Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
As a kid, I loved math, science, and mysteries. I read sci-fi books and researched the paranormal — but so often the heroes in my favorite books were men. While I loved the female-centric worlds of Little House on the Prairie or Island of The Blue Dolphins, where were the aliens? So, when I happened upon The X-Files, the dreamy conspiracy theorist Fox Mulder held no sway over me. Instead, I worshipped the rational skeptic, Federal Agent Dana Scully.
Agent Scully wasn’t prissy or easily perturbed — a good portion of her career was spent elbow-deep in a cadaver, as she sought rational answers to the show's very strange deaths. She wasn't grossed out by blood, bugs, or slimy things like so many women on television. And, she was an equal to her FBI partner — cooly level-headed and unapologetically smart.
In media, the mad genius archetype has traditionally been unavailable to female characters. Despite the many ways in which The X-Files was a groundbreaking television show, the fact remained that Fox Mulder — with his Grassy-Knoll-obsessed pals and passionate belief that his young sister had been abducted by aliens — fulfilled this role. A bureaucrat's nightmare, Mulder fought The Smoking Man and saw through elaborate government propaganda. His "crazy" beliefs were usually proven correct by the end of each episode. The Wolf Man didexist; Tooms was actually a centuries-old creature living off of human livers. Because of this, it's tempting to view Scully as a passive company (wo)man written strictly as a foil for Mulder's nontraditional ways. But, she was much more than that.
In the '90s, there were major advances in forensic evidence — and it caught the attention of TV creators. Scully's meticulous autopsies paved the way for future fictional female forensic experts like Dr. Melinda Warner on Law and Order: SVU and Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan of Bones. And, her dedication to science — her disbelief of Mulder's seemingly harebrained hypotheses in the absence of tangible proof — went against scores of stereotypical female character caricatures: that is, irrational and ruled by emotion. Sure, in the world of the show, the audience perceives Scully to be overly skeptical of Mulder's hunches. But, put yourself in her shoes and be honest: Do you really think the government is involved in vast alien virus projects, or would you like to investigate a little further before you make that call?
The one soft spot in Scully's rigid rationality is her Catholic beliefs, and here the show takes a turn for the more conventional. Women have long been associated with mysticism and religion, and Scully is no exception. She's also very conventionally attractive, a fact seldom ignored in the show — small-town cops regularly undermine her authority, questioning the effectiveness of a pretty little lady from the FBI. In these situations Scully shines — her epic side-eye and scathing responses do us all proud. She refuses to be cast as a sexual object; she's buttoned up (quite literally — check out those '90s blazers) in professional attire and never sheds her professional affect.
Even though the show entertains the simmering romance between Scully and Mulder, the early seasons of The X-Files wisely avoid outright consummation (at least outside of parallel universes). Dana Scully does not exist simply to facilitate a romantic arc. In fact, in later seasons and in the second film — when the romance between the two principle characters is explicitly written into the storyline — the overall narrative suffers. By entering into the hackneyed male-female dynamics of most other shows, The X-Files loses a lot.
For its drawbacks The X-Files was a show ahead of its time; and Dana Scully was a character ahead of hers. So many young women have been inspired by her, myself included. Scully taught us to ask questions and to look at the facts. She taught us that girls are strong and interested and don't faint at the sight of blood. She taught us that the truth is out there.