Hero or Victim? Dana Scully’s Complex Empowerment in The X-Files
Since the initial broadcast of The X-Files in 1993, a debate around the role of the female protagonist, FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, has circulated in both popular and scholarly circles. In the former, she has frequently been hailed a feminist hero and as representing a shift in the way female law enforcement officers (LEOs) are conceptualised in US network television towards increased strength, empowerment and agency. For several key scholars, however, Scully’s character perpetuates a strategy frequently deployed with female detectives, in which they are repeatedly rendered vulnerable, juxtaposed ‘against the ubiquitous female victims’ (Manion 2015), and in which their ‘agency is offset by ‘archaic’ representation of victimized femininity’. (McHugh 2018: 537) This debate presents conflicting perspectives on who Scully is as a potential figure of female empowerment.
This video essay argues that this conflict is not one to be reconciled, but rather one that can be observed at play throughout the show’s 11-season run and as operating within Scully’s character. As Lindsay Steenberg (2013: 57) points out, postfeminist criminal investigators like Scully ‘do not shift between the roles of investigators and investigated,’ rather, ‘they occupy both of these roles simultaneously.’ To demonstrate this tension, the video essay is structured around the numerous ways Scully is targeted and victimised, while simultaneously working to reverse this victimization. The video essay format is crucial for making such an argument: this specific tension can often be located in the composition of the shot, as the smaller-framed Scully is framed against a room full of imposing male figures, or the juxtaposition of sound and image affirm her empowerment.
Central to the multi-season narrative of The X-Files is the plot by an unnamed organisation to abduct Scully and implant alien DNA into her as part of a covert government experiment. (S2E6 ‘Ascension’) As a result, she is both rendered infertile and develops cancer, while those responsible work to destroy the evidence. On the surface, this conspiracy adheres to the claim frequently made about the series, that it is intent to mark Scully as a vulnerable, helpless victim, whose body becomes the assumed property of the state. (Manion 2015) But this video essay complicates this claim. The true intervention made by the series is in characterising Scully as tirelessly working to push back against the wrongdoings of the conspirators. The X-Files’ agenda is unlike many other feminist texts in that, ‘rather than challenge patriarchy directly or join forces with women activists, Scully channels her anger/ambition into fitting into the system’. (Badley 2000: 70) In other words, the series is invested in calling out Scully’s victimisation and empowering her to fight back for the wrongs committed against her individually.
There are several key episodes upon which this plot hinges. One particularly pivotal episode is ‘Redux’ (S5E1) in which someone fakes Mulder’s suicide, and Scully’s claims about the government conspiracy come to a head. This culminates in a formal hearing at which she is forced to present proof of her claims and of Mulder’s whereabouts. Key scenes from this episode bookend the video essay. The opening scene of the video is the hearing itself, encapsulating in a short sequence the specific conflict central to my argument: Scully is finally given a forum to speak out, heroically confronting her conspirators, but in the three drops of blood that land on the desk and her subsequent fainting, her victimisation is made palpable. She is at once, in this scene, both victim and hero. This heroic stance is mirrored in the final scene of the video essay, in which Scully explicitly lists all the wrongs actioned against her. Evident in the tone of her voice, and her final question—‘Are you afraid of that?’— is an apparent unwavering commitment to uncovering the truth and a particular sense of ‘fight’ that is rarely acknowledged in critical discussions of the series.
Due to the scarcity of critical and scholarly work characterising Scully’s agency this video essay aims to draw attention to the less dramatic expressions of heroism and gender equality in the series. Claire Elizabeth Knowles argues that what distinguishes Scully from many contemporary female law enforcement officers (LEO) is her commitment to both scientific objectivity and an equal partnership with her male professional partner, Fox Mulder. Knowles (2018) argues, ‘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.’ The series relies on the constant push-pull of the logic vs belief, rationality vs. irrationality dichotomy of the partners. The series revels in surrounding Scully with a ‘science aesthetic’ to affirm her credentials and lend legitimacy to her findings. Frequently, we are presented with sequences of Scully in a lab conducting experiments, performing autopsies, and writing scientific reports, while performing voice-over explanations of cases full of technical jargon. This introduces another tension: does Scully’s intelligence only have to be justified because she is a woman? Nevertheless, her status as a medical doctor, a physicist and an FBI agent mark a position of intellectual distinction, rationality and complexity rarely afforded female LEOs in the 1990s or since.
Thus, the show is as much concerned with rendering Scully a victim, as making the viewer aware of Scully’s individual struggles in the predominantly man’s world of law enforcement and how she works to reverse these. The video essay’s central argument is that the form of empowerment and agency granted Agent Scully is deeply complex and requires any analysis to consider not just what is done to her in the series, but how her response to these actions are given space to take shape across the show’s run. It is the latter, rather than the former, revelation that allows Scully to operate as a feminist figure. By interrogating this conflict at the heart of The X Files, this video essay has examined the extent to which the show marks a meaningful shift in the portrayal of female LEOs, particularly in the transitional period of the 1990s.
Badley, Linda (2000), ‘Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling: Postmodernism, Postfeminism, Posthumanism, and The X-Files,’ in Elyce Rae Helford (ed), Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 61-90.
Knowles, Claire Elizabeth (2018), ‘A Woman’s Place Is in the Morgue: Understanding Scully in the Context of 1990s Feminism’, M/C Journal, Vol. 21, No. 5, https://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/1465 (last accessed 8 January 2020).
Manion, Annie (2015), ‘Between Victimhood and Power: The Female Detectives of Television’s Crime Dramas’, LA Review of Books, 22 June 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/between-victimhood-and-power-watching-the-female-detectives-of-televisions-crime-dramas/ (last accessed 8 January 2020).
McHugh, Kathleen A. (2018), ‘The Female Detective, Neurodiversity, and Felt Knowledge in Engrenages and Bron/Broen’, Television & New Media, Vol. 19, No. 6, pp. 535-552.
Steenberg, Lindsay (2013), Forensic Science in Contemporary American Popular Culture: Gender, Crime, and Science, London: Routledge.
The X-Files (1993-2018), created by Chris Carter (11 seasons).