How The X-Files Betrayed Its Most Influential Character
Dana Scully has long been hailed as one of the best characters in television. So why is she still being treated like an object?
WARNING: Spoilers for The X-Files ahead.
[Content Warning: Mentions rape and abuse.]
The X-Files, which first aired in 1993, has been almost universally praised for boasting one of television’s most iconic and strong female roles. Dana Scully, the skeptical redheaded medical doctor, has been an inspiration to women all over the world, particularly women in science. Gillian Anderson’s stunning performance as Scully gave the character humanity and depth, and throughout the show’s original run — from 1993 to 2002 — the writers and producers insisted that Scully be defined by her brain and not her looks. But Scully had it all — the brains, the beauty, and most of all, the bravery, as she and her partner Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) continued their relentless search for the truth.
But Scully’s story has many elements of discomfort. Despite having long been heralded as a feminist icon, dedicated fans of The X-Files know that the show’s writers, particularly the showrunner Chris Carter, have not always handled Scully in the most informed way possible. The X-Files is a show with barely any women or minorities on its writing staff. Because of this, most of what happens to Scully is written by white men.
Throughout the series, Scully is the unwilling victim in a series of medical experiments performed by the government. One of these experiments resulted in her ova being taken away from her, leaving her infertile. At the end of the seventh season, it is revealed that she is pregnant, though the show never explains why or how it happened.
The pregnancy storyline, which is tied in with the series’ mythology, is rarely approached from a humanistic angle. Instead, Scully becomes an object used to uncover more conspiracies and fight more aliens. Her son, William, whom she gave up for adoption in Season 9, has become a part of the mythology again in the current revival seasons, and so far only 1.5 episodes have actually addressed the trauma Scully went through when giving him away (Season 10’s “Founder’s Mutation” and part of “Home Again”). What is never explored is Scully’s lack of agency. As the story unfolds, particularly in the latest episode, the Season 11 premiere “My Struggle III,” Scully is either unconscious, hospitalized, or going on about how she needs to find her son William. The end of the episode has a shocking reveal — the show’s primary villain, known as the Cigarette Smoking Man, scientifically impregnated Scully seventeen years earlier.
In this day and age, medical rape being used for a plot twist is in poor taste, to say the least. If Chris Carter actually wanted to explore the implications of being violated medically, then this might be acceptable. But Scully has no chance to grapple with what happened to her — nor did she any of the other times she was kidnapped or experimented on. The show seems downright uninterested in the emotional toll taken on Scully through all of these traumatic events.
Instead, the show’s mythology plows on, leaving poor Scully in the dust as far as meaningful character development is concerned. This is why The X-Files badly needs a female writer on its staff. After last night’s episode, women all over the internet were furious with how casually Carter seemed to throw in Scully’s medical rape. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Carter said he didn’t consider what happened to Scully rape — which, among many other things, demonstrates his ignorance. If being medically violated by having a baby inserted in you isn’t rape, then I don’t know what is.
The objectification of women takes many forms. In Scully’s case, it’s not sexual objectification but lack of agency. Scully is an object used to literally and figuratively give birth to other plot devices. She has no control over her own body, and her decisions are made for her. Not once in this latest episode does Scully turn to Mulder and say, “They did this to my body.” Not once does Monica Reyes, who is herself a female character given no chance to develop or explain her motivations, accuse the Cigarette Smoking Man of rape. Instead, she says to him “You’re in love with her,” as if all the things the Cigarette Smoking Man has done to Scully could be interpreted as love — the same misinterpretation that leads to violations of consent, to domestic abuse, to the violence our culture perpetrates against women, to the thousands of rape victims who aren’t believed because of their personal relationship with the rapist, if they even choose to speak up at all.
Even Scully herself seems hopelessly naïve, or silent, about her own lack of agency. In “My Struggle III,” she says to Mulder, “The Smoking Man won’t harm me.” But he has already harmed her. Even though she doesn’t know that he impregnated her, she knows the Cigarette Smoking Man was behind the experiments on her as far back as Season 2. But does Scully care? No, because she’s not allowed to. The show doesn’t see this as something she, or the audience, needs to care about. That is the great betrayal of Dana Scully committed by The X-Files and especially Chris Carter.
And the most heinous thing about this reveal in “My Struggle III” is that ultimately, it has no bearing on the story. William is going to be important no matter who the father is, and the only reason it’s such a big twist is because Carter has spent the last three seasons and one movie implying that Mulder is William’s father. The only people affected by this twist are the fans. Throwing things in for shock value is not good storytelling, and this episode does it so clumsily that it’s almost amateurish. Even if it turns out to be a lie, it doesn’t change the fact that rape was insinuated.
We aren’t in the 1990s anymore. Modern media is being closely examined by fans in detail and speed like never before. Showrunners, particularly male showrunners, have to understand that the millennial generation is made up of conscious consumers. We won’t just watch anything anymore. People need to get it right. They need to do right by their characters — especially one like Scully, who has inspired so many.
Dana Scully is a great character, but she’s a great character whose body has been stolen from her. It’s time to give Scully her agency back, and Chris Carter has proven to the fans that he can’t be the one to do it.
Meghan M., or Knife Ink Reviews, is a writer, history buff, and X-Files freak. She runs a blog called The Review is Out There, where she reviews every episode of The X-Files. She also tends to go on horribly obnoxious rants on Twitter (mostly about The X-Files) but she promises she does like other things.