Recently resurrected fan favorite The X-Files sent itself a love letter this week in the form of “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the third episode of the 10th season we waited 14 years to see. The show takes great joy in this episode, parodically lambasting many of its ’90s-era monster-of-the-week outings.
In those occasional money-saving trips into the bush, Mulder and Scully would wave their flashlights around wildly as they ran through the forest, fleeing or chasing dangerous creatures. The monster, typically represented by overly filtered shaky-cam footage, would pursue our heroes through a suspiciously Vancouver-esque representation of upstate Somewhere U.S.A., poorly disguised by motion blur, low frame rate, and limited color. You see, some monsters see only in red and orange, whereas others are limited to just greens or blues. Many monsters would make up for their poor-quality vision by breathing loudly or growling.
Fast-forward to 2016, and, unfortunately, in “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the only monster was the episode itself.
It starts out as a joke, when Mulder and Scully catch an unconvincing monster case. Once they hit town, the creature makes its first attack at a truck stop. The monster's would-be victim is Annabelle, a black trans woman who transitioned about a year ago. In a jump cut to her interview with Mulder and Scully, we discover that she miraculously survived the attack because she hit the monster with her obligatory faux-alligator-skin purse.
It’s clear that this scene was written for the grown-up version of the ’90s-era 18-to-25-year-old dude-bro, who 20 years ago would have exclaimed, "Ha ha, it's a tranny!" Now, in his middle age, he has grudgingly come into the vague awareness that tranny is a slur and that he'd better remember to call her she. This interpretation holds true later on, as Mulder struggles to explain gender identity to the identifiably cisgender monster. But does this representation help trans people, or is it still catering to the entertainment of our predators? Let's examine.
Who is Annabelle? She's played by actor D. J. Pierce, whose screen credits include This Is Drag and RuPaul's Drag Race. Suspecting a case of transface, some additional research revealed that D.J. Pierce is also known as drag performer Shangela Laquifa Wadley and normally presents as male. Fox apparently couldn't find a transgender-identified actress, but since gender scholars occasionally make the argument that some drag performers are on the trans spectrum, I'll eschew the obligatory F for casting and assign a D-minus instead. But what about the character he plays?
Is it realistic that a racially marginalized trans woman ends up working as a prostitute at a highway truck stop and is violently attacked? Yes. Is it realistic that she hangs around after a monster attack and proceeds to casually discuss her regular use of crack cocaine with a pair of FBI agents? A quick survey of my trans sex-worker friends indicates a very strong unlikely. Let's not mince words, this scene is played for laughs, and Annabelle is a caricature.
Does this episode make any effort to accurately depict her (very likely) tough daily struggle to survive, eking out an existence as a truck-stop sex worker? No, it does not. However, the show does use her later in the episode for additional laughs, when Mulder confronts the (ostensibly real, but ultimately benign) transforming lizard-man creature.
In context, the lizard-man is revealed to be a nonviolent, nonhuman lizard, who, against his will, has recently begun transforming into a human man during the day (a lizard "were-man," if you will). He wishes nothing more than to cease transforming daily and return to his regular nonhuman lizard existence. Oh, and the fight with the trans prostitute was accidental.
Lizard-man: Man, she hit like a man.
Mulder: That's because she used to be ... She … once ... She's transgender.
Lizard-man: What? You can't transform into a different sex! That's nuts.
Mulder: It's not nuts. It's actually a very common medical procedure. You don't need the surgery, technically—
Lizard-man: Maybe that's what I could do. It's a cure!
Not great. Does X-Files think it’s laughing with us, or at us in this depiction? How far, exactly, have trans people come in network TV depictions?
While the episode obeys some basic rules of 21st-century decency, like Mulder and Scully not misgendering Annabelle with wrong pronouns and paying basic lip service to the entirely nonanatomical nature of gender identity ("You don't need the surgery, technically—"), it still relies on and reinforces some unfortunately well-tread stereotypes that audiences are already too familiar with.
Lizard-man: Well I've got to stop transforming. I'll do the surgery.
Mulder: Completely different.
Lizard-man: I don't care how much it costs, I'll do it.
Mulder: They cut off ... your genitals.
Lizard-man: No, I'll leave it. That's ... that's a step too far, isn't it?
Well, for better or worse, a transgender character has appeared on The X-Files. Was she an FBI agent, a doctor, or a shady government operative? Nah, she was a drugged-up truck-stop prostitute. Same old. But, hey, at least she wasn't the monster of the week, right?