Never Again," she begins to wonder if she's being held back by everything she's compromised for Mulder (the premise is appropriate and right), but explores it by maybe-sleeping-with a creep she meets during an investigation and getting a tattoo. Bad girl! (/sarcasm.) The episode ends by showing how much Mulder takes her for granted, but the writers just don't seem to be giving her any more credit than he does. She was always good with kids, right from season one, but after she finds out her cancer has left her infertile and her (suddenly found) daughter dies, the writers played up the children-make-me-vulnerable-and-a-little-over-emotional dynamic way more than was necessary to give the character depth and indicate that the loss of Emily was formative and profound: on the contrary, it was just about drama. Drama that, more often than not, just felt tacky.

I hesitate to even bring up the awfulness that is "Milagro," a season six trainwreck. But I will because it confirms my suspicions about the writers' discomfort with the character's personal side, and helps show the ways I think they did her wrong. I admit that consistent characterization had been all but thrown out the window by this point, but come on. A guy who claims he's a writer is stalking Scully. He leers at her nauseatingly in the elevator (the camera participates - we get close-ups of her eyes, her parted lips) and she leaves all aflutter, unnerved but more than a little flattered. He corners her in a church (having deduced from her muscular calves that she jogs and where her route would likely take her) and she flees, scared but turned on. The episode's 'narration,' provided by Stalky McCreeperson, tells us as much: "But if she'd predictably aroused her sly partner's suspicions, Special Agent Dana Scully had herself... become simply aroused. All morning the stranger's unsolicited compliments had played on the dampened strings of her instrument until the middle 'C' of consciousness was struck square and resonant. She was flattered. His words had presented her a pretty picture of herself, quite unlike the practiced mask of uprightness that mirrored back to her from the medical examiners and the investigators and all the lawmen who dared no such utterances."

Yes, Stalky McCreeperson, please, give me what all professional women want: break through my shoddy respect-wanting veneer and mumble inferior, mock-poetic prose about how much you know you turn me on. Give me a "pretty picture of myself," preferably one you painted, because the real one - the one that I call my life - is just so, you know, unsexy. And definitely move into the apartment next to my partner's so you can watch me more closely. (That happened.)

Eventually they get ahold of the guy's manuscript. Mulder informs Scully that it ends with her doing a naked pretzel. Let's ignore the fact that this means Mulder actually read the entire, graphic, sexy thing, because that's problematic itself. When Mulder dares point out the obvious - that the guy's a creep, probably dangerous, and in this case, probably responsible for a few deaths, she defends him: "Why couldn't he have just imagined it, like he said? Like Shakespeare or Freud or Jung? I mean, maybe he has a gift and has a clear window into human nature."

I seriously resent being asked to believe that such an awesome character could suddenly dissolve into this desperate-for-attention wreck who wants to believe her stalker is Shakespeare and imagines that people who have "a clear window into human nature" look through it and see that nice, put-together girls like her really just need a little intrusion. How funny that you mention Freud - he had some thoughts on this, incidentally.

I'm left with the sense that so much of what made the character of Scully so loveable for little proto-feminist me came not from the writers but from Anderson. The writers knew how to write Scully the professional but not Scully the woman. Sure, she had epiphanies, but the Big Ones, the ones that seized The Truth with a capital 'T,' whether it's The Truth About Aliens or The Truth About The Teliko, were almost always Mulder's. The show itself so often seemed to take delight in setting Scully up to be wrong, getting the audience to roll their eyes at her, and then shove the truth up in her face in the last five minutes of the episode. But in those same moments of revelation, we see Anderson's Scully, and Traister's:
Mulder's desire to believe was so expansive, his credulity so flexible, that it's not as though he was ever going to have either shaken from him. But Scully's surety was solid, stable, rigid; every time she saw something she thought she'd never see, we saw it crack, sparks fly from it. She was forced to question herself, grow, change. In short, she got the better arc, and her journeys were always, by dint of the setup, more intricate and moving.
Anderson's, and Traister's, and mine.

Of course, in all of these criticisms, I'm asking perfection as if it's a shame to be merely great. I just wish my Scully hadn't been as under-estimated by her writers as by the institutions they sought to villify.

And somehow I've ended up revisiting another tradition I haven't touched in a decade - spending upwards of an hour on a Friday night talking about the X-Files online. Ahjeez.

I'm 15 again, and I'm seeing "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" in 1 day, 23 hours, 36 minutes.

UPDATE: 1 day, 23 hours, 35 minutes.

UPDATE: 1 day, 23 hours, 34 minutes...

NB: All quotes and episode titles taken from Red Wolf.

*Michael Ondaatje agrees with him and uses a nice translation.
**Let's have the discussion about what it means to be a "smart" young girl some other time.

1 comment:

melponeme_k said...

Hi, here from Feministing.

I agree that Scully was not feminist but she did have her moments. The show at the time was so popular and their was a lot of pressure on the writers to play up the tension between the leads. I think that was partly why Scully was so schizo from time to time. Because the writers felt they had to give MOMENTS.

I hated that episode with the creepy writer guy. But I never realized that Mulder, a man who cares about his friend and work partner, spent a good portion of his time reading that third rate soft-porn about his friend Scully. Yuck. Then again, unlike Scully's crush, that was in character for him.