How Dana Scully Inspired a Generation of Women

Science Features The X-Files
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.

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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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For young women in particular, Scully’s portrayal was not just encouraging, but almost unprecedented. I’ve read a lot of characterizations of Mulder and Scully over the years that focus on their “switched gender roles:” Scully demonstrating a more traditionally “masculine,” intelligence-driven, problem-solving approach unimpeded by emotions, and Mulder ultimately relying on more “feminine” proclivities like his gut instincts, attachments and memories. In pandering to those tropes, the show may not have debunked the “gendered” theories society holds about how women “ought to” behave, but Scully offered something more complex for young women to aspire to. Her character was defined by her aspirations long before she found herself in the X-Files basement. She was passionate about her work and seemed to be truly rewarded by it. We see her interact with her family to a degree, but Scully is mostly a woman unto herself. She has a nice apartment in Georgetown. She reads and writes for academic medical journals. You could argue that she lacks a social life, that she doesn’t date or go out with friends (and does she have friends?). With the exception of a few episodes in which she explores it, Scully never really seems all that troubled by the design of her life.

In the series (whose creator, showrunners and writers were all men) Scully was surrounded by a primarily male cast of characters, none of whom defined her. Even Mulder—with whom she inevitably became romantically and sexually intertwined—was not the reason for Scully’s existence. Chris Carter, the show’s creator, has said that from the beginning the show was truly about Scully’s story, not Mulder’s. Even though the majority of women have not devoted their lives to pulling the veil back on government conspiracies (not to say a good many of us won’t be now), Scully gave a generation of women permission to be devoted to something other than what society traditionally expects and encourages. Scully gave women permission to intellectually dazzling, tough and “difficult,” curious and self-possessed.

Those who take a monochromatic view of Scully have missed out on the subtleties of the female experience which fictional characters are uniquely positioned to convey. Those same people, I imagine, also lack an awareness of that richness in women they know in real life. I never saw Scully as being decidedly unfeminine, nor would I say she was perpetually cold or unemotional. Scully demonstrated a complexity in women that society finds incomprehensible at best. I’m in my mid-20s now and I still find myself looking to Scully for a reminder that not only is it “okay” for women to be intricate paradoxes, but that in reality—most of us are.

I didn’t fully appreciate The Scully Effect’s presence in my own life until I found myself in the midst of a mysterious medical crisis several years ago. What I had internalized of Scully’s skepticism, her doggedness, her curiosity and intellectual intensity, perhaps saved my life. Those attributes had taken root in me during my formative years and armed me a dynamic worldview—and conviction that “the answers are there, you just have to know where to look.”

When I got sick, I spent hours researching in medical libraries. I interacted with doctors in much the same way Scully would have: with respect but not deference, presenting well-founded theories and seeking proof before jumping to conclusions. I advocated for tests and surgeries to confirm my findings, and was proven correct—not once, not twice, but three times in six years. (For the intrigued: endometriosis, chronic appendicitis and a progressive neurological disease. I’m sure I could have co-authored a scientific paper or two à la Scully —but I got a book deal instead.)


The return of The X-Files—and with it Scully—with the revival last year was a strange coalescence of events. A show based in shadowy government conspiracies is, perhaps, a little too real in 2017, whereas in 1997 it was the height of primetime entertainment.

There’s one quote of Scully’s that’s been making the rounds recently and it packs quite a punch: “I still believe in this country. But I believe that there are powerful men in the government who do not—men who have no respect for the law and who flout it with impunity.”

While the larger themes of the show are a little too close to home these days, I have found a rekindled appreciation—and gratitude—for the character of Dana Scully. Professionally and personally, my scientific pursuits continue to give my life meaning. Knowing that an entirely new generation of young women are being introduced to Scully for the first time fills me with a sort of benevolent delight: they have so many other fictional heroines that were, many of them, modeled after Scully—but she’s quintessential.

Whether the other characters that came after will stand the test of time—and alternative truths —as Scully has, I don’t know. If Scully were a real person, I’d like to believe she’d attended the March for Science on Washington. I’d like to believe that she’d wake up every day and read the headlines and say simply, “Okay, what do we do?” I’d hope that she isn’t too jaded to keep fighting the good fight.

Even when I was a little girl, watching The X-Files in my pitch-black bedroom, what I have always appreciated most about the show was that its heroes didn’t always win. In fact, they hardly ever did. In real life, there are no checks and balances between good and evil. I fell asleep at night as a kid content with the knowledge that no, Mulder and Scully had not prevailed—but they had not given up, either. They were still out there with their flashlight beams crossed, hunting down the night together.

As an adult, I look at the character of Dana Scully and recognize that she lost more than she ever won. Even in the most recent iteration of the show, Scully endures. The Scully Effect, to me, is more about encouraging young women into STEM fields. Scully taught many women—and I hope, many men as well—that the truth has no sex chromosome, and the quest for it is first and foremost a human one. Now more than ever, in my short lifetime at least, we need the “Scullys” of the world to step up. Whether you’re squinting at a lab bench, or giving a voice to the oppressed in a courtroom, or chasing justice in three-inch heels, you are an integral part of the fight. You will not always win. But like Scully, I implore you to persist.

Abby Norman is writer based in New England. She’s currently working on a memoir for Nation Books and is the weekend science editor at Futurism. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, Atlas Obscura, The Establishment, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Medium, The Independent, and others. She’s represented by Tisse Takagi in New York City.

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