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How These Two Characters Changed The Game For Women In Law Enforcement, Back In The 90s

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Editor’s Note:

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).

Dana Scully, Feminist Icon

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.

Source: Tumblr

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.

Marge Gunderson, A Police Chief With A Difference

‘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.

Marge being put off by unnecessary violence, but never flinching in the face of her adversaries

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.

Why These Women Were So Important

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

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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