‘The X-Files’: How Agent Scully Inspired More Women to Study Science

The X-Files, the former FOX TV show, stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The X-Files is a well-known favorite in the sci-fi genre, but its influence extends beyond television. Studies show that the character of Agent Scully inspired many women to study science.

What is the ‘Scully effect’?

The X-Files
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files | FOX/Liaison

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According to MentalFloss.com, the Geena Davis Institute published a study in 2018 claiming “that Dana Scully served as a powerful role model for women who watched the show.” The X-Files character is known for her logical skepticism juxtaposing Mulder’s devout faith in UFOs. And allegedly, Anderson’s Scully “helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.”

In the pilot episode of The X-Files, Agent Scully explains that she is a trained medical doctor. Over the course of the series, she performs several autopsies and provides invaluable scientific evidence for Mulder.

The X-Files creator, Chris Carter, has said in various interviews that Scully’s character is based on Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster’s character in The Silence of the Lambs.

“It’s not a mistake that Dana Scully has red hair like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs,” Carter explained to Smithsonian magazine.

In all seasons of ‘The X-Files’, the character Agent Dana Scully is a perfect role model for women in science

However, Gillian Anderson’s Agent Scully stood out in her own right. Her character, a woman in science, was on TV for over a decade (not continuously, but over 11 seasons). And no doubt, The X-Files created a revolutionary character. Scully was a “measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything.”

In certain episodes, Scully also fights against the “boys’ club” that runs the FBI. This would be inspirational for many women in the 90s.

The Institute’s report continued:

In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role.

Agent Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, in The X-Files | FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

Before, all we had was anecdotal evidence of more women in STEM studies, but the Geena Davis researchers provided “hard data” to prove it. Mental Floss noted the phenomenon was even given the term: the “Scully effect.”

The X-Files creator, Chris Carter, told Twitch about Agent Scully:

“It just made sense to me in an instinctive way, that she would be the scientist. I don’t know what that says about me, but I always saw it that way.”

Network execs originally wanted to cast someone else for ‘The X-Files’ lead role

Ranker also reported that executives at FOX encouraged the show to cast a “taller, leggier, blonder, and breastier” actress than Anderson. (As if there is anyone hotter than Gillian Anderson?)

“But series creator Chris Carter lobbied for the then-unknown actress Gillian Anderson instead,” Ranker wrote.

Tragically, David Duchovny originally wanted someone else for Scully as well: actress Jennifer Beals. The two actors, Mental Floss reported, “became acquainted when the two attended Yale.” Beals and Duchovny became close friends, but even she acknowledged that Anderson was the one to play Scully.

The X-Files
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson | FOX/Liaison

Carter, the X-Files showrunner, explained to Twitch why Agent Scully is the true protagonist of the sci-fi show.

For me, Scully is the center of our show, she is the skeptic in all of us. Science is at the root of science fiction, so Mulder, while he seems to be often right and it might seem to be his show, I always think of Scully as the grounding influence and the thing that keeps the solar system of the show in place.

Perhaps that’s why she inspired so many girls.

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