According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 50 years of social science research has revealed that the characters, images, and storylines in media shape our everyday lives in profound ways. They provide cues – sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle – about what we should “prioritize in our lives, how we should spend our time, how we should spend our income, who we should love, how we should love, how to overcome hardships, etc.” So, it is no surprise that a phenomenon called “The Scully Effect” has been anecdotally reported among fans of the TV show The X-Files and women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.
The Scully Effect
This phenomenon, however, is no longer just anecdotal. Back in 2017, here at WWEST, we started our Media Depictions of Women in STEM series to evaluate how woman characters in STEM are depicted in popular media, and how this might shape viewers’ ideas of women’s role in STEM (especially viewers in elementary and secondary school). In our third installment, I critically looked at the depiction of Dana Scully in The X-Files, and I briefly touched on the Scully Effect. But since that article was published, a study by the Geena Davis Institute has examined just how much the character of Dana Scully has influenced girls and women to focus on STEM in their schooling and careers. In fact, of 2,021 participants, nearly two-thirds (63%) of women who are familiar with Dana Scully say she increased their belief in the importance of STEM, and 50% of those same women say Scully increased their interest in STEM.
More specifically, Scully has influenced medium/heavy women viewers of The X-Files to consider working in STEM fields (43%), actually study STEM fields (27%), and work in STEM fields (24%).
Gillian Anderson, the multiple award-winning actress who played Dana Scully in all 9 original X-Files seasons, 2 X-Files movies, and 2 recent seasons of The X-Files, has this to say about the character she portrayed in a video called "The Scully Effect" produced by 20th Century Fox: “At the time that Scully showed up [in 1993], we didn’t see that type of female represented very much at all out in the world of television, which is what we look to more and more as examples of who we are and to help make sense of us as human beings. And so, to suddenly have an appealing, intelligent, strong-minded female who was appreciated by her pretty cool male coworker was an awesome thing to behold, and I think that a lot of young women said, ‘That’s me. I’m interested in that. I want to do that. I want to be that.’”
X-Files writer Shannon Hamblin also echoes in the same video, “When you start to see female characters who don’t play into caricatures, and what their position is with a man in the same scene, it’s like, no, they’re both equal, they’re both human beings."
With these statistics from the Geena Davis Instiute, it is clear that this portrayal of Dana Scully resonated with the women who participated in the study. When children start implicitly pairing men and math as early as age seven (a bias that continues into adulthood), positive representations of women in STEM, such as that of Scully, are increasingly important, especially as the Netflixes of the world work to bring television to every device we and children use on a daily basis. Madeline Di Nonno, the CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, states in the video linked above that “Media is one of our most powerful tools to influence pop culture, and if we really want to eradicate unconscious bias […] it’s really important that we use a gender lens when we’re thinking about stories that we tell.”
While my original article about Dana Scully highlighted some of the problems with her depiction, it is clear from this Geena Davis Institute study that her depiction also has sparked a widespread and positive movement of women and girls entering STEM fields and studies. Hopefully more positive depictions of women in STEM will continue this inspiring trend.