The X-Files’ Special Agent Fox Mulder is more than just an outsider, queer coding makes him an LGBTQI+ icon for an entire generation.
In 1995, when I was eight years old, I became fixated on the character of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). As I look back, this was surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was far too young to be watching a TV program featuring serial killers, violent cults, and gross sewer worms (don’t watch The X-Files episode ‘The Host’ – S2, Ep2). Secondly, it was a little strange that I had such a strong affinity with a 30-year-old fictitious male. Why Mulder and not the incredible, more relatable Dana Scully?
Arguably, creator Chris Carter and star Gillian Anderson’s greatest contribution to pop culture is Dana Scully. Back in the days when female characters were either stereotyped as meek housewives or overtly sexualized, Scully was a huge step change in female representation in TV. Driven, smart, and incredibly accomplished (how many people have managed to become a medical doctor and an FBI agent? That’s shooting a gun and using a scalpel), Anderson’s portrayal of Scully is said to be directly related to an increase in women in STEM professions during its lifespan.
Why then, when I forced my friends to play The X-Files in the garden (they didn’t have a clue what I was on about) did I always play Mulder and not Scully? Why did I have a collection of The X-Files trading cards that I swapped with my cousin to make sure I had all the Mulder ones? In true X-Files form, this mystery would take me over 20 years to solve.
So controversial that Fox banned it, The X-Files Season 4 episode ‘Home’ serves up horror movie motifs and stomach-churning implications.
Coming Out and Coming Back to The X-Files
In 2018, at the age of 29, I came out as gay and two years later, as non-binary. It took me a while to fully realize my queer identity. I spent my teenage years in the grip of a fundamentalist Christian church, where being queer, of any persuasion, was forbidden. After a long journey, I finally made peace with who I was, leaving the church just before my 30th birthday.
Once I came out, after half a life suppressing my true personality in favor of being a ‘godly woman’, I went on a delightful journey to reclaim all my childhood interests. So, with a bunch of time on my hands during the first lockdown, I persuaded my girlfriend to do a full rewatch of The X-Files.
In the enforced stillness of the pandemic, catching up with the fullness of my identity in the rollercoaster of the past few years, I watched Mulder answer Scully’s knock at this door with “Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted,” in The X-Files ‘Pilot’ (S1, Ep1). All at once, I understood why little me was so drawn to Special Agent Fox Mulder.
Chris Carter, despite – or perhaps, because of – his original intentions to paint their protagonist as a detached, intense, porn-loving, rebel, had accidentally created a queer icon.
Fox Mulder and the Concept of Queerness
When I speak of queer in this context, I am not reading Mulder as a gay character per se. Rather, I am reading him as an embodiment of the queer experience; that is, as a character that exemplifies many of the realities that queer people face, the perspectives we see, and the behavior we portray. Often countercultural and straying from heteronormative realities, the queer experience disrupts the status quo. Queer individuals, with a critical perspective on gender binaries, often invert expectations in western capitalist structures. This can be a liberating and life-giving way to live, but, thanks to dominant societal discourses, can also be a painful and grating one.
When I had reached my thirties and rewound back to The X-Files ‘Pilot’ (S1, Ep1) in 1994, in a very on-brand time paradox fashion, I saw 31-year-old Mulder looking back at me – as me. As I plowed forward through the entire The X-Files back catalog, I saw more and more of my queer experience embodied in the character journey of Mulder. Here are some (of the many) reasons why:
Mulder Has a Lot of Haters…
“He had a nickname back at the academy; Spooky Mulder”Dana Scully, The X-Files ‘Pilot’ – S1, Ep1.
In the prelude to the entire X-Files journey, when Dana Scully is assigned to work with Fox Mulder we learn, through her eyes, that everyone thinks Mulder is a bit of a joke. After witnessing what he believes to be his sister’s abduction by aliens when he was only 12, Mulder develops a “consuming devotion” to the extra-terrestrial and paranormal. Willingly assigned to the X-Files and placed in the basement by his superiors, Mulder gains a reputation for believing in the most extreme possibilities behind these cases and of course, most famously, in alien life. Ridiculed and ostracised as ‘Spooky Mulder’, he is left alone in the basement with his interests.
It’s not just a life of light mockery that Mulder has to endure. From series start to finish, Mulder is personally and unfairly targeted from every angle for doing his work. There are his real enemies that aggressively oppose his search to uncover the truth; the secretive syndicate, the villainous Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), arch-nemesis Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea), and of course, whatever monster lurks in the closet this week.
But there are also other, closer colleagues, even friends, and family, that entirely misinterpret or misunderstand who he is and his devotion to seeking the truth. Old flame Diana Fowley (Mimi Rogers) claims to share his perspective on the world before choosing to betray him. His mother and father(s) turn out to be involved in the very conspiracy he’s trying to uncover and even Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) struggles to consistently trust his methods or instincts.
To those of us living queer lives, with ‘different’ interests, world views, or just mundane subversions like the clothes we wear, Mulder’s experience is a familiar one. There are people out there that actively hate what I stand for, that believe homosexuality is sinful and that gender is a binary concept set in stone. In other, less overtly aggressive ways, there’s also the stranger that constantly misgenders me or the well-meaning relative that never quite ‘gets it’. There will always be that ‘unspoken conversation’ about my life I’ll never get to have with those I love the most.
But we keep living in ways the experience of our skin has taught us to believe. We don’t give up.
In ‘Darkness Falls’, The X-Files creator Chris Carter gave Mulder and Scully reason to fear natural terrors as well as supernatural ones
…but Mulder Has a Chosen Family
“That’s why we like you Mulder, your ideas are weirder than ours”John Fitzgerald Byers, The X-Files, ‘E.B.E’ – S1, Ep17.
As a group of self-proclaimed “truth seekers”, the legendary ‘Lone Gunman’ conspiracy theorists Frohike, Byers, and Langley, are Mulder’s proverbial queer community. First appearing in The X-Files episode ‘E.B.E’ (S1, Ep17), the Lone Gunmen, seem at first to Scully as “the most paranoid people I have ever met”. Yet, eight series later, she not only understands their arguments but loves who they are.
Frohike (Tom Braidwood), Byers (Bruce Harwood), and Langly (Dean Haglund) share the same proclivity for the paranormal as Mulder, believing the same truth as him, and, as a result, share the same struggle. In many ways, as we see in The X-Files episode ‘Jump the Shark’ (S9, Ep15), they demonstrate that they will go further than him to do “whatever it takes” to help “fight the good fight”.
The Lone Gunmen are our queer heroes, our chosen community, and the people running beside and ahead of us. They are the people that inspire us from afar or are the ones that get beside us when we need help. Without our community, we have no bearing on how to make sense of our place in the structure of this world; we’re left out in the Bermuda triangle, drowning.
…and a Phenomenal Ally in Scully
“… and I know you – you can’t give up. It’s what I saw in you when we first met. It’s what made me follow you… why I’d do it all over againDana Scully, The X-Files, ‘The Truth’ – S9, Ep20.
Of course, Mulder has one person that goes even further. When Scully is assigned to the X-Files, she’s told to expect the worst from Mulder. To expect a delusional, unstable, and dangerous ex-professional who needs steering back to his former glory. Instead, when entering Mulder’s world to work beside him, she learns from him, challenges him, and comes to perceive the world from his vantage point. Scully never falters from her own path, her own rational and scientific calling, but when summoned (on several occasions) to publicly ‘debunk’ Mulder, she chooses to validate everything about him.
I like to think that’s what being an ally is like. Allies have their own path, one that isn’t part of the LGBTQIA+ community. But they’ve heard the name calling on the streets, the jokes, and the abuse and, unlike others, they are willing to do something about it. To partner, to learn, to get acronyms and terms wrong sometimes. Above all, they are willing to be reflexive about the culture they have found it easy to live in – and speak out against it on our behalf. With any luck, even if it gets them colored with the same brush as us, their lives, like Scully’s, will be all the better for it.
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Mulder Even Has a ‘Deadname’
Dana Scully: Fox…The X-Files, ‘Tooms’ – S1, Ep21.
Fox Mulder: I… I… even made my parents call me Mulder. So… Mulder.
In the TV crime genre, it’s quite common for lead characters to refer to each other by their surnames. I’m clueless as to whether that’s an accurate depiction of life in law enforcement but in the case of Special Agent Fox Mulder, I think there’s a little more going on than professional idiosyncrasies.
From the beginning, Mulder is clear to Scully that he doesn’t use his forename; telling her he even makes his parents call him Mulder (which, if you think about it, is probably quite confusing for them all). Even in moments of danger or intimacy, he is steadfastly referred to as Mulder and, hardly ever Fox.
Now that I’m older and queerer, I recognize the subversive forces at work here. For the transgender community, names are loaded concepts that can feel alien if you have been assigned the wrong one at birth. The moment that a transgender individual adopts their new name, perhaps one more aligned with their authentic gender or one that embodies the freedom of neutrality, is the moment the old one becomes a ‘dead name’.
Let’s be clear, Mulder is not a member of the transgender community and has no true understanding of the gender dysphoric experience associated with this. However, his detachment with his forename and self-proclaimed adoption of his surname displays notable and subversive agency over his identity; a common way of seeing and behaving in the world by queer theorists.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that David Duchovny was cast in The X-Files on the strength of his performance as transgender DEA agent Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks. The casting of a cis man in the role of a trans woman is problematic, but it’s interesting to think about Duchovny’s prior experience and the possible sensitivity to queer characters he might have brought to the role of Mulder.
Mulder Gave Up Everything to Be His Authentic Self
Fox Mulder wasn’t always “Spooky Mulder”. As Scully testifies to her superiors when first assigned to the X-Files, Mulder was a renowned and successful FBI agent. As Carter’s mythology starts, the agent was a top Oxford graduate assigned to the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit to profile serial killers and was instrumental in putting away some of the US’s deadliest murderers. Mulder’s credentials are referenced repeatedly throughout the series; it’s clear that he could have done anything he wanted within a conventional FBI career.
But Mulder had a deeper gnawing purpose to his life. Haunted by the abduction of his sister, Mulder is gripped by the paranormal possibilities hidden in the X-Files. Instead of pursuing a high-flying career, he spends the rest of his life, chasing the truth behind those cases. Pursuing his interests, his passion – who he was – cost Mulder not only an office on a higher floor but a conventional family and nearly (on so many occasions) his life.
But what would have happened if Mulder didn’t pursue the X-Files?
Thanks to the fantastical nature of the show, we get to see a glimpse of this reality in The X-Files episode ‘The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati’ (S7, Ep2) written jointly by David Duchovny and Chris Carter. In a dream-induced state, Mulder plays out his life on the road not chosen; another fate without the X-Files. He’s married to his old flame Dana Fowley and together, with their children they live out a rather domestic life in the suburbs.
This dream sequence is also in turn disrupted, in Mulder’s drug-induced psychosis, by images of his inner, younger self building a sandcastle on the beach. When Mulder approaches the young boy and asks what he’s building, the boy tells him that it’s an unidentified flying object. He then turns to destroy the ship, kicking and pulling at the sand. Alarmed, adult Mulder attempts to stop him; “What are you doing to your spaceship?!” The boy turns, angry, “It’s your spaceship; you were supposed to help.”
When we return to Mulder’s dream narrative, an aging Mulder is visited on his death bed by Scully. She tells him to look outside at what has happened to the world. Unbeknownst to Mulder the world burns outside, invaded by aliens, robbed, and destroyed. Scully tells him”
“You’re not supposed to die Mulder, not here. Not in a comfortable bed with the Devil outside… You must get up. You must get up and fight.”Dana Scully, The X-Files, ‘The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati’ – S7, Ep2.
At the end of the episode, once Mulder wakes from his dream, we get a final scene of Mulder playing with his inner self in the sand. This time, the two Mulders play together; working with the sand to sculpt a giant alien spacecraft.
Through this episode, Duchovny and Charter give us a view of Mulder without the X-Files. Although for a while it looks arguably more comfortable, in the end, it’s catastrophic. As a consequence of choosing the false path, not only does the world burn but his inner child is gripped by anger and betrayal. This episode has profound undertones when viewed through a queer lens.
The queer life is an unconventional life that bulks against western ‘heteronormative’ culture. So many of us have different life goals that look surprising and – dare I say it – disappointing to a ‘success-obsessed’ Western culture.
I spent a long chunk of my life doing what I thought I “should do”. I chased a career that, although I enjoyed for a time, brought me false security and stifled my unique voice. Finding out this wasn’t who I was, and that there were other, less “ladder orientated” dreams I wanted to pursue, was painful and came at a cost.
But the world would be much less without queer culture. We need more people fighting to live the life that feels right to them, regardless of the fear, expectation, and pressure to conform. In doing so, it might not only be life-giving to the inner part of your soul but also help change the playing field for others and unlock healthier, more sustainable systems for us all. It might even save the world from burning.
The X-Files episode ‘Deep Throat’ introduced us not just to Mulder’s mysterious mentor, but to the Watergate cover-up that inspired Chris Carter.
Mulder Has an Unconventional Life Partner
“Scully you have to believe me, nobody else on this whole damn planet does or ever will. You’re my one in five billion.”Fox Mulder, The X-Files, ‘Folie à Deux’ – S5, Ep19.
I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers by letting you know that after 25 years of long glances, endless forehead kisses, and vague, speculative sex scenes, it’s still unclear what the status of Mulder and Scully’s relationship is. While The X-Files aired throughout the ’90s and ’00s, ‘the will they won’t they’ aspect of the agent’s relationship drove fans wild. Some commented on the wizardry of the writing that could keep two very attractive hetero humans apart for so long. Endless fan fiction (including mine) still fills the depth of the internet, aching to add structure and meaning to their relationship.
With one of the longest spanning TV series in recent times, it’s obvious that Carter was keen to keep the agents apart for as long as possible to keep us watching. Keeping the option of revival in 2016 and 2018 possible. Reading Mulder through a queer lens, however, lends us another more exciting interpretation; what if Mulder and Scully’s relationship was never meant to be defined. What if, at its essence, it’s deeply queer?
There are moments throughout the series where Mulder and Scully profess a unique love and attachment to each other, that is not sexual or romantic. That heart-melting moment where Mulder agrees to be Scully’s sperm donor, the iconic “touchstone” speech, their fretful and frantic searches for their abducted counterpart. Even the character’s most iconic sexual moments; that ‘snuggle on the sofa’, the kiss that welcomes the Millenium, and the loving embrace at the birth first of their child, come unattached with relationship status. In all of contemporary television, I have never seen a relationship as authentic, as steadfast, and yet, as undefined, as Mulder and Scully.
Queer love is different. It doesn’t follow a heteronormative story arc. Asexual love dismantles the need for a sex scene in every movie, aromantic love removes the happy every after trope. In queer worlds, there will be love between more than one party, love that defies gender constructs and well, just expressions of love; unpegged by language or norms.
Viewed in this way Mulder and Scully are the embodiment of queer love, on television, in the ’90s, well before the incredible gains made in LGBTQI+ representation we are lucky to enjoy today in the west. With this in mind, then maybe there’s hope?
Queer allegory? In a show written by the Wachowskis? Say it ain’t so!
Why Does it Matter if Mulder is a Queer Icon?
If you’ve got this far, whether you agree or disagree with some of the ways I’ve read Mulder as queer, you are probably wondering, why does this matter?
It matters, even when it wasn’t ‘officially’ written this way, because Mulder and the rest of The X-Files canon, gave Queers like me hope, whether we knew it or not. From the year I was born until I was 13 years old, local authorities actively prohibited teaching or publishing material “that promoted homosexuality” under Section 28 of the Local Government 1988 Act. For me, Section 28 coupled with my early exposure to religious fundamentalism meant that I had zero idea of what it meant to be queer or that I might be gay; or even that this was a healthy, happy and beautiful way to be.
It’s no coincidence, that as a kid growing into a teenager, I was drawn to the essence of who Mulder was. Somehow my psyche recognized the kindred nature of what I was seeing; a bond that transcended gender, genre, or my mum’s desperate attempts to censor what I was watching. Mulder helped me see, that it was okay to struggle to be me.
Queer culture in TV and film is not just about seeing gay characters physically present on the screen (although that is a healthy start). It’s more than that. It’s about deconstructing the status quo in culture and telling stories that disrupt, reframe and turn things upside down. It shows the world from our perspective, in surprising, radical, and sometimes transformative ways. It’s about seeing our values, our norms – our ‘ways of being’ represented on screen – regardless of whether the character is gay or straight.
But it also matters, because if you’re not part of the LGBTQI+ community and you know The X-Files, then reading this and thinking about Mulder in this way, can help you understand the queer experience. If we can talk the same language over ‘queerdom’, perhaps you can see some of the fallacies of heteronormativity in a different way?
This is what I hope to achieve, as a writer myself, to paint more vivid depictions of queer life in stories – not just for greater equality but for more critical thinking about how we all live our lives.
And preferably, with aliens.
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Alanna is a Non Binary Brit telling stories for the stage, screen, and webpage. Alanna lives in London and writes musings on the overlooked influence of queer thought across TV/film, sci-fi and pop culture, over at Queer Notes.