Thursday, June 11, 2015

How the Strong Female Character Was Born: A Study of Dana Scully [Contributor: Lizzie]

I read an article the other day that hypothesized that we’re in a “golden age” of strong female character representations in the media, and the article makes a fair point: for every wilting female whose whole existence is defined by romance, there’s a Felicity Smoak, or a Kate Beckett out there to provide a counterbalance. It doesn’t mean that we’ve reached the holy grail of equality, but it does mean we’re moving forward.

Female heroines in this day and age have become much more “real.” They’re pretty and yet kickass. They’re in contact with their emotions, and still they get stuff done. They’re smart (sometimes, they’re even smarter than their male counterparts), and yet, they’re capable of handling themselves in a fight. They’re real, complex people. And we’re interested. We want more of these characters. We’re drawn to them.

Once upon a time, media was not so populated by these strong female characters. In fact, when I was nine, I didn’t have my pick of the litter, like kids today are lucky to have. In those days, all I had was Dana Scully.

She was more than enough.

Though The X-Files was set up to be The Fox Mulder show, or, at least the Mutants and Aliens show, starring Fox Mulder, like most girls watching, I was there for Dana Scully. I stayed for the chemistry between the two leads, for the ground-breaking stories, and for the great writing; but originally, I signed on because of Dana Scully. And to think the Dana Scully we know and love wasn’t always the Dana Scully they wanted.

Fox, the studio behind The X-Files, was looking to cast a tall, leggy blonde oozing sex appeal opposite David Duchovny. Tall, leggy blondes are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. The idea wasn’t to push for a romance between the two leads, but with another actress, maybe they would have caved in and gone for a more typical romantic storyline. Thankfully, creator Chris Carter was dead set on casting Gillian Anderson. He and the studio butted heads, but eventually, Carter won. What a gift that man’s vision ended up being, not only for the studio, but for the millions of fans the show would amass during its run. A tall, leggy blonde probably wouldn’t have been as interesting as a short redhead. Not to girls everywhere.

The rest of the things that made Dana Scully a great role model, however, were planned from the get-go. She was smart. And when I say smart, I don’t mean street-level smart. Scully did an undergrad in Physics, went to medical school only to then be recruited by the FBI. Mulder was a brilliant profiler, the star of the Behavioral Science Unit before he turned to The X-Files, and yet Scully never feels like anything but an equal. An intelligent woman, yes. But also a cool, logical and analytical one. It is a striking departure from the idea that women relied more on intuition, while men relied more on facts. In this, and in most other aspects of her life, Dana Scully is anything but a stereotype.

Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted, Mulder says as the door to the basement opens and Scully enters his life; and he doesn’t know what he’s getting into, doesn’t know what she’ll come to mean. And neither does Scully. She’s not there to make friends, to find meaning, or to fall madly and passionately in love. She’s there to do her job. And her job is simply to be herself, and to bring science and logic to cases that are often lacking in either of those things.

It almost sounds like the punchline in a joke, but consider this. The plot of most X-Files episodes, especially in the early part of its run, can be summarized as follows: Something unbelievable happens. Scully comes up with a relatively logical, science-based explanation. Mulder dismisses said explanation, and, in turn, counters with an absurd theory that cannot be explained or corroborated but which is almost always right. They argue, try to prove each other wrong.  In the end, they usually get nowhere. There’s no proof for Mulder’s supernatural notions. Scully assumes she’s right. He assumes he is. And they go on and on and on. They don’t solve the case. In fact, they never, ever in the history of the show can be said to really crack a case. It’s funny, in retrospect, to think that they’re now viewed as one of the top crime-fighting duos television has ever been spawned, because boy, are they bad at the actual solving.

None of what I just described sounds particularly interesting, I realize. If the same thing continues to happen over and over again, why do people like this show so much?

Well, first of all, my recap leaves out a lot of the human side to the Mulder/Scully dynamic. Aliens didn’t make this show popular, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny did. And also, the summary doesn’t touch on the most important thing Scully manages to do in those first episodes. She never, ever, changes her mind. She doesn’t compromise. She doesn’t defer to someone else’s opinion. Time and time again she’s told that she’s wrong, and sometimes, she’s even proven wrong, and yet she continues with her approach of trying to find the logical explanation.

Empowering? You bet. But it would only remain so for a season or two. There’s only so many times you can be faced with the little grey men before trying to find the non-supernatural explanation stops being common sense and turns into avoidance.

And Scully is many, many things, but she is not one to lie to herself. Or to Mulder.

This is part of the magic of Dana Scully: the skeptic who is still open to possibilities beyond the limits of her knowledge. In the beginning, she was merely a foil to Mulder’s "believe everything" attitude. Later on, she became a true partner in the search of answers. And partner doesn’t mean accepting everything the other person has to say -- it just means fighting the same battle. We each fight those battles in our own way. Scully’s way is through science. As the show progresses, she comes to want answers just as much as Mulder. She just wants those answers to make sense within the context of the world she understands. That world is radically changed time and time again, and yet, she still clings to reason. And, strangely enough, she clings to hope.

A staunch skeptic and yet, especially after her abduction, a devout Catholic, Scully is much more than just a stereotype. She’s a complex character, with shades of grey. She struggles to reconcile her faith with her scientific background. We struggle right along with her. In a way, it’s easier to be Mulder. He believes in absolutely everything. The tooth fairy. Bigfoot. Aliens. Scully doesn’t believe, not at first. And yet... she does. How she deals with that contradiction and her journey throughout the nine seasons of the show is the viewer’s journey, too.

We were always meant to identify with her, not with Mulder.

(Spoiler alert: we do!)

If The X-Files started airing today, I wouldn’t have been able to say so much about Scully without discussing her romantic life. In a way, we have The X-Files to thank for most of the will-they-won’t-they dynamics of television couples today. And yet, to paint Mulder and Scully as just that couple is to over simplify a very complex relationship.

From the beginning, The X-Files derived great pleasure in skewing gender roles. Mulder was the believer, Scully the skeptic. Mulder was much more open, in touch with his feelings. She was more aloof. There was a spark there, yes, but the show never seemed to delve into the will-they or won’t-they dynamic. The question was there, but it was never the focus. Fans obsessed over their relationship, but we never really doubted their love. With Mulder and Scully it was never a question of if, it was more a question of when. They were too separate individuals, and, at the same time, they were a unit. They faced the world together, and yet they were not defined by each other. In fact, for almost the entire run of The X-Files, Scully and Mulder were treated as equals, gender notwithstanding.

And maybe that’s why we envied their relationship. Maybe that’s why we wanted to be her, why we wanted to be with him.

Today, I turn on the television, and chances are, I’ll find myself as good a role model as Scully in almost any network. But over twenty years ago, when I was a young, impressionable kid, I learned how to be myself thanks to Dana Scully. I learned that I could study whatever I wanted, be whomever I decided. I learned that loving someone didn’t mean agreeing with them all the time. In essence, I learned to be strong.

One day I’ll have kids, and they’ll have it easier. They’ll be able to choose. They’ll even have new episodes with Scully to enjoy. And I’ll be sure to point her out so she doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I’ll say, there she is. Her name is Dana Scully. And she was my childhood hero.

What do you think? Which female character helped define you? Who is your Scully? And if Scully is your Scully... why? I’d love to know!


  1. I love much of what you're saying here. Although she wasn't a role model for me (I was an adult when I began watching TXF), I love Dana Scully more than any television character, before or since. She's the reason I kept watching the show, the reason why I still watch, and why I'm in the fandom. But I never wanted to be her, and I never wanted be in a relationship with Mulder. I can tell you why but since that's not what you asked, I won't bore you. I do need to take issue with one thing that you wrote: that the X-Files division never solved cases, because they most certainly did. I'm not sure what your definition of solving a case is, but mine is finding out who committed the crime and stopping them from committing more crimes. I don't see finding a scientific explanation for the unexplained as her job description, though she certainly worked hard to do so. Mulder and Scully are FBI agents; she's a forensic pathologist and he's a profiler, a monster hunter. I can go through the episodes case by case. Maybe I should and send the results to David Duchovny since he believes the same thing you do. It's true that they were never able to stop the Consortium from experimenting on human subjects or the Colonists from invading. (I would like to know what happened with that plot arc. Maybe in January 2016?) Let's just take a few cases off the top of my head. In season one, they found out who was killing people in Baltimore by removing their livers: Eugene Tooms. They caught him--twice--and presumably killed him in the escalator the second time they hunted him down. They didn't just solve the crimes that had been committed by him in 1993-94. They solved cold cases, crimes Tooms had committed that dated back to the turn of the nineteenth century. In "The Jersey Devil" they found out who killed the homeless man. Did they uncover the unique origins of the feral couple? No--but they solved the crime that was committed. They solved the case. In "Beyond the Sea," with the help of Boggs, they found out who had kidnapped the two kids, and rescued them both before they were killed by Lucas Henry. Surely you agree that they solved that case--they saved two lives by doing so! Did Mulder and Scully come to an agreement about whether or not Boggs was really a psychic? No, but you really need to hold the writers accountable for that one. That's three episodes just from first season. I can keep doing this but I think I've proved my point. Can you tell me why you said that they never ever in the history of the show ever cracked a case? We must be working from a different definition of what that entails.

    1. I see your point, and I can admit that I was working on a different definition than you, probably because I was going mostly off the David Duchovny school of thought. They don't usually "catch" their killers/monster of the week, but they usually HAVE an answer. Maybe Mulder will have one, and Scully another, but we, the viewers, are hardly ever left in the dark. And when we are, it's in the episodes that have to do with the conspiracy. So-called "Monster of the week" episodes don't tend to leave us hanging.

      As an aside, I'd be really interested in the "why you never wanted to be Scully or be in a relationship with Mulder" answer. Not that I ever wanted either. I wanted to be like her, not her in particular. Her life was no picnic, and neither was Mulder's.