Last semester, my sister and I binge-watched “The X-Files.” This was, in hindsight, probably a questionable use of my time; for the uninitiated, the science fiction phenomenon spanned 202 episodes and two movies in its initial run, and follows FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder as they investigate supernatural and unearthly cases. The binge began as a matter of pop-culture literacy, especially in light of the revival which had then been recently announced, but it quickly became more important than that.
As a teenager who has grown up in the era of “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones”, “The X-Files” is both endearingly dated and ahead of its time in scope and style. There’s another editorial entirely to be written about what makes “The X-Files” so extraordinary. That editorial, fortunately for me, has already been written countless times since 1993.
Instead, I write now about a specific character.
When viewers first meet Dana Scully, she is a FBI Agent wearing an oversized pantsuit and practical heels on her five foot three frame. Gillian Anderson was cast as Scully against the wishes of FOX executives, who wanted to cast a “buxom blonde” as sidekick to the already-cast David Duchovny as Fox Mulder. Anderson was quite the opposite, but the personal favorite of the show’s creator.
Scully is a woman with a bachelor’s degree in physics and an M.D. from Stanford, and is partnered with Special Agent Mulder to rein in his conspiratorial nature in as they investigate unsolved, often paranormal cases that the Bureau has abandoned. In the pilot episode, the pair meet people claiming to be alien abductees and experience a nine-minute time rift. Mulder, as he will generally do for the duration of the show, believes that extraterrestrials are behind the events and that the government is hiding a massive conspiracy, even with a lack of compelling evidence. Scully, as she will generally do for the duration of the show, maintains that there must be a logical scientific explanation for the bizarre occurrences, even with a lack of compelling evidence.
Scully is everything “strong women” usually are, without crossing over into the cringe worthy caricature that said characters so often end up being. She is firm in her convictions, believing in her Catholic faith as much as she does the scientific method and never allowing anyone to think her weaker for either. The cool logic that Scully became famous for as “the skeptic” to Mulder’s “believer” is sometimes sarcastic and condescending, because she’s not attempting to appeal to anyone’s sensibilities; her job is to be an FBI Agent, not a token
She is intelligent and naturally talented, and she approaches her work as law enforcement with a reverence at-home with the notion of saving lives; but, simultaneously, she is deeply interested in cultivating a life outside of work. Rebuking the notion that successful women are workaholics, Scully goes out for drinks and reads and sits at home eating ice cream by herself. She loves her family, and she dates a number of men who are not involved with the FBI
in an attempt to give her life dimensions. Her desire to have children becomes a running
plot point throughout the show’s later seasons.
Her relationship with Mulder is complex; they are colleagues, friends and confidantes. They are sometimes a couple but always in love with each other, often at odds but always aware of the fact that they’re inextricably bound by the work they do. Though they are on polar ends of the ideological spectrum, they are Scully and
When the show crosses into horror territory, both characters are allowed to be vulnerable and afraid, traits which are redefined to be not vices of femininity but assertions of humanity. Both characters endure personal losses throughout “The X-Files” — both lose family members to assassins bent on destroying their lives, both encounter everything from run-of-the-mill serial killers to bona-fide monsters and aliens; both, at some point, grapple with the ever-present possibility of losing each other to these malevolent forces. Most critically, both Mulder and Scully scream, cry and grieve on camera when they have a reason to. It is never Scully’s job to express to the viewer that something emotional is occurring while Mulder goes out and does something about it.
I, like many others, was alarmed to learn that Gillian Anderson was initially offered half of David Duchovny’s paycheck to do the current “X-Files” revival. The irony in this situation is palpable to the point that I initially thought it was a fake headline; Anderson, who fought her way from novice actress to equal pay with more experienced Duchovny by the show’s end, should surely not have to deal with such nonsense.
Surely playing the character who made her a household name, the character whose very existence is a testament to the strength and complexity of the modern woman, should not be wrought with the BS that Scully’s world so cleanly shuts down. Surely.
Women still need to look up to Dana Scully, if for no other reason than that the world she occupied in the 90’s still exists.
Presumptions about what women can or can’t be and how they can or can’t feel still limit so many from living up to their fullest potential.
One might think that these presumptions are much like Scully’s enormous plaid blazers, and that they should be anachronisms relegated to existing only in history, but then one would be wrong.
Nobody saves the world wearing enormous plaid prejudices.