Below are the shownotes to the first episode of the Cinemasculinity podcast. Check out the links on the sidebar of this blog to get the episode itself!
Hey folks, and welcome to the Cinemasculinity podcast, a monthly podcast examining representations of masculinity in American cinematic media. I’m your host Bryan Cebulski.
I want to start by explaining what the deal is here. As stated, we’re here looking at how masculinity is interpreted by filmmakers. That’s our stated agenda here—applying gender theory to movies and TV shows and figuring out how dudes are portrayed. As a historian specializing in American popular history, I’m fascinated with how media can reflect the status of gender roles in our culture. The conceit of this podcast is that what might be labeled “mindless entertainment” actually offers crucial evidence for how gender has been constructed and presented throughout our culture’s history. So really, the underlying agenda is that I’d like this to be a gateway for listeners to start looking at the media we consume with a more critical eye. In addition I’m here trying to make scholarly discourse on gender and American history more accessible to people who, unlike me, don’t enjoy scavenging through JSTOR, dense footnotes and Chicago-style citations. There’s a lot of great information buried there, but academics really aren’t concerned with accessibility. I’m here to bridge that gap.
While most episodes will zero in on one specific topic, I’ll be looking at a wide range of trends, genres, and mediums throughout this podcast. Movies will more often than not be featured the most prominently on the show, just due to their popularity and the relatively short time it takes to watch them, but I’ll also take a look at things like videogames, TV shows, music, plays and novels. I’m really looking forward to sharing this with you all, and, well, hope that you enjoy what I’ve found here.
Let’s get right to it then.
American media of the early 90s was, well, a bit strange. Fans of the bizarre small town detective show Twin Peaks were a-buzz throughout the country. Bret Easton Ellis’s transgressive novel about a yuppie cannibal rapist serial killer American Psycho reached international controversy and acclaim. Things weren’t following the wholesome, no-nonsense precepts of Ronald Reagan’s 80s, that was for sure. American popular media was expressing itself in ways previously pocketed away in the small cult and conspiracy circles of our country.
If American popular media was weird, its representations of masculinity were weirder. Twin Peaks‘ pinnacle of manliness comes from a quirky FBI agent by the name of Dale Cooper, who values nothing more than a good cup of coffee, a slice of cherry pie, and starting each day by hanging upside down from a rafter in his hotel room for a few minutes. American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman meanwhile is a less-than-subtle satire of the 80s corporate masculinity model—even more depraved than Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko, Bateman’s utter lack of humanity and disturbed dedication to consumerism suggests a disillusionment with the ideals of the previous decade.
Within this landscape, a television writer named Chris Carter came across a 1991 Roper Poll on UFO abductions, which suggested that at least 3.7 million Americans have been abducted by extraterrestrials. Great. He gets an idea for a TV show pitch, however, one revolving around alien abductions. He combines inspirations: The Avengers meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker meets Twin Peaks meets Law and Order. In other words, wry sexual tension, freaky monsters of the week, a dark and quirky atmosphere, and a compelling mystery. Long story short, this marked the creation of The X-Files.
Inimitable theme song aside, The X-Files is best known for its leads: Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. (Played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson respectively.) A duality of faith and skepticism, the pair famously goes against gender norms by placing Mulder as the believer and Scully as the skeptic. If there ever were a posterboy for 90s weird, it would be Mulder. This, at last, is our topic for the day: How Mulder manages to reframe masculinity for 90s audiences. How Mulder took previously straight-laced concepts of masculinity and made them very, very strange.
To begin, let’s take a look at Mulder at face value. David Duchovny is good-looking man for sure, but his performance of the character reveals that Mulder is just so slightly off. One can see this from the start with his extremely deadpan expression and monotone voice, points which the show itself makes fun of. [“Jose Chung” clip] You can see he’s not exactly a beacon of masculine prowess in the traditional sense—physical perfection, strength, emotional control, independence, etc. In fact, his personality and hobbies—which we’ll discuss at length further on in the episode—are better suited to a nerdy, pocket-protector type Dungeons & Dragons-playing basement dweller. Indeed he really is kind of all of those things, but due to David Duchovny’s good looks Mulder is also quite presentable. Which offsets his quirks somewhat. As the villain of the episode “Small Potatoes” comments, Mulder could easily be an ordinary, successful guy. [Clip] But Mulder can’t seem to just fit the mold we expect him to. That, we’ll soon see, is actually a source of power for his particular brand of masculinity.
Mulder as the Believer
The so-called gender role swap of our two leads is easily the most popular topic of both casual and scholarly discourse on The X-Files. The point essentially is that Mulder is far more reliant on the spiritual and abstract—stereotypically feminine behavior. He is the “believer”. Scully is meanwhile the “skeptic”, a medical doctor and federal agent tasked with debunking Mulder’s work. Her devotion to the scientific process makes her perfect for that mission. In scholar Joe Bellon’s words, “Mulder represents the emotional and empathic balance to Scully’s logic and rationality.” To elaborate further, take scholars Rhonda Wilcox and J.P. Williams observation that “Scully represents the rationalistic worldview usually associated with men, while Mulder regularly advocates supernatural explanations and a reliance on intuition traditionally connected with women.” Masculine and feminine switched up. You get the dichotomy.
With Scully’s apparently more masculine position in mind, it may appear that she is the more “in charge” partner of the two. Assigned as something of a supervisor to Mulder, with an approach to criminal investigation far more respected by her superiors, it seems like she would be the one to call the shots. A quick look through the series however reveals that this is far from the fact of the matter. Mulder manages to secure a masculine, patriarchal role despite his apparently feminine characteristics.
Let’s break down Mulder and Scully’s dynamic in terms of perhaps the most famous detective duo: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. This is a parallel introduced by Wilcox and Williams in their piece “’What Do You Think?’: The X-Files, Liminality, and Gender Pleasure”.
Consider the surface of both narratives: An eccentric detective-like figure is paired with a medical colleague. Obviously Mulder is Sherlock and Scully is Watson within this framework. Sure, Scully is more like Sherlock in her dedication to the scientific process and to rational thought, but this is turned on its head by a few key details. For one Mulder is the head of operations—he’s the one with the desk, he’s the one who finds the cases. It’s a power dynamic parodied in episodes like “Syzygy” and “Bad Blood”, wherein Scully gives Mulder grief for constantly pulling her around on what appear to be wild goose chases.
The point of this comparison is to show that Mulder, even in his inverted gender role, is nevertheless the dominant personality. At least as regards the X-Files cases. I would definitely argue that Scully is the better and more interesting character, but we’re talking about episode-to-episode authority. Who figures out which paranormal force is at work in each case? Who calls Scully in the middle of the night to tell her to get the next flight out to some godforsaken place in middle America? Who drives the damn car all the time? It’s almost always Mulder. His feminine inclinations don’t prevent a traditionally masculine control from taking over.
Now, Mulder is not quite anti-science or anti-reason per se, and for this reason his relationship to Scully is more complicated than a dominant-submissive framework. He has shall we say a dynamic relationship with logic, one by which he must constantly lean on Scully for guidance. This is the “What do you think?” referred to in the title of Wilcox and Williams’ essay. Mulder needs Scully’s scientific and medical background for autopsies, forensic details, to offer a sounding board against which he throws his more outlandish theories. While rarely solving the case correctly, Scully is nevertheless indispensable to each investigation. She’s the one who seeks the rational support and concrete evidence that can prove Mulder’s beliefs—without her, Mulder has little credibility. Take this exchange from the episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus”: [Clip] As is evidently clear, there’s a reason why “Agent Mulder” is the name of the trope describing any character who will believe almost any crazy conspiracy. Yet he is redeemed and even empowered by the fact that his feeble beliefs usually wind up being true.
Mulder’s lack of rationality almost always triumphs. This is another peculiar masculine affirmation—his rigid adherence to his beliefs, crazy though they might be, offer a source of strength to the character. In dismissing the nickname “Spooky” given to him by disrespectful peers, in enduring the laughs and jeers he gets from fellow FBI agents when introducing his theories, Mulder shows that he is singlemindedly and undeniably confident in his belief that there is something more supernatural, more inexplicable, out there. That enigmatic truth of the title sequence.
Now, one may begin to find the gender dynamics in the X-Files troubling. And yes, I would have to agree that sometimes what we see is troubling. However, keep in mind that Mulder and Scully are on equal footing when it comes to the actual content of the show. Their characterizations, their screen time, etc. Sure Scully gets kidnapped and rescued by Mulder on occasion, but it goes the other way around just as often. Ultimately this comes to show that Mulder’s masculinity isn’t an independent force—he relies on Scully for a number of essential investigative tasks, not to mention the occasional need for emotional support. Their dependence on each other, unlike many representations of masculinity which we will discuss in later episodes, is actually a source of strength for both of them.
Mulder and as Outsider Authority
Now, Mulder has a tricky relationship with authority that I’d like to discuss. He depends on his FBI badge to proceed in his cases, sure, but simultaneously he’s essentially trying to bring down the source of his paycheck by exposing government secrets. How can a guy work for the same institution that encompasses most of show’s primary antagonists? Well, let’s take a look.
Mulder’s contradictory status as a rebel authority figure is subverted by intention. Let’s take a look at the series tagline: “The truth is out there.” Unlike a standard detective show—take Columbo for example—Mulder doesn’t consider his job as stopping the criminal. Rather, it is to discover the nature of the crime itself. He counters the cover-ups and conspiracies of his own government—which is actually controlled by a shadow government, but let’s set that aside for now—by using his authority to call into question that greater authority.
Mulder’s ambition as an authority figure is then to question preconceived notions about the world as we know it, motivated by his distinction as the “believer”. He refuses to accept the popular interpretation of events—in fact, that popular interpretation is to Mulder (and to the privy viewer) a construct invented to subdue the populace. Accept the answer, go back to sleep, stop thinking too hard.
Behind this ambition to expose “the truth” is Mulder’s personal drive. His backstory concerns his sister, Samantha, was abducted by extraterrestrials when they were children, something that has been consistently denied since her disappearance. But Mulder knows what he saw as a child. This motivates him to solve other, similar X-Files. Thus rather than becoming another arm in the body of the FBI, Mulder uses his authority as a means to this personal end. He puts the “personal crusade” of the X-Files above all other more career-focused work. The show makes clear that he could have enjoyed a successful career as a psychological profiler in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences department, but he refuses this in lieu of the X-Files. Joe Bellon notes in his article “The Strange Discourse of The X-Files: What It Is, What It Does, and What Is at Stake”, the show’s narrative quote “does more than teach us to distrust authority; it teaches us to trust ourselves. If we cannot rely on blind faith in government or science, we must rely on our own abilities to judge external truths and discover internal truths.” End quote.
Mulder’s masculinity, at least in relation to his authority figure status, is then defined by his quest to expose “the truth” and his more personal motivation behind this quest. The one-track mindedness he displays as regards the X-Files throughout the series is at times called into question, but the viewer is almost always led into sympathy with what he is trying to do. We are set in the privileged position of seeing everything that Mulder sees and more—seeing the supernatural or extraterrestrial forces at work. We know he’s right, so we admire him for this quest, stacked though the odds may be against him.
Mulder and Whiteness
The age of Twin Peaks and American Psycho was also the age of Dances with Wolves. The former two show masculinity as weird, quirky, and utterly against the grain of the 80s model. Dances with Wolves meanwhile reworks the traditional whiteness of mainstream masculinity. The story “others” white masculinity by placing its protagonist John Dunbar within the culture and the sympathies of the Lakota people. So it is with Mulder.
Brenton J. Malin, in his excellent book American Masculinity under Clinton, discusses this “othered” whiteness of masculinity in the 90s and uses Mulder as one of the primary examples. Unpacking the plot of a three-part story encompassing episodes “Anasazi”, “The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip”, Malin reveals how Mulder’s sensibilities are far from those of the traditional American white man, and more in line with those of Native Americans.
This string of episodes takes place predominantly on a Navajo reservation. Mulder is on a search for something buried in the desert here—possibly a crashed alien vessel. Malin’s first suggestion of Mulder’s “othered” whiteness comes from an observation on the antagonists of the story: The Syndicate. A group of well-dressed, older mostly white men (the only black man of which serves as an informant to Mulder) who seek to erase all traces of an alien presence on earth. Malin describes these men as quote “a blatant stereotype of whiteness, an identity-less blob with little concern for those outside of it.” End quote. Unlike these men, who seek to alter fact and history to suit their needs, Mulder, and I quote, “is willing to sacrifice himself to know what is buried in the desert sands of the reservation.” End quote. In going against these men, in trying to expose what they are trying to hide, Mulder is at odds with status quo whiteness.
Over the course of the story Mulder becomes gravely injured. He is rescued and taken under the care of Albert Hosteen, a Navajo elder who serves as narrator for these episodes. Hosteen prepares a healing ritual called the Blessing Way for Mulder, who is just barely clinging to life. Hosteen’s narration, however, suggests more than a mere healing. More than that, Mulder is being blessed by the Navajo Holy People, becoming, as Malin puts it “newly remade, separated from this past of whiteness.” End quote.
Hosteen narration pushes this view forward…
During this experience, Mulder sees visions of his father and Deep Throat, the Syndicate informant who supplied Mulder with alien conspiracy information in the first season. These are, essentially, the ancestors of which Hosteen speaks. As both were involved in the Syndicate, both are representative of that group’s hivemind-like whitenees. Malin suggests that this ritual serves to separate Mulder from the hegemonic whiteness of his past. He rejects that ancestry by surviving and continuing to search for the truth. This Navajo ritual is ultimately intended to formulate Mulder as the quote “better Native American, the white man the Navajo rescue to save their memory and to find their truth.” End quote.
While, to be honest, I find Malin’s interpretation of these episodes a bit of a stretch, reading far more deeply than what the writers had likely intended, Mulder’s relationship with his whiteness is certainly something to consider. I do believe that this trio of episodes demonstrates in Mulder a John Dunbar-like distancing from white masculine culture, but I doubt this was performed with as much conscious intent as Dances with Wolves. Regardless though, his stereotypically feminine behavior and complex relationship with authority as just discussed support this viewpoint even if we do ignore Malin’s analysis.
At Mulder’s Expense
Think about your favorite 80s action-adventure heroes. John McClane, John Rambo, uh, other people named John, probably… They are more often than not pretty damn self-serious. Some 80s heroes like Lethal Weapon‘s Martin Riggs and Romancing the Stone‘s Jack Colton had their fair share of comedic moments, sure—but they are the exceptions, the ones who begin to inform a new trend which will eventually gain prominence in the 90s.
Mulder is, simply, kind of a goof. An heir to Agent Dale Cooper’s throne. His particular brand of 90s masculinity requires jokes at his expense so as to keep him from being too idealized. As Bellon notes, “He is prone to strange moods, strong emotions, and light-hearted comments.” Jokes, such as his taste for porn and his utter lack of a social life (see the episode “Chinga” for some very blatant examples of this), are made at his detriment. While he is fond of that most masculine of American pasttimes, baseball, certain episodes suggest that he isn’t particularly good at it. And even though he ends up being right by the end of most episodes, some of his wilder assumptions can be downright hilarious.
This deprecation isn’t meant to dissuade the viewer from admiring him, of course. He’s still an extraordinary criminal profiler with an unshakeable resolve to discover the truth, who masculinizes traditionally feminine characteristics and manipulates authority to suit his will. But at the same time, he is brought down to size by these flaws, blunders and quirks. This humbles the character, makes him more relateable and human in spite of his more extraordinary qualities.
You may notice that as this podcast continues, the characters I discuss as paradigms of masculinity tend to stand on a pedestal. The John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Humphrey Bogarts—their particular model for masculinity is seen as the all-encompassing absolute—everything belonging to one person, wholly independent. This isn’t quite the case with Mulder. Due to these flaws, due to the fact that we are expected to laugh at him almost as often as we identify with him, Mulder isn’t meant to work on his own. As mentioned early, his dichotomous relationship with Scully completes the character. Mulder’s masculinity actually relies on Scully’s femininity. They are mutually supportive. In this particular paradigm, you can’t quite have one without the other.
A quick recap: Mulder manifests his masculinity through his rigid adherence to his beliefs, his personally-driven quest for “the truth”, and a distinct distance from the hegemonic white masculinity of his predecessors, both within the show’s story and within American popular culture at large. This form of masculinity isn’t entirely independent, despite the one-track mindedness which drives him, as he must rely on the strengths of his partner Scully—her unbiased opinion, her clinical perspective—strengths which he lacks. He is a strange man at first sight, even a wacko on paper, but as we become increasingly drawn into his story, our sympathies grow all the more deeper for him, and our trust in his beliefs strengthens. The truth, truly, is out there, and Mulder is the man to find it.
This episode was written, performed and produced by me, Bryan Cebulski. Special thanks to Oliver Grin for the artwork, which you can check out more of at oliversgrin.wordpress.org. to professor Paul Cohen, whose class on American masculinity in film inspired this podcast, to this person on the internet Xinematix who put the hopefully temporary theme song on Freesound.org, and to the scholars whose work I’ve cited in this episode. Thanks as well to Chris Carter who, even though I think kinda screws over his own show with his obtuse storytelling, still made a really great show. And thanks most especially to you, the listener.
If you have any questions, concerns, unmitigated praise, or topic suggestions, please send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org Again that’s cine-C-I-N-E masculinity at gmail dot com. Follow me on Twitter @BryanOnion. That’s Bryan with a Y by the way. And follow my blog bryanonion.com. I put some cool stuff up on there on occasion, you should check it out. Again that’s Bryan with a Y and onion like the vegetable. Thanks again folks. Copyright Bryan Cebulski.
- 1991 Roper Poll on UFO abduction. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/abduction_by_aliens_or_sleep_paralysis.
- American Masculinity Under Clinton: Popular Media and the Nineties “crisis of Masculinity” by Brenton J. Malin. https://books.google.com/books?id=Ue4N9NnHkDgC.
- ‘What Do You Think?’: The X-Files, Liminality, and Gender Pleasure” by Rhonda Wilcox and J. P. Williams. Found in the essay collection “Deny All Knowledge”: Reading The X-Files. https://books.google.com/books/about/Deny_All_Knowledge.html?id=grY6uVffr4UC.
- “The Strange Discourse of The X-Files: What It Is, What It Does, and What Is at Stake” by Joe Bellon. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ585444.
Concurrent and perhaps informed by this widespread appreciation of the weird and grotesque is a wave of new works in men’s studies. These works are a reaction to the feminist writings of the 80s, which by and large sought to dismantle oppressive gender norms and put men and women on an equal footing in society. Perhaps most representative is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a work which elaborates upon the concept of gender performativity—that is, the distinction of gender as a set of actions and presentations which we have deemed either “male” or “female”, and to which we expect men and women to adhere. Take, for example, wearing makeup and cooking as inherently female or having short hair and lifting weights as inherently male.
This outlining of gender performativity then began a movement to dismantle our assumptions of male and female performance, a movement more or less distinguished as the Third Wave of feminism in America. This was troubling for relatively aware men who sought an ideal of masculinity to adhere to. As writer Richard A. Shweder notes: “in a post-modern world lacking clear-cut borders and distinctions, it has become hard to know what it means to be a man and even harder to feel good about being one.” Books such as Iron John by Robert Bly, Myths of Masculinity by William G. Doty, and The End of Manhood by John Stoltenberg attempted to restore manhood to a proper and clear-cut form. As evidenced by the popularity of work like Twin Peaks and American Psycho, though, the damage may have already been done.