Creating a Pocket Universe: "Shippers," Fan Fiction, and "The X-Files" Online

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Academic Commentary
Title: Creating a Pocket Universe: "Shippers," Fan Fiction, and "The X-Files" Online
Commentator:
Date(s): Fall 2000
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Creating a Pocket Universe: "Shippers," Fan Fiction, and "The X-Files" Online is a 2000 academic paper the was published in "Communication Studies" (v.51 n.3).

The authors are Christine Scodari and Jenna L. Felder.

"This essay is derived and significantly expanded from a portion of a thesis written by Jenna L. Felder and directed by Christine Scodari. An earlier version was presented at the International Communication Association Conference, Acapulco, Mexico, June 2000. Special thanks go to our anonymous reviewers for their excellent suggestions."

The article includes an extensive bibliography that includes many fics.

The Objects of Study

Ethnographic participant observation in Internet communities and scrutiny of X-Files text, meta-text, and fanfic over a two year period beginning in late 1998 yielded the study's data. Remarks and opinions attributed to X-Files fans emanate from two Usenet newsgroups devoted to the series and the America Online (AOL) X-Files Forum.

The Usenet groups included alt.tv.x-files.analysis (moderated, "typified by deeper, analytical deliberation") and alt.tv.x-files (unmoderated, "characterized by brief, often deliberately provocative comments").

Introduction

Ethnographic investigation of the online community of X-Files fans known as "Shippers" reveals a resistive posture manifested in their websites, discussions, and fan fiction. The mostly female Shippers hypothesize an unfolding romantic relationship between the series' protagonists and thereby oppose male-oriented conventions and commercial imperatives. In touting the equal partnership of Agents Mulder and Scully, and in wanting to see that equality as the basis for a romance, Shippers conflate the public and private and challenge artificial gender dichotomies. However, the study finds that their activities do not fully compensate for marginalization of their sensibilities in the given text.

Some Topics Discussed

  • "the essay explores Shippers' opposition in terms of fan fiction, key series text, and meta-textual matter"
  • fan fiction
  • Shippers, specifically MSR shippers
  • The X-Files
  • the "Fowley tactic"
  • a statement that the BBC, unconcerned with the same market demographics (young men), categorized the show as a "romance"
  • uses and explains the terms: Fence-sitters, NoRomos, Fini-Shippers, UST, RST, the dead girlfriend of the week syndrome, Mulderists, mytharc
  • the cited statement that "[Gillian] Anderson states that she was initially directed to walk several paces behind her co-star and that Scully was conceived as Mulder's "sidekick"
  • gender dynamics, heteronomativity
  • some fans' belief that there was "the deliberate sabotage of the MSR during season six after the Summer, 1998 release of the feature film X-Files: Fight the Future," a feeling of bait and switch, and fan's comment that ""Chris [Carter] has droned on and on about his objections to 'soapy' plot devices yet he goes right ahead and uses the soapiest idea of all: the meddling ex-girlfriend that returns from abroad."
  • the episode "The Field Where I Died"
  • "Fanfic makes private desires a bit more public and is a dynamic method of coping, but still preaches to the converted and could actually assuage the need to challenge a biased system—a need that some claim is vital to true resistance."

Essay Sections

  • VIRTUALLY SEEKING DATA
  • MAKING WAR ABOUT LOVE
  • THE X-FILES TEXT: GENDER, GENRE(S), AND NARRATIVE
  • SHIPPER FANFIC: ENVISIONING THE MSR
  • ROMANTICALLY PLATONIC IS OXYMORONIC

Excerpts

A look at the commercial imperatives of The X-Files' production is vital in establishing the marginality of Shippers. In a television environment in which demographics are key, anything resembling science fiction that features a male hero is apt to be targeted to younger male viewers for whom advertisers pay a premium. The case of the 1980s fantasy program Beauty and the Beast (CBS) is illustrative. As Jenkins (1993, pp. 144-151) argues, Beauty's producers belittled and dismissed loyal female fans who read the text as a romance by privileging action elements in an effort to attract young males. Vinzant (1997, p. 32) writes: "[A]nything plentiful - in this case women or seniors— comes cheap. Any group that watches less TV—in this case young men becomes a rare and therefore expensive commodity." So, despite the fact that half of X-Files viewers are women, producers covet elusive young males most.
Among X-Files fans or "X-Philes" the issue of a romance is divisive, creating two major camps—the mostly female Shippers, short for "Relationshippers," and the mostly male "NoRomos," short for "No Romancers." Essentially, Shippers read romantic development in the relationship between Mulder and Scully. They enjoy the duo's subtextual "UST" (unresolved sexual tension), but most would like it to metamorphose into textual "RST" (resolved sexual tension) eventually, even, according to the "Fini-Shipper" view, if it's not until the end of the series. They picture resolution differently, however, with many not caring to see any implicit or, especially, explicit sex, unless it's on the big screen, and hoping only for an overtly romantic kiss and verbal affirmation of feelings. Others insist that "consummation is not the same as resolution," and that the agents "wouldn't be running off to the altar the morning after they made love" (AOL). Relatively few actually campaign for the pair to wed.
...some female [fans are] "Mulderists" who lavish him with praise while reviling Scully, construing her challenge of him-a dynamic Shippers savor—as obstinate, insensitive, and lacking in appropriate deference to the object of their ardor. Never having wanted creators to romantically link the duo they still argue, in circular fashion, that "if Scully really appreciated Mulder they would be together already" (ATXA). On bulletin boards and/or in fanfic, they picture their hero in gay liaisons or those involving original or transient female characters—blank slates upon which they can project their own persona. States one: "I have a problem with Scully . . . and the last thing I want to see is Mulder kissing her, or telling her that she's his everything.... She doesn't deserve him.... Mulder/Skinner appeals to me, as do Mulder/Karen, Mulder/Kristen...." (ATXA). This view parallels the "Mary Sue" syndrome in fanfic.
Some NoRomos read and/or write homoerotic, "slash" stories, a plethora of which are male/male romances authored by women - a much-studied phenomenon (see Jenkins, 1992; Green, Jenkins, & Jenkins, 1998). The oft-theorized desire for romances between mutually respectful equals sharing a dense backstory (Jenkins, 1992, pp. 195-196) would not seem relevant to X-Files slash, since neither of those with whom Mulder is typically linked, Skinner or Krycek, fits these criteria nearly as well as Scully. Although Bunn (2000) labels the genre a form of "feminism without females" and cites one slash author's claim that "it's impossible to find male and female characters on television who have equal status," this perspective is tinged with disdain for the feminine and consent to the inevitability of such inequity, and raises the issue of why women's fanfic cannot remedy it heterosexually or through female/female romance. It also leads a few X-Files authors to self-fulfill this prophecy by discrediting Scully in their stories while coupling Mulder with a "worthy" male. Nevertheless, there are resistive impetuses for traditional slash. Turning patriarchal tables, authors may be empowered by managing the male body, while readers may seek verbally triggered voyeuristic pleasure (see Green, Jenkins & Jenkins, 1998, pp. 17-18). Although it conflicts with that of Shippers, the opposition of gay, lesbian, or bisexual NoRomos who engage with slash featuring lovers of their own sex also counters hegemony.
Like most fanfic, X-Files fanfic is penned mostly by women. Since their desires are not met in the given text, the online visibility of the mostly female Shippers mushrooms out of proportion to their numbers in the larger audience in accordance with textual poaching's compensatory role. Lycos search engine lists twice as many websites designated "Shipper friendly" as "NoRomo safe," and most X-Files stories, including those fitting genres from all-out case files to vignettes to erotica, contain MSR and amplify Shippers' opposition. Story headers include content ratings ranging from G to NC-17 (referred to unapologetically as "smut"), copyright disclaimers, and indications of other features, some of which are unique to The X-Files and others which bridge fanfic communities.
A controversial stand-alone from the fourth season, "The Field Where I Died," was interpreted by Shippers as an intentional repudiation of them by the episode's authors, Glen Morgan and James Wong, who had been known to disparage them and had once campaigned to romantically pair Mulder with Scully's sister, Melissa (Vitaris, 1995, p. 44). In this story, Mulder feels linked to a woman also named Melissa whose visions he suspects are of past lives. He is hypnotically regressed, discovering that in each of three lifetimes, whether incarnated as a male or a female, his romantic partner had been Melissa, whereas Scully had been his beloved friend or relative. Scully dies prematurely in these past lives, while Melissa is killed at the end of the story in this lifetime, leaving Mulder to mourn his "soulmate." Shippers were incensed that a one-time, doomed, never-again-to-be-mentioned character would be cast as Mulder's eternal love despite the ongoing presence of a woman with whom they had seen him share so many profound experiences. In fact, the installment illustrates the worst proclivities of the traditional episodic format and its artificial convention of sidestepping a romance that might entangle a male hero. Many MSR fanfics (Shalimar, 1997; Macspooky, 1996; Blueswirl, 1997) seek to repair the episode, regressing Scully or revisiting Mulder's regression to show that in other lifetimes Scully had been Mulder's love, or to explain that Melissa's death in this lifetime signaled a new series of lifetimes for Mulder and Scully, in which these true "soulmates" would unite and fulfill their destinies.
Meta-text, including statements of actors and creators, filters fan negotiation of "the ship," especially in light of revealing text. Carter's early and rigid stance against a romance put NoRomos in a favored interpretive position which he continued to nourish, alleging, as if he does not oversee content, that if the duo focused on each other the aliens would "run amuck."
Not content to allow Shippers to perceive what they wish, Carter has consistently reassured NoRomos that theirs is the preferred reading. This allows him the plausible deniability to credit the show's success to his original plan even though many watched in anticipation of a romance, thanks, in part, to his strategic polysemy. He can deny that these fans had reason to do so, however, since he has repeatedly stated that a romance was not and would never be.
Carter shunned constituents of the Mulder/Scully relationship in his second FOX creation, Millennium, which was canceled after three seasons, and his third, Harsh Realm, which was axed after three episodes and offered an established romantic couple only to banish the male half into virtual reality where he and his unattached male ally must defeat their enemies before he can return. But, it isn't the notion of Penelope pining for Odysseus that lures Shippers to The X-Files' Homeric quest. It's the idea of the couple venturing out together and of a romance ripening in that context, conflating public and private and breaking down gender/genre dichotomies-a recipe that FOX apparently does not pressure Carter to replicate. However, as D'Acci (1994) illustrates in her analysis of backstage negotiations of CBS's Cagney and Lacey series, when shows are targeted to women, network executives do not hesitate to foist a masculine gender sensibility upon them, even if ratings might suffer. Patriarchy may sometimes trump profit as a motivating mechanism.