The X-Files Continues to Inspire Women in STEM

AKA, the ongoing importance of The Scully Effect

Growing up, the closest I came to pursuing science as a career was in storm chasing. I was probably nine or ten. I watched countless documentaries and films about the developments behind early warning systems and the contributing weather systems that help to form Tornado Alley in the southern United States. I wasn’t terrible at maths and science, but I wasn’t passionate about them. The flirting with danger was exciting, but perhaps I just never understood that behind success, there were countless failings and experiments. I was impatient and still am. 

Even so, when SBS on Demand started screening the entire series of The X Files, I knew I had found my project for lockdown. This was going to be the beginning of a long relationship. I blitzed through the eleven seasons, as well as the two movies, and began talking about it every day with friends who had definitely heard enough. And what did I gush about most? Scully and Mulder. I knew their names before I knew anything else about the highly acclaimed sci fi tv series.

Dana Scully and Fox Mulder were household names through the 1990s and early 2000s. This pair of FBI agents specialised in what were known as ‘x-files’: cases shelved by the bureau because they involved unsolved and unexplained crimes with supernatural phenomena that no ordinary agent wanted anything to do with. The show soon gained a cult following. Of course, I had to investigate the show’s acclaim for myself. Almost immediately, I knew that this show would have a profound effect on me. It didn’t take much for me to like Dana Scully, the confident, capable, strong-minded half of the 1990’s duo. 

The actress who portrays Dana Scully, Gillian Anderson, was 25 when she started filming The X Files in 1993. I have just turned 25. That’s where the appeal started for me personally, that the fictional character was so young and incredibly intelligent yet so assuredly knew her place in the world. While I am treading a new path of career decisions, I saw Anderson as a role model and Scully as fulfilling her potential as an inspirational woman in STEM (in case you haven’t caught up yet, STEM is the collective term for the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics). When I read further analyses after finishing the series, I knew that I was not alone in my admiration for this trail-blazing character.

In the series, Dana Scully is a scientist with a PhD in physics and a medical doctor. Her role is to look at evidence and research deeply before plunging herself into the fringes of her field (cue the aliens). In a few episodes, the issue of Scully’s gender is highlighted directly. For example, a particular (male) character appears visibly surprised that a woman is performing autopsies. Scully simply asks him why he is so surprised.

Enter, the Scully Effect.

In the special features of the series eleven DVD collection, there is a short film by this name. In it, Anderson says, “at the time that Scully showed up, we didn’t see that type of female represented very much at all, out of the world of television, which is what we look to more and more for examples of who we are and to help make sense of ourselves as human beings”.

What was explored in the short film is that inspiration and influence serviced young women who grew to form career decisions based on a character they loved on TV. Scully served as a role model for women to become interested in STEM fields, and watching The X Files paved a way for a generation to know that it was more than okay to be strong, assertive, intelligent women. And not just in STEM. The Scully Effect became socially acknowledged as early as 1997, but was academically recognised in 2018. A study of 2,000 participants was undertaken in 2018 by 21st Century Fox, the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence. The study found that entertainment media is influential in shaping life choices. It is easy to dismiss entertainment media as simply entertaining, but half a century of social science research reveals that the characters, images, and storylines in media shape our everyday lives in profound ways”.

The report analysed women who were both more heavily invested and those who were casual watchers of the series. Statistics revealed that women who regularly watched The X-Files were more likely to express interest in STEM, major in a STEM field in college, and work in a STEM profession than other women in the sample. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of women who are familiar with Dana Scully say she increased their belief in the importance of STEM and half (50%) say Scully increased their interest in STEM. Among women who were familiar with Scully’s character, 91% say she is a role model and around two-thirds (63%) of women that work in STEM say Dana Scully served as their role model.

As someone who isn’t in a STEM career, even I find the ‘Be Like Scully’ mantra inspiring. Scully is a role model who is unafraid to speak her mind if she knows better – and she usually does. She has no time for sexism, and it’s really great to see that her partner Mulder treats her as his equal because, well, she is. She is a light in the male-dominated fields of science, medicine and law enforcement and continues to be a loud voice for feminism in the battle that has been going on for decades, even though she is a fictional character. To any STEM women out there (of which I am not one), I am incredibly proud of the work you have done so far in your chosen fields. If you’re still at uni in a STEM degree or otherwise, you are going to do incredible things. And to women everywhere: we are changing the world, and it’s not just because of a cult 90s television show. But even so, I’m going to tell my daughter – whenever she comes along – that she can be like Scully too.

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