Mulder, Scully, and the Original Shipping Wars: A Tiny Piece of Ace History

This post was written for the September Carnival of Aces, which is being hosted by me! The theme for this month is “Asexuality Before AVEN”.

I am publishing the post today in honour of The X-Files’ twenty-fifth anniversary. The show premiered on Friday, September 10, 1993.

At the end of this post, I talk about a new blog I have started for publishing ace television reviews. If you’re interested in writing reviews of T.V. shows from an asexual perspective, drop me a line!

You probably know what the word “Shipping” means. Today, it’s pretty much ubiquitous, a natural and expected part of any fandom. But while the phenomenon has probably been around as long as storytelling itself, the word has a history that’s much more recent. “Shipping” was popularised in one specific fandom and with reference to one specific pairing. The show was The X-Files, and the characters were Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Mulder and Scully were two F.B.I. agents who investigated the Bureau’s unsolved cases, or “X-files”. Mulder, the believer, tended to propose supernatural solutions to these mysteries. Scully, the sceptic, advocated more mundane, scientific explanations. Despite their differing points of view, the characters quickly developed a friendship that grew and deepened as the years went on. They came to respect, trust, and rely on each other implicitly, and it was clear that they also cared about one another a great deal. For years, the official word was that this relationship was completely platonic, and always would be. But many fans – the self-dubbed “relationshippers”, or “shippers” for short – saw the untapped potential, and began to advocate for a romance between the characters.

Given the popularity of romantic storylines, the fabulous chemistry between the partners, and their obvious affection for one another, it may have seemed obvious that they would get together, and inconceivable that anyone would oppose such a move. Yet opponents there were. The “noromos” – short for “no romance” – believed that Mulder and Scully’s relationship was platonic, and fought hard to keep it that way. It’s notoriously hard to prove a negative, but the noromos made a valiant effort anyway, with communities like the MORSOR society (dedicated to imagining Mulder and Scully in romances with other people) and the satirical MASHEO (short for “Mulder and Scully Hate Each Other”).

Spoiler Alert!: The shippers won. Starting from the first X-Files movie, which came out between Seasons 5 and 6, the show began to hint at romantic feelings between the partners. More hints were given in the succeeding seasons, and after much beating about the bush a sexual relationship between the two was finally confirmed.

Today, shipping is considered a big part of the X-Files’ legacy. The show is routinely analysed through the lens of shipping. Academic articles have been written about it. But the noromos have been largely forgotten. Being on the wrong side of history, they’re generally dismissed as less significant than the shippers, derided for wanting to spoil the shippers’ fun, or treated with bemused incomprehension. Very few are the attempts I’ve seen to seriously analyse the noromo phenomenon and what it was all about.

The noromo community was too diverse to be boiled down to a single motive. Some preferred the procedural side of the show and believed that adding romance would make it too much like a soap opera. Some pointed to earlier shows that declined in quality when the main characters got together. Some favoured alternative parings, such as Mulder/Krycek or Scully/Skinner. But there’s another reason, one that was hard to articulate at the time. To explain it, I’m going to have to talk about a little thing called asexuality.

Mulder and Scully aren’t just friends. They’re the most important people in each other’s lives. They spend most of their work hours and many of their off hours together, have the keys to each other’s apartments, and visit each other in the hospital. In times of trouble they hug, kiss, and hold hands, and each would gladly risk their life or career for the other. By the time Season 5 rolls around, they have become like a proverbial “old married couple”. In other words, they are a lot like romantic partners – but without the sex or the romance.

In the asexual community, there’s a term for friends who are as close as lovers but don’t consider their relationship romantic: queerplatonic partners. Mulder and Scully never use this term for themselves, and it’s always tricky applying labels like this to other people’s relationships. But, remember, there were no words like “queerplatonic” in the ’90s; the word “asexual”, in its modern sense, hadn’t even been formally coined, and there was no ace community. To people who valued close, non-sexual relationships, Mulder and Scully represented a kind of vision of what might be possible, a prototype of a queerplatonic partnership years before the word “queerplatonic” even existed!

The show had other asexual resonances, too. Mulder and Scully don’t only not date each other; for the most part, they don’t date anyone else, either! In the first five seasons of the show, Scully goes on two dates, and Mulder has sex once. On the rare occasions when potential romantic interests cross their paths, things never work out. In “The Jersey Devil”, Scully tries dating a divorcé, but decides that hanging out with Mulder is more fun. In “Fire”, Mulder tries to reconnect with an old girlfriend, but realises that Scully is a better partner. These romantic failures invariably leave the agents stuck with each other.

The characters also fail at the nuclear family. Mulder comes from a broken home: his sister disappeared when he was twelve, his parents are divorced, and the man whose name he bears may not be his biological father. Scully, as we eventually learn, is physically incapable of bearing children. In the fourth season episode “Home”, the partners are contrasted to the Peacock family, who do engage in heterosexual reproduction, albeit of an unconventional variety. Mrs Peacock lashes out at Scully in particular for being unable to understand the “pride” and “love” that a mother feels for her children. To us, Mrs Peacock embodies a freakish parody of heteronormativity, but in her eyes it is Scully – sexless, childless, and sterile – who is the freak.

The partners’ failure at heteronormativity is paralleled by other failures. Mulder is a brilliant criminal profiler, and Scully is a capable agent with a medical degree. But instead of climbing the professional ladder to the top, they choose to pursue fringe projects. This move sees them ostracised by the rest of the Bureau and banished to an unheated basement office. As Mulder says in his opening line, “Nobody down here but the F.B.I.’s most unwanted!”

Yet, for the characters, this “failure” to be normal is less a tragedy than an opening up of other possibilities. Not pursuing the traditional career path frees them to uncover government conspiracies and other secrets with global ramifications. Not forming relationships based on sex allows them to develop a uniquely close professional relationship. Moreover, neither Mulder nor Scully seems particularly bothered by the lack of sex or romance in their lives. Mulder seems able to meet most of his sexual needs through pornography. Scully’s attitude towards sex is disinterested at best, clueless at worst. They may flirt with the odd entomologist or town sheriff, but for the most part they seem content to remain single and celibate. In fact, it’s not hard to head-canon one or both of them as ace-spectrum – or, at least, to see them as moments of asexual possibility.

Had words like “asexual”, “ace-spectrum”, and “queerplatonic partnership” existed back in the ’90s, the discussions about the show and the debates around shipping might have gone very differently. As it was, noromos had to make their case without these words. That left them working with a false binary, wherein Mulder and Scully’s relationship could only be understood as either a romance or a conventional friendship. And anyone watching the series could see that the friendship was far from conventional.

Nameable or not, the platonic relationship between Mulder and Scully left a lasting impression on many ace viewers, as can be seen in this AVEN thread or this BuzzFeed article. That’s not to say that all noromos were asexual – or that all asexual fans were noromos. What can be said, however, is that the shipping impulse was an erotonormative one. And the noromos, whatever their individual reasons may have been, stood in opposition to that impulse. In other words, the noromo community was, at least in part, a site of anti-erotonormative resistance. A site of ace resistance.

Unfortunately, it was a resistance that happened ten years too early. Without access to asexual language or an asexual community, the noromos got little support for their position. And, by the time these things had come to be, the discourse around The X-Files had moved on. The later seasons’ recasting of the characters in a heteronormative mould not only made it difficult to think of them as “ace-spectrum” or “queerplatonic” going forward; it retroactively cast doubt on whether they ever had been. History is written by the victors, and many shippers are quite happy to tell Mulder and Scully’s history as one long heterosexual romance. With this particular war over, the asexual community has fought the issue of representation over other shows, like House, Sherlock, or Riverdale.

Nowadays, you rarely hear noromos voicing their opinions. They still exist, in their small nooks, but they know that their views are marginal and unpopular. As a result, discussions of Mulder and Scully’s relationship tend to favour the shipper-friendly version of history. Few articles treat noromo concerns seriously (this post is one of the few), and I have yet to see any reviews that discuss the early days of Mulder and Scully’s relationship from a noromo perspective.

Of course, there’s an easy fix for that.

Last fall I finally started doing something I haven’t done in… well… ever!: re-watching The X-Files in chronological order from the very beginning. While doing so, I’ve been asking myself the questions I couldn’t back in the ’90s: Are there any ace themes at work on the show? Do the characters display any signs of possible aceness? How does their relationship evolve? In what ways is it like a friendship, a romance, or a queerplatonic partnership? How does understanding the relationship as a queerplatonic partnership affect our experience of the show? And, with these questions in mind, I’ve been writing reviews. I plan to do one for every episode of the first five seasons – that is, every episode of the characters’ platonic relationship.

Beginning today, I’m publishing these reviews at The Realm of Asexual Possibility. Riffing on “the realm of extreme possibility” (one of my favourite Mulderisms), I’ve created the blog to host my X-Files reviews and related musings. However, I would love it if it could expand to include reviews of other T.V. shows by other ace bloggers. If you have a show that you would like to review, and want to collaborate, let me know!

You may be asking if it even makes sense to write ace reviews of a show that’s over two decades old, especially one whose story turned out so heteronormative. I have many reasons for thinking that it is, but perhaps the best reason I can give is the personal one: The X-Files is my favourite T.V. show of all time. As a young ace person, I didn’t have an ace community or an ace vocabulary to draw on. All I had was this weird series about two characters who didn’t have sex and didn’t much care to. They gave me a vision of the kind of lifestyle I wanted to lead and the kind of relationship I wanted to form. And in later years they helped inspire my graduate research and helped me understand my own platoniromanticism. In writing about them I don’t only hope to have fun, or to take a trip down memory lane; I also hope to explain a bit of my own asexual journey, and, perhaps, recover a tiny piece of ace history.

10 thoughts on “Mulder, Scully, and the Original Shipping Wars: A Tiny Piece of Ace History

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about this for your Carnival of Aces theme. I think about this a lot when I think about queerplatonic almost representation in TV shows, both older and newer… I read up on as much as I could find about the history of noromos and their side of the debate a few years ago.

    “In times of trouble they hug, kiss, and hold hands, and each would gladly risk their life or career for the other. By the time Season 5 rolls around, they have become like a proverbial “old married couple”. In other words, they are a lot like romantic partners – but without the sex or the romance.”

    – Could you explain what kind of kissing this was? As someone who has yet to see the show. I think without caveats, if you mention kissing it is generally implied to be on the mouth/lips,and that is, as far as I’m aware, typically perceived as either romantic or sexual (or both), and even seeing discussion of mouth-kissing as platonic in queerplatonic partnerships seems rare.

    Sorry to bring that up, I’m just… wondering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      I think it’s really great that you went and researched noromos. As I said, they seem to be mostly forgotten by history, so it’s really nice to see someone taking the time to learn about them. 🙂

      “Could you explain what kind of kissing this was?”

      Totally legitimate question. I’m really resistant to qualifying the word “kiss” with phrases like “on the cheek/hand/head” or “not-on-the-lips”. That’s partly because they’re cumbersome, but using them also reinforces the idea that mouth-to-mouth kissing is the norm, and all other forms of kissing are exceptional. Which is… weird. On this blog, I try to avoid ambiguity by using “snog” for kisses on the lips and “kiss” for all other kinds.

      Anyway, to answer: the kisses are on the forehead/top of the head, cheek, or hand. There aren’t many of them; I think they only start in Season 4 when Scully gets cancer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • luvtheheaven says:

        That’s what I figured, but the phrasing left me uncomfortable in some way. I think “they kiss”, as you phrased it here, and in your “On Being a Noromo” on your new other blog where you said “when they wanted to kiss, they kissed”, this phrasing is not how I’d use the verb when discussing one person kissing another’s forehead/cheek/head. “They” aren’t “kissing” but rather one person is kissing the other in these cases, and only on the lips/with the mouth is a kiss that reciprocal, it seems to me, is part of why these phrases imply that so heavily? I understand your impulse to fight against the norm that other forms of kissing are exceptional or that on the mouth is the default but… idk I think it matters to me because I’m kissing-averse, but only to mouth kissing? Probably because I can’t envision it platonically and I’m some degree of romance averse, possibly because my experiences with it are more sexual leaning and I’m very much sex-averse, but… I don’t know. I have very VERY limited experience with platonic kissing on other places but from my limited experience I imagine I would find it amazingly intimate in a positive way for myself – and I love those scenes between characters on TV.


        • Blue Ice-Tea says:

          “…this phrasing is not how I’d use the verb when discussing one person kissing another’s forehead/cheek/head. “They” aren’t “kissing” but rather one person is kissing the other in these cases, and only on the lips/with the mouth is a kiss that reciprocal, it seems to me, is part of why these phrases imply that so heavily?”

          That makes a lot of sense.

          Liked by 1 person

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