Before the 90s, a woman in law enforcement on popular media was an incredibly rare sight. Crime shows and films were heavily populated with male cops, and women were either seen as victims, or femme fatales who were sexually objectified to no end. But Dana Scully from The X Files and Marge Gunderson from Fargo were changing that.
These days, both the big and small screens have some really tough, yet really complex women fighting crime, as cops, detectives, FBI and CIA agents and so on. From Castle’s Kate Beckett to Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, we have some really cool law enforcement ladies to look up to who not just fight crime, but also internalized sexism. The 90s gave us some nuanced portrayal of women within the crime, thriller and sci fi genres, but the two 90s characters which pretty much revolutionized the way women came to be depicted within law enforcement were Dana Scully from ‘The X Files’ (1993-2002) and Marge Gunderson from ‘Fargo’ (1996).
Before writing this, I asked a friend of mine who’s an avid X Files fan why she thought Scully was such an important character in terms of feminist politics. Her immediate response was: “Scully was the first character I ever saw on TV who wore glasses. And not for comic effect, but as a protagonist”
Now, you must be thinking, ‘Glasses are not that big of a deal. How is that even important?’ But it is. The very fact that this is the first thing that made my friend realize that here was a character who’s real—who can wear glasses and still be strong, complex and sexy—goes to show that before Scully, women were increasingly reduced to flat, one-note, stereotype-ridden characters.
Before we go deeper into how Scully smashed the patriarchy, let’s first talk a little about the show. ‘The X Files’ revolves around FBI agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who investigate unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena. While Mulder is the idealist who believes in aliens and the paranormal, Scully is the rational, scientific voice (she’s a doctor) who debunks Mulder’s theories through scientific analyses. Scully was not just one of the first well-rounded female FBI agents on television, but also one of the first portrayals of a woman scientist who wasn’t confined to a lab and merely given brief ‘forensics’ segments. She bust workplace sexism like nobody’s business, mouthing some iconic 90s feminist gems like: “‘baby’ me and you’ll be peeing through a catheter!” and “don’t underestimate a woman”. But this is just the least of it. She was one of those rare female characters who was smart (often, smarter than the male protagonist), capable, both physically and intellectually strong, but was also vulnerable and emotionally layered.
Another notable thing about the show was its nuanced portrayal of the relationship between Scully and Mulder. They are loyal to each other to a fault, and in fact, their friendship was so richly layered and unique, that it completely deconstructed the notion that men and women can’t be friends (which is a disturbing trope prevalent even now).Yes, it ultimately did turn into a romantic relationship, but it was free of unnecessary clichés, and in fact, was always based on mutual trust and respect. As briefly mentioned earlier, Mulder is extremely dependant on Scully, both professionally and emotionally—a rare characterization for a man in a major film or TV show of the period.
Not just this, the show also deals with important feminist issues such as consent, rape—including male rape which is still something popular media shies away from, the position of gender within religion, motherhood, PTSD and so on; and these conversations are often centred around Scully.
‘Fargo’, the cult Coen Brothers classic—which, in recent times, has also spawned a successful television series—is a modern noir which delves into a series of brutal crimes that occur in small town Minnesota, and does so with great incisiveness. But what’s most notable about this film, even after a decade since it hit theatres, is its unlikely female protagonist, Marge Gunderson (Frances MacDormand in her Oscar-winning role). Marge is the police chief who’s at the helm of investigating these crimes, while simultaneously being eight months pregnant, and, much like Scully, her portrayal as a woman in law enforcement is truly revolutionary. Marge, from the very beginning is seen as much more capable and competent than her male co-workers (one of whom actually gets queasy at the sight of blood, while Marge isn’t the least bit shaken by it), and pretty much solves the entire string of murders and takes on the bad guys on her own. Before Marge, one rarely ever saw female police chiefs, and that too one who was pregnant and yet kicking some major ass. In fact, what’s remarkable is that her pregnancy is barely commented upon by anyone in the film (barring a few mentions by her husband), which essentially makes this a film that refuses to reduce Marge to her womanhood, shatters the stigma that pregnant women are ‘weak’, and ultimately, shows her as a rounded individual.
Her strength isn’t always physical, and that’s what’s great about her. Yes, she has no qualms about pulling the trigger on the bad guys, and yet she also flinches from unnecessary and horrific violence. Marge is the emotional centre of ‘Fargo’, and perhaps one of the only sympathetic and rational characters in a film abundant in misguided people doing nasty things to one-another. She’s intelligent (which is ultimately, her biggest strength), kind, empathetic, and satisfied with who she is and what she has – enjoying her work and a healthy and loving relationship with her husband that, while it doesn’t necessarily subvert traditional gender roles, certainly blurs them. Their memorable introductory appearance is a flip on the classic “sleepy cop answers phone in middle of night” routine, as Marge takes the call while her husband trundles out of bed to make her some eggs.
Though Scully and Marge belong to totally different settings, contexts and backgrounds, but as mentioned earlier, they do have quite a few things in common. These women truly changed the game when it comes to popular portrayals of women in law enforcement and in science (in the case of Scully). In fact, the number of women who pursued both STEM and law enforcement fields picked up significantly during or after ‘The X Files’ and ‘Fargo’ were on air, which further drives home that having women like them represented on screen was a big and important deal.
Marge and Scully ultimately challenged the notion that only masculine machismo can make up a good law enforcement officer, and became the pioneers of the ‘lady cop’ genre, and we pretty much owe it to them that more women police officers, FBI agents and so on are populating our screens in recent times.
Read more from our series on how The 90s changed the game for gender and sexuality in terms of pop culture here