In her book, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, Sherrie Inness noted the close tie in lineage between Dana Scully and her predecessor, Clarice Starling.
Both are tough, driven FBI agents. Both are placed on undesirable assignments---the skeptical and logic-driven Scully paired with “Spooky” Mulder for what originally seemed like nothing more than paranoid conspiracy theories, and Clarice interviewing the most prolific cannibal in the country as no more than a trainee. Both are stuck in a man’s world and forced to not just survive, but to thrive in it.
Inness maintains that for these FBI agents, being tough is not merely a question of hand to hand training or marksman skills or even scientific knowledge (Clarice has a psychological background at University of Virginia and Scully is a forensic pathologist). What makes them ‘tough’ is that they are both intellectually and ethically strong.
Sarah Wakefield took this idea even further by examining the X-Files fan group, “The Order of the Blessed Saint Scully, the Enigmatic” (OBSSE), during the late nineties, before any other female presence was constant on the show besides Scully herself. While her examination of the group reflects in part on building a community and on the tongue-in-cheek word play of the “sisters,” word play that went to such length as to redo Psalms and The Ten Commandments with a Scully and Philian flare, a substantial part addresses the issue of toughness modified. Here, Scully is not tough just for her intelligence and skill nor for her ethics, symbolized quite often by the cross she wears as a totem of her Catholicism.
No, she is tough because she is operating in a world dominated by men. At the literal and textual level, she is partners with Fox Mulder. Her superiors and the other agents with whom she works are men as well. At the metatextual level, the executive producer, Chris Carter, and the bulk of the writing staff are also male or were in the late 1900's to 2000 era of the show. Scully is a woman who has to exist and survive despite discrimination and the expectations of the male-dominated FBI among other obstacles.
In this, the strength becomes a reflection of her as “every woman.” The members of OBSSE related to her per Wakefield because her problems reflected the ones in their own lives. Some on their forum had complained about their own issues with job discrimination and pressures. Watching Scully struggle through the same issues weekly on the screen, not being just the kick-ass agent, but also the insistent, determined and very human presence is what they seemed to relate to. Scully as an ordinary woman and succeeding in a difficult profession has been able to transform her into an extraordinary icon of feminism, a front runner for an archetype in science fiction and in procedural shows today.
However, does this version of the tough feminist icon come at a price? I'm not talking about images on TV hurting the causeI am asking however, if, like Judith Howard suggested, we celebrate “feminist icons” like Dana Scully because they have become coded as “masculine” by our own social conventions. Scully is sometimes viewed as a feminist not only because she excels in a man’s job but also because she adheres to the more masculine coded values of science, logic, and truth. In contrast, Mulder could be seen as more “soft and feminine." He obsesses about a traumatic family event (his sister’s abduction), adheres to belief over rationality, and is headstrong and rash. Clearly, he would never have been sent to the depths of the basement and assigned to the X-Files if he’d learned to be politic and practical in front of superiors.
So we have the same labels, the same codes for gender. Scully is the more “masculine” one in this case. She’s tough and logical. Mulder could be seen as unusually “feminine” in this pairing and not as a reflection of sexuality or physique but merely for the way he listens to and puts import on emotion and feeling. Even into the 2000s and currently, “feminine” means weak and emotional and “masculine” is logical and strong.
When we can depart from these labels, when we can accept that a woman in “a man’s world” has the right to be tough because she both embraces emotion and logic, because she is a multifaceted being (and likewise that men cannot be so easily ascribed one character trait to define them), only then can we progress in feminism.
Labels are self limiting.
Yes, as Wakefield highlights it, St. Scully is tough but so is Mulder. Conversely, St. Scully has every right to be soft and to endure“Scullyangst” just as Mulder can have emotional torment over his sister’s loss. Both characters have “masculine” and “feminine” qualities. Both are role models and heroes.
It’s just that Dana Scully is a hero in a nice pantsuit and sensible heels.
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