Whoosh! Issue 21 - June 1998


IAXS project #555
By Rachel Gordon
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2248 words

Feminism And The Action Hero (01-02)
Quintessential Female (03-04)
The Rift Gabrielle (05-07)
Children (08)
Heroism (10)
Gabrielle The Action Hero (13-14)
Gabrielle And Joxer (15-17)
THE DEBT Reexamined (18-20)
The Future (21-23)
Conclusion (24-25)

How Subversive Is XWP?
A Brief Examination Of The Post-Rift Gabrielle

Two trees, a rock, and a wall couldn't stop her.

Gabrielle uses her staff to pole vault in THE PRODIGAL.

Feminism And The Action Hero

[1] Most people I know, who care to examine such things, consider Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) to be a feminist television show. After all, the central character is a woman and a hero, and, in the course of her adventures, the vast majority of people she encounters are not the least bit surprised that this combination is possible. Xena is strong, intelligent, mature, noble, displays excellent leadership skills (among her other 'many skills') and generally makes a fine 'action hero' as we tend to define the term in popular culture. Somewhere along the way, perhaps because the series has been on the air for almost three seasons, I stopped thinking of this as something extraordinary. I accepted Xena for her abilities and capabilities, and pretty much made a permanent exception for her in an only mildly altered conception of men and women and their roles in the world of action/adventure.

[2] XWP also shows us another character, who happens to be a woman, who, when juxtaposed with Xena, facilitates Xena's depiction as an action hero (AH). Gabrielle, who started out as essentially incapable of taking care of herself and frequently oblivious to the dangers around her, has served mostly as a contrast to Xena. Of course, the Gabrielle seen in fan fiction is quite different. But, with a few notable exceptions, the Gabrielle of the television series, and especially the Gabrielle of the Rift Arc, is the 'quintessential female in an action/adventure show'.

Quintessential Female

[3] We have all seen this individual. Usually she is the girlfriend, ex-girlfriend or future girlfriend of the male action hero. Her main reason for existence is to further the drama. Her motivations, when they happen to be presented, tend to be shallow and underdeveloped. She exists to enhance the hero's motivations. This often takes the form of providing the hero with someone to rescue, someone who hampers his efforts -- unintentionally making his job more challenging, or someone wronged whom he can avenge. At her best, she may display some viable emotions, even have an adventure or two, particularly if the AH is not around, but at her worst, she is a mere plot device.

[4] If Gabrielle is fundamentally this quintessential female (QF), all of that 'subversive' subtext is not subversive anymore. We are simply witnessing the AH and the QF in their traditional roles.

The Rift Gabrielle

[5] If one examines Gabrielle during the Rift episodes [THE DELIVERER (50/304), GABRIELLE'S HOPE (51/305), THE DEBT PARTS I and II (52,53/306,307), MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311), and THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)] by touching on the major plot developments which occur, we see a character who is essentially passive. Gabrielle is neglected by Xena, which of course is not her fault; she is tricked into losing her blood innocence -- she did not want to kill anyone, we know that too; she is raped -- wrong place at the wrong time; and she bears a 'child', as a consequence of all of the above -- none of which is her fault. She certainly goes through a lot, but there is always one element missing: volition.

[6] As the Rift Arc progresses, we see Gabrielle attempt to exert her will. She deceives Xena in order to save her child, Hope, or so it seems. But I would argue that, right away, this scenario rings false. Gabrielle tells Xena that Hope is not inherently evil, that in the same way that Gabrielle helps Xena fight her dark side she can help Hope fight whatever evil might result from Dahak's legacy. She then promptly abandons the child to save her. And exactly who will be influencing Hope now? Sounds like Dahak will be doing some single-parenting.

[7] There are two ways to look at this decision. On one hand, Gabrielle could have been so upset at her own impotence and lack of volition in recent events that she chose to defy Xena simply for the sake of defying her and exercising a little power. On the other hand, it is possible that she is not making decisions as a character, but as a plot device. Either way, she is the QF in full force.


[8] When Solan enters the picture, we are forced to compare Xena's child with Gabrielle's. We find the concept of Xena as a mother to be believable. She presumably carried Solan in her womb for the usual term, then thought about him, at least occasionally, for the nine or ten years of his life. By contrast, Gabrielle carried Hope for a few days and thought about her on occasion for two months. Gabrielle is merely a pale imitation of Xena. What is most telling is that despite Renee O'Connor's marvelous acting, we never truly believe Gabrielle understands the first thing about being a mother. It is almost as if she felt left out because Xena and Ephiny both had children, and she yearned for one of her own.


What do you think Xena? Blue my color?

Gabrielle whacks a recalcitrant Xena in THE DEBT II.

[9] By the time we get to THE DEBT (52/306), it is difficult to believe anything that Gabrielle's character is doing. She never seems more like a plot device than when she betrays Xena because her conscience tells her Xena is wrong. To be sure, there was a shadow of a deeper motivation, a sense that throughout the episode Xena was pushing her away and the thought that maybe Gabrielle resented that. But basically it was an 'I-am-a-force-for-goodness-and- light-and-the-sanctity-of-life' motivation, which, of course, many of us frequently use in our own interactions.


[10] Getting back to the idea of heroism and the AH, I would propose that in order to be heroic in an action/adventure series, a character needs to fulfill three criteria:

  1. to have a viable motivation
  2. to translate that motivation into action
  3. to accept responsibility for the consequences of that action


[11] FORGET ME NOT (63/317) is a remarkable episode in several ways. It truly is Gabrielle's episode in a way that other Xena-lite episodes like KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308) and THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER (56/310) never could be. In those episodes, scattered as they are among the Rift episodes, Xena's absence is strongly noted, up until the point when she does appear, and promptly saves the day [in quintessential deus ex machina fashion].

[12] In FORGET ME NOT (63/317), Gabrielle and her journey are the complete focus of the story. We see the Gabrielle we know, or thought we knew, juxtaposed with another Gabrielle who is an 'empty shell'. Once again we have a plot involving an AH and a QF, only this time they are both manifest within a single character.

Gabrielle, The Action Hero

[13] Gabrielle, the AH, fulfills the first criterion for heroism when she makes known to us a viable motivation. She seeks to end the pain that her memories cause her. Mostly, however, she seeks knowledge.

ARES: Is the quest for knowledge worth all this pain?

GABRIELLE: Yes. It has to be. Otherwise, what's the point of living?

[14] Gabrielle actually worsens her pain by looking for answers. The dilemma she must face on her journey is whether to seek the end of suffering or the beginning of self-knowledge. She has met the second criterion for heroism by entering the temple of Mnemosyne. She fulfills the third when she chooses to keep her awareness of what she has done, and is willing to face both the consequences of her actions, and Xena herself.

Gabrielle And Joxer

Rob, you've got to be kidding me, again? Joxer?

Joxer, Gabrielle, and 'zug-zug' all play a part in FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS.

[15] Meanwhile, Gabrielle, the empty shell/QF, is interacting with Joxer in his guise as the AH. Now, we know that Joxer is not an AH, although his character gets some nice development here. His motivation is to ease Gabrielle's pain, to give her only her good memories back, but he misses the point entirely. Without the pain, there is no growth. Knowledge gained through words, rather than through experience, will never fill the empty shell.

[16] Thus, Joxer's motivation is a noble if simple one, but his actions are inappropriate and, in the end, he chooses not to follow through with them. Joxer believes his efforts to aid Gabrielle on her path are fruitless because of his own inadequacies, but at this point in his character's development, he does not even comprehend the journey. Furthermore, we fear that in some way he will hinder the real Gabrielle's progress. In a way, Joxer is an inversion of the AH, just as this Gabrielle is an inversion of the QF. Both believe that this is the role they are supposed to play, but it does not work for either of them.

[17] Gabrielle, the empty shell/QF, is basically the QF taken to the extreme. She is a character almost completely without motivations of any kind. She is not even particularly interested in hearing about her past, until near the end of her interaction with Joxer, the AH, when she decides that she really does want to remember her life -- at least the part concerning her apparent love for Joxer -- and she tries to initiate the standard AH/QF relationship by encouraging sexual interaction. When this Gabrielle is lost, replaced by the real Gabrielle, one cannot help but wonder if this is not symbolic of the character's own transition from QF to AH.

THE DEBT Reexamined

Stuck with horse duty again?

Ares 'favour' to Gabrielle done during the time of THE DEBT comes back to haunt her in SACRIFICE.

[18] It makes sense to reexamine Gabrielle's actions in THE DEBT (52/306) in light of FORGET ME NOT's (63/317) revelations. Now, Gabrielle's betrayal of Xena stems from a real, human motivation. To be sure, jealousy is not a particularly noble trait, but it is not necessarily unheroic. And it causes Gabrielle to appear, well -- really interesting: a little like Xena, complete with a dark side and all. So here we go again:

[19] First, we see she has the viable motivation. Second, does she act on it? You bet. Accepts a favor from the God of War even:

GABRIELLE: Send me there. I'm asking.
(And it sure did not sound like she was asking, more like telling.)

[20] Third, does she accept the consequences of her actions? It took a while. She suppressed the whole thing for a few months, but yes, that is what FORGET ME NOT (63/317) tells us. So it seems Gabrielle had this heroic potential even during the Rift, she just did not want to know about it.

The Future

[21] It is difficult to speculate as to what extent Gabrielle will maintain her action hero status. Her character has certainly had plenty of experience fighting it. During the course of her journey in FORGET ME NOT (63/317), she spends a considerable amount of time stalling, backtracking or denying the need to continue. When Ares speaks to her in the revisionist DEBT scene: "Funny isn't it. You give up your family, your home, your blood innocence, your daughter, all because of Xena", Gabrielle does not argue with him. Prior to FORGET ME NOT, a viewer could have thought she gave up her family and home for herself, for her quest for knowledge. The other things were consequences of that decision. But the Gabrielle in THE DEBT (52/306) does not see this, and neither does the Gabrielle in FORGET ME NOT. Of course, Xena does not help in such matters since she is always anxious to take all available blame for herself, thus accepting the consequences of her own actions as well as those of others.

[22] Another concept to come out of FORGET ME NOT (63/317) is that of a Gabrielle with a past. She speaks to Ares of the potential loss of her memories:

GABRIELLE: And the memories of my youth, my parents, my loves... and Xena.

[23] Her loves?!? The show has only adequately shown one, her ill-fated husband, Perdicus. Remember, Xena is mentioned separately.


[24] So, we are left with Gabrielle, the sometime QF, on the verge of becoming a fully developed protagonist, with real motivations, the will to act on them, and the maturity to take responsibility for her actions: a true action hero. That is subversive television.

[25] Perhaps the reason we will be seeing more of Joxer in the fourth season is because someone has got to play the quintessential female part. On such a potentially enlightened series, it might as well be a quintessential male.


Rachel Gordon Rachel Gordon
Rachel Gordon is a graduate of Columbia University in New York where she studied liberal arts. She recently completed her medical training and is currently a physician in New York City. Rachel initially began watching XWP for its novel approach to action/adventure centered around a female hero. She soon discovered that it was actually a "message show" in disguise, and has not missed an episode since then.
Favorite episode: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313)
Favorite line: Xena: "Don't let pride get in the way. You tried something and you failed. It happens". ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308)

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