Whoosh! Issue 27 - December 1998

IAXS project #155
By Rachel Gordon
Copyright © 1998 held by author
3223 words

Introduction (01-05)
Attire (06-07)
Donning And Doffing (08-14)
Sexual Power As Seen Through Actions (15-23)
Xena In Seasons One And Two (24-27)
Xena In Season Three (28-29)
Why? (30)
     Villains (31-32)
     Accessibility (33)
     Viewer Insecurities (34)
     The Grand Plan (35-39)
Conclusion (40)

Sexual Power In Xena: Warrior Princess

Wanna play find the soap?

Xena's first hot tub scene was with Iolaus.


[1] In its three seasons on the air, Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) has managed to provide a unique perspective on the concept of the female hero. Xena, herself, has always displayed an amazing physical prowess to vanquish her enemies through her unparalleled fighting skills. She defeated the god of war in THE FURIES (47/301). Even Hercules would not have been able to best her in THE GAUNTLET (H12/112), had not his cousin, Illoran, cheated a little during their one-on-one confrontation by joining the fray and providing Hercules with a sword at a crucial moment.

[2] Yet beyond this ability, unmatched as it is among female heroes on television, Xena maintains a formidable "sexual power". She wields this power over other characters on the show as if it were just another weapon in her arsenal. However, when one stops to analyze this power, one realizes that its presence is even more unusual than the ability to defeat gods and demigods.

[3] This is partly because it is extremely uncommon to see these two types of power manifested in the same individual. Physical power is almost exclusively reserved for the male action hero. Sexual power belongs to the female villain. True, Xena did start out as a villain, and she wasted no time using that sexual power against Iolaus and Hercules in THE WARRIOR PRINCESS (H09/109), but, oddly enough, she held onto it even after she became a hero.

[4] Sexual power is present when one character displays the upper hand in an encounter with another character which contains sexual overtones. It is the control of an interaction through the control of an individual and can be expressed by actions as well as by visual appearances. When it is suggested through the latter, this is frequently seen in the use of clothing. This refers to what one wears, how the attire is perceived by others, and the control over its presence or absence. It is one thing to undress oneself, and quite another for someone else to do the undressing.

[5] If one compares the first two seasons of XWP with the third season by specifically examining sexual power, one observes some startling differences. Third season trends have not only included greater amounts of nudity for the two main protagonists, Xena and Gabrielle, but nudity has been used as an expression of loss of situational control. As sexual overtones are frequently present, this translates into a loss of sexual power.


[6] Xena's costume has always been somewhat revealing when compared with the attire of the male characters and other female characters on XWP. This is especially true in the beginning of the first season, when the most obvious juxtaposition can be made between Xena's and Gabrielle's costumes. However, because no one takes advantage of Xena's sparse dress and acts inappropriately towards her or undresses her - a general "look but do not touch" rule - it does not diminish her sexual power. In fact, it enhances it.

[7] The same can be said of Gabrielle's progression from long skirt and long sleeved blouse to mini skirt and sports bra. The key is how other characters react to Xena and Gabrielle, which, in turn, instructs the audience as to the appropriate reaction.

Donning And Doffing

A scene from the unaired pilot WOMEN ASKING DIRECTIONS IN ANCIENT

Xena doesn't stay in her civvies for very long in SINS OF THE PAST.

[8] Sexual power is maintained when characters dress or undress themselves. When Xena removes her armor and weapons in SINS OF THE PAST (01/101), it does not interfere with her ability to fight or alter the soldiers' reactions to her. The same is true in CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102), and later for Xena in Mel's body in THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210). In both instances, she tears open the seams of her dress or skirt in order to increase her mobility and to enable her to fight without restrictions. In THE RECKONING (06/106), when Ares is attempting to seduce Xena both sexually and emotionally, he transports her to another realm and provides her with a dress to wear. He begins to undress her, lowering the straps on her shift, but she interrupts his actions in order to undress herself. She has effectively taken back the control, the sexual power in the scene, and never relinquishes it.

[9] Compare these instances with some examples from the third season. The entrance into Illusia in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) begins with a naked Xena, who is clothed by Callisto/Aleph. This is followed by a scene with Ares and Xena's potential army in which Ares actually cuts off her gown and then redresses her as a warrior, an outfit more suited to his purposes for her.

[10] Similarly, we can examine Xena in the flashback scenes of THE DEBT I and II (52,53/306,307). In THE DEBT I, we see a Xena dressed in rags running from Ming Tsu's hunting dogs. She is rescued by Lao Ma, who bathes, grooms, and dresses Xena in the clothing of her house - clothing that in this setting speaks of ownership. In THE DEBT II flashback, we see Lao Ma wrap and unwrap Xena in flowing cloth as they float above the floor. This is reminiscent of a recurring capture and release that, despite its teasing quality, firmly establishes Lao Ma as the source of sexual power. These images are in sharp contrast to Season Two's flashbacks in DESTINY (36/212) where Xena has greater control over her interactions with both M'Lila and Caesar. Even in the contemporary scene in THE DEBT II, which takes place in Ming Tien's dungeon, Xena must be provided with clothing by her fellow prisoners as she has brought none of her own with her.

[11] In the case of Gabrielle, one scene that stands out in the first season occurs in HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110). The Amazons have finished dressing her in the attire of the Amazon Princess: potentially transforming her into what they want her to be. Ephiny enters the room and demands that Gabrielle come with her.

EPHINY Come. Now. GABRIELLE I'm sorry, you must have me mistaken for a pet. EPHINY Would you come with me? GABRIELLE That's better.
[12] Despite the opportunity for the Amazons to exert power over her, Gabrielle simply does not allow it. Ephiny relents and withdraws her demand.

[13] In season three in GABRIELLE'S HOPE (51/305), the Banshees dress Gabrielle in sack cloth as she begins to fall for their seductive banter. She will not remove the garment even when Xena instructs her to do so. In THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), Gabrielle arrives in Illusia naked, and must wait while Joxer ogles her and then clothes her. Her reaction, which is to be embarrassed, and his reaction, which is to leer, tell us that the sexual power is his and provides instruction to the audience as to how to respond to her character in the future. She has become passive - the object to be viewed who, while uncomfortable with the scrutiny, is nonetheless unable to exert the power necessary to change the situation.

[14] In THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310), this is taken one step further when Joxer creates the three naked Gabrielles, for all intents and purposes undressing her himself. Again, although she is obviously uncomfortable with this, she makes no effort to change it. A simple "and the three naked Gabrielles got dressed before going to the caves" written on that enchanted scroll would have done the trick.

Sexual Power As Seen Through Actions

Unless you want your butt kicked by a Warrior Princess, I suggest
you amscray!

Gabrielle handles a ruffian in CHARIOTS OF WAR.

[15] In Seasons One and Two, Gabrielle and Xena were never presented as equal in fighting ability or physical prowess. In fact, most episodes played up their differences and showed the characters using their disparate strengths to solve problems. Sexually, Gabrielle was depicted as naive and virginal, while Xena was vastly experienced. Hence, it was rather surprising to notice exactly how much sexual power Gabrielle was actually wielding back then.

[16] In CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102), when Gabrielle is accosted by a drunk in a tavern while awaiting Xena's return, she tries to talk her way out of the situation. When that fails, she goes over to a young warlord, sits in his lap and kisses him. She instructs him to pretend to be her boyfriend and he, utterly charmed by her, agrees.

GABRIELLE Pretend you know me. YOUNG WARLORD Uh, no problem.
[17] He does not take advantage of the situation to try to wrest the sexual power from her. Instead, he seems to enjoy the fact that she is wielding it.

[18] In RETURN OF CALLISTO (29/205) we see Gabrielle and Perdicas together. Throughout their interaction, Gabrielle maintains the upper hand. On their wedding night, Gabrielle speaks to an insecure Perdicas:

GABRIELLE I have you. PERDICAS And that makes you happy? GABRIELLE Very.
[19] This is followed by a discussion of Gabrielle's sexual innocence and Perdicus' experience, yet despite this inequality, Gabrielle does not relinquish the sexual power. She stands while he sits on the bed during the love scene and provides a powerful image of control.

[20] The third season for Gabrielle is all about the loss of sexual power. In THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303) she becomes an object for discussion by the group:

DARNELL Yeah, she's a princess. Besides, I can think of one reason to have her around.
[21] In THE DELIVERER (50/304), she is seduced emotionally by Kraftstar, then sexually by Caesar, before she is finally raped by Dahak - who, incidentally, drags her across the floor by her leg while her skirt inches upwards.

[22] There is Joxer, not just loving her passively as in Season Two, but manipulating her sexually in FORGET ME NOT (63/317), and physically grabbing her in FINS FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318) - causing her to eat ants to avoid sex with him. Then, near the end of FINS, she tries to stop the bad guys with her physical splendor, only to fail miserably.

GABRIELLE I'm sure even people of your ilk can appreciate perfection. Right? WARLORD Sure we can. Kill her.
[23] Granted the episode is a comedy, but what exactly are we laughing at but Gabrielle's delusions of sexual power.

Xena In Seasons One And Two

[24] From the first episode, SINS OF THE PAST (01/101), Xena uses her sexuality to win friends and influence people. She plays Draco well, using his interest in her to save Poteidaia, without having to actually give in to his desires. In THE RECKONING (06/106), Xena essentially manipulates Ares throughout the episode, leading him along until she can win her freedom.

[25] It is particularly interesting that Ares comes closest to success in his seduction attempts when Xena is being beaten by villagers in the jail. She recalls visions of her greatness in battle and is nearly swayed by thoughts of her own power over others, never by his power over her. Somehow this is more of what one would expect from the seduction of a male action hero.

[26] Note also that this scene is decidedly non-sexual, despite the fact that Xena is chained while being whipped. The whip never touches her skin, has no affect on her clothing, and there is nothing in the scene that suggests the torture would be any different if she were a man.

[27] In the second season episode ULYSSES (43/219), Xena saves the ship, and Ulysses himself, from the Sirens' seductive sexual power expressed in song by, well, doing it better than them.

Xena In Season Three

Before the restrictive seat belt laws were enforced

Doing it on horseback in THE DEBT.

[28] Ah, where to begin. Poor Xena. In Season Three, we see THE DEBT (52,53/306,307) in which: (1) Borias throws Xena from a horse while they are in the middle of intercourse; (2) the visual imagery of Xena at Lao Ma's feet after being chased by hounds; and (3) the telling line of dialogue that she speaks to Lao Ma:

XENA I could serve you.
[29] Then there is Rafe in KING CON (61/315), who makes a bet with his buddy that he can get Xena to kiss him, and thus fundamentally acknowledge that his sexual power is superior to hers. Not only does Xena let this continue, but she is charmed at the end of the episode by the fact that even though Rafe really did win the bet, he was not going to acknowledge it because, well, he kind of had some feelings for her too. After what Xena did with the decidedly more charismatic god of war in THE RECKONING (06/106), one can only imagine the ego bruising Rafe would have received had he tried this in Season One.


[30] The question now becomes: why? Why give these two strong characters such formidable sexual power and then take it away?


[31] It was unusual for it to be there in the first place. If sexual power in women usually remains within the purview of villains, then perhaps its presence was beginning to make Xena appear less redeemed. Even Gabrielle committed a few acts of questionable conscience in Season Three and might have appeared less noble if she had maintained her sexual power. This theory is supported by Hope's role in SACRIFICE II (68/322). A vivid and intentional contrast to her mother, Hope uses Joxer's interest in Gabrielle to attempt to gain insight into her mother as well as to gather strategic information. She leaves him reeling and revealed in his hopeless infatuation with Gabrielle.

No, really!  I'm a man of many skills!

Joxer doesn't have a Hope.

HOPE I want to talk to you about our relationship. JOXER You wanna . . . you mean like you and me? HOPE Just like that.
[32] She controls Ares sexually as well, helping to seduce him to her father's bidding. The whole sexual power issue gives Ares' line to Hope: "You are so not like your mother", a whole new meaning.


[33] Perhaps the loss of power is intended to make the characters more accessible to the audience by making them more vulnerable. Now that Gabrielle is an action hero in her own right [for more discussion on this topic see the author's earlier article, "How Subversive is XWP? A Brief Examination of the Post-Rift Gabrielle", Whoosh! #21 (06/98) and immensely capable as a warrior, she has perhaps become less of the type of person that the audience can identify with. Whereas her prior function was to bring us into the Xenaverse and make us realize that although Xena was extraordinary, she was still approachable by ordinary folks, now Gabrielle too has become extraordinary. However, if Xena and Gabrielle can be sexually manipulated by other characters, then they become human again. They appear as characters who we want to protect, not characters who intimidate us. This ultimately gives the audience a sense of power.

Viewer Insecurities

[34] This leads to a third possibility. A story about two characters, especially female characters, who are strong in every way imaginable could start to cause some viewers to feel a bit inadequate. It is a sad but relatively common occurrence in our society for individuals to feel the need to elevate themselves at the expense of others. By bringing Xena and Gabrielle down a notch in their ability to express power, this is accomplished.

The Grand Plan

[35] There is yet another possibility. Watching the first season episodes again, one witnesses a Xena who is very much in control of her emotions, who is less vulnerable to others, and who is in the process of developing a budding friendship with a young storyteller named Gabrielle. Each woman can be seen using her own power and skills to solve problems, defeat enemies, and save the world one piece at a time. It is a completely idyllic situation, and one begins to wonder if "TPTB" really lost their way in Season Three, or if they were simply following a predetermined plan for the series.

[36] What if one were to consider the five planned seasons of XWP in the context of the Shakespearean model for tragedy. Each season would then correspond to an act in a five act play. In the beginning of a Shakespearean tragedy, all is essentially right with the world. There are hints, suggestions of potential conflict, but these are glossed over in Act I. As the play continues, however, these fundamental contradictions begin to make themselves known. There is a gradual progression towards chaos - an inversion of the "rightness" in the world of Act I - until a low point or nadir is reached. This occurs in the middle of Act III.

[37] If we were to examine the corresponding time frame in XWP, we would find ourselves in the middle of Season Three, roughly mid-Rift, and possibly even at the episode, MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311), had it not been subjected to so many schedule changes. It would be difficult to find a point in time in the Xenaverse more opposite to that carefree spirit seen in Season One than MATERNAL INSTINCTS.

[38] In the Shakespearean model, after this low point, things slowly start to improve, and life gradually returns to something approaching normality. The characters whom survive to the end gain new knowledge and insight into their world. However, there is forever a sense of loss as the new order is comprised of the ordinary, and the greatness of the earlier times and the individuals who inhabited them is not seen again. Perhaps this will correspond in the Xenaverse with the end of the age of gods and heroes, and the beginning of our own time.

[39] As with most issues, there is probably a little bit of truth in all the different possibilities.


[40] Ultimately, the existence of power, including sexual power, is not inherently good or bad. However, in a television show, like XWP, that contains such an extraordinary representation of female heroes, meaning can be derived from the presence of sexual power, its absence, and its transmutations. These depictions reflect the way women are viewed by society, but they also have the potential to alter those perceptions. What is most crucial, whether we are analyzing XWP or any other form of popular and cultural expression, is what the discussion tells us about ourselves and the world we inhabit. It is through our own journey towards knowledge and insight that we, like the characters we care about, can ultimately change the world.


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: Gabrielle: "Some people say the unexamined life is not worth living." Xena: "Those people haven't lived my life." LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308)

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