Depictions of Women in STEM: Dana Scully

January 09, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

This post contains spoilers for The X-Files.

In this next installment of our series on depictions of women in STEM, we take a look at Special Agent Dana Scully of the Fox Entertainment series The X-Files.

Agent Dana Scully is a force to be reckoned with. When she was first placed in the X-Files office to contend with her new partner Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), she only had a small inkling of the Boys Club she would be dealing with. Portrayed by Gillian Anderson, a self-proclaimed feminist in her own right, she became an iconic fictional woman in STEM who has inspired people of all genders worldwide. 

The X-Files is a sci-fi show that has it all (almost): Aliens, government conspiracies, a dynamic FBI agent duo, and spooky paranormal cases for the agents to solve. The department where Agents Scully and Mulder work, the X-Files, deals with paranormal cold cases such as (but not limited to) a large humanoid-flukeworm (“The Host”), a high school teacher who embodies a demon named Azazel (“Die Hand Die Verletzt”), and a stillborn boy who possesses his twin brother’s body (“The Calusari”). Scully is assigned to the X-Files in order to discredit the work of Agent Mulder, who is known around the Bureau as “Spooky” because of his penchant for the paranormal and his strong belief that extraterrestrials have come to Earth. As time goes on, the agents find themselves involved in a convoluted web of government conspiracy.

Source: Netflix

Scully, born into a close-knit Catholic and military family, received her Bachelor of Science in physics, then went on to medical school at Stanford University. She was recruited by the FBI and after two years was assigned to the X-Files. Because of her history in STEM, she was no stranger to the unequal treatment most women receive in STEM fields, but she never let that stop her. She defied one female stereotype after another, proving to be the least squeamish and the most qualified in her field. Her skeptic nature provided a balance for Mulder, and her constant need to explain the cases she witnessed with science grounded her as a character. The science presented in the series was substantiated with help from real-life scientist Anne Simon. Besides serving as the science advisor for The X-Files, she is a virologist at the University of Maryland, author of The Real Science Behind the X-Files, and a friend of show creator Chris Carter – you can hear an interview with her here.

The presence of such a strong woman in STEM in a pop culture touchstone such as The X-Files had ripple effects for the women and girls who consistently watched the show. An anecdotal trend began to emerge, referred to as “The Scully Effect," where young women were inspired by Scully's character to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement. Scully soon became a “pop culture patron saint” of women entering STEM fields. Gillian Anderson was asked at Comic Con if she was aware of the Scully Effect, and she replied, “It was a surprise to me, when I was told that. We got a lot of letters all the time, and I was told quite frequently by girls who were going into the medical world or the science world or the FBI world or other worlds that I reigned, that they were pursuing those pursuits because of the character of Scully. And I said, ‘Yay!’” The aforementioned X-Files science advisor Anne Simon also is quoted as saying, “I asked my Intro Bio class back then how many of them were influenced by the character of Scully on The X-Files to go into science and half of the hands in the room went up. That’s huge! That was saying that the show was really having an effect.” 

Source: Bitch Flicks

But being a fictional woman in STEM, especially being one in The X-Files, comes with its downsides. An exceptional article featured on Bitch Flicks by Becky Kukla examines Scully’s role as a woman on the series. Kukla points out that when it comes to supernatural cases, her believing partner Agent Mulder always has the upper hand, until season 2, when “instead of investigating the science, Scully actually becomes the science.” Scully is abducted, and there seems to be a link between Scully’s gender and the tests and experiments that she underwent while captive. As Kukla writes, she is already “othered” as a woman in the male-dominated sphere of the FBI, and the genetic experiments done during her abduction are directly due to the fact that she is a woman. And even during their day-to-day work, as pointed out by Kukla, Scully often chases her partner Mulder on his wild crusades and acts as support staff. She does not even have a desk or a name plate in their office, and she does not express her frustration with this until season 4 of the series.

It wasn't just Scully who had to fight for equal treatment on the show – Gillian Anderson was paid less than her counterpart, David Duchovny, until they became “equally successful.” When the first feature X-Files film was beginning production, she was offered half of David Duchovny’s pay, and then again in 2016 when the 6-episode revival season was in negotiations. Additionally, Anderson has been described, even by the show's creator Chris Carter, as having an "intensity about her." He goes on to mention, "Not only is she attractive, but she was intelligent and able to deliver a lot of scientific information believably." Anderson's looks come first, and her talent second - something women in all fields of work can relate to. This examination of Anderson's performance is contradictory to the character that she embodies as Dana Scully, whose talents are constantly at the forefront.

Source: VIP Fan Auctions

Anderson never thought about Dana Scully becoming a feminist role model, but it is not surprising, given Anderson’s support of the Feminist Majority Foundation – she even became the foundation’s spokesperson in 1996. In an interview with Glamour magazine, she is quoted as saying, “I have feminist bones and when I hear things or see people react to women in certain ways I have very little tolerance.” More recently, she has begun writing a manifesto with journalist Jennifer Nadel for teen girls entitled We: A Manifesto for Women EverywhereThe book is organized around nine principles - honesty, acceptance, courage, trust, humanity, peace, love, joy, and kindness - and aims to help young women, especially those without good role models, overcome struggles with self-esteem.

Back on the X-Files set, take after take formed Scully into the strong character she became by the end of the original 9 seasons. She had powerful moments in the series, using her STEM background to determine truth amidst a convoluted web of lies and red herrings. This is nicely summed up in an exchange with Mulder:

Mulder: I've seen too many things not to believe.
Scully: I've seen things, too. But there are answers to be found now. We have hope that there's a place to start. That's what I believe.
Mulder: You put such faith in your science, Scully. But...from the things I've seen, science provides no place to start.
Scully: Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it. And that's a place to start. That's where the hope is. ("Herrenvolk," 1996.)

Did The X-Files meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

The White House’s fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. The X-Files succeeded in meeting some of these goals, but not others:

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): Dana Scully is often the only woman represented in the STEM fields in the series, and is certainly the only main character who is a woman in STEM. There are brief appearances by other female scientists and STEM-adjacent characters, but Scully is the only regularly occurring character who is a woman and works in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: As for highlighting the breadth of STEM careers, the X-Files does show that there are various occupations for women in STEM. Scully is a medical doctor and a scientist, and often will use her general knowledge in other STEM fields (physics, mathematics, etc.). The show also addresses the social impacts of STEM, as viewers are shown that Scully's medical and scientific knowledge has a direct, measurable impact on the community - and even the world - around her. As mentioned above, however, the show does not often portray other female characters working in a broad range of STEM careers. 

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: The White House fact sheet suggests that "plot elements...reinforce that intelligence and aptitude for STEM is not a fixed trait determined by qualities such as ethnicity or gender, but rather is developed through effort, practice, and persistence." Dana Scully is persistent, practiced, and knowledgeable. It is very clear that she got to her position in the FBI through hard work, and she continues to demonstrate that gender does not dictate who will succeed in STEM occupations.

Want to learn about some real-life Scullys?
Check out the Steminist profiles of women who are doing amazing things, from students to women with established careers in STEM.

Who are your favourite fictional women in STEM? Get in touch on Twitter or Facebook and tell us - maybe they will be covered next! Look out for the next installment in this series, and don't forget to check out The White House Fact Sheet on STEM Depiction Opportunities.