X-Files Flashback: ‘Gender Bender’

Season 1, Episode 14
Director: Rob Bowman
Writer: Larry Barber, Paul Barber

Day 14. Two weeks into this experiment, I – much like The X-Files’ itself – am finally finding my groove. Still, I’ve spent so much time with this (at least two hours every night) that my 11-year-old son has started to become very intrigued by The X-Files, a natural for him as he’s given to “believing” in just about everything. Yesterday, we watched “Beyond the Sea” together, but he asked a thousand questions. I have since decided he’s too young to watch. Good thing too. “Gender Bender” would have been a doozy to explain…

“Gender Bender,” the fourteenth episode of The X-Files, starts with a close-up of an eye. At first, there is no gender connectivity with that eye – it simply stares across a crowded dance club at its target. The camera pulls back to reveal the eye belongs to a woman who targets a man playing a video poker machine – all the rage in the 1990s. At first, when approached, the man brushes her off, yet she is persistent and ultimately beds him. As a man, I rolled my eyes at this horndog representation of the male sex, so eager to bed a strange woman with a total lack of concern over the dangers linked with such behavior. No, sex must come first, and, this being The (se)X-Files, he pays with his life. Also, this being The (se)X-Files, the killer immediately transitions from female to male. Perhaps it wasn’t really the man’s fault after all…

As similar deaths have been reported recently, Mulder and Scully are notified and brought in to investigate as a potential entry into the X-Files. Security cameras caught the victim entering his hotel room with a woman, and a man exiting the room later that evening. The best clue comes from traces of clay found on the victim’s body that originate from a specific area of Massachusetts inhabited by an Amish-like religious sect called The Kindred. Upon arrival, Scully has an intoxicating encounter with one of the members of this community – he touches her hand which seems to possess Scully’s mind and body. Earlier, Mulder and Scully had an in-depth conversation about off-the-chart pheromones found in the first murder victim’s body. Clearly, there is a connection between that medical fact and the touch Scully experiences.

Mulder and Scully seek out the community – they of course have to approach on foot – and it is as creepy as you can imagine. The Kindred all (mostly) smiling, cordial but firm, dressed in stark black and whites, and offer up food and prayer. As Mulder and Scully begin to question them about a potential connection to the earlier muders, one of the elderly members who appears to be suffering from an aggressive pneumonia passes out at the table. The Kindred effectively banish Mulder and Scully from their property and tell them ominously, “We take care of our own.” Meanwhile, the killer continues to take more victims and consistently shifts back and forth between male and female incarnations.

Back at The Kindred’s farm, Mulder and Scully secretly witness some sort of ceremony where they take the now-dead old man into something that resembles a root cellar. As Mulder decides to investigate the cellar further, Scully stays behind to stand guard but is discovered by the friendly sect member, Brother Andrew (Brent Hinkley, The Silence of the Lambs), who earlier touched her hand. He takes her back to his room and begins to share details about the murderer they’re looking for – Marty – and how he has become obsessed with sharing human experiences. Mulder, meanwhile, witnesses The Kindred sect members covering their dead brother with a white clay and putting him into a hole in the wall. Nearly discovered by Kindred members who are aware of their continued presence, Mulder finds the man’s dead body and witnesses his resurrection. After escaping the cellar undetected, Mulder finds Scully in the embrace of Brother Andrew and rescues her. The Kindred confront them but allow them to leave unscathed.

The episode then shifts into massive overdrive as Mulder and Scully are alerted to Marty’s location and try to capture him/her. Marty overpowers both detectives and shifts gender in front of an ailing Mulder. Having escaped outside, Marty is captured not by Scully but by the remaining members of The Kindred who seemingly appear out of thin air and disappear as quickly. Back at the farm, Mulder and Scully discover that the root cellar has been completely cemented, The Kindred have fled suddenly, and there is a giant crop circle in a nearby wheat field – alluding to an alien origin for this religious sect.

“Gender Bender,” while still a solid episode and a step above many of the earlier episodes of the first season, still feels like it should have been a multi-episode arc or a single 2-hour episode. There are so many plot points at hand, so much ground to cover, so many themes to explore that everything seems rushed and nothing feels particularly well considered. The Kindred’s beliefs, daily practices, and history are all glossed over. Only once do we hear that perhaps these same individuals have been potentially regenerating for decades, and it begs a deeper experience with the characters. Plus, they’re just super creepy.

The themes of “Gender Bender” clearly involve an exploration of sexual identity. Marty, the gender-bending killer, evokes some of the same AIDS-fearing sexual paranoia of early 80s and 90s horror cinema. Linking the set act with death is hardly a new conceit (go research the “little death”), but this take illustrates a collision between the human body and a potentially alien sexual experience, resulting in the human’s death. Not at all what Earth Girls are Easy taught us. It’s not hard to equate this X-Files vision of human/alien sexual encounters with any dangerous sexual disease, but the AIDS epidemic does float to the top of the list as this was the early 90s. There is even a sense of homophobia layered into the mix as one of Marty’s male victims survives the experience to see Marty as a man instead of the woman he’d almost bedded. He shudders with disbelief in his hospital bed, and Scully immediately believes he was the victim of a transvestite. Looking at the episode through the prism of 2015 where gender identity has become increasingly fluid in pop culture, it’s amazing to consider how close we are to the era of Basic Instinct and the fear of the omnisexual being.

As if the sex equals death theory wasn’t enough, “Gender Bender” underscores the connection between The Kindred with human sexuality by imagining their regenerative chamber (the root cellar beneath their farm) as something out of H.R. Giger’s Alien imagery. The clay that resembles semen. The corridors resembling sexual organs. The little chambers resembling vaginal openings. The imagery in Mulder’s section of the story is deeply sexual. It’s so overt, in fact, that you’d really have to be deeply in denial to miss it. What’s really fascinating about the concept of The Kindred is that there are no children in the community as they are apparently celibate. Above ground, at least. Below ground, they got it all going on, Giger-style.

What I did find disconcerting and ultimately less than successful about the episode is the quick manner in which it was resolved, particularly the dropping of the alien theory at the very end to quickly explain The Kindred. Deus ex machina, they call it. It’s not that I particularly minded The Kindred originating from outer space – sometimes religious cults feel otherworldly to me anyway – but it needed to have been coached a bit better, given more room to breathe than the 45 minutes a single episode allowed. Plus, it’s strange that this episode was a stand-alone entry in The X-Files lore because it so easily could have become a component of the overall series mythology. At any rate, “Gender Bender,” despite its horrible title, emerges as one of the stronger episodes but still leaves us imagining that greatness that could have been.

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