Whoosh! Issue 18 - March 1998


IAXS project #093
By Rebecca Hall, Esq.
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2459 words

Surviving Abuse (01-04)
Response of Fan Fiction (05-07)
Healing Experiences (08)
The Protector and the Protected (09-13)
Love, Trust, and Dedication (14-15)
Powerful Images for Television (16-17)
The Bitterness of BITTER SUITE (18-22)
Xena: the First, but Hopefully Not the Last (23)

Xena: Warrior Princess:
Abuse and Healing

"There are a lot of people out there who have suffered from some kind of abuse - women, gays, kids - and they all relate to Xena. She's always fighting the good fight."
   --Lucy Lawless, USA TODAY, 1/17/97

Okay, who is the wise guy
that started this whole rift thing. I want your head!

Xena, fighting the good fight,
in THE TITANS (07/107).

Surviving Abuse

[01] As Lucy Lawless explained, there are many of us out there who have suffered from abuse, and we connect with Xena, as a hero and as a protector. I am an incest survivor, having been raped by my adult older brother from the age of five on, with a mother who did not protect me. I started watching Xena after I had spent some years in therapy, working on healing from the injuries in my childhood. I connected with this show on a soul-level, because it offered me images which were crucial to my healing process.

[02] Because of my commitment to healing, and because of my work in therapy, I was able to understand on a conscious level what about Xena: Warrior Princess I found so compelling. I learned that those of us who did not get their basic needs met as a child -- needs such as safety and protection from evil -- can find it infinitely healing to hear and see stories where innocence is protected. Like a young child who can watch their favorite movie a hundred times, I could watch a scene where Xena protects Gabrielle over and over again, and internalize those images, feeling them settle across my soul like a balm. Many of these images are archetypal in their power, and experiencing them helps to fill the hole inside created by the lack of protection.

[03] When we have been abused and have had our boundaries violated in the most horrific manner imaginable, to be able see an image of a woman who fights back and wins, is a gift. A blessing. As I wrote to a friend, the one who turned me on to Xena:

"The scene where Xena breaks her chains [THE RECKONING (06/106)]: When she yells out, a deep powerful yell, she realizes that no matter how badly she might feel about herself, she does not deserve this treatment -- musters super-human strength and breaks the chains... the chain-breaking. I have a vivid memory from my childhood of being tied up, completely powerless, nothing I could do but take it. The chain-breaking image just made my soul feel like it was soaring. When she does that 360 degree spin that breaks the leg chains, I hold that in my head whenever I get that flashback, and it goes away!"

[04] That scene became like a talisman in my own quest for redemption, with the power to hold some of the worst shadows at bay.

I'm sorry Xena, he looked like a reputabe drycleaner.

Gabrielle disusses options with Xena before Xena breaks her bindings
in THE RECKONING (06/106).

Response of Fan Fiction

[05] I also write, and I began to write fan fiction that used the characters of Xena and Gabrielle in my healing process. The stories I write are like a re-parenting of the child inside myself. I tell the story as it should have been. I posted a story I wrote on the Internet called "Heaven Down Here", where I re-wrote my own experience. In it Gabrielle comes across a young girl who has been raped, and she is devastated by the thought of someone's first experience of sex being so violent. Later in the story, she has her own first time experience with Xena, and it is loving and safe and passionate, and she blossoms because of it. What a fantasy, yes?

[06] The response to this story was overwhelming. I received literally hundreds of letters from women, many of whom had been abused themselves, writing about how important my story was to them. Some were quite conscious of why. Others wrote saying they re-read it every day and did not know why they found it so compelling.

You gave me this haircut. Now you must die.

Even in the alternative timeline that the Fates granted her, Xena still is destined to become Gabrielle's protector, helpmate, and friend. In this scene from REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202), Xena keeps a slave foreman from beating the slave, Gabrielle.

[07] This response to the healing aspects of this story began to make sense to me. If it worked for me to write it, it would work for others to read it. After all, my history is not that different from that of many others. I became curious to find out how others were using Xena: Warrior Princess in their healing processes. A friend and I sent out a questionnaire over the Internet, asking for incest survivors and other survivors of childhood abuse to respond. Reading those responses made me realize why, or at least one important reason why, the show has made such an impact on the lives of so many.

Healing Experiences

[08] We asked survivors if they found watching Xena to be a healing experience, and if so, how. Here are a few of their answers:

"Xena's past will probably always haunt her, but she's working through it. This is very empowering, watching someone work through such terrible things. Xena's past is different in many ways from someone who has been sexually abused, but the feelings, in the present anyway, are the same -- shame, denial, and at least in my case, a general sense that 'somehow I caused this.'"

I thought you said this was a surprise birthday party.

Xena's shame, denial, and guilt sometimes manifests itself as a benign deathwish. In THE RECKONING (06/106), when accused of a murder that she did not do, Xena still feels a need to be punished for all those murders that she had gotten away with' in the past. Gabrielle, as usual, disagrees, and defends Xena against the current accusation.

"It's nice to see the visual reinforcement of what I've already learned: That women can stand up for themselves, be threatening, be powerful. It's sounds odd to say but it's nice to see a woman who can get hit, attacked, and have it not be a crippling experience. She comes back fighting."

"...and just as incest survivors can point to specific incidents or time frames, so too can Xena point out within herself the time when she became someone other than a young girl in a village."

The Protector and the Protected

[09] It has been said that the heart of the show, what keeps people watching, is the relationship portrayed between Xena and Gabrielle. For the many of us who have survived abuse, it is a specific aspect of their relationship that captivates us: Xena as Gabrielle's protector.

Hmmm, I will have to ask her how she weaves her headbands like that.

Xena consoles Gabrielle after Gabrielle's violation in the Temple of Dahak,
in THE DELIVERER (50/304).

[10] Children who are abused are not protected, and this single fact has profound implications for the rest of their lives, especially for their day to day experiences. I remember my therapist asking me if I could remember the last time I had felt safe, and had the horrible realization that I could not remember a single instance. Of course, since then, one of my goals has been to create my own sense of safety, and I have used the story of Xena and Gabrielle as a tool in this effort.

[11] As I explained to my friend:

"When Xena is riding through the forest, calling Gabrielle's name, finds her by the spring, pulls her up on the horse...I realized that one of the things I love about this show is you never see a woman as protector for another woman anywhere else on TV. Just the sight of the two of them, Gabrielle clinging to Xena's waist as they ride off on Argo...It gives me shivers."

[12] When I explained to my therapist how I found that image so compelling, she suggested that I watch it over and over again, to help create that psychic level of safety and protection.

[13] Our survey confirmed that our experience of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was shared by other incest survivors:

"Xena's relationship with Gabrielle has been a big influence on me, and Xena's need to atone for her misdeeds has helped. While I did nothing wrong, I still feel a need to make amends, or perhaps even be defended (which are polar opposites, but there you go!). I think DREAMWORKER (03/103) was the most significant episode to me because Xena was willing to die for Gabrielle, to keep her innocent and to keep her from knowing the bad things Xena knows. I wish someone had been there to keep me from knowing the bad things that I know. But I have myself, and just as Xena battled her demons in this episode, so too will I fight my own. And win."

"The images of self-defense and protection of others through physical action are all pretty strong for me. Xena saving Gabrielle from slavery in SINS OF THE PAST [01/101]. And again in REMEMBER NOTHING [26/126]."

"I find images of Xena with Gabrielle useful. Since my mother was my abuser I have lacked a female role model; thus Xena gives me a big sister image to hang on to, a protector, if you will, who might swoop out of the trees and take away all the monsters from my closet."

What do you mean there's no neeeeeeeet????? It's a bird, it's a plane, it's SUPER XENA!

When Gabrielle falls, Xena is there to catch her, or at least grab her before she hits bottom, as illustrated
in A NECESSARY EVIL (38/214).

"First, for me, Gabrielle is the innocent who is protected and nurtured, and who is shown and encouraged to become strong and self-sufficient herself...at this level, I project my inner wounded child onto Gabrielle, and Xena saves me..."

Love, Trust and Dedication

[14] It is not only Xena-as-Gabrielle's-protector that makes the relationship so compelling. It is the love and the trust they have for each other:

"Xena loves Gabrielle, regardless of how the word is defined, and since that is something I have lacked (love from a woman)... I am the person who would stand in front of the TV and scream at Christine Cagney to hug Mary Beth on Cagney And Lacey because I had to see it... It's a mother-thing, I think. Lacking a good mother, I need one; hence, I look for it in my heroines. I need to see the tenderness, to know it exists somewhere in this world. Maybe not in my world, but somewhere."

[15] And it is Gabrielle's absolute dedication to being with Xena in her quest for redemption. To being with her through the pain, the flashbacks, and the nightmares.

"Watching Gabrielle's acceptance of Xena's past is rewarding. Nice to know she is willing to journey with Xena as she continues to work through it and is not put off by the darkness"

"At the level of transforming pain and anguish, of whatever kind, Gabrielle represents the unconditional love for someone who is flawed, and in pain...."

Don't look now, but I think they have a camera on us.

In the famous campfire scene in CALLISTO (22/122), Xena and Gabrielle comfort each other.

Powerful Images for Television

[16] I have read, in a book about theories of fostering social change, that only a small fraction of a person can be reached through the intellect. You can argue rationally, explain logically, but that will never change a person's mind or their actions. To really reach someone, you need to speak the language that the soul understands -- poetry, music, images. These create direct routes into the heart of a person.

[17] This is why a TV show can be so influential. Why a TV show, like Xena: Warrior Princess, can be so powerful. There have been few images of women warriors to heal our psyches, and Xena gives us this. And it gives us tools to reach our wounds and soothe them at the soul-level.

The Bitterness of BITTER SUITE

[18] So what happens if you take these images, that so many of us are invested in on such a profound level, images upon which we have projected some of our deepest pain, and change them? Change them so they no longer show healing, but instead show abuse?

[19] There is a sense of betrayal, personal betrayal. On the surface, it makes no sense. "It is just a TV show." "We don't own these characters, the producers have the right to do whatever they want with them." All of that is true. But the gut level reaction also feels true. Nothing has convinced me more of the central role that the relationship of Xena and Gabrielle plays in personal healing than the outcry I have heard concerning the third season's Rift story arc. I have received letters from people who read my fan fiction, asking me to write a resolution of the issues raised in this arc, that they will have trouble sleeping until I do. We can scorn people's irrational responses to something that it "just a TV show", and suggest that they "get a real life." But isn't it much more interesting, not to mention more compassionate, to try to understand where these feelings are coming from?

[20] People grow or they wither, and so must fictional characters. But, given everything I have discussed here, the image of Xena taking her whip, wrapping it around Gabrielle's legs, spurring a horse into a gallop and dragging a bruised and battered Gabrielle across rugged terrain feels horrible [BITTER SUITE (58/312)]. Or Gabrielle betraying Xena to the Green Dragon, and slapping Xena across the face to get her to repent [THE DEBT II (53/307)]. These images are like knives in the heart.

[21] There is a near infinite array of possible directions in which to take the characters of Xena and Gabrielle -- paths for them to take, in order to grow and change. But these events, where Xena-as-protector becomes Xena-as-abuser, destroy one of the central principles in the show. Central principles should not be violated. As we have heard the producers say, "Xena can be wrong, but she can't be stupid." They need to add a couple more guiding principles that may never be violated. Like "Xena can be wrong, but never stupid and she can never abuse Gabrielle." And "Gabrielle can never abuse Xena."

[22] In violating these additional principles, the producers have torn the very fabric of the show. It may never have been their intention to create characters that have become archetypes in the struggle for healing, but they did. Perhaps they just stumbled onto it. But it is reasonable to assume that they would want to understand why so many of the audience feel betrayed, and even hurt, by some of the events of the rift story arc. Meanwhile the only way I can resolve this for myself is to pretend that it has all been a bad dream, and one episode soon, they'll finally wake up from this nightmare.

Uh, Xena, you can let go of my hand now.

Xena and Gabrielle in FISTFUL OF DINARS (134/144).

Xena, the First, but Hopefully Not the Last

[23] No matter what direction Xena ultimately takes, it is clear that we need more characters like this -- more warrior women, more healing close relationships between powerful women. Perhaps those of us who have discovered our own writing ability in the process of writing fan fiction, in the process of writing our way out of the darkness can create these characters. We need more women who "fight the good fight." We need more healing stories.

No, wait! Let me tell you the one about the traveling salesman!

She doesn't understand the significance of it yet, but Gabrielle begins her journey in fighting "the good fight" while at the same time protecting Xena,
in SINS OF THE PAST (01/101).


Rebecca Hall Rebecca Hall
After working as a civil rights and tenant's rights attorney for 8 years, Rebecca burned out, and is now in graduate school seeking a PhD in history. She lives In Santa Cruz, CA with her partner of ten years and their baby boy, Caleb.
Favorite episode: THE RECKONING (06/106), CALLISTO (22/122), REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202), A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), THE QUEST (37/213), and THE GREATER GOOD (21/121).
Favorite line: Lao Ma to Xena: "You're wrong. I don't eat meat." THE DEBT, Part 2 (53/307)
First episode seen: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110)
Least favorite episode: Opening scenes of THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)

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