Whoosh! Issue Ten - July 1997


IAXS Research Project #000
By Melissa Meister
Copyright © 1997 held by author
3745 words




[01] The current trend for women in television today is not an altogether positive one. Even twenty years after the stirrings of the feminist movement, women in television are still stuck in the same gendered roles that they were before. Of course, today, women can be doctors and business executives, but their world still revolves around men, either in dealing with their presence (SOMETHING SO RIGHT or SPIN CITY) or in searching for them (CAROLINE IN THE CITY or BEVERLY HILLS 90210). Twenty years later and still a woman cannot be complete unless she has a mate, or is in the perennial search for one. Even Dana Scully's character on THE X-FILES, who is lauded as a positive and feminist role for women, cannot escape the trap. Despite no intrinsic romantic dialogue in the show, both the fans and the press have portrayed Dana Scully as the love interest of the show's male lead, Fox Mulder. A woman who does not need a man simply cannot exist in the American consciousness.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson pandering to the press and their fans:

What does this have to do with Xena? I
don't know. Ask Bret!

On the cover of THE ROLLING STONE (07/96) ...

Quick! Switch to Autolycus before it's
too laaaate!

...to the cover of PEOPLE Magazine (05/97).

[02] However, one television show has been challenging that notion for the last two years, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. A syndicated cult hit produced in the United States, yet filmed in New Zealand, XENA has been creating a subversive feminist consciousness on its own since its premiere in 1995. The show's introduction is perhaps its best description, "In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. Her courage will change the world."

[03] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS follows the exploits of Xena and her traveling companion, Gabrielle, a bard, as they travel through time, history, myth, and feminism. Post-structuralism, liberal feminism, psychoanalytic theory, carnival theory, and cyborg theory are all interesting lenses to view XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS through, and they all demonstrate XENA's inherent feminist messages, with post-structuralism and cyborg theory being the most potentially enlightening.


Now, if the credits just stay there a little longer I should
be able to hit it!

Xena, warrior princess, forged in the heat of battle
and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

[04] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS falls within the realm of post-structuralism because it is part of a medium, television, that creates cultural myths. Television is a modern language, and as such, it is a "meaning- constituting system: that is, any system strictly verbal or other through which meaning is constructed and cultural practices organized and by which, accordingly, people represent and understand their world, including who they are and how they relate to others" (Scott 359). Television is not simply a harmless procession of images across a screen, it is a medium that greatly influences culture. It creates cultural myths, which as Roland Barthes points out, "[have] the task of giving an intention a natural justification" (Storey 81). What we see as norms on television, we see as justified and natural in our everyday lives. Television creates meaning, and as with such a medium, the meaning that it chooses to portray must be called into question.

[05] The analysis of language is a starting point for understanding how social relations are conceived. This tool helps us understand how they work, how the institutions are organized, how relations or the productions are experienced, and how collective identity is established (Scott 359). Recognizing this, we can begin to look at the ways in which current television shapes our social relations and how XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is able to subvert these dominant paradigms.

[06] Modern television revolves around the man. No matter how many leading female characters might be on television, their show or the culture that grows up around their show is male-centered. The women of television are always male-identified. They have no existence outside of their relations to men. Such male-identification can be found implicitly within television shows, as in the case of FRIENDS, in which every episode deals with one of the three main female characters interactions with men. Or it may be found within the culture that grows up around the television show, as in the case of ELLEN, who has the entire country obsessed with why she does not have a man.

I sell used closets on weekends.

Ellen Degeneres, the alter-ego of Ellen Morgan,
on the set of ELLEN

[07] Women on television have always been defined through their interactions with men. There has never before been a woman on television that was a signified woman without a male signifier. However the creators of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS have managed to break through this cultural paradigm to create the first woman-identified woman on television.

[08] The character of Xena is a woman without male signifiers. The text of the show does not revolve in any way around Xena's interpersonal interactions with men. On the contrary, the show most directly revolves around Xena's interpersonal interaction with her traveling companion, Gabrielle. It is Xena and Gabrielle who have become each others signifiers. They have come to define each other through their experience together. XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is one of the few shows in the history of television that has gone an entire episode without having any starring or supporting male actors. Had it not been for a few male extras, A NECESSARY EVIL (#38) would have been male-free. In a world in which women are defined by their relations to a man (i.e. Miss vs. Mrs.), this is a completely novel idea, and since such an idea is projected through a medium of cultural myth-making, its implications for the redefinition of meaning are enormous.

Nazi Amazons! Film at 11.

Amazons in their natural habitat and customary clothing


[09] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS can be considered liberally feminist in two lights: the show's existence in the social institution of television and in its portrayal of female characters. The goal of liberal feminism is equality in all social and political institutions. Liberal feminists are "those who argue that sexual difference ought to be an irrelevant consideration in schools, employment, the courts, and the legislature" (Scott 362). Like schools, employment, courts, and government, television is both a political and social institution, and it has been primarily dominated by males: male producers, male actors, and male messages. However, the introduction of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS into television serves to equalize the playing field.

[10] The origination of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is a case in liberal feminism. The creators of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS are also the creators of HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS, which brings to life the legendary exploits of that most famous demi-god, Hercules. The character of Xena was originally introduced as an evil warlord on HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS in the episode WARRIOR PRINCESS (HTLJ #09). Xena appeared in two more HERCULES episodes, THE GAUNTLET (HTLJ #12) and UNCHAINED HEART (HTLJ #13), in which her character underwent a transformation to realize both the strength of her evil and the strength of her good, and turned towards the good. That, for all intents and purposes, was to originally be the end of her character. However, the creators of HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS realized the possibility of bringing a female character to televsion that had never been seen before, one that was strong in her own right, every bit the equal (and superior) of man, and one who was not always concerned with her dating prospects. Thus, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS was born. What started out as a woman's guest appearance on a male-dominated show turned into a chance for equality; the equality of having a female hero on television and the equality of introducing a show that was not full of the gendered stereotypes that are the norm.

[11] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is a show full of women who have demonstrated strength in areas previously only reserved for males. Xena is a warrior and a hero -- roles usually only fulfilled by men throughout history. literature, drama, and in television. Gabrielle is a hero and a historian. It is she who chronicles Xena's history, also a challenge to a societal norm in which men are the makers of history and myth. The female characters of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS have even been placed in equal and superior positions to some of the most famous people in history: Xena taught Hippocrates more about medicine than Galen ever did in the episode IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? (#24) and Gabrielle gave Homer a few pointers on how to write in ATHENS CITY ACADEMY OF PERFORMING BARDS (#13). The creators of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS have managed to equalize the political and social institution of male-domination both in the form of the production of a feminist television show and in the creation of characters who are in no way the submissives of any man.

This man is not dead, he is merely turned around. Turn him
around, doofus!

Gabrielle tending to the wounded at Galen's medical center


[12] There is an entire continuing subplot within the show XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS that can be read as a psychoanalytic dialogue. General psychoanalytic theory argues that woman does not have a desire of her own, because she lacks Lacan's phallus, which is the symbol of power. Because woman is lack, the only way that a woman can come close to the center of power is through the male. This realization leads to a young female's rejection of the mother because the young female realizes that the mother does not have the phallic power to give, and she subsequently identifies with the father, and indeed all males for the rest of her life. Within the context of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, the phallus is embodied by the character of Ares, the god of war. It is even fitting that all of Ares power resides in his sword, to the result, that if it is ever stolen, he loses his power, as seen in the episode TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32).

[13] In the beginning, when Xena was still a character on HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS, Xena was an evil warlord who was proud with the love of Ares. She had originally bought into the idea that power is in the phallus (Ares), and because the tool of Ares was war, that becoming a warlord and serving Ares would be getting close to the center of phallic power. She could never herself be the god of war, yet she could bring Ares close to her through her warlord deeds. However, once she had decided to turn away from her warlord past, she also rejected the power of the phallus, and chose rather to draw on the power of herself. When Gabrielle entered Xena's life, Xena also began to draw strength and power from her. Symbolically, one could say that she rejected the power of the phallic sword and instead chose to identify with the yonical chakram (her circular silver and gold weapon).

[14] Of course, the rejection of the phallic power was not taken well by Ares, and he has spent much time and energy in trying to lure Xena back to being a warlord through the promise of phallic power. In one particular episode, TIES THAT BIND (#20), Ares even impersonated Xena's father, and tricked Xena into believing that he had been killed by a group of villagers, leading her to almost pillage the entire village and kill all of its inhabitants in order to recover the power of the lost phallus that her father's absence had left. However, Gabrielle was able to thwart Xena's belief in this illusion (with a pitchfork to the back of the head) and to guide her back to identification with the self and with Gabrielle.

Your snoring is driving me bonkers, but a simple medical
procedure will cure it.

The brave and miffed Gabrielle challenging the imposing and incredibly deluded Xena (a victim of Ares abuse)

[15] The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle demonstrates Jessica Benjamin's ideal of intersubjective psychoanalysis, which "assumes the possibility of a context with others in which desire is constituted for the self. It thus assumes the paradox that in being with the other, I may experience the most profound sense of self" (Benjamin 92). Instead of the submission to the phallus, Xena identifies within herself and with Gabrielle, and in being with Gabrielle, she experiences her most profound sense of her own strength and power.


[16] The theory of woman as spectacle is central to the idea of carnival theory, and I can think of no other television show in which women draw as much attention to themselves as in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS without the fear of reproach. As Mary Russo says, "Making a spectacle out of oneself seemed a specifically feminine danger" (Russo 213). Indeed, in modern American society, the fear of being a spectacle is an intrinsic part of growing up. The fear of being called a bitch keeps one from making a spectacle of herself emotionally, while the fear of being called a whore keeps one from making a spectacle of herself sexually, and finally the fear of being called fat keeps one from making a spectacle of herself physically. We fear these names because we fear being expelled from the carnival tent of the beautiful to the carnival tent of the freaks. We do anything to avoid being a spectacle, we diet, we repress our sexual desires, we repress our emotions, we repress ourselves, and the land of television glorifies such repression. The world of television is the carnival tent of the beautiful. It is full of examples of women who have repressed themselves in a multitude of ways.

[17] However, it can be argued that the female characters of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS are rather spectacular. First of all, XENA is a camp television show, which immediately makes it carnivalesque. It is in the tradition of John Waters' HAIRSPRAY and Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD trilogy, which take comedy and special effects to their absurdist ends. It is not enough in the camp tradition to have Xena beat her opponents the old-fashioned way, toe-to-toe with a sword, staff, or other available weapons, but she must be able to walk up her opponent's body, do a flip off of their chest, and kick them in the face on their way down, as seen in INTIMATE STRANGER (#31). The whole premise of XENA lies in the sensational execution of special-effects, and all of them are generally executed by female characters. Therefore, it is expected that Xena and/or the other characters in the show will make a spectacle of themselves. If Xena has not defied gravity at least once during the episode, it is considered an unusual occurrence.

[18] Secondly, the characters in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS do not seem to be bound by the cultural construction of feminine modesty that serves to mask the carnivalesque. Physically, everyone on the show is obviously comfortable in their own skin. Even a character that would be considered big by modern cultural standards of beauty, e.g. Minya in the episode A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39), was more than happy and not ashamed to appear on the show dressed in a very exposed leather outfit.

I think I will follow her into the restroom.

Minya, who represents Everyfan,
in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39)

[19] Emotionally, the show is very open to the expression of a wide range of sentiment. XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is as much of a show about dealing with the tempermental unrest of the lead character and her emotional interactions with Gabrielle as it is about action and adventure. There are also no judgments sexually about the characters. In Xena's past as a warlord, she often used sex as a method of controlling her army and in getting what she wanted, and she occasionally used her sexuality to gain an advantage over her opponent, yet she is still the hero, and still the admired one.

[20] Mary Russo states that the "carnival and the carnivalesque suggest a redeployment or counterproduction of culture, knowledge, and pleasure" (Russo 218), and in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS' ability incorporate the carnivalesque into its foundation, it suggests a pleasure in woman as spectacle, rather than a fear of it.


[21] Cyborg theory is concerned with the way in which technology and society interact and in the ways that women can use that technology to liberate themselves from the fiction that society has enforced upon them by creating their own fiction. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as the other. The tools are often stories and retold stories, versions of which reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture (Haraway 447). The show itself and the technological phenomenon surrounding XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS have both had a huge impacts upon the recreation of identity through technology.

[22] Television is certainly an aspect of technology. It is a technological advancement that allows cultural myths to filter into our living rooms through the combination of visual images and auditory signals. It creates its own fiction and culture, as evidenced by the introduction of the words TV, tube, set, et cetera, into the English language. As a technological fiction-creating device, whatever programs are filtered to the audience through the television are also creators of fiction. What we see on the television becomes irrevocably tied up in our own programmatic fabrications.

[23] However, television has as much power to liberate us from our programs as it does to tie us to them. Through the recreation of western fictions, television can give us the possibility to "see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point" (Haraway 429). Such a recreation allows us to see at once the original story and the possibility of liberation from it.

[24] One story that the writers of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS have been able to recreate is the story of Helen. In the episode, BEWARE OF GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (#12), the writers of XENA totally reimagined the story of Helen of Troy. In the original story, she is kidnapped from her husband, King Menelaus, by Paris and taken to Troy. The Trojan War follows and lasts for 10 years. Helen is never given a personality in this tale. She is simply the face that launched a thousand ships. She is without desire and is a mere pawn used between the Greeks and Trojans. However, in XENA's recreation of the story, Helen (who is also incidentally African-American in this rendition) is given a voice. She firmly expresses her desire and power by telling Xena that she left her husband for Paris because she was in love and she left of her own free will. Through XENA's recreation of western fiction, Helen is given a responsibility in her own history. She is no longer the pawn of men, but an active player in her own destiny.

Looks like Zirconium to me. If I were you, I'd hold out for
more from Petracles.

Helen of Troy and Xena discussing the old days

[25] There is also another consideration when it comes to cyborg theory and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, and that is the technological phenomenon that has grown up around the show itself. There are currently over 400 fan sites on the Internet that are dedicated to some aspect of the show XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. This is amazing in and of itself, but what I would like to concentrate on is the Internet fan fiction that has grown up around the show. There are currently over 600 stories that have been published on the Internet that take their basis from the show XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. They are stories that continue the travels and exploits of Xena and Gabrielle. Some of them are as short as one page, some of them are novel-length, some of them are heterosexual- centered, and some of them are homosexual-centered; but what is significant about all of them is how they deal with the show.

[26] There is a noticeable absence of fan-fiction that deals with Xena and her desire for or search of a man. In a society where compulsory heterosexuality is almost an uncontested political institution, that is incredible. Almost all of the fan fiction stories revolve around Xena and Gabrielle's emotional connection with each other or with their emotional and sexual connection to each other. In this instance, the program that has been developed by the creators of XENA has been, in turn, developed into a fiction by fans that completely resists the normalcy of compulsory heterosexuality. Such a fiction is not only liberating for lesbians and bisexuals, but for heterosexual women as well who have been told all their lives that their "soul-mate" must be of the opposite sex. The evidence of fan fiction suggests that XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS has been inherently successful and liberating in its recreation of fiction.


[27] Through the lenses of post-structuralism, liberal feminism, psychoanalysis, carnival theory, and cyborg theory, the television show XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS comes off in an extraordinary feminist light. One wants to question how such a show was even allowed into television programming, because a deep examination of its inner workings provides society with some very incredible, novel, and spectacular ways of portraying women. All of the feminist models of theory that have been used in this paper are very important in illuminating the various feminist underpinnings of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, but to me, the analysis of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS through the lens of cyborg theory proved the most enlightening and hopeful, because it demonstrated that the messages that can be found within the text of XENA have not fallen on deaf ears. In a time of a monotheistic god, gangs, and politicians, a land in subjugation cried out for a hero. She was XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, an inspirational television show forged in the heat of male-dominated programming. Her presence just might change the world.

What do you mean another male love interest? Wasn't Ulysses
bad enough?

Xena, mid-canoe, ready to let that chakram fly and slice and dice some of the Horde
in THE PRICE (#44)


Benjamin, Jessica. "A Desire of Ones Own." Feminist Studies: Critical Studies. ed.

Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986. 78-101.

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Theorizing Feminism. ed. Anne C. Hermann & Abigail J. Stewart. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994. 424-457.

Russo, Mary. "Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory." Feminist Studies: Critical Studies. ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986. 213-229.

Scott, Joan W. "Deconstructing Equality-Versus- Difference: or, The Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism." Theorizing Feminism. ed. Anne C. Hermann & Abigail J. Stewart. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994. 358-371.

Storey, John. "Structuralism and post-structuralism." An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993. 69-95.

XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. Syndicated television show (1995 -- present). Created by Robert Tapert and John Schulian. Developed by R.J. Stewart. Renaissance Pictures/Universal-MCA.

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