Whoosh! Issue 35 - August 1999


IAXS project #681
By Carolyn Skelton
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
13497 words

The Qualities of Camp (01-06)
Masquerade: Gender Play and Women Power (07-23)
     CRUSADER (12-14)
Masquerade: Characters Unmasked (24-30)
     CALLISTO (28-29)
     XENA SCROLLS (30)
Masquerade: Parody, Irony and Exaggeration (31-36)
     A TALE OF TWO MUSES (32-36)
Artifice: Camp Style, Real Characters (37-44)
     THE FURIES (37)
     SACRIFICE (38-44)
Artifice: Camp and (Lesbian) Subtext (45-55)
     FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS (46-47)
      CRUSADER (48-50)
     THE BITTER SUITE (52-55)
Artifice and Exaggeration: Camp Meets Melodrama (56-65)
     THE FURIES (58-59)
     THE PRICE (61-63)
     SACRIFICE (64-65)
Artifice, Melodrama and Cinematic Technique (66-79)
     CRUSADER (68-69)
     THE DEBT (70-71)
     THE BITTER SUITE (72-79)
Artifice, Melodrama and Woman Power (80-84)
Powerful Women at the Center of a Questionable Reality (85-88)
Notes (89-161)

Xena and Gabrielle Go Camping:
Artifice, Exaggeration, Parody, and Masquerade

The Qualities of Camp

[01] Many viewers identify the camp quality pervading Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) [Note 01] as being an important ingredient in their enjoyment of the TV program. The camp element is fun and entertaining, and adds to the sensation that Xena is definitely a woman in control. It is also the means through which many people have been able to identify the so-called lesbian 'subtext' in XWP. Many of the key elements associated with camp, e.g., artificiality, exaggeration, extravagance, parody, and irony [Note 02], are an essential part of XWP.

[02] One major aspect of XWP that contributes to the campy quality is the unreality of having Americanized twentieth-century characters, wearing clothes that echo comic books, wandering through a timeless world. This sets up the time dissociation often associated with camp in film, and is often the basis of anachronistic jokes and time-plays in XWP [Note 03]. In the process, history is mythologized by including some historical and geographical detail, but with a deliberate avoidance of complete accuracy.

[03] Yet, despite this artificiality and distortion of reality, many viewers respond to the characters, particularly Xena and Gabrielle, as though they were 'real' characters. As a result, many XWP fans are quick to point out when they feel these characters are being portrayed in an unrealistic, contradictory, or inconsistent manner. (See, for instance, some of the commentaries in Whoosh! episode guides for Seasons 3 and 4, where some apparent inconsistencies and discontinuities are identified [Note 04].) Before pursuing these issues further, it is necessary to examine the camp side of XWP more closely.

[04] It is notoriously difficult to explain how and why camp works [Note 05]. Furthermore there is some disagreement as to what camp actually is [Note 06]. Some say it is something that only gay men can carry off [Note 07], that it is a part of their history of responding to and coping with homophobia, and that, at its best, it challenges gender stereotypes and homophobia [Note 08]. Others see camp more as a set of qualities (some of which were mentioned above) of which anyone can make use.

[05] The finer points of the definition are not relevant to this article, as we are focusing on the elements in XWP that are perceived as camp. It can be argued that the relevant qualities which women have employed most successfully (whether or not they could strictly be called camp [Note 09]) are irony, masquerade and parody [Note 10], which XWP displays in abundance.

[06] Camp often plays with the possibility of two meanings for the same representations. Sometimes it can seem to be what it is portraying, as well as still implying that it is the ironic opposite of its most obvious meaning [Note 11]. It therefore brings our most obvious assumptions and stereotypes into question, and challenges accepted attitudes.

Masquerade: Gender Play and Woman Power


[07] The episode which most blatantly exploits the camp qualities of exaggeration, artificiality, irony, parody and masquerade is HERE SHE COMES... MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211). It is questionable whether Xena would be capable of carrying off such a masquerade; yet Lucy Lawless's performance and the way the episode parodies and plays with gender makes it easy to overlook the episode's weaknesses.

[08] Particularly telling is the scene towards the end where Lawless/Xena in her blonde wig unmasks the villains. Here Xena, masquerading as a simpering, eye-fluttering beauty queen, exposes the beauty queen style of femininity as a performance. Lawless sends up her own beauty queen past, while showing how she can convincingly be that kind of woman and be immensely attractive while being it. There is a touch of self-irony here, as well as both celebrating and critiquing that part of herself [Note 12].

[09] MISS AMPHIPOLIS provides an entrancing layering of gender performance in the scene where Xena tells the villain, "Trust me--you don't want to make me angry." The man, obviously anticipating a little sexually provocative but ineffectual 'feminine' anger and resistance, replies that, on the contrary, he is looking forward to it. Xena replies by knocking him across the room with a strong elbow jab, then flutters her eyes and simpers, "Are we having fun yet?" This is demonstrative of the artificiality of any one stereotype of womanhood.

[10] As Judith Butler argued, certain performances of gender roles (those traditionally seen as 'feminine') come to be seen as women's natural inborn roles because they have been repeatedly performed so often, by a variety of people, in publicly accessible media [Note 13]. Such performances can be seen as a masquerade, a wearing of masks and disguises [Note 14]. This might involve wearing actual disguises, such as Xena's blonde wig in MISS AMPHIPOLIS, or in the performance itself (imitating and maybe exaggerating certain behaviors) which then could be seen as a masquerade. The suggestion is that the "disguise" (a particular female role) is something artificial that masks the real woman.

[11] There is some debate as to whether there is any natural female role behind the 'mask', and whether all the roles women perform are 'masquerades.' However, when we see someone like Lucy Lawless obviously performing some of these roles, it highlights questions about the naturalness of our roles and related stereotypes, without necessarily providing final answers [Note 15]. The episode itself highlights such questions, for example with Salmoneus's song while the contestants are parading, with the lines about the attractiveness of natural women, and the fact that a man actually won the "Miss Known World" title.


[12] The final act of CRUSADER shows another fascinating Lawless/Xena masquerade which challenges some stereotypes of women in movies. Xena, blood dripping for her mouth because her tooth has been knocked out, looks in the mirror and comments that Najara has the same weakness as her. The view of Xena in the mirror is slightly distorted and the next image is of Gabrielle, making a clear suggestion that Gabrielle is the source of both Xena's and Najara's weakness. The distorted image of Xena with rather an evil smile indicates the dark side of Xena that is also reflected in the more sinister characters of Najara and Callisto.

[13] The use of mirrors in film has been much commented on in psychoanalytically and Lancanian-influenced film theory, with much discussion of the implications of whose looking at whom in movies, and what it shows about women as objects of desire. The classic work of Mulvey initiated the idea that women in movies are presented purely as objects of the male gaze and desire. There has been much criticism of this view since, debating how women view other women in movies [Note 16].

[14] In the final act of CRUSADER, we have Lawless most fully in her Xena masquerade, playing the battered anti-hero that has become a cliche among male anti-heroes. This Lawless-become-Xena is a far cry from the Lawless/Xena in MISS AMPHIPOLIS. Still, somehow, the battered Xena in CRUSADER is still as much a celluloid object of sexual desire for both men and women as the conventional beauty queen has been for men [Note 17]. Interestingly, this object of both male and female desire is looking at the distorted image of herself with some glee, and Gabrielle has become the object of her desire. This has continued some earlier implicit recognition of Gabrielle as an object of female desire that began with O'Connor's ironic performance in FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS, and continued more explicitly in LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN.


[15] The affect of cinematic representations of women as objects of desire is wide open for debate, because they have conventionally been constructed to pander to male fantasies. However, the powerful women in XWP, who are also appreciated and desired by other women, disrupt many conventional expectations, and are a positive inspiration for large numbers of women. ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE is a two-part episode using an array of strong women characters who challenge stereotypes.

[16] The episode begins with Xena in her usual outfit with her usual horse. Here, elements of masquerade are at work, not so much through wearing masks, but through changing costumes. The trappings of Xena's outer world are gradually stripped away as her inner voice proclaims she is entering a dark world associated with her past. A darker horse replaces Argo, and she becomes more feral in the natural world divorced from modern civilization. The style becomes allegorical, and Xena's normal clothes are stripped away as she enters a world closer to elemental nature through a claustrophobic subterranean cavern. Xena's normal cartoon-costumed masquerade is replaced with that of animal skins.

[17] Xena's outfit with the deer antlers has a kind of camp quality that belies the seriousness of the overall tone of the episode. This is Xena's quest for Gabrielle, her attempt to recreate the Amazon 'light' that she had destroyed. Xena is described as an Amazon at heart, so part of the Amazon destruction was also the destruction of Xena's soul. In seeking Gabrielle, who has been instrumental in helping her regain her humanity, Xena is on a journey to relocate her soul.

[18] The Amazons' power is associated with elevation in the trees, but also with masquerade. Xena, in an elevated position at the beginning of ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE 2, looks to have power over the naked Cyane. Confronted face to face, Cyane looks at first to be in a position of disadvantage. In comparison, Xena's face shows triumph as she looks on Cyane's nakedness. Then, by sheer psychic will, Cyane removes Xena's Destroyer of Nations garments one by one. The clothes are an expression of spiritual power. Xena no longer looks triumphant, but flees across the forest floor, wearing only the drabbest of sackcloth coverings. Cyane, dressed in Xena's more extravagant finery, pursues her through the trees with apparent ease, while Xena puts obvious physical effort into fleeing on the ground. It is Borias, to the infantilized, disempowered Xena's irritation, who saves Xena from Cyane.

[19] Xena's usual outfit is suggestive of certain types of power. The armor and the leather convey the suggestion of warrior power that is usually associated with men, while containing a sexually alluring feminine body. This 'femininity' within the trappings of masculine power creates an effect similar to that of a dominatrix [Note 18]. She is a woman who is physically desirable (to men) but always in control. Herein lies her attraction for women as well. When she is naked, and without her sword and chakram, she is stripped of the outer trappings of her (worldly) power.

[20] The animal skin outfit in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE is more a part of Xena as she journeys to locate the source of the spiritual/inner power she wishes to attain. It represents something basic and primitive within her, associated as it is with ancient rituals and the lost world of women's power. It is that of the "Wauldmann" (Wild man) of historical texts, represented as far back as the writings of the Roman Tacitus, who portrayed the Germanic people as barbaric [Note 19]. He described them as having a strong relationship with forests and trees, dressed in animal skins and having rituals that involved strapping people to trees, as well as skewering their enemies to them. Some of these rituals may have had to do with desire for tribal rebirth. In ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE 2 Xena's mission is to help revive Amazon culture, and with it, women's spiritual power.

[21] The struggle at the center of Xena's Amazon heart, is to regain spiritual power and it is partly conveyed through the artifice of costuming/masquerade. In the end, the source of power is shown to be love, not the traditionally masculine warrior attribute of courage. It is love between women, not the individualistic lust for power associated with Xena's relationships with Borias and Alti (who was exiled by the Amazons for accumulating so much personal, individualistic power). Such a power-lust destroyed the Amazon world of female power.

[22] Various episodes raise questions about the place of women in some of the most cherished traditional stories in our past, and the role women play in these stories. These stories are the foundation of most current stories and interpretations of history. They have given us the prototypes for many (if not most) of our depictions of women, especially in the most popular and widespread forms. Many of the episodes are big what-ifs (e.g., IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? (24/124), perhaps even LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407), as well as the controversial character-and plot-disrupting episode that is ULYSSES). In a way, in the 'what-if' stories, Xena is masquerading as the positive assertive woman missing from some of our most celebrated traditional stories.

[23] Re-inventing past stories contributes to some of the plot inconsistencies between episodes. Through all their inconsistencies, there is an ongoing thread of Xena/ (Lawless)'s and Gabrielle/(O'Connor)'s development and their relationship. It is that which keeps us watching. The inconsistencies in this process set up possibilities for a multitude of ways that our thoughts, imagination, and fantasies can make sense of the gap between sense and incomprehensibility.

Masquerade: Characters Unmasked


[24] One might think that focusing on an episode where Xena was not fully "herself" was a bad place to start. Is a slightly out-of-character Xena a weak point in the series? A slip-up? Is not one of the camp qualities of XWP, one of the little teases for many viewers, the glimpses we get of the actors in the portrayal of their characters? The moments when Xena and Gabrielle are unmasked revealing Lawless and O'Connor's complicity in the masquerade. Many viewers enjoy reflecting on the ways Lawless and O'Connor portray their characters, and love to be able to identify moments when a scene seems to give us those glimpses of the actors behind the characters.

[25] IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404) may be an example of this phenomenon. I have read comments on the Web that this episode is more Lawless and O'Connor than Xena and Gabrielle. Some have criticized Lawless's un-Xena-like characterization. But is this not Lawless doing what she can do best: exaggeration, parody, and a bit of camp? It is Lawless, as lice-infected Xena, performing in a way that debunks or plays with her glamorous image.

[26] Furthermore, there is a way that Lawless's and O'Connor's more habitual personal characteristics interact with the differing qualities of their characters. This creates an interesting tension that plays off the usual portrayal of stereotyped gender roles. Perhaps, as with all of us, the supposedly true parts of Lawless's and O'Connor's personalities have come to seem to be their natural attributes, through repeated performances throughout their lives. Is what we identify as Lawless and O'Connor in XWP just another performance? After all, on TV, we see only Lawless and O'Connor performing an edited and publicly polished version of themselves [Note 20].

[27] From the inception of the series, Xena has been the dominant character. But Xena's more butch qualities are sometimes belied by Lawless' more habitual femme behaviors, which are evident in some of her facial expressions and body language. Gabrielle, by contrast, began in the more subservient role, with the supposedly 'femme' qualities of cooking, endless chattering, and later as a kind of pacifistic warrior. Gabrielle's 'baby-butch' [Note 21] streak (the athleticism and physicality of her abs and biceps, the adoration for the older woman, and the assertive strength of character) plays off her more explicitly femme front, with the result that Xena is never totally butch, and Gabrielle is never quite the subservient femme.


[28] It can also be suggested that the emotional brilliance of the CALLISTO (22/122) campfire scene resulted from this tension. The self-doubting warrior, Xena, is emotionally touched when the assertive side of O'Connor comes to the fore, and breaks through the warrior mask to the emotionally responsive Lawless. Xena/Lawless then tries to regain her stoic-Xena composure by pushing away Gabrielle. Look at that profile shot of Xena. It appears as a publicity image of Lawless, eye-to-eye with O'Connor, as Xena and Gabrielle.

[29] There are other moments when Xena and Gabrielle are unmasked, to seemingly reveal the 'faces' of their actors that contribute to the tension and dynamics between the two (performing) actresses and their characters. This is part of that indefinable Xena-Gabrielle chemistry that so many people love.


[30] In THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210), Xena becomes the more femme side of 'Lawless', but really, the stripping off of the stoic Xena mask reveals another Lawless masquerade: that of the exaggeratedly submissive, twittering femme. Gabrielle is unmasked to reveal the more assertive side of "O'Connor," but becomes another masquerade in all her dyke-loved glory. Lawless' femme belongs in 1940s movies, while O'Connor has become a studied posture of a cigar-smoking, 'no-way-to-treat-a-lady' baby-butch. There is slight exaggeration of one of their seemingly-core elements, so they become a bit of artificial, tongue-in-cheek parody. Later in the episode, these masquerades are revealed as covers for the eternal qualities of Xena and Gabrielle: Mel becomes Xena in drag and Janice becomes the awed femme (with a lingering element of baby-butch) that is Gabrielle.

Masquerade: Parody, Irony and Exaggeration


[31] Often the best of XWP campiness involves an interweaving of the strategies, of irony, parody and exaggeration within a masquerade. In FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS, O'Connor performs an exquisite Gabrielle masquerade. There is a whole interplay between Gabrielle's exaggerated, unreal self-obsession and Joxer's complete obliviousness to the content of her performance; he cannot take his eyes off her. Obsession with one's own looks should be a very unattractive quality, particularly when it results from a goddess-induced delusion, as in FINS. Ironically, however, the underlying innocence of O'Connor's well-observed character study and the way she parodies it by exaggerating certain qualities of adolescent self-obsession makes this self-obsessed, body-parading Gabrielle nothing less than mesmerizingly cute [Note 22].


[32] Later in A TALE OF TWO MUSES, Gabrielle/O'Connor performs a similar ironic parody of Gabrielle. In this episode it serves to highlight Gabrielle as a pacifist warrior-artist with the attractive physicality of her (sublimated?) obsession with dancing.

[33] The above examples relate directly to the way in which gender stereotypes are played with and called into question within the dynamics of the Xena/Gabrielle--Lawless/O'Connor chemistry. But there are also times when these characters resort to a masquerade become self-parody, in the context of broader issues, that connect with the overall nature of XWP the TV program.

[34] The subtlety and polished delivery of Xena's and Gabrielle's self-parody in parts of A TALE OF TWO MUSES (74/406) illustrates this. The opening scene is ... what? The heat? It highlights the aspects of Xena and Gabrielle that are going to be the main theme of the episode: Xena the fighter, Gabrielle the poet/artist. But the characterization of the 'essential' qualities of each character, are delivered in that slightly exaggerated bored tone that has a hint of parody and irony. Xena's expression makes it seem like she thinks her chakram represents something of little significance, while Gabrielle's praising of her own writing makes it seem very important. This is an ironic reversal of the way Xena the fighting hero and Gabrielle the bard sidekick are normally portrayed. However, it is also underlining both the ways that Xena's fighting and Gabrielle's writing are seen as essential qualities of each character, and putting them into question. Can they be taken seriously? Are they just another performance? It highlights the episode theme (or maybe subtext) of XWP-style Hong Kong fighting as being more an art form than real violence [Note 23].

[35] Poetry/art becomes dancing in MUSES, and this is opposed to fighting. But eventually the fighting becomes a well-choreographed dance. There is a delightful bit of self-parody by Xena when she is introducing her military training. She exaggerates the delight in the bloodthirsty violent aspects of fighting in a way that suggests it not be taken seriously. Xena herself does show a flashing-eyed pleasure in a fight, but it is usually either done with serious relish or restrained by her conflicting desires to do good and to fight for the right reasons. Thus, Xena's self-parody as the bloodthirsty dismantler of arms and legs is really highlighting the difference between real, painful, destructive fighting and XWP's fighting and violence. Not only that, the townspeople in the episode are shown as being capable of militaristic brutality and being psychologically damaging to the young people in their numbers. They want to censor dancing, art, and by association in the episode, any sexual subtext in art.

[36] The whole episode is a critique of the kinds of hypocritical religious zealots who want to censor not only youth leisure activities but also artistic representations of sexuality and violence, while themselves behaving in violent and destructive ways. There are flaws in this episode, but also some brilliant moments of (self) parody, irony, and insight into the way people view TV programs such as XWP.

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