Whoosh! Issue 35 - August 1999

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

Artifice: Camp Style, Real Characters


[37] Such camp strategies are all part of the artifice that is XWP. Unlike TV programs that aim for more realism, XWP does not always tell a continuous story. It plays with story-telling forms and even makes some statements about them. For instance, THE FURIES plays with representations of madness in a way that problematises the characters of Xena and Gabrielle and their relationship. At the end of THE FURIES, like Hamlet, it is uncertain exactly how much the madness fully takes over Xena's character, and how much of Xena is still capable of developing an anti-Ares strategy. However, she is always accessible to Gabrielle's guidance. Their deeper bond is never really threatened.


[38] The two connected episodes of SACRIFICE I and 2, are a chaotic ride through a carnivalesque world [Note 24] of heightened melodramatic theatricality. There are nearly as many extravagant costumes and characters as on a Mardi Gras float: the sinister KKK quality of the costumes of the priests; the feather-masked, semi-naked dancing women; Joxer (almost always the cartoon character his costume suggests); and Hope herself in her ever-changing forms, from slimeball to slime-covered pupa/chrysalis, to High Priestess.

[39] The main element that guides us through all the unreality this and other episodes, is the seeming reality of Xena and Gabrielle as characters and the way they interact as a kind of bedrock to the Xenaverse [Note 25]. At times, as in THE FURIES and the Season 4 Indian Arc, the nature of the XWP format confuses the viewer by seeming to throw even this essential core of reality into question.

[40] Camp has been called "the lie that speaks the truth" [Note 26]. For the most part, the truth that gives XWP the sense of reality for many of us is in the two main characters. Lawless and O'Connor portraying their characters as real, especially in the dramas assist this. It is evident in the emotions and expressions shown in close-up [Note 27], and in much of their body language. This quality is a necessity in order for the camp elements to work [Note 28]. Other truths are suggested through the strategies of irony, parody, and masquerade. Some of the other characters are played as real, but Joxer for instance, is a cartoon caricature, a bit of comic relief, than a real person.

[41] However, most of us are able to personally connect with the way Xena and Gabrielle relate to each other. It is not just the sense of individuality that engages us. The characters' beauty and charisma also makes us want to keep watching. This attraction is not only to them as individuals, but also to the chemistry that works through their joint engagement in combating and experiencing the events and difficulties they come across. As one on-line devotee was recently quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald, "The show is a scream. Xena is a total babe. And she's a babe who likes other babes. It's a babe-fest." [Note 29]

[42] While this accentuates the lighter side of XWP, the celebration of girl power and girl love (whether you choose to see the love as Platonic or not) is seen by many viewers as the most important aspect of the program. It represents the most attractive public face of women in control. Furthermore, many of us want to see Lawless and O'Connor, as much as we want to see the ongoing adventures of the characters they have created. Either we love, or at least can forgive, those moments when their Xena and Gabrielle masks slip to reveal something of the actress behind (or maybe even inside).

[43] Without the camp element that is a key component in the self-referential, self-parody aspect, the program would be far less engaging and stimulating for many of us. That element, along with the lapses in continuity and consistency, draws attention to the fact that the program is made up of stories and characters that are a human creation. This could be seen to perform a Brechtian function of distancing [Note 30], of stopping us from being so completely absorbed in the fantasy that we become incapable of critical reflection as to how accurate a portrayal the program is of reality and the truth of our lives. As Brecht advocated, it can be seen as a good thing that these inconsistencies have inspired discussions and differing opinions, like those indicated in the Whoosh commentaries on season 4 episodes.

[44] Perhaps many people find the lapses in consistency and continuity disturbing because they disrupt absorption in a fantasy world. In the midst of the artificiality there are two women characters that engage us and for many seem so real that they want more of that reality. Maybe they want that sense of reality to seem to be totally under (authorial) control [Note 31].

Artifice: Camp and (Lesbian) Subtext

[45] Camp has an anarchic quality that may confound attempts to bring a program like XWP under totally rational authorial control. Camp has a long history of being associated with gay men and their response to homophobia. The anarchic nature of camp humor makes it capable of disrupting conventional expectations, while making it an elusive target for reactionary forces. [Note 32] It employs style and artifice to hint at underlying truths. The qualities that are associated with camp have also been associated with lesbian subtextual readings of mainstream Hollywood movies such as Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) [Note 33]. The nature of being subtextual is that such a lesbian interpretation is not accepted by everyone, or even necessarily (at least consciously) intended by the makers. The dissociation and undercurrents made possible by the double meanings of camp, make it a perfect subtextual tool. The artificiality, exaggeration, and parodies often suggest more than one possible interpretation. There is then a gap between what is explicitly portrayed and the possible underlying meaning, which our imaginations are free to explore.


[46] It is not surprising that some of the most widely appreciated subtextual interplay between Xena and Gabrielle involves camp exaggeration, self-parody, and some seemingly ironic innuendo. A prime example can be found in the performances of Lawless and O'Connor in FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS, in particular in the scene which begins with Xena rushing in for a swim and calling, "Come on Gabrielle, let's get wet." O'Connor does an impressive job of exaggerating her own preoccupation with herself, and her supposed adolescent-like naivete. There is an innocence about the way she pirouettes on the ramp by the lake after she has said how she can barely say 'fist a fish,' let alone do it (and it slips off her tongue so easily). The use of the word 'fist' makes explicit the subtextual intent behind the suggestiveness of Xena's fishing technique.

[47] This subtext is underlined by the way Xena, having dragged Gabrielle out of the water, appears to desire to be the one important person in Gabrielle's life; the casual familiarity with which her hand lingers on Gabrielle further suggests personal intimacy. Xena's later throwaway comment that Gabrielle is beautiful when she is angry seems to play off this.


[48] Within XWP melodrama, there are also ambiguous subtextual elements that make some use of camp strategies of irony and parody. CRUSADER is an episode that is particularly suggestive of Xena's desire for Gabrielle. This desire is shown in myriad ways: the "couplish" way that Xena and Gabrielle interact; Xena observing Gabrielle's interest in Najara; Xena's pointed comment to Najara that "We" will sleep well; the fleeting look that Gabrielle gives Xena when Najara says that Xena has hurt Gabrielle. However, even though Gabrielle seems attracted by Najara's mission, emotionally she never really seems to put Najara before Xena.

[49] The last act brings the subtextual tensions developed throughout the episode to a climax. There is an ambiguity about Lawless's performance here, an ironic note to the way, Callisto-like, she refers to the strung-up Gabrielle as a millstone. Like the comment to her slightly distorted reflection in the mirror, she sees herself in Najara, and reflects Callisto in stringing up Gabrielle as bait. Xena seems to be parodying her own weakness for Gabrielle; it leaves a question mark over what she really is implying.

[50] There are gaps between the real and the artificial, where our imaginations must work to make sense of these scenes. The subtext is tantalizingly brought into the open when Xena says, "If I can't have her, then nobody can," while she and Najara are locked in an intense struggle. We must negotiate between Xena as the unstable, dangerous force whose strongest opponent is herself, and the Xena whose source of strength is Gabrielle, whom she would do anything to protect.


[51] Gay men developed the ambiguity of camp strategies as a way of resisting the viscously duplicitous strategies used to censor, and suppress homosexuality. A TALE OF TWO MUSES, seems to acknowledge this connection by playing with pressures to censor subtextual innuendo. The townspeople want to censor dancing, art, and by association in the episode, any sexual innuendo in art. There are implied links to the (lesbian) subtextual aspects of XWP in the scene where the artwork on the wall is claimed to be in need of censorship because of the symbolic way it represents sexual organs. This plays off the suggestive lingering of Xena's hand on Gabrielle's top as she goes to sleep, earlier in the episode.


[52] The struggle with such repressive tendencies has a long association with camp in popular culture. BITTER SUITE uses Tarot symbolism within an episode that has elements of both camp and melodrama. The lighter frivolity of musical comedy music styles that have connections with camp, as in movies like THE WIZARD OF OZ [Note 34], only serves to highlight the camp connections. The cartoon nature of the music for Callisto's song at the beginning uses nursery rhyme-type jingles. The visuals also echo THE WIZARD OF OZ, another (supposedly) children's story, which contains symbolism relating to adult issues [Note 35] as well as camp innuendoes and double meanings that can be interpreted as gay subtext. Ares reminds us of that when he says, "Ding Dong the bitch is dead."

[53] The entire scene where Callisto acts as Xena's guide, the Tarot joker, is very camp. It includes a bit of Xena/Callisto lesbian subtext, as Callisto first kisses and then does a lap dance on Xena. This is also an indirect suggestion of subtextual elements within XWP that will be played out in more melodramatic form throughout the episode.

[54] In the comedies, camp and subtext can be both a titillation and outright humor and fun. Would complete full-on maintext destroy the elements that create such fun and titillation? Maybe not: in the comedies, the camp element enables some comment and reflection on the more melodramatic aspects of the show, both with subtext and other aspects. The camp in the comedies could equally be used to make statements about a full-on lesbian maintext. The campy quality that many of us identify is not solely contained within the comedies, but also pervades the dramas. It is present in that dissociation with twentieth-century characters that are at once cartoonish and real in a historically inaccurate and timeless world. There is always the potential for an anachronistic joke and a play on the incongruence between their reality and their artificiality.

[55] Part of that dissociated incongruence is the use of the backdrop of an ancient world and mythologies where women were either subservient or invisible. Such a setting provides an ongoing, in-built contrast for two women characters that are breaking the mold of some twentieth century female stereotypes. This creates an imaginative space between the seemingly real and the artificial, which may inhabit all our fantasies in slightly different ways.

Artifice and Exaggeration: Camp Meets Melodrama

[56] This dislocation between the artificial and the real, is also present in the XWP episodes that are usually named dramas. These have both the more realistic elements associated with 'drama', as well as strong elements of melodrama [Note 36] (Most American movies and TV are a mixture of such dramatic and melodramatic elements.) Some of these melodramatic elements are the artificiality of directly opposed forces, e.g., the struggle between good and evil), and exaggeration [Note 37]. XWP dramas also deal with the traditional issues of social and moral melodramas, of thwarted desires and betrayal, but also social and moral struggles internalized and exposed. It is the mirror image of camp in its artificiality, exaggeration, and associations with low culture and the hamminess of B-movie kitsch. The fights, with their humanly impossible, gravity-defying feats, and the gods, who materialize, dematerialize, and who are portrayed as flawed and petulant people, all contribute to the overall camp quality.

[57] The melodramatic element in XWP is more evident in XWP than most American TV dramas and movies. It is the melodramatic qualities of artificiality and exaggeration that contributes to many people's judgment about XWP being characteristically camp. Some episodes, such as A GOOD DAY, have a more realist dramatic, rather than melodramatic, feel about them.


[58] THE FURIES (47/301) bridges comedy and drama. Again it employs a mixture of exaggeration, masquerade, parody and irony. It has been both criticized and defended for its portrayal of madness. However, this episode is not so much about actual insanity as about the ways it has been depicted in other stories, plays, and films. This particular masquerade re-enacts madness and/or delusions as interpreted by the Three Stooges, Greek tragedies, and movie representations of psychedelic states. It is part of that rather anarchic postmodern pastiche of elements of various stories and images, historical, and contemporary, that often seem to be randomly distributed throughout XWP [Note 38].

[59] In THE FURIES, Lawless exaggerates, parodies, and hams it up to the fullness of her ability. It then becomes a disturbing critique, raising questions about the nature of madness and delusion. It is a trick to stop us seeing the real truth of existence, which is really perhaps just a barroom joke.


[60] The exaggeration in melodrama is more connected with archetypal characters, villains, and heroes, and the heightened emotional intensity achieved partly through unrealistically exaggerated plotlines [Note 39]. The gods are exaggerated melodramatic types rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Melodrama also meets camp in THE DELIVERER when the struggle between good and evil (centered on the totally out of this world, barbecuing of Gabrielle) becomes Xena's fight with the demonically altered Krafstar. The archetypal character and intensely artificial but serious drama of Gabrielle's defilement gives way to camp parody where Krafstar's melodramatic power is trivialized by a tongue-in-cheek Xena comment about his fancy fireworks. This deflating comment and the caricature accentuates both Xena's personal power and the fact that her opponent is an archetype of pure evil.


[61] THE PRICE makes obvious the elements that camp and melodrama have in common. It launches us into an intense drama of the threatening Horde through the use of exaggerated camera angles, eerie music, and the bizarre nature of the unreality of The Horde's visual presentation. They lurk within nature like a primeval threat rising from the depths of our psyches. Xena's triumphant "Kill them all!" proclamation accentuates the heightened intensity of the melodramatic intent, moral conflict centered in the personal conflict between Xena and Gabrielle. This is played out in the tension over Gabrielle questioning Xena in front of her men. Why is it we take seriously the intensity of Xena's questioning of the captured Horde member, when he's wearing a headdress and face paint that makes him look like he could be a refugee from a Mardi Gras parade (a cultural event that, among other things, celebrates camp)? [Note 40]

[62] By the end of the episode, through Gabrielle's sensitivities, the audience has begun to see a part of themselves in the human potential of the Horde. The final scenes show the Horde as both a violent threat and a camp deflation, with the chief twirling his dangerous axes with totally unnecessary theatrical flourishes. At the beginning, The Horde are threatening and primeval, with their faces painted in camouflage colors. By the time of the final fight, their faces are painted in the artificially bright colors of red, white, and blue, colors which are featured in many countries' flags. Xena's power is again emphasized, as well as the fact that primeval nastiness (of the Horde) has become located at the core of modern European culture and urselves.

[63] Melodramas (except for opera) do not have much street credibility amongst the cultural elite, but melodramatic style pervades popular culture [Note 41]. It is in the interweaving of melodrama and camp in XWP, that girl power meets girl love, for those who identify subtextual undercurrents. It is there in THE PRICE, where, as a result of the melodramatic encounters with evil (with Xena as fighting female hero, assertive and powerful. Defying gravity and convention), ethical conflicts are played out in the interaction between Xena and Gabrielle.


[64] SACRIFICE I and II demonstrate other ways in which the manipulation of modes of story telling exploit camp-meets-melodramatic elements. These two connected episodes are a trip through a fantastical world of materializing and dematerializing gods and immortals with superhuman powers. SACRIFICE I and II is the drama of two women who are trying to find the right way to operate in a carnivalesque world of competing gods and beliefs. [Note 42] It is a world where it is not always certain what to believe because some of the proponents of 'evil' (in this case, Seraphim) can have moments of sounding almost plausible. Also, Hope shows just enough human emotion to suggest she may be justified in accusing Gabrielle of loving Xena more than her own child. The forces of evil in this fantastical world have a human face. These episodes combine all the artificiality of XWP characteristics of camp and melodrama.

[65] These entanglements of emotional ties and ideals seem to be working to pry Xena and Gabrielle apart. Of course, it is not going to end here: Dahak may have lost the battle, but he has taken Gabrielle and separated her and Xena. Can Hope really be dead if she was not stabbed by the Hind's blood dagger? What of her child by Ares? This is the way melodrama works, by going from one crisis to another [Note 43].

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