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5 Ways ‘The X-Files’ Defines Generation X


Everything old is new again. From “Star Wars” to “Guns and Roses,” the kids of the 1970s and 1980s are bathing in the warm waters of cultural nostalgia. For this age bracket, better known as Generation X, one reboot stands above them all. On Sunday night, after the NFC championship game, “The X-Files” returns to Fox for the first time in 14 years.

Simply put, “The X-Files” is pretty much the most Gen X thing ever made. At a time when Francis Fukuyama had declared the “end of history,” the series launched in 1993 helped guide us through what turned out to be the beginning of a new history. FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully took us through a Socratic journey of science versus belief, the explainable versus the unexplainable, and plumbed the depths of conspiracy.

In several important ways, “The X-Files” not only describes Generation X, it defines it. Many of the values and behaviors closest to the soul of Gen X can be seen in the gritty episodes of creator Chris Carter’s masterpiece. Now, as even the youngest of members of this quirky generation move into their forties, we can see clearly how Mulder and Scully reflected and helped shape the attitudes of Gen X. Below are five examples, although there are many, many more.

1. Nobody Cares that Scully Is A Woman

It may be hard for millennials (who can’t even agree how many genders there are) to believe, but in the 1990s gender was not a particularly fraught issue. Scully is an FBI agent. She isn’t a female FBI agent. She isn’t fighting the patriarchy or breaking glass ceilings. She is just doing her job. She is in every way Fox Mulder’s equal. While there is sexual chemistry from the very start, it does not define her character.

This is really how things were. Prior to the current fads of hypersensitivity regarding identity, gender was simpler and less vital. Scully is not hampered by the fact that she is a woman. Importantly, neither is she advantaged by supposedly womanly traits.

Don’t get me wrong—she’s hot. But she isn’t girly, and rarely uses feminine charms in her work. In the era before the victimizational hierarchies of privilege, we actually thought of the genders as, well, equal. Not the same, but equal nonetheless.

2. The Government Is Lying to You

The first Gen Xers were born right around the time John F. Kennedy was killed, an event rife with conspiracy theories. The younger members were born in the midst of Watergate. Put simply, this was the first generation that grew up in an atmosphere of deep, widespread distrust of government.

This was the first generation that grew up in an atmosphere of deep, widespread distrust of government.

In “The X-Files,” nobody is above suspicion. As Mulder exposes Scully to the great lengths that the military and government will go to hide their extraterrestrial secrets, healthy skepticism replaces her naiveté.

Unlike the Boomers and the Millennials, Gen Xers were never activists. Our distrust of government did not manifest itself in mass movements and marches. Instead, we tried as individuals to understand as best we could the mysterious machinations of our government and society.

Mulder and Scully are not reformers—they aren’t trying to fix the state, they just want to know what the real story is. As the trajectory of the story shows, their journey is personal, not political. More than a just society, they want the truth.

3. Straddling the Tech Divide

In the early episodes of “The X-Files,” we see our heroes doing research on microfiche (if you’re under 30, look it up). The old newspaper images scroll across the screens like shadows on the wall from a child’s toy lamp. At the end of each episode, Scully types her reports in what looks like DOS on her computer, but basically these were investigations of an analog nature.

By the end of season one, that started to change. The introduction of The Lone Gunmen, a trio of tech nerds that are archetypes for today’s tech characters, ushered in hacking as a way to find the truth. At a time when people waited 15 minutes for a single pornographic image to turn from pixels to flesh tones, this was a revelation. It was becoming clear that we were the last people in our culture that would know and understand a world not driven by digital interfaces.

4. Sincerity Is Gross

An essential component to the emotional lives of Gen Xers is an abiding belief that sincerity is gross. Sarcasm and irony are the coin of our generational realm. This was likely a rejection of our hippie parents’ blowhard claims to have changed the world with their radical 1960s. Mulder and Scully both drip with sarcasm. Almost every warning from older, dangerous officials like The Smoking Man is met with a smirk and a one liner.

To be sure, the guard is let down occasionally and true emotions are shared, but this is rare. For the most part, characters bury emotion beneath a cool veneer of sarcasm. Unlike the touchy-feely 2000s, nobody really cared how anybody “felt” in the 1990s, and nobody was eager to share his feels. After all, in an age when Nirvana had top-ten pop songs, what was there really left to say?

5. The System Is for Suckers

Both Mulder and Scully are pretty much geniuses. He went to Oxford University and is a top man in FBI profiling; she is a physicist and medical doctor. They have the tools to climb the FBI ladder, they just don’t have the interest in doing so. They find the path laid out for them boring, and they place their individual interests above those of the agency. This unwillingness to play ball is a central theme in Gen X.

This entrepreneurial spirit, where one creates a place in the world rather than accepting one that already exists, reverberates throughout Gen X.

This entrepreneurial spirit, where one creates a place in the world rather than accepting one that already exists, reverberates throughout Gen X. The best thing one can be is an outsider. While other generations huddle together to create the forest, we seek to be the tree. Material wealth and job titles are not the highest achievements Gen Xers can reach. Instead, the ultimate goal tends to be opening our eyes, and to a lesser extent others’ eyes, to what’s really going on.

On Sunday night, after we Gen Xers tuck in our toddlers and turn on our TVs, Mulder and Scully will be back. Like us, they will no longer sport the glow of youth. Like us, they will have a kid and presumably the responsibilities that go along with parenting, that most adult of activities.

But they will not have become part of the establishment. They will not have abandoned the cool, detached personas that made them our heroes. Neither have we. Our dedication has never been to social justice; it has never been to cleaning up government or protecting ourselves from troublesome, triggering realities. Our dedication is, and always has been, to truth. And it’s still out there.