Scully: ‘Doesn’t the government have a right and a responsibility to protect its secrets?’
Mulder: ‘Yes, but at what cost? When does the human cost become too high for the building of a better machine?’
Scully: ‘Look, these are questions we have no business asking…let’s get out of here while you still have a job.’
Mulder: ‘Aren’t you even curious?’
– The X-Files, season 1, episode 2: ‘Deep Throat’
As a female scientist trying to make it in a traditionally white male-centred world, there aren’t many role models I get to choose from. Nevertheless, Dana Scully, the steadfast, sensible, and scathingly sexy medical doctor-turned-forensic pathologist from The X-Files seemed perfect for the part. Universally adored in popular culture for her scientific prowess, pragmatism, and pantsuits, the cult of Scully as a feminist role model seemed like a natural fit. But very recently, something changed. I grew out of an idea I’d clung to for so long, and I realised that this role model I’d chosen no longer fit my sense of self. The X-Files, and the characters of Mulder and Scully, saved me – but not without destroying me first.
I’m sitting in a small but hallowed room of a Cambridge University college. There aren’t many people in this room, but they feature prominent scientists, young and old. We are all here to listen to an informal talk by one of the college fellows. A couple of Nobel prize medals nonchalantly sit in a glass cabinet facing us, while the speaker gently works the projector. Like most spaces I’ve become accustomed to throughout my life, I’m pretty sure I’m the only non-white person here. But I am also a scientist, and excited to hear about this work.
The speaker starts his talk with an autobiography. He tells us that when he was young, his father gave him a book all about ‘how stuff worked’, which fascinated him, leading him down a path of scientific curiosity, discovery, and innovation. Thus, a little scientist was born, grown up to be the determined researcher he is today. Approving murmurs break out around me; this story makes sense to the people in this room, it’s one they can understand and appreciate.
The origin story is sine qua non to being a 21st century scientist. ‘I’ve always been looking up at the stars’, ‘I loved collecting bugs as a child’, or ‘my parents let me play in their research labs’ are some common ones. We tell these stories to ourselves, and each other, because we need to give the almost superhuman status we bestow on scientists these days their matching background narratives, retroactively myth-building to justify our current life choices.
The X-Files, and the characters of Mulder and Scully, saved me – but not without destroying me first.
The truth is, I have no such stories to tell. I don’t even have many stories to aspire to, because no one with power in science tells stories that sound like mine. My most-read book as a child was Elizabeth B Keeton’s Second-Best Friend, a frankly depressing novel of poverty, shame, and complicated relationships. I truly believe reading books like hers allowed me to acknowledge and accept the messiness of life – in both personal and scientific senses.
I absolutely love what I do and am very grateful I get to do it, but science was not a calling for me; I did not spend childhood hours enthralled by the twin wonders of invention and discovery, nor was I privy to seeing how science really worked behind the scenes. I fell in love with my particular scientific field at university, but like any long, relatively successful relationship, I am fully aware that I ended up here purely by luck and chance. Sure, some hard work was involved, but I do not confuse what space I have carved out for myself in the demanding world of science with some kind of manifest destiny or lifelong higher calling – indeed, I have spent the past few years wondering if they’ve gotten the wrong number.
During the second year of my PhD in Australia, my housemate and I decided to watch The X-Files together. One day I came home to find my computer’s desktop background changed to a close-up of Scully’s face, little love hearts drawn around her head in MS Paint. It was hilarious, and touching, and my housemate hoped I would see myself in Scully – as I should, being a female scientist and all. I clung to this gift, an affirmation not only that women can be scientists but also that I was now a part of this sacred sect too. Most importantly – and I only realised this later – this was a story I could finally tell myself.
In pop culture and on social media, within science spheres and without, Scully has come to hold a place of high regard, a female avatar of traditionally scientific (and masculine) traits – rationality, pragmatism, scepticism. On the other hand her FBI partner, agent Fox Mulder, is a conspiracy theorist, believer in the supernatural, and generally derided (both within the show and in popular culture) as a nonsensical and irrational man. We delight in this juxtaposition and mock his belief in the paranormal. Scully seems to definitely be on the right side of the current scientific zeitgeist.
But as the years go by, Scully’s mould fits me less and less well. I now work in research, but the more I try to be a part of the science world, the more I feel spun out of its orbit. I’m sceptical of everything, including my ability to truly be a rational or logical scientist. How can I claim to be, when academic workplaces themselves are currently reckoning with their own implicit biases and damaging research cultures? People who are often perceived as knowing or being better when it comes to irrational behaviours are shown, over and over again, to be guilty of also just being human, prone to the same biases and logical fallacies as everyone else. I am questioning authority, and asking other scientists to care for more than their data, to look at the people around them and those who look up to them, to be brave in the face of things they can observe and quantify but still can’t fully understand because it may be beyond their experiences.
The more I try to be a part of the science world, the more I feel spun out of its orbit…I am tempted more by instinct, drawn toward hunches and gut feelings.
I am tempted more by instinct, drawn toward hunches, querying search engines with combinations of research terms based on gut feelings. In my almost decade-long scientific career, I have worked in six different labs, and on six very different problems and organisms: viruses, bacteria, yeast, frogs, even a newly-discovered photosynthetic organism that’s helping us better understand malaria. This is because I am interested in literally everything, and I love making connections between different fields and scientific concepts. I once made a link between a phenomenon a lab group was studying with something I’d learned from my time in a previous lab. Because no one else in that group was familiar with what I was talking about, my idea was initially dismissed. It wasn’t until another lab had done the experiments to make the connection and brought it to our attention that I was believed. I’ve often asked questions to senior scientists at talks that are deemed irrelevant or ‘outside their area of interest’, only to find entire lab groups elsewhere dedicated to that exact question.
I’m realising my scientific career path is not normal. Most successful scientists find a specific field during their Masters or PhD and stick to it. This means they can get very good at what they do, they are taken seriously, and can rise up the ranks in their fields, but I wonder if it is also narrowing down our worlds. There is a lot to be said about how current science funding structures shape this thinking, but plenty of scientists bend to these forces.
I am unsure of what use I can be to 21st century science, when I cannot stick to my lane, and I do not seem able to play the part. I realise I can’t keep identifying with Scully any more; the stories no longer check out. I still deserve my seat at the lab bench – not as a Dana Scully, but maybe as a Fox Mulder.
I recently started re-watching season 1 of the show, and this time I see something quite different. I see a person supremely motivated to find out the ‘truth’, driven by his own past experiences, including childhood trauma associated with the loss of his sister. Mulder is the outsider at the FBI, whose ‘spooky’ beliefs and reading beyond the assigned texts cause him to ask questions he shouldn’t. Meanwhile, his partner’s motivations seem to be purely reason-based, firmly grounded in the supremacy of accepted science and government authority. Scully plays the straight man, forever checking his wild forays into the unknown.
Within the show, Mulder’s excellent deductive and reasoning skills are never doubted; his colleagues and boss constantly go on about how he could make it all the way to the top, if only he’d stop chasing little green men. But Mulder wasn’t interested in climbing the ladder – in many ways, he cared more about figuring out the truth, while Scully was more concerned with explaining away new discoveries by reinforcing what we already know. I cannot recount the number of times that season 1 Scully, when literally faced with werewolves, alien parasites, or some flavour of paranormal activity, chooses to look the other way, happy to be confined by what the existing literature has to say about such phenomena. But this is not why I love science. I love it the way Mulder loves opening a new X-File; tingling with the possibility of making sense of the as-yet unexplained or accepted.
There is no doubt that seeing someone like Scully on screen helped me enter science, but seeing someone like Mulder reminded me what I truly love about it.
That this was a 90s TV show largely created, directed, and written by men is not lost on me. It is no secret that Chris Carter’s idea for the show was to invert the traditionally ‘masculine as rational’ and ‘feminine as illogical’ TV tropes, not to mention Gillian Anderson’s fight behind the scenes for equal pay and representation. Scully was a game-changer for feminist portrayals of women in television. But the kind of feminism she exemplified, as Claire Knowles wrote in 2018, has mostly been confined by the facets of third-wave feminism, focused on individual empowerment and success.
According to Knowles, Scully wins us over through the ‘power of her professionalism’. She is ‘a capable, professional woman who not only remains professional at all times, but who also works as a powerful grounding force to her partner’s more outlandish approaches and theories.’ But in the world of The X-Files, aliens and monsters and supernatural powers are not outlandish theories, they are real subjects of investigation. Every episode, the writers portray two people with entirely different histories and motivations facing forces that are beyond their understanding. Every episode, we see two ways in which those unknowns can be approached, how those ways can work together, but also, how both seem vital.
Scully is loved because she embodies what we are told good (male) scientists should be. But why is what women are allowed to aspire to still defined by masculine versions of success? Why must women only be able to see themselves in other women, or men only in other men? And where does that leave the gender non-conforming among us? In a media and political landscape where women leading countries, corporations, and cinematic experiences (all enacting questionable policies) are celebrated as steps forward instead of merely sideways, we must understand that representation can come in more forms than just lookalikes.
There is no doubt that seeing someone like Scully on screen helped me enter science, but seeing someone like Mulder reminded me what I truly love about it, and is helping me think about staying in science. Scully still shows me that evidence is helpful when it comes to closing cases, or getting research over the publication line, but Mulder reminds me that there is great value in taking that initial leap into the weird and terrifying unknown. For me, Scully alone was not enough, because superficial representations of women in STEM can never be enough. It is not enough to let people imagine themselves doing something, if they are not allowed to stay for the long haul.
Our stories and motivations are more varied than the boxes we are put in. As we increasingly think about STEM fields and how we might diversify them, I want us to care about representing more than just different identities. I want us to encourage diversity in thoughts and actions, in ways of approaching and solving problems, in addition to all other intersecting identities. Because the truth is always much more complicated than we’d like to believe, and we need as many ways of seeing it as possible.