Sci-fi buffs and Roswell truthers have much to celebrate with this week’s return of “The X-Files”: a long-awaited update on the status of star-crossed lovers Mulder and Scully’s relationship; mantra-worthy observations narrated in the now-raspy and wise-sounding voice of David Duchovny; aliens.
But for women who grew up watching and reading science-fiction, struggling to find accurate versions of themselves represented in the fantastical books and shows they loved, the most exciting part about the reboot is the return of Dana Scully, one of the most badass fictional characters in television history.
Traditionally, fictional detectives are dudes, beginning with the popular, brawny gumshoe dreamt up by the equally athletic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes. Unlike the socially awkward yet logically brilliant version played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the original Sherlock was a jock, with brains that matched his bare-knuckle boxing skills. It’s no wonder there’re entire societies made up of male lawyers and book critics devoted to Holmes and Holmes ephemera; he’s an aspirational figure, equally adept at solving puzzles and wooing women.
In depictions of Holmes and other PI characters popularized since -- Dick Tracy, Max Payne -- women rarely play more than distressed damsels, or at least illogical decriers, standing in the way of the unemotional reason being deployed by the central, male problem solver.
More modern takes on the Holmes canon try to correct this; the Sherlock movies starring Robert Downey Jr. feature the character Irene Adler, slated as his rowdy female counterpart rather than a mere love interest, as she’s written in Doyle’s story. And there are plenty of other skilled women detectives these days, including Lisbeth Salander, Sarah Linden, and, more recently, Jessica Jones.
But when “The X-Files” aired in 1993, there were few serious or memorable crime-fighting women. Sure, “Law & Order” was just gearing up, and sexed-up lady gumshoes like Carmen Sandiego and Charlie’s Angels were household names, lauded for their looks and coquettishness. An entire TV series devoted to a female detective was even produced as early as 1965. But, “Honey West” was canceled after just one season, in spite of a Golden Globe win for its leading actress.
So when Dana Scully was assigned as the special agent meant to debunk the obsessive Fox Mulder’s extraterrestrial presumptions, she quickly became one of the first women detectives characterized by her workplace successes and hard-nosed practicality. In other words, she was known for her savvy, not her sex appeal. Meanwhile, Mulder took on the whimsical, intuitive role traditionally delegated to women, turning gender norms on their stubborn heads.
Because Mulder and Scully represent two warring impulses that usually see-saw within most individuals, its only natural that fans ship them, hard. Between Mulder’s head-in-the-clouds hopefulness and Scully’s intelligent skepticism, a complete human psyche is formed.
With Sherlock, on the other hand, these attributes existed consistently in equal measure, making him a sort of superhuman ideal. Rebellious and intuitive, didactic and practical, he was capable of whipping up creative solutions, keeping track of minute details along the way. This nearly flawless conglomeration of attributes might explain why Sherlock fans are among the most rabid -- although his lack of imperfections likely wouldn’t get a pass from today’s critics or viewers.
Instead, the skills of crime-fighting duos are typically more evenly divided than Sherlock’s and trusty Watson’s, and Scully and Mulder’s are no exception. While Mulder inspires deeper digging into implausible leads, Scully keeps the operation grounded. She’s seldom the show’s comic relief, as the campiest lines are typically rattled off by her partner, whose lyricism is coffee mug-worthy. That the quips and color are left to him, and the substance granted to Scully, was revolutionary.
So welcome back, Scully. May your nose stay hard and your head stay level.
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