Whoosh! Issue 26 - November 1998

THE CASTING OF ATHENA
IAXS project #165
By Caryl-Sue Micalizio
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2407 words



Introduction (01-03)
A Western Presence In The "Mediterranean" (04)
The "Other" (05-10)
     Centaurs And Maori (05)
     African-American Cleopatra (06)
     Amazon Nation (07-08)
     Other "Other" (09-10)
"Black Athena" (11-13)
Recurring Deities (14-15)
Athena In The XenaVerse (16-20)
M'Lila And Lao Ma: Xena's Non-White Influences (21-24)
Conclusion (25)
Biography



The Casting Of Athena



HELP! I'm BLIIINNNNDDD!


Who might be cast as Athena?



Introduction

[1] The goddess Athena, as represented in the 'Xenaverse' should be a played black woman. Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) is marked by a consistent use of anachronistic casting and a stylized, multi-cultural atmosphere. The treatment of the Greco-Roman pantheon in Xena and its companion series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (HTLJ), is indicative of this sardonic ambiance. Major influences of diverse, often marginalized, cultures also mark the Xenaverse.

[2] Given the cultural irony and feminist tone of Xena, Athena, the goddess of strength and wisdom, could be a powerful role. The casting of a woman of African descent would be an acknowledgment of a marginalized social presence in a text that defines itself by an ambiguous, if fertile, relationship with other marginalized identities.

[3] The casting decisions in Xena are characterized by diversity. Besides consistent acknowledgments of race and ethnicity, religion and culture in XWP and HTLJ episodes, the Xenaverse is actually inhabited by people of color.


A Western Presence In The "Mediterranean"

[4] Xena, set in Greece and the ancient Near East by way of contemporary New Zealand, declares its anachronism from the opening credits. The atonal voices of a Slavic women's chorus meld with a predictable, Western melodic action theme. Stars Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor are hardly Mediterranean archetypes, nor are they presented as such. Lawless is a New Zealander of European descent, and O'Connor hails from Texas. TV Guide asked Kevin Sorbo, Hercules himself, what prepared him for the role of a demi-god: "I'm [Norwegian] from Minnesota. Viking, 100%". None of the lead actors have the olive skin that mark coastal Greek, Italian, Spanish or Turkish peoples. They are, clearly, Western European. Thus, even the European dominance on XWP and HTLJ is a loose affiliation of Anglo-Saxon actors from Westernized countries.


The "Other"


Centaurs and Maori

Nope, even in this getup, I look like a sharper tack than 
this guy.


Renaissance has a habit of casting some unusual looking characters with little or no regard for racial or cultural stereotypes.


[5] Local Maori actors are also a presence in the Xenaverse. Most credibly, some Maori actors fill the roles of the ostracized Centaur nation. In a deft characterization, the Centaurs are a marginalized ethnicity living in pastoral "ghettoes" outside the rural and urban centers populated by human beings. Despite a reputation for violence and insensitivity (one that marks xenophobia well outside fictional texts) the Centaur nation is represented as strong, capable and intelligent. Their distant attitude stems from a legitimate distrust of a repressive social system. The visible presence of the disenfranchised Polynesian natives in the roles adds a depth of meaning to the identity, one that contributes to the respect and awareness given to diversity in Xena.


African-American Cleopatra

[6] As the presence of Maori actors adds an element of anachronism to Xena, the casting of African-American actress Gina Torres in the role of Cleopatra [KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308)] contributes to a popular debate. The ethnicity of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt is of some concern: as one of the few African heritages recognized in Western culture, the relationship between Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africa has always been tenuous in Western media. Few recognize Egypt as a part of Africa (which, of course, it is) and Egyptians, such as Ramses, Nefertiti, and King Tut, as black. The apparent ethnicity of Cleopatra herself (as a Ptolemy, Greek) contributes to the discourse, as does Torres's casting as the confident, sexy Cleopatra of the Xenaverse. Torres' ancestry is West African; she inhabits the role of a Greek queen of an East African empire.


Amazon Nation

I've played a sex-minded Egyptian queen, a sex-minded pirate, 
and for the hat trick, a sex-minded casting director!


Gina Torres has portrayed both Cleopatra and Nebula.


[7] Clearly, the casting of Torres and the consistent Maori presence demonstrate XWP's awareness of the experience of the "Other". The post-feminists of the Amazon nation contribute to this acknowledgment of identities peripheral to the tacit, established standard: physically, ethnically, and sexually.

[8] The Amazons, in many ways occupying the same cultural spaces as the Centaurs, are vigilant in preserving a dying culture. The once-powerful Amazon nation has been reduced to spectacle, tradition, and infighting that characterizes contemporary post-colonial powers. The Amazon discourses on accepting outside influences is especially relevant to the position of Third World nations overwhelmed by Western economic and cultural predominance.


Other "Other"

[9] Contemporary influences are also specifically recognized in XWP and HTLJ. Xena was recently ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) of Persians, and has spent a considerable amount of time in China ("The Kingdom of Ch'in"). Recognition of Jewish religion and Hebraic tradition were central to the episodes GIANT KILLER (27/203), THE ROYAL COUPLE OF THIEVES (17/117) and THE DELIVERER (50/304). Stories, like Gabrielle's tragic exploration of monotheism in THE DELIVERER, located outside Judeo-Christian mythology, but still recognizing its presence, are interesting. They demonstrate a consistent use of the "Other" (here, ethnic and religious) instead of token representation.

[10] In light of this open dialog with the "Other", the relative absence of strong, capable fat women in Xena is significant. The character of Minya, the menopausal Xena wannabe established in A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) and reappearing in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310) is written as overweight, and her character, though clearly comic relief, is written with bright empathy and respect. When Gabrielle introduces Minya in THE QUILL..., she says, "She's our friend", without a trace of condescension or pity. Minya, or a fat woman of some political, religious, or social power, would be a welcome recurrent character in the Xenaverse. The African American community is more accepting of diverse body types than the traditional white hegemony, and the casting of a larger black woman as Athena would be an interesting, viable option.


"Black Athena"

[11] Ann M. Ciola's IAXS project, "Black Athena: Cultural Influences in the Xenaverse," (Whoosh! #04, December 1996-January 1997, a study in the multi-cultural cues of visual affects in XWP, is fascinating in scope and specificity. Her detail of set design, costumes and prop use reflect the series' knowing, ironic attitude in regards to cultural hegemony and colonization. Ciola's article details elements of pre-Columbian, West African and Oceanic art in XWP. Because of the extremely stylized representation of the Xenaverse itself (Velcro and satin co-exist with crude plows and Greco-Roman temples) the undifferentiated multi-cultural collage is coherent.

[12] Ciola's essay also acknowledges the book Black Athena (Vols. 1-2, 1987 and 1991), by Martin Bernal, in recognizing the contributions of African culture to Hellenic paradigms. Archeological evidence, specifically the presence of trading goods in Greek, Near Eastern, and African sites, supports a network of economic and cultural influences throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

[13] The possibilities for exploiting this network of influences in the casting of XWP remain unfulfilled, though the representation of the Pantheon in the Xenaverse does typify an satiric take on cultural mythology. The recurring deities Ares, Hades, and Aphrodite are excellent representations of anachronistic casting. A literal black Athena would be consistent with the Xenaverse's tendency to acknowledge sophisticated subject manner in an immediate, subtle manner.


Recurring Deities

That's 'Tonga,' not 'Toga.' Get that silly white sheet away 
from me!


Kevin Smith (shown here as Iphicles, Herc's half brother) is Tongan on his mother's side.


[14] Although Artemis, Persephone, Poseidon, Demeter, Bacchus, and Athena herself have appeared in the Xenaverse, the gods of war, the underworld, and love have the most recurrent roles. Ares is the most prominent deity in both series, and with good reason. He is written as a charismatic quasi-villain, all smirk and black leather. The appearance of Hades actually predates that of Ares, and his character is equally well developed: the lord of hell as an overworked administrator. Aphrodite, the only recurring goddess, is a slightly aging Valley Girl with a heart of gold and a body out of Victoria's Secret. Unlike the intimidating demeanors of Ares or Hades, Aphrodite is earthy and approachable, sexy in an easy, available manner.

[15] Of the under-represented gods in the Pantheon, Poseidon and Athena remain the most rife with possibility. The computer-generated god Poseidon, looking like the aliens from The Abyss (James Cameron, 1989), is an interesting entity, non-corporeal and ever present in the coastal world of the Eastern Mediterranean. The goddess of wisdom has already appeared in a toss-off cameo in the HTLJ episode THE APPLE (H30/217), played by Amanda Lister. Presented in competition with Artemis and Aphrodite, her characterization was unconvincing and flat: a nerd, albeit one looking more at home in the Van Halen video "Hot for Teacher" than MTV's Daria.


Athena In The XenaVerse

[16] Strong women, especially two virgin goddesses (Athena and Artemis) in competition with each other may be canonical in Greek and Roman mythology, but it is incongruous in the Xenaverse, which seems to pride itself on bright, independent women. Xena and Gabrielle rarely compete with each other or anyone else for attention, affection or reward. And when they do, as Gabrielle did in FORGIVEN (60/314), the results are uneven. Athena, though already represented in passing once, has the potential to be the guiding spirit of XWP.

[17] Her attributes lend themselves toward the series' dynamic. Athena is the patron of the arts; Gabrielle is a bard, and her interests in reading and writing strongly define her character. Surely Athena would be an influence on the young artist. Xena herself, though quick to recognize injustice, is, after all, a warrior. Athena, of course, is the goddess of strength and victory. Her incarnation of Athena Nike, the goddess of victory itself, practically begs to be parodied in the series. Athena, like Xena, occupies a traditionally masculine role (strength and wisdom) in a male-dominated universe.

[18] Also, like Xena and unlike Aphrodite, Athena is unapologetic about her strength and not easily swayed by the men surrounding her. Strength, which Athena personifies, is not limited to a physical or psychological dominance, but realized as a regal awareness and acceptance of self: wisdom. The strength of Gabrielle's pacifist convictions, Xena's faith, and their relationship with each other are all attributes of feminine fortitude.

[19] Unlike the traditional characterizations of Artemis, Athena, though independent (a virgin goddess) does not resent men. She is a favorite of Zeus, a traditional friend of Hercules (his chief helper during the Labors, and defender against Hera) and, as goddess of victory, would have frequent contact with Ares, god of war. The leaders she favors in victory and wisdom are often men, and her virgin status reflects a rejection of a misogynist system, not a rejection of men. Xena and Gabrielle also lead lives independent of men, though without the rejection that often characterizes the Amazons. Hercules, Autolycus, even Ares are treated with respect and compassion.

[20] This unique ability to exist in two worlds (misogynist and feminist) defines the condition of the African-American woman. Twice identified as "Other", she must exist in a social universe defined as both masculine and white. The casting of a woman of African descent would hint at this identity without proclaiming it. As Athena was born from Zeus' fractured skull, the ethnicity (all the identified gods have been white, save Poseidon's watery form) would not have to be an issue, if indeed the writers decided to openly recognize the issue at all.


M'Lila And Lao Ma: Xena's Nonwhite Influences

No, no, it's knit one, perl two. HOW many skills did you say 
you have?


M'Lila shows Xena how to do the pinch thing.


[21] The two women responsible for shaping Xena's character (outside blondes Gabrielle and Callisto) are both nonwhite, and their backgrounds mark a facility to recognize difference in a positive manner in the Xenaverse.

[22] M'Lila, the rebellious woman from "the land of the Pharaohs," was introduced in the pivotal XWP episode DESTINY (36/212). M'Lila was a beautiful black woman who saved Xena's life, and whose physical agility and corporeal knowledge (notably, the use of pressure points, a frequent tactic used by Xena) set a pattern Xena followed in later life. Despite M'Lila's position as a slave, she was written with respect and wisdom.

[23] The same could be said of Xena's friendship with Lao Ma, the powerful, gentle matriarch from "the Kingdom of Ch'in". Even more capable than M'Lila, Lao Ma embodied a strength of mind, of empathy and compassion, more powerful than Xena's weapons or Lao Ma's son's (Ming T'ien) ambition and revenge. Lao Ma's incorporation of body, mind, and spirit was a life lesson Xena was unable to immediately embrace. Xena's recognition of Lao Ma's legacy, her character, was THE DEBT (52,53/306,307) that fueled much of the third season's atmosphere.

[24] Like Athena, Lao Ma was a beautiful woman who lived a life independent of men. Her husband was a horrific, violent warlord. She kept him in a comfortable coma and lent his name to a series of essays and lessons on a life of harmony and selflessness. Xena could not understand Lao Ma's generosity in giving her husband credit. Lao Ma comprehended the power of results, not recognition. (In a terrific, sardonic aside, Lao Ma's husband was Lao Tzu, and attributed to him is the seminal work on Taoism, Tao Te Ching). As the goddess of both wisdom and victory, these are attributes that characterize Athena.


Conclusion

[25] Lao Ma and M'Lila (like Xena's African-American love, Marcus), however, are both dead, and their characters exist only as components to Xena's own. This is a difficult territory to occupy as "Other": multi-cultural influences are habitually only seen as affecting the dominant paradigm. The African and Asian influences are decoration, if significant decoration, not unlike the set dressing "eye candy" addressed in Ciola's essay. The introduction of a strong, present woman of color would clarify the respect given to M'Lila and Lao Ma, as well as the various incarnations of the "Other" (the Amazons, the Centaurs) that exist in the Xenaverse.



Biography

Caryl-Sue Micalizio Caryl-Sue Micalizio
Caryl-Sue Micalizio (carylsue@bigfoot.com) is a Sagittarius born in the Year of the Dog. She is a graduate student at a large southwestern university with a demonic mascot, where she is also an editor at a newspaper. Turn ons include long walks on the beach and afternoon naps. Turn offs include her job and corporate fascism. Her mother is a junior high school teacher, and her father delivers Meals on Wheels. Her sister is a dissatisfied state park aide. Caryl-Sue's three favorite things are love, love and love.
Favorite episode: HERE SHE COMES . . MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211)
Favorite line: Xena whistling the Xena theme to herself while fishing, in FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318)
First episode seen: THE TITANS (07/107)
Least favorite episode: THE DELIVERER (50/304), which didn't deliver

Return to Top Return to Index