“Why do you always have to drive? Because you’re the guy? Because you’re the big macho man?” — Dana Scully, Episode 3×13: Syzgy
Dana Scully is a name you often see on lists outlining the top female characters on television. Despite being a fictional character, Scully has inspired women for years, with many admitting that they were driven to pursue careers in the sciences because of her. The majority of TV viewers remember Scully as a tough, no-nonsense FBI agent, often the one bringing her male partner down to earth. But she has also been in perilous situations and suffered a number of tragedies, including her abduction, cancer and the loss of children. Scully has suffered the way countless women and fictional female characters have over the course of centuries, yet she remains in our minds as one of the strongest TV characters in history. And it can even be argued — even though Fox Mulder was the springboard behind The X-Files — that the series was really her story all along.
Scully made her first appearance on our TV screens as a fresh-faced FBI agent who ditched a career as a medical doctor for one in law enforcement. Deposited into a certain basement office to debunk one Fox Mulder’s work investigating UFOs and other paranormal phenomena, Scully and her unrelenting skepticism — which did annoy fans every now and then — could have easily become a negative factor on the show. But it was refreshing, especially back when the series debuted in 1993, to see a female character be the calm and collected one, constantly trying to fight “wild” theories with logic, while also getting her hands dirty and carrying out autopsies. While Fox Mulder — more often than not — did tend to be right about the paranormal phenomena the duo encountered on their cases, Scully’s insistence on using science helped strengthen their investigations and came in handy while dealing with mutant creatures encountered in episodes like “Ice” and “Darkness Falls.”
The X-Files rarely put its main characters in sexual situations and Scully was no exception. We can probably count the number of times Scully ended up putting on “something black and sexy” on one hand — a weirdly refreshing quality, even though it had some problematic elements. Even in the days of shoulder pads and dowdy early ‘90s makeup and hairstyles, it couldn’t be denied that Scully was a beautiful woman. But we rarely saw her with her clothes off or in anything particularly revealing, even when her wardrobe eventually grew sleeker and more fashionable in the later seasons. Scully’s intelligence and bravery were really the characteristics that were given the greatest spotlight, endearing her to fans.
Of course, as hinted above, the few times we caught a glimpse of Scully’s sexuality, things never went well. “Never Again” had the potential of portraying Scully’s agency in a positive light, but of course this being The X-Files, her dalliance ended up being with a man influenced by a murderous tattoo. Another episode, “Milagro,” which featured a writer obsessed with Scully was — and still is — viewed as something of a love letter to the character, despite its stalker-ish and violent elements. But as beautifully shot as the episode is, looking back at it all these years later, it clearly views Scully very particularly through the male gaze. While there is nothing wrong with a male perspective for the sake of that episode’s storyline, it is unfortunate that we never really got to see these elements of Scully’s being through her own eyes (with the exception of the messy if ambitious “all things,” penned by Gillian Anderson herself).
And even more problematic: Scully often became the default character in danger — the damsel in distress, a trope we’ve seen for centuries. While there were plenty of times where Mulder also got into trouble, Scully often fell victim to terrible external forces — from Monsters of the Week like Donnie Pfaster to a conspiracy that led to her abduction, which led to her subsequent cancer and barrenness. And even when Scully — whose desire to become a mother was never hidden from us on the show — was able to find some solace in discovering a child that was biologically hers, though she didn’t give birth to her, she wasn’t allowed any happy endings when the child perished. Nor did she have a chance to enjoy motherhood very much when her miracle baby, William, was born in season eight — she was reduced to a weepy, angry shell, constantly worrying about her child’s safety, before eventually giving him up for adoption to protect him in the final season.
The tendency for the writers to torture Scully was criticized even before today’s retrospective reviews, and it’s hard to say why the writers put her through so much over the years. Was it because the staff was largely male and oblivious to what they were doing to the character? Was it just an easy way of adding some torture to Mulder’s life? The roles would be reversed a bit in the final couple of seasons of the show, but by that point and by the time the second movie was released, Scully was an understandably angsty, tortured character who had lost quite a bit of that early spark.
But it would be far too simplistic to imply that the writers didn’t care about Scully, because they clearly did. The character certainly had multiple moments where she would lay the smackdown on Mulder if he was being too bullheaded and she also had some instances where she would stand up for herself against men who tried to put her down. And she was never one-dimensional: She was the type of character who could be a staunch skeptic, yet still believe in her Catholic upbringing. She could be deeply funny despite her raised eyebrow and proper demeanor. She could love her father to pieces and yet still feel perfectly happy defying his wishes and focusing on a career in the FBI. Even with some problematic writing, it’s clear the show’s writers loved Scully and viewed her as someone strong in spite of the situations she found herself in — and somewhere along the way, a feminist, idolized character was born.
Scully’s bright red hair, ability to run in heels and handle a gun aren’t the only reasons why fans love her. It is ultimately her resiliency and persistence that make her such an appealing character. Even when she was at the height of her skeptic ways, Scully was never one to dismiss the X-Files or Mulder’s point of view completely. When offered the chance to step away from the basement office — and even when ripped away from the X-Files when they were shut down multiple times — Scully remained dedicated to a mission to seek the truth in her own way. Being human, there were multiple times where Scully wanted to and could have given up and turned away from the X-Files and Mulder, but she chose not to — instead becoming that “constant” that Mulder once dubbed her. Of course, Scully wound up sacrificing a lot along the way, but her growth as a character and her admirable qualities remain undeniable, which is why so many fans are clamoring to see her again during The X-Files revival in 2016.