How Dana Scully Inspired a Generation of Women

Science Features The X-Files
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How Dana Scully Inspired a Generation of Women

Dana Scully entered my life when I was about 10 years old. I was way too young to be watching The X-Files, I know (a perk of growing up with no parental supervision to speak of). The show had already been on for several years by the time I stumbled across it one night when I couldn’t sleep.

For reasons I don’t want to psychoanalyze too deeply, I found the show’s grim aesthetic strangely comforting. It was dark and atmospheric, rife with carefully constructed tension and a perpetual feeling of nighttime, low voices and whispers. The X-Files commanded an intimacy with its viewers that made it feel more like reading a book than watching TV.

For the uninitiated, The X-Files was/is one of the most influential sci-fi dramas of all time. It paved the way for most of the procedural crime and supernaturally-themed shows of the modern television age. While at 10 years old I didn’t immediately grasp the plot or its larger themes, I liked knowing that even if I fell asleep before the episode was over, Mulder and Scully were still out there somewhere searching for the truth.

Scully—as she was derivatively, and later affectionately, known—was a medical doctor, forensic pathologist and FBI agent who had been assigned by her superiors to “debunk” the work of Fox Mulder. He was something of a rogue agent and the proverbial bane of the FBI’s existence. Mulder was, for a compelling mix of personal and intellectual reasons, obsessed with his quest to expose a slew of government conspiracies—the potential proof for which existed in his basement office filled with “X-Files.” These were the FBI’s unsolved cases (the “X” being where one ends up in the filing system when you run out of room under “U” for Unsolved) that often times bent toward the paranormal—as did the vast majority of Mulder’s theories.

In the pilot episode, we meet Dana Scully just before she meets Mulder for the first time. She’s been drafted by the FBI to essentially provide the much-needed rational, hard science counterpoint to Mulder’s outlandish theories. Scully can’t be more than 28 or 29, but she’s got a formidable resume. You have to wonder why the FBI yanked her away from what surely would have been a promising career in order to, essentially, babysit. One assumes it was partially because she was a woman—and the feds may have rightly suspected that Mulder would be more vulnerable to feminine wiles.

But if the entire point of Scully’s assignment was to discredit Mulder’s work, that only proves the extent to which they underestimated her. If they had truly appreciated how brilliant she was, they never would have let her near the work Mulder was doing. She—and we—were ultimately validated when FBI came to regret the decision: Scully not only became Mulder’s ally, but in many ways, the worst enemy of those who had wrongly assumed she’d blindly serve and protect their interests.

1427284302291.cached.jpg Photo: ©20THCENTFOX/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

Scully’s story is not ultimately about a bright-young-thing FBI agent who stumbles into Fox Mulder’s den of conspiracy and intrigue: it’s about a woman who spent her entire life trying to prove herself, and how when she finally did, her authority endangered rather than empowered her. From the beginning, the government’s intent was to get Mulder to stop asking questions while ensuring that Scully never stopped questioning. It wasn’t even that they wanted her to question Mulder—they wanted her to constantly be in doubt of her own perceptions and beliefs. For much of the show’s run, the only thing that really stood between Scully and the truth was herself.

For me—and I’m sure many other young women who grew up watching it—Dana Scully was one of the first times I truly identified with a fictional character. I needed someone to give me permission to question what I’d been told was the truth. I was desperately seeking strong female role models who had depth and definition beyond the normal tropes—none of which interested me, even as a preteen. As a venerable dweeb, I also was greatly in need of someone to tell me that being smart was an asset rather than an affliction.

I had a known history of giving my classmates lectures about why it was perfectly legitimate for girls to be excited about dinosaurs because paleontology wasn’t just for boys. I did my fifth grade book report of JFK’s Profiles in Courage and read Infinite Jest my sophomore year, only to find my English teacher unable to answer my questions because she’d never finished it (not that I blame her, to be honest). In high school, after The X-Files ended, I interviewed a Boston FBI field agent about what the bureau was really like for women on Career Day. In perhaps my most Scully-esque of pursuits, I spent a few very long weeks my senior year of high school trying to dissect a mole brain in the anatomy lab. This was difficult because the tiny rodents have even tinier brains, and the encasing skull sticks to it such that you have to painstakingly peel the bone free of the tissue like you might the shell of a hard-boiled egg. I worked under pressure because the specimen was fresh. When I succeeded, my anatomy teacher was so impressed she embalmed the brain and kept it on her desk long after I’d graduated.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there was already a term for what I’d experienced growing up in the original X-Files fandom (Geocities pages and all). The Scully Effect the anecdotal, and subsequent academic, term given to an influx of young women pursuing STEM or law enforcement careers during the show’s heyday. Anne Simon, the show’s science advisor, teaches at The University of Maryland and told Smithsonian Magazine that she’d experienced it firsthand: “I asked my class, this was probably in 1999, if anyone was influenced to be here by The X-Files. Two-thirds of the hands went up.”

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