"I'm alllll a tingle."
The first time I met Dana Scully, she sarcastically intoned this to Fox Mulder as they were driving towards Area 51. That was quickly followed by challenging an authority figure that was blocking her investigation. While guns were pointed at her, no less.
It was Sunday, November 29th, 1998. I was 17 years old that night, a senior in high school. The episode was Season 6's “Dreamland.” I'd never seen The X-Files before, though I'd seen the promos while watching Packers football on FOX, good Wisconsinite that I was. A friend had asked me to proofread a fanfic she'd written, to check for grammar and spelling. I did so and thought if the characters were as interesting on screen as they were in her story I'd probably like the show. That Sunday gave me the first opportunity to test that theory. I sat down to watch, and by the time the end credits ran, I was hooked. The FOX affiliate in my city ran two more episodes after that, and you know what the next one was? “Triangle.”
I watched Dana Scully move from one office to the next, challenging anyone who would stand in her way. She told a fellow agent, "I want you to do me a favor. It's not negotiable, either you do it, or I kill you, you understand?" She told her boss to "save your own ass, sir. You'll save your head along with it."
And I was enthralled.
At 17, I was very unsure of myself, self-conscious, afraid to speak out except in very safe circumstances. But watching this intelligent, confident woman take charge of situations, be assertive, stand her ground and be respected for it was exactly the kind of role model I needed as I made my way from child to adult. In an era where most of my friends were watching 90210 and Days of Our Lives, I was finding a new hero in a forensic pathologist FBI agent, a medical doctor who did her undergraduate degree in physics. Someone who rewrote Einstein as a college senior. At the time, it felt like many women on TV were there to be a punchline. But Dana Scully? She was the one doing the punching.
From the moment we meet her in the Pilot, Dana Scully is a force to be reckoned with. She goes toe-to-toe with Fox Mulder from the start. “What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.” She is so sure of her worldview and isn’t the least bit shy about letting Mulder know it. On that first case, they uncover things that push the boundaries of what science has taught her. “Time can’t just disappear! It’s a universal invariant!" But instead of dismissing everything she can’t explain, Scully pushes forward, her horizons expand, and a beautiful partnership begins.
In her early years, we watch Scully tell a slimy ladder-climbing colleague that she can’t wait to watch him fall and land on his ass after he’s more interested in his promotion than solving the case. “Whose side are you on, Dana?” “The victim’s.” Our heart breaks with her when her father dies, only to watch her threaten a serial killer who put her partner’s life in jeopardy a few days later. “If he dies because of what you've done, four days from now, no one will be able to stop me from being the one that will throw the switch and gas you out of this life for good, you son of a bitch!”
As the years went by we watched many times as she stormed through the halls of the Bureau, head held high, ready to fight with her superiors or anyone who stood in her way. Scully stood up to Congress and even went to jail for refusing to answer their questions, not only to protect Mulder, but because they refused to see the bigger picture of what they were investigating. “There is a culture of lawlessness that has prevented me from doing my job- that the real target of this committee’s investigation should be the men who are beyond prosecution and punishment....the men whose secret policies are behind the crimes that you are investigating.” (Dana Scully in “Terma”) She fought the FBI every step of the way in the search for her partner, and in later years fought the staff of her hospital over a controversial treatment that would save a young boy’s life. She delivered a baby while fighting off a sea montster in Florida, and if you need the perfect line for scaring off an unwanted love interest, may I suggest "Baby me and you'll be peeing through a catheter!" Morris Fletcher had no idea who he was trying to mess with...
Scully faced down some of the most frightening criminals in people like Donnie Pfaster. She pushed the boundaries of science with her investigation of the black oil and stretched the limits of her own beliefs investigating the writing on an alien spacecraft in Africa. She battled cancer and found her faith again. She found a daughter and loved her no matter how she came to be. We mourned with her at the loss of Emily, and later the loss of her own mother. And her strength throughout her entire journey with William is something I can barely describe, let alone forget.
But Scully wasn’t perfect either. We joke about “Saint Scully the Enigmatic,” but she could be jealous at times when she didn’t need to be. In “I Want to Believe” she said that his stubbornness was one of the reasons she fell in love with Mulder, but her stubborn streak could at times be a mile wide. She made mistakes, but that makes her all the more human to us. And when she stumbled, she picked herself back up.
I was still a kid when I met Scully, but she stayed with me as I grew into an adult, even as the show ended for the first time. Science was never my strong point, so I turned to another way to pursue the truth. Journalism. Her "pick up the phone and make it happen" carried me through my first leadership role as a newscast director. Her determination and drive lifted me up when anxiety and depression tried to get the better of me and made me doubt my abilities. Whenever I'm uncertain about the way forward, I revisit "all things." Written and directed by Gillian Anderson, the episode is an exploration of the choices Scully makes, and if she’s on the right path for herself. Watching her question her decisions, but ultimately make the choice that she is where she needs to be is very moving to me. This character had so many awful things done TO her, that watching her take control over her own life and be resolute in it reminds me I can do the same. It was a powerful lesson for me in 2000 and has continued to inspire me today.
My story of being inspired by Dana Scully is just one of many. I personally know women who were inspired to be doctors, lawyers, nurses, researchers, scientists, and criminal justice majors because they were inspired by her. Representation matters and Scully gave us a different picture of someone a girl could aspire to be. There has long been anecdotal evidence of “The Scully Effect,” the idea that more women went into STEM fields because of Scully’s influence. This year, 21st Century Fox partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to study that effect. They found that 63% of women working in STEM fields say Dana Scully served as their role model. You can read more of their findings here.
Despite her hero status, over the years there were problematic things about the way Scully was treated. Yes, bad things happen to good people, and one can argue that watching characters overcome hardships is inspiring. Scully suffered more than her fair share of physical assaults and traumas over the years. But the repeated strikes against her control over her body, something I didn’t recognize as a kid, became painfully obvious as I rewatched the series as an adult. The most egregious of these, to me, was the assault on her reproductive freedom. When Scully was abducted in Season 2, she was implanted with a chip, and her ova were harvested from her. This was something Mulder discovered during Scully’s cancer diagnosis and kept from her. We know of at least one child that was created from that abduction, Emily.
And if the reveals of Season 11 are to be believed, Scully's son, William, was also created by medical rape. In neither case do we get to see her fight back against these violations. In the case of William’s parentage, that secret is again kept from her by a well-meaning but misguided man, Skinner, and the ramifications of that assault are never really dealt with. When that CSM bombshell was dropped in “My Struggle III,” I was furious that once again, Scully had suffered an assault on her body. Many in the fandom shared that rage. Jen Stewart Fueston of The Mary Sue does a better job of describing the terrible way the show dealt with this than I ever could, so I will point you to her article here. But as a viewer I felt like I was keeping a secret from a friend, and revisiting this kind of assault yet again was painful and tiring.
Season 11 will likely be the last time we see Dana Scully. Gillian Anderson has been adamant that this is the last time she will play the character. I respect that and wish her well. What has been the most heartbreaking to me about saying goodbye to my hero after all these years is that she was largely sidelined in her final episode. Despite everything she accomplished over 25 years, in “My Struggle IV,” Scully was left to sit at home and take worried phone calls instead of joining Mulder in his cross-country shootout search for their son. Scully grieved the loss of William and suffered from the guilt of her adoption decision for years. But for some reason, it was only Mulder who ran out to save the day.
Chris Carter claimed in an interview with XFN that it was because she "sensed that she was pregnant" but this is the same Scully who when pregnant in 2000 ran through the desert trying to find her partner, fought off a cult, solved a mysterious contagion, and even buried her partner. I don’t think the Scully we know would have stayed home. It became even more irritating when we learned that when the scene where Mulder decides to go and look for their son were shot, Scully may have known she was pregnant, but Gillian Anderson, it seems, did not. Carter told SyFy that he did not reveal the end of the story to Gillian until the night they were shooting the final scene. He said he “wanted her to not quite understand what was happening to Scully.” I won’t presume to speak for Gillian, but to me, it’s incredibly frustrating that the person who brings this treasured character to life was apparently not given a chance to weigh in on the end of her long journey.
There are still so many positive things to celebrate about Dana Scully's last adventures despite her ending. Looking back at Season 11, I would rather remember her badass slide under the kitchen table while she took out the intruders in her home in “This.” How her calm rationality chased away the evil that was following her in “Plus One.” Her shooting skills that saved Skinner in “Kitten.” She took down killer robots in “Followers” and met Mulder on the middle ground between the paranormal and the rational in “Familiar.” Her passionate search for her son in “Ghouli” and the belief she had in their connection still weighs on me. And the most beautiful image of all to me… that Scully finally processed whatever was weighing on her in “Nothing Lasts Forever” and found a way to move on. She made a choice to take a leap of faith forward with Mulder. Much like she did in “all things,” she took her agency back and decided where she wanted to be.
The one thing Scully didn’t ever get over the years, despite being portrayed as Mulder’s equal, was her own desk in the basement office. A fan, Amy Imhoff, created the “Scully's Desk” campaign and sold Dana Scully, MD, nameplates to raise money for charity and encouraged us to share our desks with Scully. Though I've never sat at it myself, I wanted to share with Scully the biggest, most powerful desk I have.
This is the anchor desk for NBC News in Los Angeles. If you watch Nightly News, this is where Lester Holt anchors when he's in my bureau. Working at NBC in LA as a digital video producer is a dream come true for that 17-year-old dorky kid from Wisconsin. It’s something I truly believe happened because of the inspiration and hope I got from watching Scully take charge all those years ago. It's an honor to share this desk with her. And as we say goodbye after 25 years, I can only hope that young women watching the show for the first time now will be as inspired as I have been.
Thank you, Dana Scully, for being an inspiration in my life. Thank you, Gillian Anderson, for bringing Scully to life. Your talent and passion made Scully a reality and is a gift to us all. Thank you for your hard work and the sacrifices you made. Thank you for being an inspiration, for your devotion to important causes and women's rights, for encouraging us to go out and make the world a better place. And now it's up to all of us, who grew up with Dana Scully and were shaped by her, to be the Scully that the next generation can look up to.
We'll miss you, Dana Katherine Scully. But you'll live on in our hearts and in the generations you’ve inspired.