The X Files has become a cultural touchstone. Starting in 1993 it’s 218 episodes over 11 seasons and 2 feature length films, broke the mould. Its unique aesthetic and complex narrative arcs paved the way for many of the shows we now (binge) watch.
The show followed fictional FBI agents Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, and Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, investigating the paranormal. They unravelled alien conspiracies and confronted monsters, everything from half man/half flukeworms to vampires. At the heart of the show was Mulder and Scully’s unique dynamic. Mulder’s unerring belief in the paranormal was continually questioned by the rational and sceptical Scully who grounded her investigative work in science. The show’s impact has gone beyond the television screen with Anderson’s portrayal of Scully inspiring a generation of young women to enter STEM careers.
A survey by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2018 showed that 63% of women surveyed said that watching Scully increased their belief in the importance of STEM, with 43% then considering working in STEM fields, 27% studying in STEM fields and 24% going on to work in STEM fields. The show’s impact has been so big that the rise in women in science is often called ‘The Scully Effect’.
Television shows have the ability to inspire beyond that of many other formats. While you may see a female scientist occasionally on the news or in the newspaper, The X Files gave us the chance to see a female scientist on tv every week for 45 minutes. Scully conducted rigorous research and worked in labs or morgues long before shows like CSI. Over the course of the show the show you see her constantly confronting dangerous situations with fearlessness professionalism while basing her beliefs purely in what her scientific research can prove.
On the subject Gillian Anderson said:
‘’ to suddenly have an appealing, intelligent, strong-minded female who was appreciated by her pretty cool male co-worker was an awesome thing to behold, and I think that a lot of young women said, ‘That’s me. I’m interested in that. I want to do that. I want to be that.’’
Before the show the depiction of women on television had often been confined to traditional roles, with women often having little agency. Scully challenged this. She was an FBI agent and the intellectual equal of her partner, equally as comfortable getting herself out of a dangerous situations as she was in a lab conducting cutting edge scientific tests.
In the mid-1990s the show was a global phenomenon and Mulder and Scully became heroes for many around the world.
‘’When I was a 12 year old girl growing up in a small town in the North of Mexico I used to watch the X Files religiously. I was inspired into Science by Dana Scully as she was a medical doctor and a strong, fearless and smart woman of science.’’
Alicia Lopez – Infectious Disease Specialist
Since the 1970s women have advanced rapidly in many professions but still remain underrepresented in STEM careers. UCAS data shows that just 35% of students studying STEM in higher education are women. In STEM careers, women make up just 24% of the workplace. A male-dominated workplace and unconscious bias are often cited as significant barriers that stop women entering careers in the sciences.
‘The Scully Effect’ shows the influence that TV show characters have on us and how strong role models can even influence the careers we choose. Scully’s legacy and influence underlines the principle that ‘if you can see it, you can be it’.
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Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination at the Science Museum until 20 August 2023. Book your tickets now