"Your Sister in St. Scully": An Electronic Community of Female Fans of The X-Files

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Academic Commentary
Title: "Your Sister in St. Scully": An Electronic Community of Female Fans of The X-Files
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"Your Sister in St. Scully": An Electronic Community of Female Fans of The X-Files is a 2001 academic article by Sarah R. Wakefield.

It was published in "Journal of Popular Film and Television" (v.29 issue 3).

The article's author describes herself as a "participant-observer" with an "insider's perspective."

Regarding Quoting Permissions

Authors of all excerpted mailing list posts in the article grant permission to use their work from this private domain. In the interests of privacy and anonymity, however, I have not included any reference to these women's identities, and my deepest thanks go out to all members of the OBSSE for their support and cooperation in my project. Material comes from the thousands of messages posted to the mailing list from its debut in October 1997 through August 2000.

Regarding Jargon

My 1998 pilot study of jargon and acronyms on the mailing list analyzed terms in 754 posts according to ten inductively derived coding categories in an attempt to see if there was a correlation between message type, in terms of subject matter, and the amount and type (specific to the OBSSE, generally used among Internet fans of The X-Files, or general Web terminology) of in-speak used. The data collect ed still need more rigorous quantitative analysis, of course, but my preliminary calculations found that 56.8 percent of the total posts contained some jargon or acronyms that would require a knowledge of OBSSE conventions, online X-Files terminology, and/or Internet abbreviations. Over 60 percent of the instances of jargon were exclusive to the Order community.

Some Topics Discussed

Sections

  • Introduction
  • "Hail Scully, Full of Patience": Constructing a Saint"
  • "She's Taking Names and Kicking Ass": Scully as Everywoman"
  • "Did Anyone Else Drool?" Scully as Sexpot"
  • "Concluding Thoughts on the OBSSE Community"

Excerpts

They have been described as avid, extreme, hardcore, freakish, and and obsessed. Amidst the vast subculture (including a virtual university) devoted to the intricacies of the Fox network drama The X-Files, online fans of the television show, which began its eight-season run in 1993, have designed hundreds of thousands of Web pages devoted to the series. [2]


[A footnote]: Some would say that slash is about male, homosexual relations. Some would refine the definition, pointing out that most slash takes characters portrayed as heterosexual and puts them in same-sex scenarios. Others are quick to protest that, by definition, slash isn't about men exclusively. There is more male-male than female-female slash fiction, admittedly, perhaps because of simple statistics. Many science fiction shows and films feature more men than women characters, which can limit the possible permutations for the latter. Woman-woman slash certainly thrives, especially for shows with a strong female presence and more obvious lesbian subtext (slashers for the sci-fi/fantasy program Xena: Warrior Princess write a lot of Xena/Gabrielle material, for instance). For The X-Files and the character of Agent Dana Scully, the majority of slash involves new, invented characters, although there are pieces involving an FBI secretary, Holly, who has appeared in a handful of episodes.

The women of the OBSSE are involved in an intricate, pseudo-religious structure focused on heroine Dana Scully, a no- nonsense doctor and FBI agent assigned to the X-Files, which explore paranormal phenomena. Founded in 1995 by two women dissatisfied with the sometimes hostile atmosphere of alt.tv.x-files, the Usenet newsgroup devoted to the series, the Order now has more than 2,000 registered members from around the world.


I intend to unite, to some extent, ethnographic and more theoretical approaches to the fan culture of the

OBSSE by looking closely at the language of the mailing list. I propose to examine users' discursive constructions of Agent Dana Scully in three primary, intermingled incarnations; Scully as saint, Scully as everywoman, and Scully as sexpot. By way of elaborate religious (and profane) allusions, the members of the Order of the Blessed Saint Scully the Enigmatic re-create the char[actor] to a very real sense of sisterhood on the mailing list.

Scully herself says of a female detective of whom Mulder disapproves, "Ambition? She's a woman trying to survive the boys' club, Mulder. Believe me, I know how she feels." Both forensic pathologist and federal agent, Scully has entered somewhat nontraditional careers for a woman. The OBSSE mailing list celebrates and defends her choices, and members especially enjoy moments of what they call "KickasslScully," where the character takes down a much larger antagonist, preferably by using purposeful karate moves. Along these lines, many nuns describe themselves in messages with an intriguing blend of religion and SWAT team, with small firearms and wimples made of bulletproof Kevlar. Members are irritated when a script forgets that Scully is a medical doctor, and they express indignation that Scully, unlike her partner, has neither a nameplate nor a desk. That these markers are lacking implies that Scully is secondary to Agent Mulder or, even worse, that women in general have less status than their male counter parts. The exasperation results in dramatic declarations ranging from hunting down the show's writers to the statement, "I will personally go to IKEA and pick out a lovely desk for TBO [The Blessed One]. I will deliver it myself, if necessary." As the example shows, the women on the OBSSE mailing list identify closely with the heroine of The X-Files, at least when issues of gender inequality are at stake. Several of the members have faced job discrimination and the struggle to prove themselves, and championing Scully's rights, as a fellow "sister," gives them satisfaction in a way a male character could never do. Agent Scully becomes a kind of celebrated everywoman, embodying the dreams and fears of her devoted followers.


Not so celebrated are executive producer Chris Carter and his crew, often referred to derogatively as "the boys at 1013." They are accused of resorting to stereotypes in the portrayal of their female agent and blamed for perceived weaknesses in the character. In fact, many recurring debates involve situations in which Scully's power seems to be undermined. Consider the following lament:

What are the writers trying to say? That any woman as intelligent and competent as Scully is must be isolated from other women? ... I want a female character who's complex and brilliant and unsettling and passionate... Which means, I guess, that I want a female writer on staff. Oh well. I want a million dollars, too. Whatever.

Appreciation of Scully's physical form beneath the power suits also appears onlist; she functions not only as an object of fascination, but of desire. The OBSSE list gleefully reiterates a line from the Season 1 episode "EBE," in which the recurring character Frohike observes succinctly, "She's hot."

Sometimes in language reminiscent of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century letters between female friends, sometimes in more risque" terms, many OBSSE list members gush about how beautiful Scully looks. When Scully appears particularly attractive, the sensory overload _ results in what the OBSSE calls the "thud," often typed in an e-mail message as "*thud*" or ":::thud:::" to indicate the action of hitting the floor loudly. To "thud" is certainly a sexual experience, and recent discussion on the mailing list has urged members to reserve application of the term for "special occasions," lest its connotation be cheapened by overuse.


So, do the women of the OBSSE want Agent Scully in a sexual sense, or do they want to be Agent Scully, then-identification as SWILS a result of their over-identification with the character? It is a dialectic that I think has more to do with the viewer than with the image onscreen; therefore, I asked a few OBSSE sisters for their thoughts on this subject The women disliked distinguishing between desire for and desire to be Scully. They wanted it both ways, and they protested I was thinking too hard about something that they view as fun.

The character of Scully, therefore, acts as a rallying point for members: a locus of female power and beauty, to be admired, analyzed, and defended by her "sisters." Although Dana Scully is the touchstone for the OBSSE, the experience of being on the mailing list itself also generates a sense of belonging — & prerequisite for community, we recall, according to Derek Foster. Camille Bacon-Smith says of Star Trek fans that fandom offers the participants their first real friendships with other women (Enterprising Women), and Andrea MacDonald claims similarly, "These women are not mere vessels of mainstream popular culture; they take that popular culture and use it as the starting point for their community of and for women". In fact, in recent months in the OBSSE, although the official intent of the Order remains the "worship" of Scully, members have admitted that the group is no longer so much about the fictional FBI agent, but rather the close relationships that the nuns have formed.


I fully realize I have used the term "community" quite freely in my analysis, and I am aware of the dangers of conflating an electronic-textual world with physical reality. However, I have used "community" because the mailing list imagines itself, labels itself, and takes pride in itself as exactly that. The list has an official moderator, and the OBSSE also features a Web site with monthly newsletters, a chatroom, and a network of real-life gatherings, including charity fundraisers. This blend of virtual encounter and face-to-face interaction is what pioneering Internet scholar Howard Rheingold had in mind when he tried to define his ideal of electronic community -- a group that moves its online interactions offline.

It's not a perfect place, and I do not wish to give the impression that the Order of the Blessed St. Scully the Enigmatic is a female spectator Utopia. There are men onlist, and sometimes they may feel left out in the overwhelmingly women-centered rhetoric and concerns. Like any community, it has its bouts of bickering (known as "Rampant Pissiness") and lulls. A large number of subscribers, around 65 per

cent, do not actively participate in the electronic conversations. Such silent members are referred to as "lurkers," and I can only really speculate on their silence. Because the Order's community relies so heavily on the mailing list, one might expect that the inability to enter the discourse could cause a feeling of marginalization. When I first shared my research with the OBSSE, a handful of lurkers spoke up to say that they don't post because they feel they have nothing to add to the conversation or that they fear their comments will not be well received. They added, however, that they love being onlist. This does not strike me as unusual.

References

  1. ^ "Although many are regular contributors and their analyses of the show are well respected, the brothers of the OBSSE mailing list sometimes find themselves at a loss. They complain, usually jokingly, that there's too much written about clothes and hair, or that they don't wear black pumps with four-inch heels. The Abbey has a term for their suffering, "man pain" (the trauma of simply being male), and many brothers are described wearing black silk boxers and serving drinks to the nuns.."
  2. ^ "A search for the text "x-file" using Yahoo! on April 24, 2001, brought up 10 categories and 441 sites. By comparison, a search on "star wars" brought 24 categories and 737 sites, and "star trek" gave 50 categories and 954 sites. More recent sci-fi hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer had 2 categories and 197 sites."