Setting the Standard

NOV / DEC 2011: BY MICHELE J. SAMUELSON

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In retrospect, it doesn’t seem likely a character like Special Agent Dana Scully could not only appear onscreen but also flourish and set a standard for the portrayal of strong women in a male-dominated genre. A scientist and skeptic, faced every week by increasingly outlandish fantasy villains and a deeply complicated conspiracy quagmire, could not possibly be a woman.  Especially a petite redhead who runs around with a Sig Sauer, in high heels, bringing down bad guys because she has a sense of justice that transcends her skepticism. Surely, even in a science fiction procedural like The X-Files, the role of skeptic would go to the tall, good-looking male partner to a beauty like Dana Scully.

Yet, it happened. Nine television seasons and two theatrical films feature Fox Mulder, conspiracy theorist and Believer with a Capital B, who puts no stock in religion but believes every alien abduction and vampire story set in front of him. Next to him, Dana Scully, a somewhat fallen Catholic with a medical degree, idealism, and a scientific point of view, determines to disprove his theories even as she grows closer to him and believing in his cause and his outlandish theories.

Scully, as she’s called by her partner, is assigned to the X-Files project in the very first episode of the series, with the understanding that she’s sent there to “debunk” Mulder’s work. Before the end of that first hour, Scully has experienced missing time, witnessed the lengths to which some will go to cover the truth, and done an alien autopsy. At the end of the case all she can say is she didn’t witness all the same events Mulder claims to have witnessed and reveal that she found an implant in the “alien” corpse that could not be identified. As Scully is sucked in and made to doubt her own doubts, so is the audience, because at the heart of Scully’s make-up is an essentially human resistance to anything we cannot immediately explain.  She is thoroughly modern, putting science at the center, only believing what she can prove, not what she can see.

Over time, Scully’s righteous indignation at being presented with a case that really cannot be solved with traditional explanations develops into a crusade for justice and the ever elusive Truth central to the show’s premise. We witness her react to almost every case with disdain and sometimes dismissal, only to work just as hard to put together evidence to support her own theories as her zealous partner’s. She rarely sees her theories proved but it doesn’t stop her from seeking to protect and serve.

Scully isn’t the first strong female law enforcement official in pop culture but she’s arguably the most memorable. Scully is not sexy—in the early seasons her wardrobe is occasionally drab and boxy but always modest and professional above all other concerns. She is never shy about using her weapon, or putting herself in harm’s way to capture the bad guy. Even after she experiences abduction, the death of her father and the murder of her sister, and multiple predator attacks… she doesn’t give up.  She puts everything in her life behind her work, which is something at times that is destructive or self-defeating, but the sacrifice only makes her more appealing.

Not much about The X-Files was ever traditional and Scully was no exception. An entire generation of young women would love to know how she ran in high heels in a parking garage brandishing a weapon and arresting the man she suspects killed her sister. We would love to have her faith and her skepticism that seem so contradictory but which carry her through unspeakable horrors. She could not be intimidated by the men who sought to make her suffer, for reasons known only to them. Special Agent Dana Scully is an incredible creation who lives on in countless procedural partnerships across genres— she can be found in every female character to wrestle with demons (real or imagined) and doesn’t break a nail, and every woman discontent to sit in the passenger’s seat just because she’s expected to. It isn’t much wonder she survived nine seasons and two films and still attracts attention. Dana Scully, FBI, made forensics interesting and put science within reach.  She made smart sexy, and thus altered the landscape for every female character to come after. ■

novdec2011

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