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Why Dana Scully is a Purple Woman

Lauren Quigley
Dec 8, 2014 · 8 min read

The X-Files started when I was 2 years old. Now I’m 23, a lover of sci-fi, and a fan of “multitasking” while watching Netflix (aren’t we all?). So when I noticed Netflix had all the seasons available for streaming, I figured it was high time to give this cult classic a try.

Best. Binge. EVER.

X-Files is the longest-running American sci-fi show in history. One could argue there weren’t many other current sci-fi series to choose from back in 1993 when the pilot aired and that its novelty was one reason for the prolonged success, but there’s a whole lot of awesome going on across its 9 seasons. (It’s not perfect, for sure, but so worth it.)

Without spoiling anything for other newbies, the main storyline of the show is an incredible, finely-woven mystery involving all the fun stuff: aliens, government conspiracies, mythology, science, and the paranormal. Once you’re absolutely sure what’s going on, a few episodes later you find yourself questioning if what you saw is really what you think you saw.

And, of course, there’s Mulder and Scully.

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Fox Mulder is the obsessive alien-chaser, and Dana Scully is the logical, scientifically-minded doctor/special agent sent to partner with Mulder in order to evaluate the validity of the X-Files. What starts as a professional relationship of skeptical, diametrically opposed partners turns into a profound friendship built on slow, ever-deepening trust in each other—trust that allows for extreme questioning and debate without compromising unshakable loyalty and respect.

While I could write an embarrassingly long and detailed analysis about the relationship between Scully and Mulder, what I really want to talk about focuses on just Scully herself.

Medium writer Dani Colman published one of my favorite articles ever on how to write what she calls “purple women.” It all starts with three simple rules:

1. A purple woman has an independent emotional and narrative arc. That arc may intertwine with the arcs of other characters, but it does not exist just to support those other arcs.

2. A purple woman has weight and presence within the story. If she weren’t there, the story would feel trivial or incomplete without her.

3. A purple woman affects the narrative in a fundamental way. If she weren’t there, the story wouldn’t work.

Right off the bat, Scully breezes through all these. She isn’t defined by her relationship with Mulder (as beautiful as it is). She’s her own woman with her own thoughts, struggles, longings, and feelings apart from Mulder and his story arcs. The show seems wildly wrong without her, and her actions serve as a driving force in the overall plot.

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Seems obvious, right? Like every female character should be written that way?

Let’s take a quick trip back to 1993.

When The X-Files began, the most prominent adult, female characters in non-sitcom, non-soap opera shows were women like Nyota Uhura (Star Trek), Deanna Troi (Star Trek TNG), Beverly Crusher (again, Star Trek TNG), and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman).

I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and both the original series and TNG made incredible leaps forward in Hollywood culture, but it’s not difficult to see some of the issues with its leading ladies. I love Uhura, and she was fantastic for her time, but she was barely a leading lady. Deanna Troi often has her mind and/or body taken over by aliens, and only after six years on the show did the producers officially decide to drop the “sexy and brainless” take on her character to give her stronger story arcs. Beverly Crusher served an intelligent role throughout the series, but much of her involvement became tied up in either romantic storylines or her son, Wesley.

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Moving on to Wonder Woman, I have to be honest and admit I’ve never seen the show. Since I can’t make any informed comment (as a superhero nerd I’m even more embarrassed to admit I know little about her comics, either), let me just assume she had her pros and cons as well.

So in 1993, there are… 4 popular and decently multi-dimensional female characters on TV? Give or take?

Just keep that in mind and I’ll get back to it. Let’s look at a few more of Colman’s descriptions of a purple woman:

  • A purple woman is not perfect. Her flaws are genuinely detrimental to her, not trivial or intended to be charming, and those flaws aren’t just used as a vehicle to introduce her to the man in the story.
  • She changes over the course of the story, and she earns that change. (No coincidental epiphanies for solving her problems.)
  • She has or wants her own agency — she’s not just ricocheting through the story based on the actions of all the other characters.
  • She has something to which we aspire.
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Scully isn’t perfect. She’s super smart (and she’s worked hard for the knowledge bank she has), but she can be closed-minded even after witnessing the amazing. She also struggles to reconcile her faith and everything she learns during her investigations with Mulder—a struggle that becomes even more profound when she faces death. And it’s not just used as some philosophical plot device. In mid-season 5, for example, there are a few consecutive episodes where Scully’s behavior struck me as strange. She slowly became more and more closed off from her family and even Mulder with very little explanation. But then as things moved forward, I realized it made complete sense. She’s an introvert dealing with profound changes in her life at that time, and like many introverts, she shut down on the outside while the battle to make sense of the world quietly raged inside.

As much as she respects her partner, she also doesn’t let his almost athiestic view influence her religious beliefs. Beyond religion, many of her actions go against his opinion, but she never chooses them to spite him—she’s just made up her mind based on her own understanding and evaluation of the situation. As a result, Mulder respects her choices and perspective even if he disagrees.

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“Well, it’s obviously not a vampire.” “Well, why not?”

Considering this is a show heavy with government conspiracies and aliens, it’s probably worth noting that as far as the “not just ricocheting through the story” qualifier goes, Scully does pretty well. Strange and severe situations constantly threaten both Scully and Mulder in their search for the truth, but they’re threatened about equally, and both partners need saving from the other throughout the series.

Many people have complained about the repeated fridging of Scully, but honestly, it didn’t strike me as excessive due to the balance in rescuing I just mentioned. Scully’s been sexually threatened while Mulder hasn’t, but I don’t see that as a failure in the show’s writing, just a reflection of what would be (unfortunate) reality.

To go beyond Colman’s list, I love that Scully wasn’t written as a woman trying to fit into a man’s world. She’s obviously a minority in her profession, but she doesn’t try to compensate for this by being more aggressive, or do the opposite and keep quiet so she doesn’t upset too many people. She’s unapologetically smart without being snarky or showing off to everyone. (Also, as a 5'1" girl myself, it’s just awesome seeing a fellow short chick chase after bad guys in heels and stand her ground in arguments with dudes way taller than her. Kudos, Gillian.)

When it comes to romance, what makes Mulder and Scully’s on-screen relationship so captivating is the almost total lack of attention to any romantic feelings between the two through the first half of the series. We’re all familiar with the “will they/won’t they” tension — especially when it’s so common now that it’s mediocre writing at best and turns out to have zero chemistry at worst. For Mulder and Scully, the chemistry’s DEFINITELY there, which makes their slow and steady relationship all the more rewarding as it goes along. These two form the pillars of the show—they’re stronger together, but still their own characters who can stand alone if necessary.

Now let me get back to that “4 female characters in 1993" thing. Scully’s entrance into the world of television had far-reaching effects. Not only did she help pave the way for the many other purple women we’ve enjoyed getting to know since then (Buffy, Zoë Washburne, Rory Gilmore, Temperance Brennan, and pretty much the entire cast of Orange is the New Black, just to name very few), but she also started something beyond the TV screen known as “The Scully Effect.”

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…the scientific-minded Scully, who gave up a promising career in medicine to join the FBI, has inspired countless young women to pursue careers in science and medicine.

“Well, that was originally why I took the job, because I knew …” Anderson said. “Um, no. No, I had no idea. It was a surprise to me, when I was told that. We got a lot of letters all the time, and I was told quite frequently by girls who were going into the medical world or the science world or the FBI world or other worlds that I reigned, that they were pursuing those pursuits because of the character of Scully. And I said, ‘Yay!’”

“She has something to which we aspire.” Check.

Scully isn’t a typical “strong female character”:

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius.

Female characters get to be Strong.

Scully is multi-faceted. She’s intelligent, calculating, contradictory, loyal, faithful, introverted, bold, afraid, confused, heartbroken, guarded, compassionate, feminine, level-headed, dedicated, seeking, longing. She grows and changes. She deals with pain and faces death. She has questions that are constantly raised but rarely and barely answered. She’s human.

And now she’s my favorite TV character ever. Can you tell?

The Process

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