Whoosh! Issue 25 - October 1998

Spinning Off From The Source:
Alternative Fan Fiction Changes With The Seasons

Genres in Alternative Fan Fiction

[53] I also want to examine action themes that establish story genres in the Xenaverse. In this section I am indebted to an article on "The Xena Fan Fic Experience" written by Lunacy for the Xena Media Review #24, as well as to the generous help Lunacy has given in several of our private electronic conversations. Lunacy is without a doubt the fan fiction expert in the Xenaverse. I know of no one who keeps a more rigorous schedule of reading and reviewing Xenaverse fan fiction than she does.

[54] While some story genres in the Xenaverse echo story genres found in Star Trek fan fiction, there are some unique features in Xenaverse fan fiction that bear noting here. In Enterprising Women (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), Camille Bacon-Smith lists commonStar Trek story genres as "Mary Sue stories" (a young ingenue saves the day), "Lay-stories" (Kirk or Spock with a woman), "Hurt/Comfort stories" (Kirk or Spock are seriously injured and the other must comfort the wounded one), "Relationship [-focused]" (nonsexual), and "K/S stories" (Kirk and Spock romantically/sexually involved) [Note 02].

[55] Bacon-Smith finds that the women fanwriters she studied in her ethnography had many different reasons for focusing on the primarily male members of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. One was that the focus allowed them to sidestep gender inequality and having to write about "typical" women's work such as housecleaning. Another is that there was a strongly negative social backlash against "Mary Sue stories" in the Trek fan fiction community, a genre which grew to include nearly any story that included a resourceful female character as protagonist. The most obvious reason for the male-focus is that the crew of the Enterprise was predominantly male.

[56] Constance Penley echoes these same issues in a chapter of Technoculture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) on Trek slash fanwriters (Kirk/Spock stories are called "slash"). She raises concerns about the gendered bodies the stories are written upon, which, in the case of Trek, were male. Xena fan fiction would seem to cast these issues in reverse through the writing of the stories on women's bodies. As Penley writes:

Slash fandom, however, as I have argued, extends these issues and debates about science and technology into the realm of minds and bodies. The K/Sers are constantly asking themselves why they are drawn to writing their sexual and social utopian romances across the bodies of two men, and why these two men in particular. The answers -- and there are surely more than one -- range from the pleasures of writing explicit same-sex erotica to the fact that writing a story about two men avoids the built-in inequality of the romance formula, in which dominance and submission are invariably the respective roles of male and female. There are also advantages to writing about a futuristic couple: it is far from incidental that women have chosen to write their erotic stories about a couple living in a fully automated world in which there will never be fights over who has to scrub the tub, take care of the kids, cook, or do the laundry. Indeed, one reason the fans give for their difficulty thus far in slashing ST:NG is that children and families now live on the Enterprise (albeit in a detachable section!) and that those circumstances severely cut into the erotic possibilities.

All the same, one still wonders why these futuristic bodies -- this couple of the twenty-third century-must be imagined and written as male bodies. Why are the women fans so alienated from their own bodies that they choose to write erotic fantasies only in relation to a nonfemale body? Some who have thought about this question, fans and critics alike, have tried to show that Kirk and Spock are not coded as male but are rather androgynous, even arguing that this was the case on the original show. Slash readers and writers would then be identifying with and eroticizing characters who combine traits of masculinity and femininity. However, the more I read of the slash literature, the more I am convinced that Kirk and Spock are clearly meant to be male. [Note 03]
[57] The Xenaverse, with its two heroic female protagonists, turns the activity of writing fan fiction to focus on women. These two women are still exempt from stereotypical "women's work" because they are on the road. If Xena and Gabrielle were to stop and settle down, "women's work" issues would likely rise to the surface, although the sexist division of labor does not seem to be as crucial an issue for lesbians in the 1990s as it was for the heterosexual women writing fan fiction in hard copy at the time of Bacon-Smith's data gathering (the study was published in 1992).

[58] Xenaverse writers are very often not writing androgynous characters, but instead they are rather boldly exploring power differentials of "dominance and submission". As we will see in the "Warlord/Slave" genre below, alt-fanfic also flirts radically with political incorrectness, which gives the fiction itself an edgy energy.

[59] Even with the gender reversal from two male protagonists (K/S fan fiction) to two female protagonists (X&G alt-fanfic), because of the soulmate-level lifebond that is often assumed between Xena and Gabrielle, a bias still exists against the bards who in effect put themselves into the story in the form of a third character, similar to the prejudice in Trek fandom against "Mary Sue stories". The primary couple has to remain Xena and Gabrielle, proscriptively. A third party interloper, whether a lover or not, had better not come between them [Note 04].

[60] Additional characters can be Amazons, people from Xena's dark past: good or bad, gods or goddesses, peasants in need, etc. If any of these people represent a challenge to the primacy of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship, the challenge should serve in the end to make their relationship stronger. That, in effect, rules out many of Bacon-Smith's categories for fan fiction as applied to the Xenaverse, except one: "Hurt/Comfort stories".

Hurt/Comfort Stories

[61] These stories represent a strong emotional genre for fan fiction in the Xenaverse. The pattern also exists in the themes generated by the television program, the most recent example a XWP standard formula episode, ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313). Gabrielle is injured by a poison arrow, and instead of getting her medical attention, Xena had to serve the greater good by fighting off the entire Persian army. Many Xenites online commented that they loved ONE AGAINST AN ARMY, following all the ups and downs of the "Rift" in Season 3, because it felt like a fan fiction story. The extreme circumstances of "hurt/comfort" brought the strength of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle to the forefront. There are many "hurt/comfort" stories in the Xenaverse, and it is such a solidly accepted genre that most of the fan fiction indexes include a category for "hurt/comfort".

[62] The Xenaverse also supports a number of new and innovative story genres that have become well-known. These are "First Time Stories", "Warlord/Slave Stories", and "Uber-Xena Stories". I should also note that there are a fair number of parodies and skits in the Xenaverse which are quite good and show Xenites' ability not to take themselves and their obsession too seriously. However, for my purposes here I will focus specifically on genres created from general patterns of story genres and plotlines.

First Time Stories

[63] Some of the most popular stories in the alternative fan fiction universe are "First Time" stories, stories that in some ways mirror lesbian perceptions of a romance that grows out of close friendship, with the intense restraint and inner conflict that accompanies "coming out", which is effectively a double whammy for emotional intensity. Xena thinks she is too much a jaded, burned out warlord for the sweet and innocent Gabrielle, and Gabrielle thinks Xena does not see her as the woman she has become. This puts the would-be lovers at cross-purposes, echoing the subtextual restraint and sexual tension shown on the TV program.

[64] Although at times overemphasizing the dark and light sides of the two characters, fan fiction authors know how to drag out a good thing, as do TPTB. When the intense longing and denial come to a head in fan fiction, the stories generate an almost addictive catharsis. Lunacy offers the following description for "First Time" stories at her web site:

First time stories are a mainstay of alternative Xena fan fiction. These genres of stories are simply ones in which Xena and Gabrielle make love for the first time. Some first time stories have Gabrielle as a virgin but virginity in itself does not necessarily define the category. In the early days of alt. fiction first time stories did usually involve virginity because the character of Gabrielle in the TV series was assumed to be a virgin. Recently, however, what they in fact tend to revolve around is Gabrielle's first time with a woman - specifically with the Warrior Princess. First time stories tend to be very romantic and passionate - often explicit as well.

[65] "First Time" stories remain my personal favorites, for many of the reasons I listed above, particularly the intense catharsis. I am most bored with the number of Season One stories where the "First Time" plot revolves around Xena going off somewhere and having to leave Gabrielle behind. Gabrielle becomes upset about being left behind, and then some kind of confrontation occurs to get them to reveal their feelings for each other, often in a highly contrived situation.

[66] I have a theory about why Season One fan fiction had so much energy invested in a virginal Gabrielle, and it is not because the Xenaverse is full of chickenhawks (an older person who prefers to date people much younger), at least I do not think so.

[67] For a while I entertained the idea that the "virginal Gabrielle"-themed stories might have been written by men using women's names, because some men do place a great deal of emphasis on virginity. But I ruled that out too, for lack of solid information. The few male alt-fanfic writers in the Xenaverse appear to be open about their gender, at least on the surface. I had expected lesbians online to be fairly vigilant in exposing suspected men posing as women. Still, there is no way I can verify if "virginal Gabrielle"-themed stories are really being written by men posing as women. I have only met women fanfic writers, and some of them have written "virginal Gabrielle" fanfic stories.

[68] Another theory is that these more condescending stories pre-dated some of the bolder fan fiction stories now currently available that emphasize "Warlord/Slave" themes. "Warlord/Slave" stories rather forthrightly take on issues of a power differential between lovers. Perhaps before it was widely accepted to write "Warlord/Slave" Xena stories, people who wanted to explore power differentials had to polarize the differences between Xena and Gabrielle even more than the first season on television did. To my mind, however, that still does not justify how condescending Xena acts toward Gabrielle in some of these stories. Perhaps I just do not understand the eroticism of power differentials.

Warlord/Slave Stories

[69] "Warlord/Slave" stories rather fearlessly play directly toward the lesbian/queer, sex-positive or sex-radical, bondage and discipline-sadomasochism (BDSM) audience. These stories walk a difficult line, relying on the dark appeal of the evil warlord Xena had been before Hercules turned her on the path of goodness. Yet the readers of these stories (and not all evil warlord stories are BDSM, but they all provide clues to the appeal of the dark Xena) do not seem to be the stereotypical aficionados of master/slave relationships, what Lucy Lawless calls the doctors and lawyers who write to her wanting to be spanked.

[70] The whole BDSM issue in the Xenaverse begs for closer examination. Much of the Xenaverse at large embodies a different kind of feminism, one that celebrates political incorrectness in the way that a sharp-tongued Shakespearean jester becomes a truth-teller of the play. The BDSM sector of the Xenaverse is not any different.

[71] We would be remiss if we conveniently overlooked the dominatrix suggestiveness of Xena's costume and demeanor, even as a reformed and upstanding person on the heroic path of truth and justice. But queer, sex positive/sex radicals are supposedly coming to BDSM from outside of the dominant patriarchy, or if that is impossible (it has to be), attempting to "f*ck with the categories" and subvert from within. What they do with power inequalities can make many liberal feminists squirm, just as the reclaiming of the once politically incorrect "butch/femme" role playing (with the queer emphasis on playing) drew attention to things many feminists would just as soon not look at. BDSM unflinchingly exposes the erotic side of control, power, vulnerability, and pain, undercurrents that feed day-to-day, more vanilla attractions as well.

[72] What is the attraction of the unreformed warlord Xena? Fan fiction writers are marvelously inventive in finding ways for her to appear, a blow to the head or emotional break leading to amnesia or dementia ("Truth or Dare" by WordWarior, "Anger is My Shield" by Jamie Boughen), accidentally drinking the waters of Lethe ("Well of Sighs" by Ella Quince), wearing the powerful ring of Eos ("Miles to Go" by M. Parnell), needing to go undercover to take over an army ("Warlord Daze" by Katrina), spinning an alternative universe where Xena is Conqueror of the Known World from ARMAGEDDON NOW (H72-73/413-414), an episode of Hercules ("Resistance" by Della Street), and so on.

[73] The first season of Xena provided precedence for such themes with TIES THAT BIND (20/120), where Xena reverts to her dark ways until Gabrielle shocks her out of it by breaking a pitchfork across her back. Ares, God of War, is always trying to get Xena to come back to him so they can rule the world together, and on the show this is represented as a powerful temptation for Xena. When Xena's son is killed in the third season in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), Xena makes a terrible break in her sanity and sets out to kill Gabrielle. Then they both fall into the musical land of Illusia and work out their differences. In flashbacks throughout THE DEBT I and II (52-53/306-307), we also see how very dark the mass murderer Xena was, ruled by desire, appreciating the satisfaction of "a good kill". ARMAGEDDON NOW II (H73/414) gave a glimpse of a Xena with the evil empire-building potential of a Hitler, making it clear exactly how intoxicating an offer Ares was making. Xena was not giving up the life of a two-bit warlord. She could have been a contender.

[74] The unreformed Xena in alternative fan fiction embodies raw power, both physical and personal. She has unpredictable cruelty, intense polymorphous passion, the ability to seduce anyone, worldly knowledge of all things ("many skills"), cunning battle strategy, the guile of a trickster, charisma to inspire soldiers to die for her, proud statuesque beauty, and piercing pale blue eyes. In fan fiction, everyone mentions the eyes. She is control. She is wildness. She is unlike any female hero or anti-hero archetype in recent memory, with the exception perhaps of Athena, or a few goddesses going back to ancient Sumeria and India. This Xena is not a nice person. She has no friends. She is truly frightening. She is intoxicating. She is "feral". She uses her body as a weapon in every sense of the word. She is hard, emotionless, yet ruled by desire, the desire for power.

[75] That is the set up, at least. Xena's dark past gives her character an amazing complexity, whether reformed or not. In some sense, given this unbridled past, it is too easy to represent the reformed Xena like the Klingon Lt. Worf on Star Trek: Deep Space 9, drinking prune juice because the effort to keep a rein on his wild and warlike nature has made him constipated. No wonder fan fiction writers delight in turning evil Xena loose. Who wants to see their hero drinking prune juice?

[76] But no fan fiction writer keeps evil Xena completely evil. Somewhere within all that badness beats a true heart, and while everyone in the known world may curse her name, Gabrielle is the one person who sees it, believes in it, and breaks through to it. That is the tension point which fuels the fire of the fan fiction Xenaverse, from BDSM to sweet vanilla romance, through themes of love in the face of impossible odds, redemption, and reconciliation with a Jungian shadow. Even set in a pessimistically Schopenhauerian landscape, even framed in a simple morality play of good peasants versus evil warlords, the Xenaverse goes beyond dualities.

[77] People relate to Xena's coming to grips with her past as an ongoing struggle. Several have posted personal stories of their own battles with their dark pasts as drug users, street people, high school dropouts, or rape survivors. They are people who have lived in the margins beyond dualities. Anything less than the same struggle from Xena would be an insult to them.

[78] Some people eroticize power. Others eroticize vulnerability. Some can alternate between the two. Some find the ability to eroticize power and submission to be a white, middle class luxury. Some do not like to bring power into the equation, as if pretending it is not there could make it go away. With the intoxicating attraction of evil Xena, the issue is brought to a head, with Xenites holding a position at the points of disruption between many different conflicting philosophies, in a place of great tension, yet also a place of great energy.

Uber-Xena Stories

[79] That energy carries forward into other timelines as well, as the alt-fanfic writers collectively create one of the truly innovative inspirations of Xenaverse fan fiction: "Uber-Xena" stories. These stories rely on an archetypal Xena and an archetypal Gabrielle meeting and interacting with different names, in different timelines, and in different settings, from trailer parks to the Old West. "Uber-Xena" stories have effectively demonstrated that the power of this particular pairing between two women has legs to carry it far beyond anything originally created by TPTB. All that are needed are Xena and Gabrielle as avatars, in the persons of Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor, reliving the dynamic and often not-so-subtextual chemistry between them.

[80] "Uber-Xena" stories are more than a little bit difficult to explain, although their effect on the Xenaverse and possibly beyond is tremendous. TPTB put the trend in motion with an innocuous little clip episode meant to give the actors a week off by creating an excuse for the characters to "remember" their past adventures. These adventures were then illustrated by recycling video clips from past episodes. Given Renaissance Pictures' quirky aesthetic sense, even what are supposed to be boring clip episodes have some kind of an unusual set up.

[81] In the second season, THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210) was particularly unique. Instead of opening in ancient Greece, this episode begins in 1940's Macedonia in the middle of World War II. In an overt "Indiana Jones" parody, two archaeologists discover the "Xena Scrolls", supposedly written by the bard, Gabrielle. The storyline itself is formulaic and unimportant, but the characters give it a wry twist.

[82] "Indiana Jones" is one very butch, gun-toting, cigar-smoking Renee O'Connor, who usually plays the more femme Gabrielle. As Janice Covington, O'Connor is joined at the dig by an ultra-femme, bookish Southern belle, Melinda Pappas (Lucy Lawless), who can translate ancient syntax. By the end of the story the two discover that they are drawn to the Xena Scrolls because they are descendants of Xena and Gabrielle. As it turns out they are also drawn to become partners. With that development, alternative fan fiction writers had two more characters to write about. Uber-Xena fan fiction was born.

[83] The actual phrase "Uber-Xena" was coined by Kym Masera Taborn in mid-June of 1997. Already a few of what would eventually be called "Uber" stories were appearing online, but Taborn gave the genre a name which stuck. Della Street's story-headings explain Uber-Xena stories as "Descendants of Xena and Gabrielle meet in different timelines and interact in familiar ways".

[84] At first, all "Uber-Xena" stories were what are now called "Janice and Mel" WWII timeline stories, with Bat Morda's novella-length "Is There a Doctor on the Dig?" and "Search for Amphipolis" receiving wide-spread online acclaim. These stories helped to strongly establish the Uber genre, a genre which we will see below offers the greatest potential for the development of an archetype that may well have an influence beyond the borders of the Xenaverse.

[85] Before long, writers began branching out, placing new descendants of Xena and Gabrielle all over the timeline, often with complex, novel-length offerings. In Della Street's "Towards the Sunset", the unreformed outlaw Jess Chambers (Xena) meets the feisty schoolmarm Mattie Brunson (Gabrielle) in the American Old West. In Elaine Sutherland's "Women in Prison", a tongue-in-cheek parody of 1950's moralistically homophobic lesbian novels, the Xena-character is a sadistic prison warden who finds she cannot abuse the Gabrielle-character inmate. In one of the most powerful psychological thrillers in the Xenaverse, Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza's modern day "Surfacing" casts Xena as a deep cover government assassin trying to break away from the CIA, while the Gabrielle-character is a lawyer who steals her heart and helps her make the break. Bardwynna's "Xena by Gaslight" series places Xena- and Gabrielle-characters in Sherlock Holmes's London. There are some futuristic, sci-fi Uber-Xenas, although they are more unevenly written than the ones grounded in well-known settings. Wishes, one of the strongest non-alternative writers in the Xenaverse, has a hauntingly dystopian, futuristic Uber story, "Battle", with the Gabrielle-character as a nurses' aid in what is supposedly a hospital for the criminally insane. When she is given a new patient in the violent wing (Xena), she begins to question the nature of the "experiments" going on in other parts of the hospital.

[86] With the exception of the relatively large number of Janice and Mel stories, very few Uber-Xena stories allow the Xena and Gabrielle characters to switch roles, for Xena to be the femme and Gabrielle to be the butch. Many stories cast the two characters more androgynously, such as in LN James's "Chicago 5 a.m.", where the Xena-character is a hardened private investigator, but the Gabrielle-character is a new FBI agent who also has several black belts in the martial arts.

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