As a nerd growing up in the ‘90s, Dr. Dana Scully of The X-Files was one of the fictional characters I looked up to the most — and I’m certainly not alone. Indeed, the “Scully Effect,” as it’s known, has long posited that Scully as played by Gillian Anderson prompted an increase in interest from women in careers in STEM. And hey, guess what? If you’ve ever wondered, “Is the Scully Effect real?” — well, according to a new study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, it absolutely is.
The theory of the Scully Effect has existed for nearly as long as The X-Files itself has. Indeed, as Dr. Anne Simon, biologist, virologist, professor, and longtime science advisor for The X-Files, told Smithsonian.com in 2016, “I asked my class, this was probably in 1999, if anyone was influenced to be here by The X-Files. Two-thirds of the hands went up.” (The X-Files first premiered in 1993.) Simon also — and perhaps more importantly — spoke with Vice Motherboard in 2015 about how young women in particular told her they’d be affected by both the show and Scully: “I was giving a lot of ‘Science of The X-Files' talks, and there was a high school student who came up to me after the talk and said, ‘You know, I wanted to become a scientist, but I’m not a nerd. I’m not a geek. I’m not ugly. I’m not mad,’” Simon recounted. Then, she said, the student continued, “‘And then I started watching The X-Files and I saw Scully — and she’s beautiful, and she’s smart, and she’s believable, and she’s a real person. And then I saw you give this talk, and you’re funny and warm.’” Added Simon, “She said, ‘I can be that! That’s me, I can be that too.’”
But the theory was just that: A theory. Although there had been some research conducted into the idea — it was included in research published in 2013 titled “Entertainment Media Portrayals and Their Effects on the Public Understanding of Science,” which examined how Hollywood depictions of “hero scientists” affected people’s perceptions of real-life scientists — it was largely confined to anecdotal evidence. And, as Scully herself would know, anecdotes can only take you so far.
That’s where the current research comes in. According to its introduction, it represents the “first systematic study” of the Scully Effect — of “the influence of Dana Scully on girls and women pertaining to STEM.” And according to the results, the Scully Effect is far from just anecdotal; there’s hard data to back it up.
The researchers gathered their data via on online survey run from Feb. 15 through Feb. 20, 2018. The sample size, which total 2,021 participants, was “demographically represented and weighted to be representative of women in the U.S. population based on age (25 and older), STEM involvement, and viewing of The X-Files.” The reason for the age stipulation was to make sure that the participants were old enough to have “seen either the original The X-Files run or the current seasons and were of age to have entered the post-college workforce”; about a third of the participants were between the ages of 25 and 39, while the rest were 40 and above. About half of all the participants had either studied a STEM field when they were in college or worked in STEM at the time they took the survey.
68 percent of the respondents had seen at least one episode of The X-Files, although the researchers also broke down their analysis according to two groups: “Non/light viewers” — that is, people who had seen fewer than eight episodes, accounting for about 61 percent of the sample — and “medium/heavy viewers,” or people who had seen eight or more episodes (about 39 percent of the sample).
The survey results found that Scully both “spurs STEM interest” and “inspires scientists”; additionally, she is overwhelmingly viewed as a positive role model for girls and women. In terms of “spurring STEM interest,” 63 percent of respondents who were familiar with the character said that she “increased their belief in the importance of stem”; what’s more, medium/heavy viewers were more likely to strongly believe that young women should be encouraged to study STEM,” as well as more likely to strongly agree with the statements, “I would encourage my daughter/granddaughter to enter a STEM field,” and “If I could go back and do it again, I would have studied or worked in an industry that is STEM.”
On the “inspires scientists” side of things, medium/heavy viewers were more likely to have considered working in a STEM field, studying STEM, or more likely o have actually worked in a STEM field. And of those participants who worked in STEM? Almost two-thirds cited Scully as a role model. Of the overall sample, a whopping 91 percent considered her both a role model for girls and women and a stand-out as a strong female character on television.
If that’s not indicative of the importance of representation, I don’t know what is.
It’s no secret that Hollywood has a huge diversity problem. Women, people of color, trans and non-binary people, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so very, very many more folks very rarely see major characters who represent them on screen. For example, a recent study out of the University of Southern California found that, in 900 films made between 2007 and 2016, there were an average of 2.3 male characters for every female character; additionally, out of the top 100 films of 2016, only 34 were led by a woman, only eight were led by a woman who was older than 45, and only three were led or co-starred people who were from “underrepresented racial/ethnic groups” (read: people who weren’t white). And the situation gets even more dire when you consider just whether or not characters speak, too: According to the USC study, only about a third of speaking characters in all of those films were women, while only 28.3 percent of speaking characters were people of color — despite the fact that women make up about half of the American population and people of color account for 40 percent of it.
Meanwhile, GLAAD’s 2017 report on the state of LGBTQ representation in Hollywood found that representation itself was higher than ever — but still woefully inadequate. On broadcast TV, only 58 of the 901 regular characters scheduled to appear were LGBTQ-identified, a figure of about 6.4 percent. Shows produced by streaming services counted 51 LGBTQ series regulars and 19 recurring characters, while scripted cable shows had 103, 70 of which were recurring. Add to that the fact that trans and non-binary characters in particular are still regularly played by cisgender actors, and, well… it’s not a pretty picture.
All of that is just scratching the surface, of course; the bottom line is that anyone who isn’t a white, straight, cis, non-disabled, straight-size man doesn’t often see characters in film or on television that represent them at all, let alone who represent them in specific areas of expertise like science. And this lack of representation has a negative effect on us from an early age: According to a 2012 study, there was a positive correlation between television-watching habits and positive self-esteem only for white boys. For everyone else? Not so much.
But when we see characters who look like us in positive roles on screen, it changes the game. It gives us someone to identify with. And what the Scully Effect study in particular shows is that when we see characters who look like us succeeding in areas our culture frequently tells us are walled off to us, we’re more likely to pursue those areas of interest anyway — because we see these characters and think, “Gee, if they can do it, maybe I can, too.” In fact, that’s exactly what Anne Simon’s story about the high school student she spoke to illustrates.
Of course, the Scully Effect only does so much; Dana Scully may be a woman, but she’s also still extremely privileged: She’s straight, she’s cis, she’s non-disabled, she’s from a comfortable socio-economic background, she’s straight-size, she’s conventionally attractive, and she’s white. We need to see not only brilliant women in STEM represented on screen, but also trans people, LBGTQ people, people of color, non-binary people, people with disabilities, trans people of color, queer people with disabilities, queer people of color, and more, and more, and more. Our world is diverse — and our role models need to be diverse as well.
Representation matters. It always has mattered, and it always will matter. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.