Sexuality and Substance: Or How Scully Might Have Changed Sexiness in Television

“The Thinking Man’s Crumpet.”  I remember, watching The X-Files in the 90’ s, hearing that term referring to Gillian Anderson’s work as Dana Scully and being fascinated with the quote. 

I can’t say where it originated. Even looking it up now with the internet being more all-encompassing than it once was, I can only find various articles quoting the title. However I do know it came out of the UK and it was tossed around and considering the internet wasn’t as huge a part of our lives then as it is now, for this to be widely spread at the time says a lot about how fitting a statement it must have been.  Looking up the term: 

“In British English, the term the thinking man's crumpet refers to a woman who is intelligent and good looking, particularly one who has a high profile in the broadcast media. It derives from the slang "crumpet" to refer to a woman who is regarded as an object of sexual desire, which is itself an association with the crumpet, a baked product usually eaten warm after being toasted and spread with butter.” (1)

Baked goods aside, I love the implication that to an intelligent man an intelligent woman is considered sexier than those who use sexuality without real substance to get attention.  Scully isn’t the first to be dubbed this, though she is listed among those women famously referred to with this term. 

Take this quote for example: “Anderson looks real and does not conform to prevailing boob tube beauty standards: mile-high legs and mammoth breasts, with tiny nose and matching brain a caricature of sensuality. Her sexuality is cerebral, which makes it more potent. She has been described in the British press as the 'thinking man's crumpet,' a woman whose obvious charms imply that underneath Scully's sensible suits and anally coiffed, 1940s-vintage hairstyle beats a fiercely sexual id. Her appeal cuts across gender lines: women like her because she is smart and beautiful, while men like her because she is beautiful and also smart.” (2)

True. It’s not just men. Women feel inspired by her as well, myself included. It’s not that Gillian Anderson isn’t gorgeous, she is. It’s not that Scully isn’t sexy, she is. It’s that her sexiest moments are sexy without ascribing to traditional ideas of what sexy is, ie: more cleavage, tighter tops, shorter skirts, heavier makeup. None of this ever happened with Scully. None of it had to for her to be sexy.

I really respect the show for this. They could have had her undercover as a prostitute or stripper or dominatrix at any time. They never did. It just showed that this show and this character were tributes to real women.

As much as we’re saturated with smart female detectives, agents, reporters “playing the bimbo” to get the info, confession, inside scoop, we have Scully who was never reduced to this. I mean never.

I'd say the only moment that even approaches "bimbo" was in “Three of a Kind.”

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Smoking, giggling, and surrounded by men. But also heavily drugged. Even then, she was never tossed into a short skirt and a revealing top for those men to flock to her and rush to light her cigarette. I like that. Even her most barely dressed moments were always incidental rather than orchestrated to show her scantily clad for as long as possible.


She shrugged off a robe in the pilot twice for bare seconds and, though it might have heralded a pattern in the show of Scully getting down to her skivvies, that never happened. Heck, even what Mulder might have considered her sexiest get-up, going by his reaction in “First Person Shooter,” was full combat gear, complete with padding. 

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She never has to resort to slinky clothes. Never has to blush and giggle at some man to get her info. She has never once compromised her status as “the thinking man’s crumpet.” But I think she had a larger impact than that. I’d like to think that, having Scully to go by, the showrunners that came after knew that sexy didn’t have to mean scantily clad. That we don’t always have to see a female character compromise her dignity by playing the bimbo to get what she needs. I’m not saying that all shows go by that. But can you think of many women in US TV, before Scully, that didn’t end up doing one of those things to end the plotline and get the bad guys put away?

Scully never did. I hope that, because of her, we may someday have more and more heroines in that vein. More crumpets to add to the thinking man’s list.



2. by Guy Saddy, Flare Magazine,  March 13th 1997
Images from: Three of a Kind, Pilot, First Person Shooter (The X-Files is the property of Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox. No copyright infringement is intended)