On September 10, 1993, a show premiered that would go on to have a massive impact on pop culture and even people’s lives. That show was the X-Files, a sci-fi drama about an FBI duo that solved paranormal mysteries. The show’s lead characters, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, were a dynamic pair: he an expert on criminals and believer in conspiracies, she a doctor with a stoic, analytical mind. Scully in particular developed a large fan base and proved pivotal in updating women’s representation on screen. The term “the Scully Effect” was even coined in honor of the character’s legacy in relation to women in STEM.
In this article, we’ll look at the significance of the Scully Effect, why STEM representation in media matters, and which female characters in film and TV are inspiring the next generation of girls to follow STEM.
What is the Scully Effect?
“The Scully Effect” refers to how Dana Scully inspired a generation of women to enter STEM fields. Played by Gillian Anderson, Scully became a household name in the 1990s following the huge popularity of The X-Files. The character, a medical doctor and FBI agent, was known for her vast knowledge, excellent reasoning and deduction, confidence, and courage. She was also one of the first leading roles on a prime time show to represent a woman in STEM. As it turns out, her character was also hugely influential for female viewers.
According to the Scully Effect Report conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2018, 63% of women working in STEM who grew up while the show was airing cited Scully as a role model and said she “increased their confidence to excel in a male-dominated profession.” Gillian Anderson has also stated that the show received a significant amount of fan-mail from women saying they got into STEM subjects thanks to Scully. Although careers in STEM are still disproportionately held by men, Scully’s powerful and multidimensional character helped encourage a generation of young women to follow in her footsteps.
The Importance of Representation in Media and STEM
If kids are consistently exposed to depictions of male scientists, doctors, engineers, and math whizzes, they will start to internalize that as normal. The result is that boys will feel empowered to pursue those fields, while girls will feel that those careers aren’t for them. Media representations of all genders succeeding in STEM fields can therefore defy and ultimately dismantle outdated stereotypes. Scully alone is proof of that.
Representation is particularly important in media for kids: movies and TV shows play a role in shaping world views and either reinforcing or challenging biases. A 2021 study found that only 37% of characters in STEM fields in American kid’s media were female, and only 7.5% were roles portraying female STEM leads.
“When girls in their formative years don’t see female characters on screen as biochemists, software developers, engineers, or statisticians, they are less likely to imagine or pursue those career paths for themselves,” says actor and activist Geena Davis. With increasing and more positive representation, there will be fewer barriers for girls in STEM.
Who Could Be the Next Scully?
While the X-Files did have a reboot within the last decade (and is endlessly re-watchable), it no longer has the cultural impact it used to. This means that there is an opportunity for other female characters in STEM to take up the torch from Scully. Here are some of the candidates who are inspiring the next generation of girls to pursue and stick with STEM education and careers.
Shuri, Black Panther
The teenage sister of T'Challa (aka, the Black Panther) in Marvel’s eponymous franchise, Shuri is a tech prodigy. Leveraging her knowledge and resources, Shuri has developed many of the innovations in the fictional African state of Wakanda: from her Vibranium gauntlets that come in handy in battle to the iconic Black Panther suit that can harness kinetic energy to create a powerful force. At just sixteen, Shuri was described by Marvel producers as the “smartest person in the world.”
Violet Baudelaire, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Violet Baudelaire, one of the main protagonists in the TV series A Series of Unfortunate Events (based on the books by Lemony Snicket), is known for her ingenuity and clever inventions. Her ability to create functional devices out of whatever is nearby—like turning an electrical socket prong, thumbtack, and soap into a functional lockpick—consistently helps her and her orphan siblings out of precarious situations and escape from the evil Count Olaf.
Dr. Jane Foster, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)
The MCU is home to another inspiring woman in STEM: Dr. Jane Foster. First appearing in Thor, Foster is a prolific astrophysicist who helps open a portal to Thor’s universe. In 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder, Dr. Foster takes on an even more central role, traveling to Thor’s world and becoming a superhero in her own right. Dr. Foster is played by actress Natalie Portman, who understood the significance of her character’s STEM background. She told The LA Times: “What a great opportunity, in a very big movie that is going to be seen by a lot of people, to have a woman as a scientist.”
Rey, Star Wars
Though not formally trained in engineering on her desert home planet of Jakku, Rey has acquired many skills through her years of scavenging. Not only can the budding Jedi skillfully strip old spaceship parts, she also fixes engines and is an exceptional pilot. It’s also worth mentioning the significance of Rey's leading role in the Star Wars franchise: not only is she the protagonist of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, she will also feature in an upcoming film about how she rebuilds the Jedi Order.
Barbie has evolved into far more than a simple fashion doll. Since her invention in 1959, Barbie has taken on many roles: she’s been a doctor, an engineer, a pilot, and even an astronaut. Last year, Barbie dollmaker Mattel even made seven one-of-a-kind dolls inspired by female leaders in STEM to introduce young girls to real-life role models. The recent movie Barbie has also highlighted gender disparity in STEM and other areas in an accessible way.
Gender equality in STEM
While there are strong female STEM characters in media today, there could be many more. These characters, along with real women in STEM who are breaking barriers and innovating every day, are empowering young girls to pursue their own dreams in STEM. With good representation in media and encouragement in the classroom and at home, young girls are overcoming the hurdles that have discouraged them from STEM careers.