Whoosh! Issue 14 -
November 1997


By Elisa Deyneka
Copyright © 1997 held by author
3677 words

Masochism (01-04)
Punisher or Victim, You Choose (05-06)
Whips and Swords (07-10)
The Chakram (11)
Xena's Transformation in DESTINY (12-14)
Sadistic Dominant or Masochistic Dominant? (15-18)
Xena's Clothing Choices (19-20)
The Role of Fantasy in Masochism (21-22)
A Fascinatingly Complex Television Show (23-25)
End Notes (26-35)

Xena, Warrior Princess and Masochistic Ideal


C'mon...pretend you're Argo.

Those who weren't into the dominatrix thing might have second thoughts
after seeing this picture of Lucy Lawless in "Esquire".

[01] The imagery of the dominant female in western civilization has always been both a potent and an unsettling one. Many men and women are uncomfortable with the idea of a physically powerful and psychologically domineering woman. Such a creature tends to be either marginalized or demonized by society, depending on socio-political and religious trends of the time. Indeed, in many ways it is downright amazing that a character like Xena could not only exist, but thrive on television and within the public psyche. At a time when strong women are all too often categorized as 'non-women', either fleeing some innate desire to be 'feminine' or striving towards a masculine identity, it is almost unheard of that a female hero should appear who walks that fine line between the genders with the grace of an acrobat and the style of a warrior princess.

[02] The latter phrase may seem like an oxymoron to modern eyes and ears, but if we look back only a few centuries we find a history replete with 'warrior princesses', 'warrior nuns', and 'warrior women'. Unfortunately, their modern sisters tend to lead an equally marginalized life in our society. Though no longer burned at the stake, they still may find themselves labeled as lesbians, regardless of their sexual identity, or simply, 'butch', by somehow denying their inborn 'nature' in order to emulate males.

[03]However, an even more marginalized sisterhood is that of the dominatrix. The dominatrix is of a category of women who revel in their femininity and their power, and who, for one reason or another, use their sexual allure and innate strength to dominate men. This is in no way meant to imply that such relationships only take place between women as 'tops' (dominators) and men as 'bottoms' (submissives), rather that the archetypal masochistic relationship refers to a reversal of power from the norm. Masochism, named after the mid-nineteenth century historian and writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, reverts the 'powerful man/weak woman' paradigm in order to function. It relies on the subversion of the dynamics of the seemingly most fundamental of concepts, gender and the pleasure/pain dichotomy.

[04] But how, you may ask, does this relate to a television show about a woman righting wrongs in mythic Greece? Quite well, actually. Xena easily fulfills the role of the masochistic ideal: the dominatrix. Indeed, the program itself winks knowingly at the subculture from time to time [Note 1] .. As Masoch had his "Venus in Furs" so we have our 'Xena in Leather.' In addition, the show works on the same level that both television and masochism share so intimately, that of fantasy.

Punisher or Victim, You Choose

"You didn't say nothin' about no kinky stuff!"
      - Meg, WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (#30)

Fine print?  Of course I didn't read the fine print!  I
can't read!

Meg starts to have second thoughts

[05]It has been said that television has made voyeurs of us all, but in the case of Xena: Warrior Princess, it can be added that in some cases it makes us masochists as well. Within the context of the program the viewer can choose to identify with the 'good guys' (i.e. Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, etc.) or the 'bad guys' (far too numerous to list, suffice to say the warlord, king, or god who threatens injustice, violence, or even death). This is not to say that one need necessarily identify with a character in order to enjoy this or any other program, though you would be hard pressed to find a viewer who does not do so to some degree.

[06]When one chooses to identify with either good or bad characters on the program, they are choosing the position of punisher or victim. Strangely enough the 'victim' label falls on the 'bad guy' character in the show, for there is no doubt that once Xena arrives, punishment of an entirely physical nature will be meted out [Note 2]. In this sense the usually always male 'bad guy' becomes, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of an unruly child, and Xena takes on the role of the stern, disciplinarian mother. This mother (referred to in the pivotal work by Deleuze, as the "oral mother"), however, does not follow the typical 'good mother' archetypes of our society, those of say, the Virgin Mary (kind, comforting, nurturing, forgiving) [Note 3] , rather she usurps the position of the father, and claims his power to maintain order for her own. However, she brings with her none of the negative aspects of the father. She maintains the capability to be kind and nurturing while simultaneously displaying the capability to punish the 'child'. Even more interestingly, she overcomes the Freudian notion of 'penis envy' by claiming the phallic symbols of power so often identified with the masculine [Note 4] ..

Whips and Swords

"The whip is mine..the frying pan's yours. Hower's mine...she's yours..."
      -- Minya, A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39)

Fastest seamstress in all of Greece.

Minya does her own "tough broad" imitation
in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39).

[07] The symbol most often identified with the dominatrix is her usual instrument of choice, the whip. Not only is it a weapon intimately linked with the notion of punishment, but one that also requires a certain amount of strength and skill. Used by a man it is a weapon with multiple uses, but most often straightforwardly signifies danger, defense/attack, or punishment. When used by a woman, however, there are suddenly sexually charged undertones (consider the difference between Indiana Jones to Catwoman). A woman with a whip is dangerous, certainly, but she is also sexy, alluring, and impossible to take your eyes off of. Xena is certainly no exception to this rule, and that danger/allure dichotomy was beautifully depicted in the episode A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39) where Minya, the Xena-wannabe, is more than willing to trade Gabrielle a new frying pan for Xena's whip. Minya understands that in order to change her image and re-interest her boyfriend, Hower, she will have to assume the appearance of a "tough broad". The whip, that ultimate symbol of feminine usurpation of the phallus, is her way of doing just that.

[08] The weapon of choice for the Warrior Princess, however, is not her whip, but her sword. I doubt I need to delve into the phallic nature of this particular weapon, but I will point out that within the series it has been used both to signify the phallus, as well as to castrate male attackers. The former was alluded to in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32) with Ares' sword representing both his godhood and manhood; and the latter was utilized in the fight sequence in the cave from ROYAL COUPLE OF THIEVES (#17).

[09] Strong women have always been accused of desiring to castrate men, to remove that masculine symbol of power, and to force upon men that 'lack' with which women have been so inextricably identified (at least since Freud's influence began to dominate the field of psychology in the early 20th century). The combination of Xena's possession of the phallic weapon, combined with her use of it to literally castrate her enemies, again positions her within the masochistic realm.

[10] By using her sword, Xena assumes the role of the dominant female/punishing mother, whose figurative castration of her submissive male frees her victim/lover/symbolic son from the misdeeds identified with the father. Through her symbolic castration she removes the father from the son, and rather than becoming the father figure, usurps his position and power while maintaining her femininity and allure. Xena literally performs on the screen the figurative and symbolic actions of the dominatrix within the masochistic fantasy.

The Chakram

"It's my... round killing thing!"
      -- Princess Diana, WARRIOR...PRINCESS (#15)

Can't sneeze while throwing this...can't sneeze

Diana winds up to throw the RKT [round-killing-thing], with almost disastrous consequences

[11] This is not to say that Xena is only identified with those phallic weapons so often linked with the dominatrix. Indeed, her most unique and effective weapon, the chakram, is quite obviously a symbol linked inextricably to the feminine. The chakram's circular shape and open center recalls female genitalia rather than male. Interestingly, though, it could almost be said to relate back to a concept that became decidedly popular during the Victorian era, that of the uniquely feminine danger referred to as the "Vagina Dentata" (the toothed vagina), the notion of the female organ as a castrative device. The concept, while threatening, was more alluring than fear-inspiring, again adding an element of danger to the sexual encounter -- a particularly feminine danger which, as we have stated earlier, is, more often than not, interpreted as sexy and appealing. Xena's chakram might almost be said to set her apart and above from the majority of dominatrixes depicted in various media, and reinforces the notion of the character as the masochistic ideal.

Xena's Transformation in DESTINY

"Tell Hades to prepare himself. A new Xena is born tonight with a new purpose in life... death."
      -- Xena, DESTINY (#36)

You think my hands are lethal...wait'll you feel my

Xena is *not* a happy camper
in DESTINY (#36).

[12]Perhaps the most impressively symbol-laden moment within the program that all but cinches this masochistic ideal occurs during DESTINY (#36). Xena is crucified by the evil father-figure character, Caesar. She briefly takes on the identity of the masochist, for whom Christ's martyrdom is the pinnacle of ecstatic suffering.

[13] After being freed from her suffering, Xena is cared for by Nicklio, the mysterious healer and M'Lila, her companion and teacher. When Caesar's men invade the sanctity of this place and kill M'Lila, who pays for her friendship to Xena with her life, a truly amazing transformation takes place. As the music rises in an unearthly wail, Xena's eyes become downright murderous and even in a weakened state she devastates Caesar's men and delights in their deaths.

[14] The final victim of her wrath then lies between her broken legs in a position one might almost liken to a pieta, the moment captured in painting or sculpture where Mary holds the broken, lifeless body of her son. Xena quite literally announces her rebirth (note that this rebirth is parthenogenic -- there is no father present or contributing in any way) as a punisher/dominant woman while her male victim undergoes the ultimate rebirth from symbol of male dominance to that of masochistic submission. His position between her legs could not be more heavily charged with meaning, for rebirth from one state of being (that of the 'normal' world, where men dominate through physical and institutional power, to that of the 'perverse' or 'subverted' world of the masochist, where power relationships are reversed, challenged, and renegotiated) to another is at the very center of masochism. The dominant female is the ultimate mother, not of birth, but of rebirth; a symbol of change, release, and subversion. Fleetingly, Xena has assumed both the roles of the dominant and submissive, and announces her rebirth to Hades and the audience at the same instant.

Sadistic Dominant or Masochistic Dominant?

[15]It could, however, be argued that until Xena's historic encounter with Hercules, her nature more clearly mimicked that of the sadistic dominant, rather than the masochistic dominant. The sadistic dominant certainly resembled her masochistic counterpart, and as far as most people are concerned the sadist and masochist were simply two sides of the same 'perversity'.

[16]Until Deleuze's outstanding work, "Coldness and Cruelty" (in Masochism, Zone Books, New York, NY, 1991), which clearly differentiates between sadism and masochism and denies the existence of the sado-masochist, we could view Xena's early warlord career as a necessary element of her position as masochistic dominant. But I will argue, as does Deleuze, that sadism is its own separate entity. The sadist does not care about the feelings of those he/she abuses. Their violence has nothing to do with punishment and everything to do with pain and their own enjoyment of it.

[17] The early warlord Xena would seem to more closely resemble a sadist in that she did not concern herself with those she waged war on. In some sense she enjoyed her work and the death and destruction she left in her wake. However, the Xena depicted on a weekly basis as the foundation for the program has left her sadistic past behind. One might almost point to the beating she took while walking the gauntlet [THE GAUNTLET (#H12)] between her men as a secondary rebirth. Consider the imagery of the columns of men through which she is forced. The resemblance to a birth canal is both real and significant.

[18] This new Xena, forged by a renewed sense of compassion, and an empathic knowledge of the pain she inflicts on others is now capable of taking up the reins of the masochistic dominant. Indeed, most dominatrixes are required to begin their 'careers' as submissives, to acquire empathy for their submissives as well as to temper their own sexual drives and focus their desires.

Xena's Clothing Choices

"Those boots...that leather...those legs...Xena!"
      -- Salmoneus, THE BLACK WOLF (#11)

If you have walnuts, I'll sing the theme song for

Salmoneus focuses in on a prominent feature
in THE BLACK WOLF (#11).

[19]We have placed Xena in the position of the phallus wielding, power holding, punishing mother, and the 'bad guys' of the Xenaverse in the position of the castrated, powerless, punished son, and have attempted to tie the character of Xena to the concept of the dominatrix. However, we have yet to touch on one of the most obvious ties between the two, her armor. Anyone who has sat mesmerized by the opening credits' slow-pan up Xena's body from foot to breastplate should be well aware of my point here.

[20]Her armor is an almost blatant nod to the underworld of S&M (sadism and masochism): the tooled leather boots that hug those incredibly long legs; the short 'skirt' allowing tantalizing glimpses of her thighs; the tight, breast-enhancing corseted top; and the exaggerated breast-plate that cannot help but emphasize her chest. The elements of beauty and danger inherent in her choice of daily wear cannot be underrated, and it should come as no surprise that many stores and catalogs catering to the dominant female are featuring their own interpretation of the Xena costume. Even the show's writers nod knowingly at the phenomenon when they have Gabrielle and Xena discuss the allure of her leather in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39). Xena is quick to point out that a change in armor might not lessen her appeal, rather "I think that'd just attract a kinkier crowd."

The Role of Fantasy in Masochism

"Hey, I paid for an hour!"
      -- Autolycus, "THE QUEST"

Just a little closer. Uh huh...now a bit to the

Autolycus get a bit of the James Bond treatment
in THE QUEST (#38).

[21] As stated earlier, one of the major elements that ties Xena to the masochistic realm is that of fantasy. Certainly Xena is a television program, and by its very nature within the definition of fantasy, but it can also be said that both the content and the somewhat dodgy historical context of the program reinforces this element quite nicely. I would not be willing to argue that a woman in a position of authority, and with enough physical prowess to maintain that position and reputation was in any way fantastical. There are more than enough examples of women warriors throughout history to firmly lay the notion of feminine physical/mental/spiritual inferiority to rest [Note 5] .. Rather, the use of fantastical entities (centaurs, Bacchae, etc.), the clearly gravitationally improbable stunts, and the constant cross-historical references reinforce the notion that the Xenaverse is just that, a reality in and of itself.

[22] This phenomenon is identical to that of the masochistic world of role-playing, with (1) its reversal of 'normal' power relationships between the sexes or between individuals, (2) the use of specific costumes, instruments, and contracts, and (3) the creation of a specific plot and setting for masochistic encounters. Submissives set the tone within the relationship, clearly creating a separate dimension within which to live out their own specific fantasies, and firmly stating the rules within that dimension. Encounters may range from naughty schoolboy/angry mother/teacher to intricate fantasies involving elaborate costumes, characters, and even scripts. This is not to say that the dominant (whether male or female) is entirely at the whim of the submissive, but neither (as common belief would have it) is the dominant a complete tyrant capable of committing any physical injury on their helpless victim. Within the context of the masochistic drama, both players are as well rehearsed and free from the threat of any real harm as the actors and actresses on any television program.

A Fascinatingly Complex Television Show

She left her Bajoran earring in the car.

Glaphyra "specialises"

[23] Some may argue that in writing a piece that points out the similarities between Xena and the dominatrix image, I am in some way denigrating the program. Many have tried to separate the show from this somewhat 'seedier' interpretation, and are vehement in their denial of the masochistic elements I have pointed out. I would just like to say that this is only one interpretation of a fascinatingly complex television show that depicts the strongest champion of feminist ideals yet to be depicted. I in no way mean to slander either the program, the character, or other feminist interpretations, but I do not believe it is necessarily denigrating to bring to the forefront a discussion of the sexually charged elements of the program. In fact, I intend it as a form of praise.

[24] The subversive elements that drive both Xena: Warrior Princess, and the dramatic interaction that is the masochistic arena, that of the reversal of power and gender roles, help to emphasize and undermine the socially constructed nature of both. A frying pan in the hand of June Cleaver cements her role as the 'good mother' and places her firmly within the feminine sphere. A frying pan in the hands of Xena is not only deadly, but actually turns this image on its head, supplanting the 'feminine ideal' with the new image of the feminine warrior. As has already been stated, however, the very notions of 'feminine' and 'masculine' themselves come under attack in the program on a weekly basis, usually in a humorous manner, but at its heart masochism can be read as a tongue-in-cheek response to gender roles within a given society.

[25] The amazing thing is, though, that Xena (largely due to excellent writing and amazing acting on the part of Lucy Lawless) undermines the notion without simply regressing into a 'masculinized' entity neither truly male nor female. Instead it can be argued that she creates a new identity of a fully actualized woman, transcending and toppling the gender-specific notion of 'femininity'.

End Notes

Note 1:
[26] The most obvious example of this tongue-in-cheek reference to the S&M subculture would have to be the scene between a furious Velasca and the leashed Autolycus from THE QUEST (#37).
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Note 2:
[27]One of the major exceptions to this rule would have to be the relationship between Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer. Joxer quite clearly falls into the category of submissive male. Indeed, his resemblance to a child badly in need of discipline is almost frighteningly blatant during the character's appearances. His place in the order of Xenadom (in this case, probably equal to, or perhaps a bit lower than Argo) is clear, and he only infrequently pushes the dominant Xena to the point where she feels the need to punish him.

[28]Joxer's most classic infraction is the scene in WARRIOR...PRINCESS..TRAMP (#30) where he is mistakenly convinced that Xena and he are lovers, and he takes physical and verbal liberties with her. Xena's first verbal warning is, "Are you suicidal?" (reinforcing the notion of her dominance; she is shocked that he dares to touch her as an equal), then decidedly physical -- a backhand that sends him flying across the room (the physical reinforcement through abuse/punishment).

[29]However, even when not physically engaging in direct dominant punishment, Xena's attitude towards Joxer is clearly one of superiority. There is never an occasion where the two achieve an almost equal footing. Even in the finale of COMEDY OF EROS (#46), Xena's role is more of a tolerant, gentle mother, than that of a friend and comrade (note the physical placement of the characters, with Joxer seated and gazing up at Xena, while she, standing, looks down at him).

[30] This interpretation is not meant to denigrate the character of Joxer (in my opinion a brilliant portrayal of the jester/fool, and a parody of the facade of 'machismo'). Indeed, I find him a delightful addition to the program. He just fit the discussion too well to ignore his part in the masochistic scheme.
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Note 3:
[31]Gilles DeLeuze, "Coldness and Cruelty" in Masochism (Zone Books, New York, 1991) p. 55.

[32]"Masoch's three women correspond to three fundamental mother images: the first is the primitive, uterine, hataeric mother...the second is the Oedipal mother, the image of the beloved...and in between these two, the oral mother...who nurtures and brings death...the specific element of masochism is the oral mother, the ideal of coldness, solicitude, and death..."
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Note 4:
[33]DeLeuze, "Coldness and Cruelty" p. 61.

[34]"...in the fantasy of the three mothers is the symbolic transfer...of all paternal functions to the threefold feminine figure: the father's excluded and completely nullified. Most of Masoch's novels contain a hunting scene which is described in minute detail: the ideal woman hunts a bear or wolf and despoils it of its fur. We could interpret this symbolically as the struggle of woman against man, from which woman emerges triumphant."
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Note 5:
[35] See The Dictionary of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era, Jessica Amanda Salmonson (Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York, 1991)

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E. Deyneka Elisa Deyneka
Elisa Deyneka currently works as the curator of a small museum in Upstate New York, and when not scrolling through volumes of mailing list e-mails, or voraciously devouring fanfic in her favorite genres attempts to keep up to date on post modern and feminist theory. A card-carrying member of the Amazon Nation, Elisa (who goes by the handle Ellie) proudly states to all who will listen that she not only has one of the more complete Xena memorabilia collections in existence, but can also claim to have made (by hand no less) a pretty darn good costume (though she does admit the wig could use some work). She is also an outspoken defender of the much maligned Joxer, and is probably one of the few folks in all of Xena fandom who actually thought FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (#40) was one of the all time best episodes.

Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39), THE PRICE (#44), and A COMEDY OF EROS (#46)
Favorite line: Xena to Hower: And you've got a snowball's chance in Tartarus with me...ya got that? A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39); Xena to Draco: Well ain't love a bitch?! A COMEDY OF EROS (#46); Joxer: Blech! Tastes like sweat...does yours? A COMEDY OF EROS (#46)
First episode seen: CHARIOTS OF WAR (#02)
Least favorite episode: THE TITANS (#07); THE EXECUTIONER (#41)

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