Date: Mon, 14 Jun 1999
Subject: Letter to the Editor: Empowering Feminism?
I've been doing some thinking lately about the oft repeated claims by many fans and even the powers that be themselves (including Lucy Lawless) over how "empowering" the messages and characterizations found in Xena: Warrior Princess are. How they supposedly reflect and support a positive, strongly feminist theme.
There was a time when I might have agreed with that idea, mainly through Xena's encounters with Ares, the early depictions of the Amazon Nation (including Ephiny, Melosa, etc), Gabrielle's growth and ascension from Amazon Princess to Amazon Queen, and the fact that for the first couple of seasons both women were presented as strong, smart, independent, and generally not in want or need of a man to fill/complete/control *any* aspect of their lives (with Perdicus and Ulysses being the disappointing exceptions).
However, to me X:WP certainly hasn't been "empoweringly feminist" from the third season on through the recent conclusion of the fourth.
In order to expound on my argument, let's take a look back:
In the season one episode "The Reckoning" Ares frames Xena for the robbery and slaughter of a group of innocent villagers. He spends the rest of the story plying her with glib promises and seductive visions of a better world under her direct rule _if_ she will return to him. But Xena comes to see the true, evil nature of what is being offered her (especially after striking Gabrielle in a fit of Ares induced rage). So instead of following the God of War again (and giving in to her own dark side in the process) she cleverly outwits him, making him return the slain villagers alive and well, thus gaining freedom of her body (and her soul).
This was the first of several "battles of wills" Xena had with Ares, whose modus operandi basically consisted of the use of seduction and deception to entice her into rejoining him. Yet she always managed to see through his lies, deceits, and trickery, even going so far as to vow she'd rather die than return to him ("Ties That Bind").
All of which was very appealing to me, this concept of a woman warrior so strong, smart, and focused that not even a charismatic, glib, sexually attractive/seductive _god_ could sway or trick her from what she knew was right, both for herself and others. And the fact that Ares was perhaps the "classic" personification of what could be argued are the worst aspects of the male ego/psyche (struttingly arrogant, dominating, charming but violent and warlike, etc) gave Xena's actions a distinct pro-feminist feel.
Here, I thought, was a woman like no other I had ever seen on series television, refreshingly free of the stereotypical, sexist baggage most Hollywood writers saddle their female protagonists with. But for me, that all began to change with the introduction of the "Xena vs. Caesar" storyline into the series' canon.
From "The Deliverer" on, practically every time Xena heard Caesar's name or learned of his plans, she dropped _everything_ and ignored _everyone_ especially (and tragically) Gabrielle in order to continually wreak her revenge on him. Of course, the Warrior Princess always couched those actions in terms of serving the "greater good", and the Xenastaff obliged by having her be one of the major (if not key) players where Caesar's decisive battles for power and conquest (Boadicea, Crassus, Pompey, etc) were concerned, even if meant extending, retracting, or ignoring history's timeline. (Never a major concern on their parts, admittedly).
However, I'm also reminded of the way the Xenastaff kept having Caesar repeat this sexist mantra in regards to Xena: "When you separate a woman's emotions from her sensibilities, you *have* her". And to me, Caesar certainly *had* Xena in that exact way, even up to the point in "Endgame" when she advises Brutus not to trust him. Brutus counters that he "knows Caesar, he wouldn't betray a friend" to which Xena replies that she "was once a *very* good friend of his" yet he betrayed her.
What's interesting (and telling) about that exchange is how Lucy Lawless chose to play it. When uttering that line of dialogue, her eyes briefly narrowed to angry slits, while her face became a mask of feline disgust, and she used her voice to accentuate the "very" part of that line, drawing it out in a long, almost sensually rueful growl. To me, it was the reaction not so much of a *person* betrayed, but a _woman_ scorned long ago and still looking for personal payback (albeit under the guise of a more "noble" effort).
Which, to me, could classify the way Lawless has played Xena (in tandem with the way the character was written) in almost every episode featuring Caesar. (Plus we pretty much know how "respectfully" he ultimately regarded her via the wet dream/snuff sequence during the opening of "Ides of March").
And as "Ides of March" progressed, Xena's endless thirst for revenge on her former lover continued as she set out to assassinate him (but only for the "greater good" of course) and ended up paralyzed, crucified, and finally dead for her trouble (as did Gabrielle, whom Xena tends to drag/lure with her on these "Gotcha!" quests of hers).
In fact, every time Xena has "crossed swords" with Caesar, it has usually been Gabrielle who suffers most for it. A victim of deception and rape in "The Deliverer". Forced to condemn a man to death in "When In Rome". Reluctant leader of an army into the midst of bloody battle and horrified participant in another round of destruction/violation of her core values and beliefs during "A Good Day".
I would have thought (or at least hoped) that eventually Xena would realize the severe, lasting damage her Caesar-centric actions were having on the person she claims she "loves most in the world". (The loss of M'Lila should have been a clear warning sign to her on this issue, as well).
I would then have liked for her to use that knowledge not as an excuse to refuse to counter Caesar (when necessary) nor to try and protect/shield Gabrielle from the realities of the life they had chosen together, but rather as a "wake up call" to return to the cool, level headed, totally focused and brilliant strategist who was capable of outwitting, outfighting, and flatly rejecting the powerful lures of the God of War himself.
And while some may argue that was exactly the Xena seen in "Endgame", she was none the less right back in her old "Gotcha!" mode in "Ides of March" (as the powers that be had other, darker, and decidedly fatalistic plans in mind for the warrior and bard)...
I never liked the "Xena vs. Caesar" storyline, from his very first appearance in "Destiny" (Karl Urban's wooden depiction didn't help matters, either). When he betrayed Xena on the deck of her ship and spun her around, grinning as he put a knife to her throat, boastfully whispering his treachery in her ear, I wanted to chalk up her wide eyed, shocked=A0reaction as more sheer surprise of a master manipulator over *anyone* being able to resist her powerful charisma (and yes, I'll admit that included a strong sexual element *but* also the lure and promise of endless plunder and conquest) than simply a woman who was stunned to find out the guy she thought she had "in her pocket" (so to speak) had turned on her instead.
But the more I saw of the "Xena vs. Caesar" storyline, the more weakened that assumption became until it died out completely. Eventually I came to feel that what the powers that be were _really_ presenting at the core of these stories was yet another tired variation on the wheezing, sexist "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!" cliche.
And just *once* during all her post "Destiny" encounters with Caesar, it would have been nice (and oh so fitting) if Xena had spoken of (or remembered) M'Lila's ultimate sacrifice of "ten winters ago"...
Something else I've found personally troubling recently in regards to XWP's claims of "empowering feminism": Xena's "saviors" and "guides" on her life's journey (at least the one we're most accustomed to seeing, anyway) used to be mainly women (M'Lila, Lao Ma, Gabrielle) whose memories or influence she called on in times of utmost crisis (hanging on a cross in a hellish netherworld in "Destiny", about to be tortured and killed in "The Debt II").
Yet when it came to finding what the powers that be contend is her "true way", not only in this life but all her future ones, a beaten, mutilated, dying Xena called on Krishna (a decidedly male religious entity) to save her (and Gabrielle). It was only through his intervention that they both survived.
It's also worth noting that Gabrielle supposedly found her "true way" not through the goddess Artemis (which would make much more sense given her strong link to the Amazons) but under the teachings of Eli (who looks to be the Xenastaff's stand in for Christ).
Even Callisto ends up serving a male master in "Ides of March", as it's pretty obvious she's in a Christian vision of hell ruled over by Satan as the episode opens. (Who knew *that* was where Greek gods went when they died?)
Of course all of the above doesn't even factor in the power thet be's sexist, (mis) handling of Gabrielle the past two seasons. From her depiction as the perfect, gullible "bait" for Khrafstar's betrayal to her rape and forced pregnancy by Dahak (who interestingly was then dealt with and defeated *not* by Xena and Gabrielle, but Hercules instead) through her own turn as the "classic" woman scorned (via the revelation of her jealousy ridden desire for revenge on Xena in Chin) and little more than a naked sex object for Joxer to lust, drool, and fantasize over, during the third season the powers that be cast Gabrielle as a naive, helpless young woman constantly targeted and abused by nigh omnipotent/manipulative/creepy males.
(And it's possible to add Xena to that list since the argument can be made that except when she's cooing over the stud of the week or trying to get revenge on Caesar, Xena is written as the "man" to Gabrielle's "woman").
Things haven't improved that much for Gabrielle during the fourth season. She's still as gullible/naive as ever (perhaps more so) willingly following the "lying, evil guru of the week" and ending up getting burned (repeatedly) for it. The fact that one of those "gurus" turned out to be a woman (Najara) was offset by the way she and Xena fought over Gabrielle as if she were little more than a prized piece of "property". Then there's the profusion of bare bard flesh in "Paradise Found" (which while certainly pleasant to watch and admire) had a distinct "Playboy video of the month" look to it. Plus not only did Gabrielle almost casually (and certainly thoughtlessly) toss away an integral part of her Amazon heritage (her staff), soon after she also surrendered her role and right as Amazon Queen over to a character we've never seen before (seeing as how Ephiny and Solari were conveniently dead) so she could better follow Eli and his way.
Which all seemed to go flying out the window anyway when the powers that be turned her into "Gabrielle the Berserker" in "Ides of March", making her suddenly, amazingly proficient and deadly with a sword (a weapon she had little to no formal training or experience in using).
I'd add that Gabrielle's slaughter of the Roman squadron was portrayed in a very different way from the cut and swipe, move on type of violence usually depicted in the show. She leans in on her victims, twists and stabs repeatedly, even copying Xena's *patented*, glorified in heat of the moment "slice your opponent's throat open from behind" move to gruesome perfection. It's particularly graphic, and presented in an extremely unpleasant context where we are meant to be cheering her rejection of pacifism.
It's not that I object so much to the idea of Gabrielle having to use deadly force to protect and save someone (especially Xena), it's the context, timing, and eventual fruitlessness of those actions. the powers that be interpretation of Gabrielle's pacifism during the fourth season was so eye rollingly extreme and hypocritical that it made little sense and held less integrity. It was, at its core, a fraud, simply a "straw man" they set up that could easily be knocked down and trampled, thus casting an unflattering light not only on the entire concept of pacifism itself, but also what I term the "common sense" interpretation of it Gabrielle had come to adopt as the code she lived by during the first two seasons.
And why did Gabrielle finally choose to kill in defense of Xena during *that* particular moment in "Ides of March"? Why not when Xena was about to be tortured and killed by Ming Tien? Why not when Najara was about to run through an unconscious, thoroughly beaten Xena? Why not during any of several just as "critical" moments during the entire history of the series? And why have her sacrifice her beliefs for naught as both women ended up dying anyway?
Because it served the powers that be "master plot" for the current season, that's why. During the past two seasons they have turned Gabrielle into little more than a convenient plot device to be shaped, molded, and changed as needed, logical and consistent characterization be damned.
So it seems to me not only are we witnessing the reassertion of a male-centric world view in X:WP, we are also seeing the typically chief male means of coercion restored to centrality as well - violence and the willingness to kill as the answer to every crisis and conflict.
Which brings us to the end of "Ides of March" and the answer to what (IMO) I'm sure the powers that be were hoping was _the_ "question of suspense" hanging over the entire fourth season, supposedly burning in the mind of every Xenite across the land:
Would Xena's crucifixion vision come true?
Well, given all the heavy handed teasers and previews about that event scattered throughout various fourth season episodes, I would have been totally shocked if it hadn't!
And therein lies a severe problem of predictability (and an overwhelming sense of helplessness, depression, and disempowerment). the powers that be so oversold Xena's vision that to me there was never any real doubt how the fourth season would end. And even though they made a few brief attempts to show the warrior and bard discussing and dealing with it, the end result was that *nothing* changed. Xena and Gabrielle marched to a constant, nihilistic, fatalistic drum beat and were going to end up *nailed up* and dead, no matter what.
Yet usually in series television (and movies and books, too) when a future vision of death and destruction are visited upon the protagonist(s), the creative staff involved are smart enough to at least give them a fighting chance to change it, to save themselves and sometimes others. IOW, they empower their hero(s) (and by connection, their audience) by giving them the opportunity to take control of the course "fate" has mapped out for them. This heightens suspense and also allows for a positive message about the value (and inner strength) found in not giving in or giving up, no matter how dire the circumstances.
Now I know some will say that watching Xena and Gabrielle's spirits pull free of their dead, battered bodies, come together, and then ascend into what appears to be heaven *is* a truly uplifting and empowering moment. However, I personally find it a disappointing, disturbing, and all too easy throwback to the ancient cliche that only through ultimate suffering at the hands of some higher forces or power can one achieve true bliss and oneness with god, the cosmos, and each other.
IMO, the ending of "Ides of March" and the overall tone and sensibilities of the third and fourth seasons present us with a Xena and Gabrielle who are basically helpless and no longer in control of their lives, fates, or destinies, reducing them to little more than pawns on a cosmic chessboard whose movements are dictated by "higher powers" who are mostly male: Caesar, Dahak, Eli, Krishna, Satan, even Solon and Joxer! (And if the rumors swirling around season five are true, the warrior and bard's lives will continue to revolve around a male centered sun/son).
To me this represents a fundamental change in the show, one of many during the past two seasons. For me, Xena and Gabrielle used to be two icons of female power and independence who were able to resist, outwit, and defeat the very gods themselves to maintain their freedom and chart the course of their own lives. And if they faltered, they relied on their inner self or the strength that each loving, trusting, and supportive partner gave the other to help right themselves again.
Compare that to the Xena and Gabrielle seen during all of the third season and especially in the closing episodes of the fourth, who risk forfeiting their very souls (and thus their future lives, as well) should they stray off their male deity appointed "way"(s). I realize the ending of "Ides of March" appears to refute this, but it's interesting to note that one of the first episodes of the fifth season has a working title of "Fallen Angel" (which could mean Gabrielle might not make it past the "pearly gates" with Xena because she "violated" her "way")...
Since it appears the powers that be wanted to tell lots of stories about ancient gods, wouldn't X:WP have been the perfect place to throw some *goddesses* into the mix now and then? Wouldn't it have been refreshing (and empowering) to see Artemis, Athena, the Muses (great for a Gabrielle centered story) and other goddesses from other cultures become a regular part of the series canon as mentors, allies, and even enemies of Xena and Gabrielle?
Instead the only recurring goddesses I've seen on X:WP are Aphrodite (part sex kitten/part valley girl) and Discord (replete with a teenaged, pouty brat attitude and decked out in skimpy, tight, shiny leathers like some "baby" dominatrix). I don't remember seeing Athena at all on X:WP and the only time I can recall seeing Artemis was way back in an episode of Hercules, and then only fleetingly. But hey, she was just patron god of the Amazons, after all...
All of which seems a very far cry from (and IMHO raises legitimate questions of concern and doubt about) the concept of Xena: Warrior Princess as an empowering, feminist themed show (at least in it's current incarnation).
In closing I wish to make it clear that these sentiments are strictly my own and come from a decidedly male (though feminist friendly) perspective, so charges of female "male bashing" (or even male "male bashing" don't apply;-)
Table of Contents