Who were your childhood heroes?
I’m betting they were figures you saw in media. Whether sports stars or characters from movies, TV, or books…or, heck, politicians (though I shudder to think about who might be idolizing the current administration), they were likely omnipresent on screens large and small, including the one in your head.
And if you’re like me, those childhood heroes shaped a lot of who you became.
My heroes came from TV and movies: The Ghostbusters, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Scrappy Doo, Doc and Marty from the Back to the Future trilogy, and (as discussed in a previous post) Sherlock Holmes.
These characters were alive and vibrant and took action. I loved to watch them, working hard to save the day, and I loved even more re-enacting their adventures (usually in my head, whilst traipsing around our large yard).
Books tended to be where I went to find characters who looked and thought more like me. I consumed books about young women at a rapid pace (Babysitters Club, the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Little Women, Caddie Woodlawn, etc).
These characters were unsure of themselves but led rich inner lives. They spent time thinking and worrying. Their actions weren’t as large or as impactful as those of my heroes, but they mattered in small ways. They taught me that introspection and emotions were important in their own right.
And then came Dana Scully. It’s hard to express how much of an impact one character had on me. She took what I loved about my action-oriented heroes and combined it with the soulful complexity I found in books. Scully was tough when needed, but she cried when it was warranted. She was smart and skeptical and took the patriarchy to task. She was a doctor in a well-cut (at least in later seasons) suit.
In short, here was a character who looked and thought like I did. But she was a hero. She took charge. And she was presented in a visual medium, which meant that it wasn’t just my mind saying she looked like me. Some producer somewhere had decided that it was okay for a woman to inhabit this space.
Society’s approval, whether we like to admit it or not, matters…especially for young people. Doubly so for young people who aren’t in a majority privileged with constant representation.
But back to my FBI agent/hero Dana Scully, who inspired me to go into medicine. If you look at the job shadowing proposal from my Junior year of high school (2000, at the height of my X-Files fandom), you’ll see that I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. And although I didn’t end up in quite that specialty, the plan took me where I needed to go.
And I wasn’t the only one. Most reports of “The ScullyEffect” are anecdotal, and I can’t offer more than that. But of my close female medical school friends, four out the five of us identified Scully as a major reason we pursued this specific education. (The last friend related more to Rory Gilmore, which is not surprising, and actually serves as another illustrative point of the powers of female representation, because she’s a quiet, small town girl who went to an Ivy League school.)
So when I hear people, men especially, downplaying the importance of representation in media or talking about how casting a character as female ruins the piece of media for them, it hits the same sore spot inside as anti-intellectual behavior.
I am who I am because some TV producer somewhere made a decision to create a strong, complex, and wonderful female character.
Imagine the young women who might be inspired to go into electrical engineering by Jillian Holtzmann, or to grow up and showrun for Dr. Who, now that there’s a woman as the 13th Doctor (yes, fans do that, as Steven Moffat likes to remind us).
There are no limits to the human imagination, to the number of new characters or interpretations of old characters. If something gives someone, especially a young person in need of a role model, joy or encouragement, why would you ever want to take it away? And how can you say it doesn’t matter?