Fannish discourse communities and the construction of gender in The X-Files

Emily Regan Wills

School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Fandoms can constitute discourse communities, where fans make claims about issues of real-world political importance, such as the relationship between gender, power, and autonomy, and where other fans engage with and evaluate those claims. In fan works and fan analyses of Dana Scully in the television show The X-Files, fans pose claims both in discussion spaces and in the creation of fan fiction, and these fannish evaluations and discussions of these fictions analyze those claims.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan conversations; Fan fiction

Wills, Emily Regan. 2013. "'Fannish Discourse Communities and the Construction of Gender in The X-Files." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14.

1. Introduction

[1.1] When we refer to fan works as transformative, what precisely do we mean? On a literal level, the notion of transformation refers to the act of making a story one's own, through producing or consuming fan works and participating in fan communities around beloved cultural objects. However, there is also a sense that fans are doing something particularly transformative, something radical. Much of the academic study of fandom has centered on this idea of radicalness, trying to pin down what fans are doing when they are being transformative.

[1.2] Fandom studies literature has had at least two distinct periods of conceptualization, wherein it has posed different theories of what is transformative about transformative works and cultures. The first emphasized the role of the fan community, which it defined as transformative because of the way it seizes control over mainstream texts and takes ownership of them. This was the perspective of the very first academic studies of fandom, from the lionizing of it in Jenkins's Textual Poachers (1992) to the more critical analysis in Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women (1992), and it has continued in a long line of cultural studies examinations of fandom. In the study of X-Files (1993–2002) fandom, when Bury (2005) reads the practices of the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade, she does so in a context that considers them transformative for seizing metaphorical control over their show, asserting an active female sexuality in the face of the show's denial of it, and being willing to interpret against the grain of surface readings. This attitude toward fandom prioritizes the fannish community, rendering fannish production itself merely a fact; the content and meaning of that production matters only because it is not canon.

[1.3] On the other side, there is the more recent literary turn in fandom studies, which emphasizes not the existence of a community (while seeing the production of fan fiction merely as an artifact of this community) but also the literary practices and forms embodied in fan fiction. In this literature, best embodied in the essays in Hellekson and Busse (2006), fan fiction and other fan works are considered primarily for the specific transformational work that they perform. That work may be transformational because it interrogates canon identities and ideologies or inserts new ones into the world of canon (Derecho 2006; Driscoll 2006), or because it actively reinterprets the sources it draws from (Kaplan 2006; Willis 2006). All of these studies prioritize the linguistic and literary work being done in textual fan works. (Complementary studies aim to analyze visual fan works in similar terms.) Fan works stand in relation to the communities that make them, but the object of analysis is fundamentally the text.

[1.4] I approach the study of fandom as a political scientist and ethnographer, with an interest in understanding how people engage in political contestation in everyday social spaces. That is, I am interested in fandom as a place where people interact; it is humans who make texts, not texts in their human context, that interest me. However, I agree with the criticisms of the community-focused analysis of fandom, which can obscure the content of fan works, as if the practices of fans can possibly be divorced from the substantive material they both produce and consume. If an analysis of fandom and fan works is to help me investigate how fans engage in political and social contestation, it must allow me to explore the content of fan works and speech as a part of understanding fan actions and communities. The political work done by fan works is located not merely in their status as archontic (Derecho 2006) texts that resist the closed nature of media production, but in what they actually say and do about issues that have social import beyond the world of canon.

[1.5] Here I conceptualize fandom as a discourse community focused on contestation, particularly contestation between fans. That is, fan works put forth claims about canon, fanon (or the fan text), and the broader social content. Fan works can contest elements of all these issues at the same time; a work that might propose a certain reading of canon, for example, might also aim to queer a particular moment, by writing queer persons into the text or by asserting that they are already there. The claims that fan works pose are frequently implicit and are often not specifically directed toward another interlocutor; instead, other fans encounter a claim in its context (in a discussion post, comment thread, or creative fan work) and evaluate it while evaluating the other qualities of the context. A successful claim might motivate other fans to reorient their position on the issues that the claim pertains to, both those specific to the fandom and those that operate at a more general level.

[1.6] Practically, my work here has resonances with work by Parrish (2007) and Scodari and Felder (2000), who examine fan debates and frameworks between both works of fan fiction and fan discussion. However, my notion of the discourse community differs from Parrish's. Whereas for her a discourse community is a community that shares language-using practices, my working concept of a discourse community is derived from the Habermasian concept of practical discourse, wherein proposed norms are tested by interrogation by a collective community. In my own work, I do not limit practical discourses to norms in the sense that Habermas does, but include claims about interpretation and meaning broadly. I also diverge from Habermas in that his theory presupposes that an ideal discourse situation is possible (or can be approximated), and that parties can be legitimately free to take any position in a discourse situation, whereas I assume that discourse is limited and constrained by the workings of power in actual political spaces (in a more Foucauldian line). Structuring discourses at the meta level shapes how practical discourses are carried out, and both need to be analyzed in dialogue with each other.

[1.7] I focus on the functioning of a segment of X-Files fandom as a discourse community through the lens of fannish texts that serve to contest and reconstruct gender roles as they pertain to the character of Dana Scully. The source text acts as a structuring discourse, indicating the main tropes through which gender can be explored within fandom. However, once those tropes have been set, fans are substantially free to disagree with the way that canon instantiates them and to produce fan works that, explicitly or implicitly, contest canon's reading. Within the context of the broader fan community, fans talk about other fans' interpretations and, obliquely or purposefully, about the claims embodied in them, and these conversations lead to the development of fanon or fanons around these issues.

[1.8] In what follows, I focus on two specific issues that appear within the source text of The X-Files: sexuality and motherhood. Both are central to Dana Scully's character arc, and they are also primary ways in which questions of gender appear in the text (which makes no pretentions to being feminist or woman-centered). Both are also areas where many fans take enthusiastic exception to canon's framing, and they are central to Mulder/Scully relationship fandom, the particular corner of the broader X-Files fandom I am focusing on. Therefore, after introducing how each issue functions in canon, I explore how fans resignify it, both in conversations about the text and through writing fan fiction. Finally, I will look at how the claims that fans make in conversations and in fan works continue to circulate among and be evaluated by other fans.

2. Case selection: Where to look for contestation

[2.1] I approached this project as a fan of The X-Files and a participant in X-Files fandom, but also as an ethnographer and social scientist, with an interest in ensuring that my analysis would be generalizable. Fandom is far from univocal; as Hellekson and Busse say, "It is impossible, and perhaps even dangerous, to speak of a single fandom" (2006, 6). But because I wanted to record fandom as a discourse community, I needed texts that were a part of ongoing engagements with others—that is, texts that fans actively discussed and that were widely read. Although The X-Files is a comparatively old fandom, I emphasize works and conversations that were ongoing at the time of my research, when the 2008 release of the second feature film based on the series had spurred a resurgence of the fandom, rather than reach back to the fandom's heyday in the late 1990s, for the simple reason that contemporary data were more accessible and more complete.

[2.2] I draw from two main sources: first, nonfictional writing within X-Files fandom, such as conversations on message boards, meta essays, and rewatch posts (in which fans rewatching the series post thoughts on and analyses of each episode in sequence); and second, fan fiction. Because fan fiction allows fans to manipulate and reshape many (but not all) elements of their fannish object simultaneously and gives them greater creative freedom to embody a critique than does any other form of fan activity, it can be an ideal set of texts in which to search for contestation in fandom. However, I do not want to isolate it from other forms of fannish activity or claim that it has more transformative potential than other fannish productions. Particularly because I am interested in fandom as a discourse community, I wanted to look both at conversations among fans and at fan works that were actively under discussion in order to see how the claims embodied in both forms are taken up or discussed.

[2.3] I focus on Dana Scully and on fan analysis of her character and arc largely because of her prominence in canon (she is the only female protagonist, appearing in almost nine times as many episodes as any other female character) and because of fans' love for her. Scully is also the site of a great deal of the canon's, and fandom's, engagement with gender. Both fans and scholars of The X-Files frequently comment on the playful way it inverts gender stereotypes in the Mulder/Scully dynamic: Mulder the intuitive, Scully the rational; Mulder the psychologist, Scully the scientist; Mulder the emotive, Scully the reserved; even Mulder the sexualized, Scully the unsexualized (Delasara 2000; Badley 2000). Many fans of the show respond specifically to this inversion, and in particular to the image of Scully as a powerful, strong woman, capable of holding power and taking on leadership (Bury 2005). Throughout the series, images of Scully asserting her authority or behaving as a leader are tied to images of her as androgynous or masculinized. Both of her chosen careers—medicine and law enforcement—are coded as masculine, and her physical presentation is similarly coded: she wears suits and scrubs, hiking boots and plaid shirts, a regulation FBI windbreaker and SWAT team armor; sometimes she carries a cocked assault rifle.

[2.4] If masculinity is tied to power within the universe of The X-Files, then participating in social roles coded as feminine is tied to powerlessness. In particular, both sexuality and motherhood, as Scully experiences them, are deeply linked to the loss of her power and strength, as they are constructed within the world of the show. I focus on fan interpretations of these subjects because of their centrality to canon and fan contestation.

[2.5] Because of this interest in sexuality and motherhood, I focused on what Philes (that is, fans of The X-Files) refer to as MSR, or Mulder/Scully relationship, fics. In addition, I chose mostly fics with sexual content. As Driscoll (2006) argues, pairing and rating are the most important markers of genre in fan fiction, and fandoms are frequently divided into sharply delineated camps on the basis of ships, or preferred pairings. By choosing to focus on one pairing, I focused on a discursive field whose boundaries were derived from fannish community practices rather than being imposed by me. Focusing on the Mulder/Scully pairing allowed me both to watch fans engage in contestation in ways that sometimes paralleled canon, rather than deviating from it (the two characters eventually paired up in canon, although the series creator, Chris Carter, maintained for a long time that they never would), and to have access to a large number of fics that focus on Scully, particularly a sexually active Scully.

[2.6] Much of the literature on fan fiction sees slash fiction as transformative because of its imposition of a queer framework on heteronormative texts. While I do not disagree that this is one way fan fiction can be transformative, it is a mistake to believe that slash is inherently more transformative than het or gen fic just because of its queering of canon. MSR bears certain structural similarities to slash fic; for instance, it imposes a sexual relationship on a canon that long denied it. In addition, MSR fic is nearly always intimatopic, centering on how characters create and maintain intimacy both through and outside of sexual relations, which Woledge (2006), who coined the term, identifies as a feature of slash fic and other forms of male/male romance. There is a small but vibrant Scully slash community, and a good deal of Scully-centric gen fic has been written. However, MSR as a genre is rich in critical and complex articulations of how gender and sexuality work in the world of The X-Files and provides enough material for this analysis.

[2.7] The X-Files has a long and storied history of fannish production; the major fandom-specific archive, Gossamer, holds over 35,000 individual stories, and thousands more are on other archives, in authors' journals, and on personal Web sites. When scholars of fandom want to analyze how certain types of fic work or how their authors approach a subject, any stories that fit our needs are relevant. However, because I am interested in the ways in which texts are read, commented on, and evaluated by readers and writers in a discursive community, I chose to focus on stories that fans recommended to other fans in communities of fan readers. I found these stories in three main places: the fan fiction thread on the Television Without Pity (TWoP) X-Files board (; the Reading Group for X-Files Fanfiction, a LiveJournal community that regularly hosts discussion about pieces of fan fiction, particularly those seen as high quality in their language and structure (; and Crack Van, a pan-fandom fan fiction recommendation community on LiveJournal that regularly recommended X-Files stories until 2011 ( I then returned to these sites to look for analyses of the stories. Fan fiction is not a product of the fannish discursive community but is instead another entry into its ongoing circulation of claims about what canon is and what it could be.

[2.8] In what follows, I examine the way that fans engage in practical discourses in the context of these themes of sexuality and motherhood. First, I will briefly lay out how canon constructs the gender ramifications of each theme, with reference to episodes. After that, I will explore fans' reactions, looking at both previous research on X-Files fandom and specific conversations and analyses I encountered. Next I will trace the same conversations into fan fiction, where, as I argued above, the claims made by fans can take on their most layered and discursively complex forms. To demonstrate that the loop of fan contestation does not close with fan fic, I will show how fan fic becomes a part of a dialogue among fans about the construction of gender and how practical discourses continue over time.

3. Sexuality and threat

[3.1] The canon universe of The X-Files presents Scully as sexual primarily through instances of violence and threat. Men who treat her as sexually available tend also to aim to harm her: the death fetishist Donnie Pfaster, who plans on killing her in a parody of female beauty ritual (2.13 "Irresistible"); Ed Jerse, a one-night stand she picks up on a case who tries to kill her because of his poisonous tattoo (4.13 "Never Again"); Philip Padgett, a writer who stalks her and then goes on to direct his supernatural protagonist to rip out her heart when she rejects him (6.18 "Milagro"). Scully's consensual sexual relationships also appear on screen only in a context of threat and danger. Her ex-boyfriend becomes possessed by the soul of a murderer, abducts her, and chains her to a radiator, where she cannot save him with her medical knowledge (1.14 "Lazarus"); one encounter with the married professor with whom she had an affair in medical school is capable of making her doubt all of her choices up to that point (7.17 "all things"). The show is also remarkably coy about the sexual nature of her relationship with Mulder; it was not clear to viewers when the episode first aired that "all things" was meant to indicate that Mulder and Scully had begun a sexual relationship. Physical contact between Mulder and Scully was rare even after that point in the series, and MSR fans still complain today about the paucity of on-screen kisses between the two. However, Scully is assumed to be romantically involved with Mulder on some level from late in season 7, and from that point on, her character is portrayed as less competent and powerful than during the earlier seasons of the show.

[3.2] Fans are highly critical of the portrayal of sexuality within the series, and Scully's sexuality in particular. For instance, the thread on the Mulder/Scully relationship on TWoP often discussed the relationship between violence and sexual attractiveness within the series, particularly how the only people who saw Scully as attractive also wanted to hurt her. The lack of direct acknowledgement of Mulder and Scully's sexual relationship is also connected, in the eyes of some members of the board, to "deep-seated issues with female sexuality" on the part of the show's creators.

[3.3] Fans use a variety of tactics to push back against canon's framing of Scully's sexuality. For instance, fans may identify her beauty and sexual attractiveness not in moments of threat but in moments of strength and power. For instance, a long conversation on TWoP, with photographs, was dedicated to proving, to a doubting friend of a board member, that Scully is hot. The images used pictured her in a variety of contexts, many of them linked to her professional role or her strength as a law enforcement officer: going worm hunting in the Arctic, playing baseball, cleaning her gun, wielding a machete. Thelittlespy, a fan who rewatched the later seasons of the show (and some earlier episodes) and wrote about them while waiting for the release of I Want to Believe (2008), also tended to locate hotness in moments when Scully is acting as a scientist or taking charge, continually repeating "at least she looks hot" as those around Scully proceeded to strip her of agency.

[3.4] Recontexualization of Scully as both sexually attractive and powerful is not a new element of X-Files fandom. Wakefield (2001) argues in her analysis of the Order of the Blessed Saint Scully the Enigmatic, an online group of Scully fans, that "the focus on appearance can be read as a way of reclaiming Dana Scully as 'feminine,' in a rather stereotypical American-cultural sense" (133–34), repositioning her as sexually desirable. According to Bury (2005), the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade Research Project analyzed Scully's actions in 4.13 "Never Again" in ways that cast her as an autonomous actor, rather than a passive victim who is acted on. Fans read the gendered dynamics of sexuality in the series in ways that allow them to turn sexuality from a terrain of threat and passivity to one of autonomy and action.

[3.5] In sexually explicit fan fiction, many authors break the connection between sexuality and danger or threat; instead, they portray Scully as sexually assertive and confident, capable of retaining both her scientific acumen and her investigative skills while being sexually active. For instance, in "The Unfinished Universe" (Revely 2001), Scully uses metaphors of Newtonian physics to describe her relationship with Mulder during "a moment of candor that owed a lot to being pressed naked and damp against one another," suggesting that her mind is still as scientific as ever even when she is basking in the afterglow. Stories that revolve around solving either paranormal or mundane cases also provide an opportunity for Scully to both be sexually active and demonstrate her competence. "Blood Oranges" (syntax6 n.d.) opens with a sex scene, establishing Mulder and Scully's ongoing relationship, which is then ruptured by the personal dynamics of the case. But Scully retains her investigative capabilities, and the romantic resolution comes only when the case has been solved, thanks in part to her forensic discoveries and work as a decoy. In "This House Is Burning" (Tesla n.d.), she works with Mulder on a profiling case while they are beginning a sexual relationship and struggling with their feelings for each other. Scully manages to use her new sexual relationship with Mulder to exorcise some of her trauma at her abduction by the alien conspiracy while retaining her investigative skills. While she views the sex as unproblematic, she worries that revealing the depth of her feelings for him will render her weaker in his eyes. When she finally decides to risk it, she finds that he is sulking out of fear that she won't love him, which she dismisses with a curt, "Mulder, what have you got up your ass? I thought I was the one who was supposed to have all the remorse, or embarrassment, or whatever." Scully can be sexually active in fic, and can even wrestle with her feelings and admit to emotional vulnerability, while avoiding the threats of victimization and weakness that inevitably accompany sexuality in canon.

[3.6] Much as fan discussions of episodes interrogate and contest the association between sexuality and weakness embodied in canon, fan discussions of fan fic can also analyze how well fics transform this relationship. For instance, the Reading Group discussion of "Blood Oranges" revolved around the role of self-injury in the fic, but the use of sex between Mulder and Scully to explain their relationship was commented on approvingly: the opening scene was described as "nontentative," and their relationship as clearly portrayed. Readers criticized the moment when Scully is threatened by a suspect not because they believed it made her look weak or vulnerable, but because they believed it was illogical or failed to fit in the story's arc.

[3.7] Most of the fans in the xf_book_club discussion of "This House Is Burning" agreed it was a brilliant story, but some criticized it for establishing an unequal power dynamic between Mulder and Scully. However, critics disliked this not because they are sexually involved but because they disliked the way the case is structured and how it gives Mulder more to do than Scully. One reader argued that Scully's "contributions to the case's resolution are minimal and if these were episodes I'd have skipped them in a season rewatch," while another mentioned that the fic's author "has been known to throw Scully under the bus in deference to King Mulder." However, others countered that Scully has more autonomy in this story than in others by the same author and mentioned that it is difficult to balance vulnerability and strength in Scully's character at this particular moment in canon. Just as the relationships among sexuality, strength, and autonomy are central to the intervention these two fics are making into canon, fans' conversation about them returns to this ground for analysis.

4. Motherhood and protection

[4.1] The X-Files seems an unlikely candidate for a vehicle for discussing understandings of motherhood in popular culture. However, motherhood and infertility became major tropes throughout the Scully-centric parts of the show's myth arc, especially in its later seasons. One of the major consequences of Scully's abduction in the second season of the show (which occurred, ironically, in order to give Gillian Anderson a brief break from filming around the time she gave birth) is that she becomes infertile. (The show repeatedly refers to her as "barren," which is not a term used by modern medical professionals and which is considered highly offensive by most infertile people.) This helps cement the image of abduction as medical rape and a particular form of violence against women, which the show returns to frequently.

[4.2] Wherever the show references Scully's infertility, it does so in a context that strips her of agency and autonomy. When, in the paired episodes 5.6 "Christmas Carol" and 5.7 "Emily," she discovers a child cloned from her stolen ova, she is consistently belittled and thwarted in her efforts to intervene in the case: she is called Miss Scully rather than Agent Scully or Doctor Scully, even as she conducts an autopsy; told she is an unfit adoptive parent to her cloned daughter; told by hospital and state officials that she has no authority over the girl when Emily is dying; and finally robbed of the chance to collect evidence by the theft of Emily's body. As a parent, she cannot protect her child or parent her properly; as a doctor, she cannot save her life; as a pathologist and investigator, she cannot gather evidence. All of Scully's roles of power are stripped from her over the course of the two episodes.

[4.3] At the end of the seventh season, Mulder is abducted and Scully discovers that she is pregnant. The eighth season follows her pregnancy and the ninth her experiences as a new mother. For Mulder/Scully fans, these seasons are a double-edged sword: the long-awaited confirmation that the pair are in a romantic relationship is coupled with the departure of Mulder from the show and an abrupt change in Scully's personality and portrayal. Throughout these seasons, Scully is gradually portrayed as more emotional, in contrast to her iron emotional control in earlier seasons. We rarely see her working to find Mulder, despite her stated commitment to doing so. Skinner, Doggett, and eventually Mulder all conceal information from her, believing her too fragile to hear the truth. When Mulder is found dead and then brought back to life, she has little to do with either event and is prevented from seeing his body at several points. As preparations for her son William's birth begin, others come up with plans to protect her and her child without her input. In the end, she is unable to defend her child as she gives birth; the alien replicants she is hiding from find her, though they do not harm her. Mulder must swoop in and rescue her after the birth, not from the replicants but from her own hemorrhaging body. Scully's experience of motherhood is punctuated by threats to her son, nearly all of which occur in her home. At the end of the series, she gives William up for adoption, saying she will never be able to protect him properly.

[4.4] This is such a radical departure from Scully's portrayal in the earlier seasons that many fans of the show reject seasons 8 and 9 altogether, refusing to admit that they exist, not rewatching them, or choosing to develop alternative "head canons" for those seasons. In a discussion on parts of canon fans refuse to believe held in the LiveJournal community xfiles, many fans reply by rejecting seasons 8 and 9 (xfiles 2010), and in a discussion 8.10 "Badlaa" is strongly marked by fans describing Scully's actions in the episode, which derive from her profound longing for Mulder and attempt to replace him in his absence, as being out of character, saying she "didn't act like Scully to me" (xfiles 2009). The gendered ways that Scully's character shifts do not go unremarked. Thelittlespy (2008) returns to the theft of Scully's authority and power repeatedly in analyzing these seasons: "I hate the escalating theme of keeping things from Scully and protecting her because she's a fragile, womanly flower. She just has a vagina, people, not some Victorian nerve disorder."

[4.5] Huge numbers of fan stories try to find new ways to talk about Scully's infertility and her experiences of motherhood within the canon. As in any fandom, there are plenty of simple wish-fulfillment stories where Mulder and Scully become parents together in an unproblematic fairy-tale way. However, many others grapple complexly with canon's legacy in this area. For instance, in Darwin's fic "Ceremony" (n.d.), Scully mourns her period as a symbol of her infertility: "She had begun in the past few years to hate its useless carnage and pain, a war that she still had years to fight but couldn't ever win. And all that was before she had a lover who had ejaculated on or around her cervix so often in the past few weeks that she had begun to feel inevitably fertile, like he was pumping her full of babies." The fic goes on to let Mulder and Scully resignify her period through sex, to let their relationship replace the babies she had always imagined she would have.

[4.6] Other fics approach the question of motherhood by writing Scully as a mother but in ways that strengthen, rather than weaken, her autonomy. Some follow the Emily arc, such as the Iolokus series (MustangSally and RivkaT 2009), a fandom classic, wherein Scully parents one of the children produced from her stolen ova while struggling with her immense ambivalence about becoming a parent in this manner. Far less dramatically, in "A Winter's Tale" (Anjou 2008) Mulder and Scully become the parents of the only clone child to survive the experiments that produced Emily. Scully uses the experience to find emotional closure, and also, with Mulder, to shut down the Consortium and go after those involved in her abduction.

[4.7] Because of fans' dissatisfaction with the William arc, and with seasons 8 and 9 in general, a wide variety of fics try to resignify that period. Some of them stick close to canon, such as "Doctor, Sailor, Copper, Corpse" (Scarlet Baldy 2002), which focuses on Scully's hatred of being seen as weaker during her pregnancy and provides an opportunity for Doggett to honor her autonomy by inviting her to work with him on the day when she has first started showing and gossip has perked up about her pregnancy. Others deviate from canon at various points, to alter the circumstances of Mulder's return or allow them to parent together. In "The Unfinished Universe," Scully is a warrior mother who can protect both Mulder and her child:

[4.8] Having a baby was supposed to make her more careful, but it hadn't. She drove faster, thumbed her nose at the Proper Channels and didn't try to hide the bulge of her gun. Something fierce rose to the surface and there was not even a slight chance that anything bad was going to happen to them again. With a fatalistic decree she has decided this and not one thing in heaven and earth will stop her…She's a card-carrying member of the lioness club now, and she feels ready to prove it. Mulder is neurasthenic and shaky, useless in case of an emergency, but she doesn't mind. She'll carry them both if she has to.

[4.9] "Belmont, Ohio, 3:36 PM" (Segretti 2000) portrays an alternate universe, deviating from canon after the end of season 8, in which, rather than Mulder going on the run alone, Mulder, Scully, and William all go on the run together, camouflaging themselves under other names. And "Ghosts" (Anjou 2002) and the stories that follow it, which follow canon up through the series finale, provide an excuse for Scully and Mulder to take William back from his adoptive parents (killed by aliens) and become leaders of an antialien resistance as well as parents, providing an opportunity for Scully to be both a scientific hero and a mother—a dual capability simply impossible in canon.

[4.10] When fans recommend and discuss fan works that engage with the conversations around motherhood and seasons 8 and 9, they often prioritize the elements of works that seek to undo canon's association between motherhood and weakness. A fan who recommended "Doctor, Sailor, Copper, Corpse" on Crack Van, the multifandom fic recommendation community, praised the fic because "Scully is grieving after Mulder's death and not coping too well, but she is not a completely emotional crybaby"; that is, Scully is emotional and grieving, but still retains her personality. The rec for "Belmont, Ohio, 3:36 PM" frames the story as an improvement to canon: "An ending to The X-Files that isn't quite as sad, quite as hopeless, quite as heartless, as the one we were left with at the end of 'The Truth.'" The discussion of "Ghosts" at the Reading Group is limited, but participants praise the characterization of William, who is a toddler in this story, as a realistic, not-saccharine portrayal of a small child who happens to have strong supernatural powers, and they also remark on how the story integrates the supernatural and fantastic elements of X-Files canon (ghosts, aliens, mysterious powers) with the daily life of Mulder and Scully as parents. Fans recognize the need for fic to come in and fix canon's mishandling of Scully's experiences as a mother, and they are relieved to find stories that provide satisfying narratives of her as a mother while undoing the drastic loss of autonomy her character canonically suffers.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Not everything is possible in fandom. The world of canon sets limits on discursive production: any fan work that wants to engage a community of fannish interlocutors must obey, or at least engage with, those limits. When fans want to talk about the way that gender works within the world of their fandom and argue with its limits and absences, they do so within the implicit limits that are set for them by canon. For fans of The X-Files, and particularly fans of Dana Scully, this means that the canon's association of traits and behaviors culturally coded as masculine and the performance of power, as well as of sexuality and victimhood and of motherhood and powerlessness, are the terrain where different claims about femininity, sexuality, and power can be rearticulated.

[5.2] Because fandom operates as a series of discourse communities, both nested and parallel, these conversations take place not merely in a direct dialogical relationship with the canon text but rather are in dialogue among fans. That means that fans together make claims that play within the limits of their canon and develop collective readings that they can argue and negotiate with further. The key element of these conversations is their recursiveness: the canon text presents an initial framework, and fans interrogate it, produce creative fan works promulgating various readings and interpretations of it, and then engage in conversations and contestation with each other about the forms of meaning presented and interpreted in the fan works. In fandoms where canon is still being produced, new elements of it can be added into this process, but even in closed-canon fandoms, like The X-Files, this contestation can continue.

[5.3] Here I've used the working of fannish discourse communities in order to understand how fans engage in contestation around issues of real-world political importance—in particular, how they contest the construction of gender in a canon that, from a feminist point of view, is both profoundly flawed and has fascinating possibilities. I focus on this issue because I am interested specifically in fandom as a site of political engagement. However, this understanding of fandom as a discourse community, where fans put forth claims that are then evaluated by their fannish interlocutors within the structuring discourse established by canon, does not apply only to fannish contestation that intersects with issues of political importance. When fans engage in contestation that intersects with politics, such as when they critique a canon's treatment of issues of gender, race, sexuality, or class, they do so in an environment where they are also contesting preferred interpretations of canon characterization, the various ships they support, the relative value of various show runners' contributions to the total production, and other matters that are not relevant outside fandom. Engaging in fandom means joining a discourse community where fans will inevitably have to evaluate claims and present reasons for their positions in ongoing discourses. Habermas may not have imagined ship wars as a context for practical discourse, but fandom is in fact an excellent space in which to engage in the forms of contestation he describes.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] Thanks to Bethan Jones, DashaK, Isabel Youngberg, and Wendelah for their helpful feedback throughout the writing process.

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