“Gender Bender,” which first aired on Fox TV on January 21 of 1994, remains one of the weirder and perhaps more controversial first season episodes of The X-Files.
That controversy arises -- as it often does in life -- over one particular subject: sex.
In particular, this installment directed by Rob Bowman muses upon the qualities that comprise human sexual attraction and arousal.
In the final analysis, does it all simply come down to chemical attraction?
Can our responses, in effect, be programmed by chemical changes?
This is not merely a matter for intellectual debate, either, as Scully learns in “Gender Bender.” And the episode is certainly of strong interest from a characterization perspective. As a character, Scully is very buttoned-downed and by-the-book. Yet “Gender Bender” finds Dana far outside of her comfort zone, forced to act in a manner contrary, in many ways, to her character’s parochial inclinations.
Also, sexual attraction in The X-Files -- as embodied by the central relationship between Scully and Mulder -- is often contextualized in terms of an intellectual or cerebral connection. Mulder and Scully are “turned on” by each other, we understand, because they are smart, resourceful, capable, and curious “rivals.” One quality I admire about The X-Files is that it recognizes the abundant truth: smart is sexy.
Smart is really sexy.
Yet “Gender Bender” deliberately throws a monkey-wrench in that equation by suggesting that sexual attraction isn’t universally based on factors of the conscious mind at all, but on the body’s involuntary responses to stimuli outside its control. The episode posits an alien race that releases a pheromone irresistible to humans, turning the affected people into the equivalent of one-time sex engines.
The killer in this episode deploys that pheromone, uses up his/her lovers, and burns them out. Victims die after catastrophic cardiac arrest.
With this chemical power to manipulate mankind comes another, equally uncomfortable realization. Over-developed brains aside, we’re all just…mammals, susceptible to the same primitive biological drives as other, less-evolved mammals.
Where we can attempt to differentiate ourselves, however, is in our intellectual response to this drive. “Gender Bender” suggests that the asceticism and abstinence typical of religious fundamentalism is, in fact, that very thing: an attempt not to interface with the Divine, but to rein in the chaotic imperatives of sexual desire.
That’s a lot of thematic ground to cover, and yet “Gender Bender” is a surprising, unpredictable, and tense hour. The story from Larry and Paul Barber demonstrates another aspect of Chris Carter’s work that I resolutely admire: the artist’s willingness to experiment with something new, even if that something new goes against preconceived notions of appropriateness or expectation.
This is the same impulse that gives rise to episodes such as “Home,” “Chinga,” “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and “Triangle,” among others. Not all those episodes are complete successes, but each is ambitious, and outside the rubric of strictly-defined format parameters.
In Germantown, Maryland, Mulder and Scully investigate the latest in a string of murders being committed by a killer with the unusual capacity to change sex at will and transmit an irresistible human pheromone.
Mulder traces the killings back to the Kindred, a strict fundamentalist religious sect living in rural Massachusetts. Mulder and Scully infiltrate the compound, and learn that the simple people there seem to be both immortal and chemically incompatible with human beings.
Scully is unexpectedly affected and aroused by Brother Andrew (Brent Hinckley) as Mulder gathers evidence in a strange subterranean cave that indicates the Kindred are not of this Earth…
“Gender Bender” commences with imagery that succinctly expresses the episode’s theme. In an urban bar, as an alien stalks human prey for purposes of casual sex, a painting is visible on the wall in the background.
It is a Giger-esque work of art combining human and alien features, and there is both an allure and repulsion to it. The painting’s visage simultaneously implies danger and sexual desire, and that is the very nature, as well, of the episode’s gender-bending killer.
The painting appears a second time, later in the hour, and the connection can’t be missed. Both the painting and the episode’s specific narrative turns suggest that humans are drawn to sex, even if that sex might be dangerous or out-of-the-norm. And a “walking aphrodisiac” like the episode’s killer seems to hone in on this aspect of his/her prey.
Uniquely, “Gender Bender” also intuits a reason for the sexual asceticism of fundamentalist Christian groups. The Kindred cannot freely express their passions with those around them -- human beings -- because to do so would be to commit murder.
Scully notes the Kindred’s “abstinence and pure Christian ways” but there is a very real, very practical reason for these ways. Sex and pleasure equate to murder for these alien visitors. When one considers Kindred prayers like “we pray for the day of the coming, the day of our release,” it is not too difficult to discern what they mean. As visitors on Earth, they have contained and controlled their appetites for far too long. They desire a time and place where their “abstinence” and ascetic life-style will not be necessary. “Release” in this context, is, indeed, “sexual release.” Don’t get me started on the “day of the coming.” That prayer isn’t just about a flying saucer and crop circles, methinks.
Without knowing all the facts, Mulder and Scully mistake the Kindred prayers for the Christian desire to be saved and redeemed by a Messiah. In fact, the Kindred long for the physical release of sexual intercourse in a safe environment. They dare not let themselves loose on Earth, lest chaos result.
In the dialogue, it is said that the killer in “Gender Bender,” Brother Marty, was “captured” by the outside world of “slick” sexuality, and finally could not be restrained, could not wait for the day of deliverance from Earth. He broke free of his people’s asceticism and gave in to hedonism, with the result being death for his partners. In reckoning with this character, The X-Files seems to present a case about American culture in the 1990s, and the seductive power of advertising/media “imagery.” “Gender Bender” notes that Marty was not able to resist this world. The question is: are we?
Notably, even Scully is not immune to the pheromones released by the Kindred, and she nearly finds herself a sexual partner for one of the sect. It’s especially frightening that Scully becomes “captured” by this chemical force, because she is the series’ voice of reason, science, and moderation. We already know that Mulder is given to extremes of passion and depression, emotionalism and restraint, but Scully is our emotional bedrock and point of stability. So to see her so thoroughly overcome by the Kindred is shocking, and the moment creates a sense of tension and predictability.
In terms of The X-Files history, Nicholas Lea makes an early appearance here as one of the killer’s surviving victims. Lea would later return to the series in the long-standing role of Krycek.
Secondarily -- and this factor may account for some fan displeasure with the episode -- “Gender Bender” is one of the few X-Files episodes that posits alien life outside the confines of the Mytharc. The Kindred are quite separate and different from the shape-shifting bounty hunters and black oil aliens seen later, and are never referred to again. They are, in essence a one-off.
But in the final analysis, that’s okay, because “Genderbender” accomplishes its artistic task. It asks the viewer to consider the forces underlining sexual, chemical attraction. Then it wonders if those forces are the very things that make us human in the first place.
Next week: “Darkness Falls.”