A Woman’s Place Is in the Morgue: Understanding Scully in the Context of 1990s Feminism





Dana Scully, The X-Files, Feminism

How to Cite

Knowles, C. E. (2018). A Woman’s Place Is in the Morgue: Understanding Scully in the Context of 1990s Feminism. M/C Journal, 21(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1465
Vol. 21 No. 5 (2018): nineties
Published 2018-12-06

SCULLY: I said, I got the lab to rush the results of the Szczesny autopsy, if you're interested.
MULDER: I heard you, Scully.
SCULLY: And Szczesny did indeed drown, but not as the result of the inhalation of ectoplasm as you so vehemently suggested.
MULDER: Well, what else could she possibly have drowned in?
SCULLY: Margarita mix, upchucked with about 40 ounces of Corcovado Gold tequila which, as it turns out, she and her friends rapidly consumed in the woods while trying to reenact the Blair Witch Project.
MULDER: Well, I think that demands a little deeper investigation, don't you?
SCULLY: No, I don't.

— The X-Files, “All Things” (0717) 


Mikel J. Koven argues that “The X-Files  [1993-2002, films 2005, 2010, revived 2016-2018] was the American television series that defined the zeitgeist of the 1990s” (337) by tapping into “pre-millenium paranoia and the collapse of traditional beliefs” (338). In each episode, “True Believer” and FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and his partner, the skeptical and rational Dr Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), travel through a post-Cold War American landscape that is manifesting varying levels of anxiety about the century to come. The series is preoccupied with a series of questions that have, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, come to be answered fairly definitively. Have aliens visited Earth? (Well, if you believe a team of Harvard scientists, maybe [see Freeman], but there is no evidence of alien colonisation just yet.) Does the US government have its citizens’ best interests at heart? (In its current incarnation, no.) Will climate change have monstrous consequences? (Yes, we’re seeing them.) What do we do about the shady forces operating in post-Soviet Union Russia? (God knows, but they seem to be doing a good job of changing the shape of “democracy” in an increasing number of countries.)

These broader socio-political aspects of The X-Files have been explored in a number of studies (see Koven; Moses; Wildermuth). In this article, I focus in more closely on some of the ways in which the character of Scully can be read as a complex engagement with a particularly 1990s version of third-wave feminism. I suggest that the type of feminism embodied in the character of Scully taps into the zeitgeist of the 1990s, a decade characterised not only by a growing media-driven “backlash” against feminism (see Faludi), but also by emergent third wave of feminism driven by movements such as “Riot Grrrl” (centred on openly feminist bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear) and the various, and often contested, feminisms endorsed by a new generation of writers like Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, and even Katie Roiphe. Part of Scully’s longevity as a feminist icon can be attributed to the fact that while she is not without her own contradictions and complexities, she emerged from a televisual landscape dominated by particularly insipid representations of professional women. Scully, with her combination of lively wit and serious scientific mind, represented a radical imagining of professional femininity in the 1990s.

Working against the Backlash: Scully and the Power of Professionalism

By the late 1980s, the political gains made by the second-wave feminism in the 1960s and early 1970s had come increasingly under fire in a “backlash” that “worked to revoke the gains made by the feminist movement” (Genz and Brabon 53). L.S. Kim argues this backlash is reflected in the fact that while strong female characters had always been a feature of US television (e.g. Mary Tyler Moore), in the 1990s televisual landscape feminism was often made popular in a type of “postfeminist discourse in which it is acceptable to be pro-woman but not to be feminist” (319). The quintessential example of this trend was David E. Kelley’s series about a Boston lawyer, Ally McBeal (1997-2002), in which McBeal’s primary dilemma is presented as being that she has “too many choices, too much freedom, and too much desire” which leads to “never-ending searching and even to depression and dysfunction” (Kim 319). McBeal’s professional success never seems to compensate for her various romantic disappointments and these remain the focal point of Kelley’s series.

Part of what sets Scully apart from a character like McBeal is her unerring professionalism, and her strong commitment to equality in her relationship with Mulder. Scully displays none of McBeal’s neuroses, and she is unapologetically feminist in her disposition. She also understands implicitly the pivotal role she plays in the partnership at the heart of the X-Files. Scully is, then, a capable, professional woman who not only remains professional at all times, but who also works as a powerful grounding force to her partner’s more outlandish approaches and theories. As series creator Chris Carter has been forced to concede on numerous occasions, without the rational and practical figure of Scully in the morgue to (usually) prove and (sometimes) disprove Mulder’s theories, The X-Files as we know them would cease to exist. 

In fact, and somewhat paradoxically, in order to best understand Scully as a character, one needs to recognise the significance of the relationship between Scully and Mulder that lies at the heart of the series. The sheer force of Scully’s professionalism, and its resistance to being conscripted straightforwardly into a traditional romantic plot, becomes an important contributor to the powerful sexual tension between Mulder and Scully that came to define the series. Scully also, as critics and commentators were quick to point out, takes on the traditionally masculine role of skeptical scientist on the series, with Mulder positioned in the typically feminine role of intuitive “believer” (in, among other things, aliens, Chupacabra, big foot, and psychic powers). There are, of course, problems with this approach, but for now it is enough to simply point out that this positioning of Mulder and Scully is an important feature of the internal structure of The X-Files and speaks to an awareness of, and desire to challenge, the traditional association of women with intuition and men with rationality. Indeed, Linda Badley points out that the relationship between the two agents is “remarkably egalitarian, challenging traditional gender roles as portrayed on television” (63).

Scully and Mulder’s relationship, a relationship that is at once personal and professional, is also grounded in genuine equality and respect. Mulder never undermines Scully, he (occasionally) knows when to bow to her superior scientific reasoning, and his eventual love for his partner is based in his understanding that Scully’s skepticism offers the perfect counterpart to his openness to the paranormal. In fact, one might say that Mulder, at least in part, falls in love with Scully’s professionalism and with her commitment to scientific reasoning. Mulder admits as much himself in the film The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998): “as difficult and frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your goddamn strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over. You kept me honest. You made me a whole person.” In this calculation, Scully is not only Mulder’s equal, she is his missing piece. While she might sometimes grumble about merely playing Watson to Mulder’s Holmes (see “Fight Club” [0720]), Scully’s role is much more important than this, and Mulder (and the viewer) knows it.

In the context of the televisual landscape of the 1990s, this representation of Scully as a character who is every bit as intelligent and as integral to the action of the series as her male partner, was incredibly powerful. It marked Scully as a third-wave feminist character in an era dominated by women who seemed to conform to the kind of problematic post-feminism embodied by Ally McBeal. In a recent interview, Gillian Anderson acknowledged the significant role Scully played in opening up possibilities for the representation of women on television in the 1990s. She observed, “a lot of women felt that they saw something recognisable for the first time [in Scully and] there were a lot of young women whose eyes were opened to feeling like they were finally represented in some way on television” (Anderson in Idato n.p.) Many women saw themselves in this character, and there can be little doubt The X-Files spearheaded a shift towards a more representative approach to the writing of female roles in US television in which layered and complex characters such as Scully became the norm rather than the exception. Rosalind Gill, for example, notes that “quality television” has “evolved since the 1990s into a site of rich and complex representations of gender including Homeland, Veep, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, and The Good Wife” (620).

One of the other pervasive positive effects associated with the character of Scully is that she functioned, and indeed continues to function, as a role model for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). A recent report commissioned by 21st Century Fox, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence found that “Scully’s media depiction of a high-achieving woman in STEM asked a generation of girls and women to imagine new professional options… Scully also influenced a generation of young women to study and pursue careers in STEM” (3). Although this report is not entirely impartial (21th Century Fox owns The X-Files), it found that “among women who are familiar with Scully’s character, 91% say she is a role model for girls and women” (5). This finding tallies with those of a variety of earlier online observers who noticed Scully had become a touchstone character “who inspired an entire generation of young women to pursue medical, scientific, and law enforcement degrees as positions” (Consalvi). To an extent not seen before in the history of television, Scully became an important role model for young women in the STEM professions. Scully’s fictional professionalism helped to create a new generation of real-life female STEM professionals.

But it is worth remembering that in other respects, Scully is a complicated feminist heroine. This is largely because The X-Files’ production team’s own feminist credentials were often less-than-inspiring. The series was created by a man, and was written and directed predominantly by men in all of its various filmic and televisual incarnations. As Anderson herself pointed out on her Twitter feed for 29 June 2017, of the 207 episodes of X-Files produced, only 2 were directed by women (fig. 1). Famously, when the X-Files began in the early 1990s, Anderson was paid far less than her co-star Duchovny and was even asked to stand behind him on camera. The actor agitated successfully for equal pay after three years in the role, and for the right to stand beside her televisual partner, rather than behind him, even if, somewhat astonishingly, Twenty First Century Fox also offered Anderson less than Duchovny to reprise her famous role in 2016. (Anderson eventually received equal pay for equal billing.)

Fig. 1: Gillian Anderson tweet, 29 June 2017.

It ought to be remembered, then, that Scully’s feminism is predominantly a construction of men, overlaid with the undoubted feminine empowerment brought to the role by Anderson. As far back as 1998, Linda Badley noticed that for Scully/Anderson “the transference of ‘feminist’ characteristics between character and star is unusually strong—to the extent that a discussion of one must refer to the other. And Anderson/Scully is instantly recognisable as an icon of popular feminism” (62). But in more recent years, Anderson has made even clearer her own feminist leanings. She has done this through the publication (with Jennifer Nadel) of the explicitly feminist We: The Uplifting Manuel for Women Seeking Happiness (2017); by taking up more explicitly feminist roles, such as that of Stella Gibson in the acclaimed BBC series The Fall (2013-present); and through her Twitter feed. The significance of Anderson’s online feminist presence is highlighted by Lauren Modery, who notes: “the next time you’re having a day where you’re not sure if you’re being the best feminist you can be, just ask yourself “what would Gillian Anderson do?” and go to her Twitter account” (Modery). 

Scully’s 1990s Feminism in a Twenty-First Century Context

For much of the series, Scully’s feminism can be viewed as a form of the “New Feminism” that Stephanie Genz and Benjamin Brabon associate with the late 1990s and with Natasha Walter’s book The New Feminism (1998). This “New Feminism” attempts to break from second-wave feminism by decoupling the personal from the political (64). Badley, for example, points out that Scully’s feminism is strictly based on individual empowerment: “rather than challenge patriarchy directly or join forces with women activists, Scully channels her anger/ambition into fitting into the system” (70). But equally, Scully’s feminism could be seen as a prototype of the kind of “neo-liberal” feminism that theorists such as Angela McRobbie associate with the present moment, a feminism which “discards the older, welfarist and collectivist feminism of the past, in favour of individualist striving” (4). Certainly, over the course of the 25 years, The X-Files has been in existence, we have seen little evidence that Scully has female friends (or indeed, that she interacts with anyone much outside of Mulder and her family).

When other women do enter the picture, such as when Mulder’s one-time lover and co-founder of the X-Files, Diana Fowley appears in the fifth season of the series (see “The End” [0520]), Scully is often positioned in an antagonistic relationship with them. In this context, it is notable that “All Things,” a seventh-season episode directed and written by Anderson, places Scully’s interaction with Colleen Azar, a woman from the American Taoist Healing Centre, at the centre of the narrative. Azar’s exhortations to Scully to “slow down” are presented as the wise words of a female ally in this episode, and Scully does well to heed them. This episode, consciously I think, works as a counter to the more typical representation of Scully as being in competition with women for Mulder’s interest, evident in episodes like “Alpha” (0616) and “Syzygy” (0313). In this respect, Anderson appears to be aligning Scully with a feminism that is much more inclusive than it appears in other, male-written, episodes.

From the vantage point of the second decade of the twenty-first century, one of the more problematic elements The X-Files has to do with its representation of sex and sexuality. Sex, in the world of The X-Files, is very 1990s in orientation. In fact, it echoes the way in which sex operated in the Clinton impeachment: denial, denial, denial, even in the face of clear evidence it took place. We see this most obviously in “All Things,” which begins with a shot of Scully getting dressed in front of a mirror, that pans to a shot of an undressed Mulder in bed. This opening seems to suggest the two had spent the night together, but nothing overtly sexual actually takes place in the episode. Indeed, any sexual activity that ever takes place in the X-Files happens off camera, but it is nonetheless worth pointing out that while the equally solitary Mulder is repeatedly characterised in the series by his porn fetish, Scully’s sexuality is repeatedly denied or diminished in the series. Moreover, any overt expression of Scully’s sexuality (such as in “Milagro,” [0618] where she falls for a writer living next door to Mulder) typically ends badly, with Scully placed in peril by her sexual desires.

Scully’s continued presence in the twenty-first century, however, means that while her character is rooted in what we might call a “1990s feminist disposition” (she prides herself on being a “woman in a man’s world”; she demonstrates little interest in stereotypically feminine pursuits such as shopping or make up; her focus is on work, rather than romance), she has also been allowed the room to grow and develop. Perhaps most notably, the 2018 Scully is allowed to embrace her sexuality. Sexual activity still appears off screen, of course, but in “Plus One” (1103), we see her actively pursue sex with Mulder (twice!), while her vibrator makes an unapologetic cameo appearance in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” (1107). Given that we live in a decade saturated in sexual imagery, it makes no sense for 2018 Scully to be as chaste and buttoned up as she was in the 1990s.

Finally, in a series in which the wild speculation of the conspiracy theories is almost always true, Scully’s feminist commitment to rationality, science and the power of logic might appear to be undermined at every turn. Badley, for example, reminds us that while Scully may “have medicine and the law on her side ... Mulder’s vision is validated by Chris Carter, as the prologue to nearly every episode reminds us” (67). This is highlighted in “Field Trip” (0621) when Scully wonders, “Mulder, can’t you just for once, just ... for the novelty of it, come up with the simplest explanation, the most logical one instead of automatically jumping to UFOs or Bigfoot or…” Mulder simply counters with:

Scully, in six years, how … how often have I been wrong? No seriously, I mean, every time I bring you a case we go through this perfunctory dance. You tell me that I’m not being scientifically rigorous and that I’m off my nut, and then in the end who turns out to be right like 98.95 of the time? I just think I’ve ... earned the benefit of the doubt here.

Interestingly enough, however, it is Scully who solves the mystery at the heart of this particular episode of X-Files—Mulder and Scully are indeed trapped inside a giant fungus, being slowly digested by its gooey secretions.

And while Mulder’s viewpoint is most often endorsed in the series, the chaos of the Trump administration illustrates perfectly the dangers behind the valorisation of the irrational over the rational. In a decade in which rationality itself is coming under increasing threat—by “fake news”; through a hostility towards the science of climate change; in the desire to wind back further the gains of the feminist movement—we need to remember the importance of the strong and abiding relationship between rationality and feminism. This is a relationship that goes at least as far back as Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759-1797) Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is at the heart of the feminist gothic writings of women like Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and Mary Shelley (1797-1851). This commitment to the power of rationality lives on in the character of Dana Scully.

Conclusion: Scully as Twenty-First-Century Feminist Icon

I have argued throughout this article that there are limitations of the kind of feminism embodied in Scully, but it is clear that she has come to represent a type of woman who refuses to let men dictate her behaviour, and who maintains her professionalism even under the most difficult of circumstances. A host of Scully memes now circulating on the web celebrate the character’s competence, intelligence, and compassion (figs. 2, 3, and 4). The character of Scully now exists far beyond the confines of the television screen and the imaginations of her predominantly male authors. Scully’s continuing relevance to twenty-first century feminists is reflected in this meme recently placed by Anderson on her Twitter account in response to  the allegations of sexual misconduct directed at US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh (fig. 5). Rarely have the 1990s seemed so relevant to the present moment.

Fig. 2: Scully memeMeme Generator.

Fig. 3: Rustnsplinters, “Scully Motivational.” Deviant Art.

Fig. 4: E.H. Redlum, “Scully: Meme Style.” Deviant Art.

Fig. 5: Gillian Anderson tweet.


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Author Biography

Claire Elizabeth Knowles, La Trobe University

Senior Lecturer, Department of Creative Arts and English