"The Truth We Both Know": Readerly Desire and Heteronarrative in "The X-Files"

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Academic Commentary
Title: "The Truth We Both Know": Readerly Desire and Heteronarrative in "The X-Files"
Commentator: Robin Silbergleid
Date(s): April 2003
Medium: print, online
Fandom: The X-Files
External Links:
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"The Truth We Both Know": Readerly Desire and Heteronarrative in "The X-Files" is an academic paper by Robin Silbergleid published in 2003.

The journal is "Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 49-62."

The author self-identifies as a fan.


The purpose of this analysis is neither to provide a thorough investigation of the psycho-social function of fan fiction nor to trace the images of reproduction that have governed The X-Files cultural imaginary since Season One; rather, I want to consider how fan writing offers a model for understanding a narrative trajectory already at work in the series; the tendency to use fan fiction as a space to rewrite the MSR has much to do with an attempt to negotiate cultural anxieties about gender and reproductive technologies that The X-Files canon systematically foregrounds and problematizes. If we accept that television, as a cultural artifact, both shapes and reflects contemporary beliefs and concerns, one of the best avenues to investigate those concerns lies in fan responses to the primary texts. While popular culture always contributes to what E. Ann Kaplan describes as "generalized fantasies," the very purpose of fan fiction is to indulge those fantasies. The rewriting that occurs in fan-based literature provides an outlet for the most troubling aspects of the canon and, in this way, reflects on the world presented in the show. More than a voyeuristic or vicarious desire to see Mulder and Scully coupled, then, fan fiction provides a space to stage legitimate cultural analysis. Why is it that fans desire to see Mulder and Scully romantically involved? In what ways does this desire respond to the issues presented in the series?

Some Topics Discussed

  • The X-Files
  • MSR
  • while it does not use the term, the paper discusses curtainfic, calling it "married fic"
  • babyfic
  • fanfiction and how some was written to fight back their own fears and desires
  • that perhaps Chris Carter finally "got Mulder and Scully together" because of fan pressure
  • explains how the The X-Files first season was not long after Dan Quayle's indictment of Murphy Brown and single motherhood, and how The X-Files portrayed cloning, genetic engineering, and illicit reproduction as central subjects
  • the statement that "a review of the awards [given by other fans] shows that although MSR stories were written as early as 1995, MSR did not become the dominant category until some times in late 1996 or 1997." Significantly, such timing corresponds with the increased threat to Scully's reproductive capacity, as the 1996 1997 (fourth) season..."
  • mentions Jori Remington's "Christopher Ryan Scully" series, the vignette "Birth: Ocean," MUCH about Iolokus and some about its sequel Syadiloh


... a significant strain of fan fiction has worked to grapple with anxieties consistently present yet frequently suppressed on screen—anxieties surrounding gender, heterosexuality, and reproductive technologies. And, as The X-Files neared the end of its nine-season television run, the show itself began to mobilize the same strategies of domestication in order to contain the subversive potential of its extreme possibilities. As a result, this similarity underscores the significance of fan fiction as a vital—and gendered— locus of cultural debate.

... "married fic" tends to be "considered by many fans to be unrealistic and silly," or, at worst, instances of "Mary Sue" characterization (when the characters are used merely as substitutes for the writer's own interests and desires), I want to suggest that the specific rewriting that occurs in babyfic—with its emphasis on heterosexual romance and traditional family dynamics—provides a valuable exploration of anxieties and undercurrents present in The X-Files canon, having to do with unlawful reproduction, gender roles, and medical rape. However "unrealistic and silly" these stories might be individually, when taken together they are suggestive of a cultural mood surrounding The X-Files and its fandom. Moreover, the ideological work of this subgenre becomes more pressing when considered against the clear heterosexual trajectory of The X-Files itself

A disturbing episode to many fans, "Emily" has become the focus for many post-episode pieces of fan fiction, including the book-length work Iolokus. Providing a striking amount of online discussion, Iolokus, written by award-winning fanfic writers MustangSally and RivkaT, works out a number of problems raised in "Emily." Its plot centers on the ramifications of genetic engineering and cloning, and it grapples with that reproductive anxiety within the domestic space of the newly established Mulder/Scully household. In Iolokus, the sanctioned reproduction of the marriage plot polices the uncontrollable reproduction of cloning; as such, the novel demonstrates the way that MSR fan fiction negotiates problems raised in The X-Files canon and hints at the need for the MSR as the series comes to its end. Not only does heterosexual reproduction assure viewers that all is okay, but in an inverted logic, Mulder and Scully can only be united because of the threats to the propagatory order; anti-reproductive tendencies ultimately operate in the service of assuring proper reproductive ends. Written from a desire to resolve some of the issues raised in what they characterize as the radically unsatisfying "Christmas Carol"/"Emily" arc, MustangSally and RivkaT's Iolokus series takes the genetic experimentation of the mythology arc as its central subject. Called in to assist in a routine investigation, Mulder and Scully encounter a man, Jason, who could be Mulder's identical twin. They quickly learn that Mulder's parents had more direct involvement in the Project than they once thought; in fact, Mulder himself is the product of a cloning experiment that produced nine other children. With the exception of Emerson, the one who is Mulder's "twin," the other brothers all suffer from various degrees of sociopathic behavior. The most deviant, George, is on a quest to kill the other brothers, and Mulder and Scully try desperately to save them. Written mere months after the debates over Dolly and the real-life controversy surrounding cloning technology, the choice to equate genetic experimentation with pathological behavior hints strongly at the cultural concerns underlying Iolokus. [see more from these comments at Iolokus]

In the co-implication of these two narratives, both the fan-produced Iolokus and The X-Files series itself attempt to work through the horrific possibilities opened up by technological advancement. Just as many insurance policies seek to regulate lifestyle choices by covering only those fertility services desired by married couples, fan fiction turns to heterosexual union as a way to overturn both Scully's subversion of traditional gender roles and the Syndicate's unnatural conceptions. Likewise, in its choice to contain the nightmarish implications of William's birth within the domestic sphere, the eighth season of The X-Files offers consolation not only to Scully, who wants desperately to believe her son is "normal," but also to viewers who look to the MSR as the necessary outcome of the plot. If a government conspiracy initially brings Mulder and Scully together, the product of their sexual union in both texts is a child with the power to bring the powers-that-be to justice. As such, these instances "babyfic" are pregnant with much more than the domestic desires.

Whereas babyfic" are pregnant with much more than the domestic desires of fans. Whereas fan fiction has been understood to be primarily about sex and subversive readings as Jenkins' work on female fans and "slash" suggests babyfic, on the other hand, demonstrates the need to contain and work through the extreme possibilities of the canon. The turn to heterosexual romance to underwrite the narrative of government conspiracy, which for many fans is the show's defining trait, reveals the level of anxiety surrounding reproductive technology and medical experimentation. The truth that Mulder and Scully know turns out to be the answer that viewers have been seeking all along. And well after the ultimate end of The X-Files, fan fiction will undoubtedly continue to communicate readers' most intimate desires and fears