Whoosh! Issue 35 - August 1999

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

Artifice: Melodrama and Cinematic Techniques

[66] As well as utilising elements of camp and melodrama, XWP makes good use of some artifices of cinema that have been popularised elsewhere. Hong Kong films provide the blue print for the XWP style of fighting. That style has an artificial, exaggerated quality which some may perceive as camp (perhaps in Hong Kong movies it is without the intentional parody). As suggested in A TALE OF TWO MUSES, the violence in the Hong Kong fight/flying style, is less real violence than spiritual struggle. In A TALE OF TWO MUSES the military training scene is reminiscent of the title sequence for the Hong Kong movies Once Upon A Time In China I (Tsui Hark, 1991) and II (Tsui Hark, 1992). Laura Irvine (who runs the "Xena + Hong Kong Connection" Web site) says that this type of scene is common in Hong Kong martial art films [Note 44]. The well-choreographed type of fighting, punctuated by neat slaps and exaggerated whooshing sounds is indeed more like dancing than real fighting.

[67] Television, while it cannot easily get 'inside' characters to engage us with their motives and emotional experiences, can communicate very effectively in impressionistic ways, often with a subtlety that is almost poetically evocative. It communicates motives and inner states through (often fleeting) bodily and facial expressions, and can be accompanied by music that is suggestive of a character's inner state. The close-up is indispensable in making Xena and Gabrielle full-fledged characters. It provides a sense of their individuality, psychological motivation, and emotional responses. Our emotional investment in these characters is further enhanced by the way sight and sound can work together to engage us emotionally (e.g. DEBT, ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE), particularly with the use of music to express the inner emotions of characters. As with poetry and music, these sight-sound techniques suggest a mood, but also leave something unspoken for the imagination to work on.


[68] CRUSADER is an episode that portrays beguiling and powerful women locked in melodramatic struggles between good and evil. Here it is Xena's desire for Gabrielle that is highlighted through the melodrama of sight and sound devices. Like Najara, CRUSADER has a kind of surface niceness, a deceptive smoothness belied by suggestions of more disturbing elements. The accompanying music is used to effectively communicate crucial aspects of the episode. (Such music is one of the earliest artificial melodramatic devices.) It has a smooth quality with hints of Eastern exoticism, suggesting the foreignness of Najara's religion, and hinting at something suspect. It also echoes the music that was used in SINS OF THE PAST, when Xena is approaching her hometown. Xena is only at home with Gabrielle on the road, and always alien to the more conventional hearth and home.

[69] In CRUSADER, there is also the sense of something strange but inspiring conveyed by the female choral sound of the Jinn, and, later, by the Christian revivalist-type singing. When Gabrielle and Najara are walking by the lake, the music has a lyrical quality. We see a close-up of Xena's face as she watches, afraid that Gabrielle is slipping away from her. The accompanying music contains haunting, subtly erotic undertones, expressing Xena's unspoken desire for Gabrielle.


[70] While people generally think consistency and are very important to continuity (especially in plot and character), the unique styles of separate episodes signal discontinuity. THE DEBT, a two-part episode, is a testament to a sensual style, as evidenced by the pervasive use of mellow colors, the sumptuous settings, landscape, and clothing, and the flowing of one image into another. Even the opening scene of the first DEBT episode has that overweening sense of sensuality, with Xena languidly rolling over and reaching out for Gabrielle, who is gazing longingly up at the night [Note 45]. These two episodes make much use of the beguiling sight-sound potential of the TV medium, and do so in a style that is specific to these two episodes.

[71] THE DEBT I and II are about desire and longing--about the difference between pure animalistic sex-on-a-horse desire and lust for power through flesh-destroying destruction, and desire for a more controlled, cultivated, floating-in-flowing-garments, life-affirming, sensual love. The overall style of the two episodes matches their themes, while combining strong elements of melodramatic artificiality, emotional intensity, and excess [Note 46]. Here, Gabrielle is an artificial, melodramatic plot device, like Hitchcock's McGuffin [Note 47]. It grates because we expect the artificiality to be covered by a surface that seems like natural reality. It interrupts the "seductive beguilement" [Note 48] that has drawn us into this artificial but emotionally real world with some surface semblance of reality.


[72] In THE BITTER SUITE, in comparison, there is no attempt at realism. This episode uses a much more obviously stylized and artificial format. Not only is the artificiality of the musical format juxtaposed onto the highly symbolic system of the Tarot, but also the controversial opening Gab-drag scene is played in an extremely stylized, artificial, and melodramatic style. Elements of melodrama pervade all of XWP's dramas, but in BITTER SUITE, they are in its most extreme form.

[73] The point of the artificiality of the best of melodrama is to try to get beyond ordinary everyday surface of 'reality' to issues that cannot so easily be shown in realistic terms [Note 49]. BITTER SUITE is melodramatic from the first exaggerated exchange between Ephiny and Joxer, and from Xena's glaring murderous pursuit of Gabrielle. Therefore, despite writer/producer Steven L. Sears's assertion that the horse dragging of Gabrielle was 'real' [Note 50], how real can it be? Is it not merely the melodrama of emotional, spiritual, and moral conflicts expressed in a graphic and physical form [Note 51]?

[74] The Tarot is used here to explain deeper meanings beyond the surface of our everyday experiences, things that are difficult to explain and understand, and maybe a little mysterious. This is what melodrama can do, as well. BITTER SUITE uses the masquerade of Tarot symbolism within an episode that has elements of both camp and melodrama. As well as the lighter campy style of musical comedy, it employs the heavier, more intensely serious operatic-sounding music that is commonly associated with melodrama [Note 52]. As the issues surrounding the rift arc were developed in a strongly melodramatic way, it was difficult for them to be resolved through any realistic format.

[75] Melodrama also utilizes stock/symbolic characters such as the villain who tries to seduce the heroine away from the moral and righteous way of life [Note 53]. In THE BITTER SUITE, this is played out in the exchanges between Ares and Xena [Note 54]. The attempted seduction starts at the very beginning of the episode, on the mountaintop. Ares begins his real campaign later in the episode, when he uses the tango, the dance of seduction and temptation, to try to get Xena to return to the ways of war.

[76] Until this point, Xena was depicted as the Tarot High Priestess, though she was sided with the male chorus in the musical conflict developing between Xena and Gabrielle. Xena, wearing red, now becomes the Queen of Swords, associated with Ares (as King of Swords). Gabrielle is dressed as the Empress [Note 55]. The war chorus is a heavily percussioned male chorus, in contrast to the lighter, predominantly female, musical comedy sound of the Poteidaian chorus. The fluctuations between the usual Tarot and melodrama conventions of masculine and feminine are also reflected in the visual presentation with the darkness of the war council and the bright primary colors of Poteidaea.

[77] The musical styles and visual detail of THE BITTER SUITE reflect a melodramatic expression of social and moral issues and conflicts in terms of personal relationships. The pop music style of the love song in the hall of echoes is the personal side of the relationship, expressing the personal conflict between Xena and Gabrielle. But they are then dragged through the circle by Dahak's fire while a more operatic style chorus can be heard. As a result they are each pinned on a cross, the symbol of the more universal moral struggles that have been developed through the Xena/Gabrielle relationship. The male 'hate' chorus and the 'bigness' of the sound (orchestral crescendo, percussion, choir etc.) reflect the big issues that are played out within Xena and Gabrielle's relationship. The replacement of the choir by just Xena's and Gabrielle's voices also reflects the struggle that goes on within their relationship. It is both intensely personal and of universal significance.

[78] Thus, THE BITTER SUITE reveals the basic structure of XWP behind all the differing storytelling genres through a contrived and artificial format that represents the way universal moral and spiritual struggles are carried out in the context of a personal relationship [Note 56]. In this way, two seemingly 'real' characters are caught up in big universal moral issues to do with love, hate, anger, betrayal, and redemption (all the Tarot connections with rebirth also suggest that link with issues of redemption and rebirth). There are no naturalistic attempts at explaining the details of Xena and Gabrielle's reconciliation. It is explained in general terms of the need to express their deepest feelings and to listen to each other.

[79] The final scene is about having gone through spiritual and moral struggles to reach a new stage in their relationship. They are now home, back to the relationship where it was carried off through the melodramatic arc of moral and spiritual struggles. Solan is paired with Gabrielle at the end of THE BITTER SUITE. This has to do with the loss of some her innocence (associated with childhood). However, that innocence is still a guiding force in the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, and therefore is not dead but is reborn in a different form, one that will have a continuing influence in Xena's rebirth/redemption.

Artifice: Melodrama and Woman Power


[80] XWP differs from most conventional melodramas by having women at the center of moral and spiritual struggles rather than in the more traditional role of victim [Note 57]. A striking example of this is ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE, in which the artificial devices of melodrama and masquerade are fully exploited within a cinematic medium. From the beginning this episode enters it's own story-telling dimension, when Xena enters galloping on Argo. The sense of urgency is underscored by Xena's facial expression and the drumbeats that echo the beats of Argo's hooves. The style, colors, and music suggest entry into a spiritual realm. It is as if Xena has gone on an inner journey into herself, where her emotions are laid bare. As Xena gets closer to the camera, her face starts to go out of focus and is contorted into a scream, as if she is already disappearing into a psychic realm. The whole effect of sound, facial expressions, and urgency suggest artifice and exaggerated intensity [Note 58]. The music also suggests an eeriness of the spiritual realm to be entered. The drums prefigure the Native American music that later accompanies the Amazon dancing.

[81] The episode begins with a more familiar representation of Xena, where she shouts in irritation at Hades. From that point, the dialogue becomes more lyrical, often suggesting a mysterious, mystical, cryptic quality of allegory (she refers to Gabrielle as "the only friend"). As Xena begins her spiritual journey, the images of primeval, elemental nature and Xena's face merge, giving a sense of suspension in time. As vast areas of terrain are traversed, Xena's face floats across the screen. Landscape here is an outward projection of Xena's inner state. It's a landscape where Gabrielle's voice is a tantalizing whisper in the wind.

[82] The struggle between the forces of good and evil in XWP are usually portrayed through the artifice of music/sound, color tones, and gravity-defying physical endeavors. In ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE, spiritual power is represented in terms of elevation and flying, a device borrowed from Hong Kong films. The rhythmic artificiality of the hitting sounds, punctuate and orchestrate the battles. The ultimate kill is a stake through the heart, vampire-like, pinned to a tree. This is spiritual death. In this episode a variety of devices combine to portray an intensely spiritual struggle.

[83] Alti is portrayed as an exaggerated, almost pantomime character. She is one of the stock villains from melodrama, as are other 'villains' in XWP. She is the source of Xena's destruction of the soul, the spiritual death of her past. Alti represents the individualistic, destructive kind of woman power that Xena sought in the past. This was Xena's response to being disempowered by men like Borias and Caesar. In comparison the Amazons represent a positive, loving, collaborative kind of woman power. As their culture is recovered, so is Xena's Amazon heart and Gabrielle-loving soul. The lingering images are of spectacular, assertive, and beguiling women characters playing out this struggle. Perhaps the overall impression is more important than the intricate plot and character details.

Artificial Devices and Powerful Women at the Center of a Questionable Reality

[84] Women's responses to Xena and Gabrielle range from heterosexual women who see the two women characters as (probably heterosexual) role models; as well as some heterosexual women who see the lesbian subtext as existing and important, and who can relate various relationship issues involved to their own heterosexual experiences. For many lesbians the Xena-Gabrielle relationship is a major source of identity with their own sexual relationships with women, as well as being a female role model.

[85] The camp element that pervades XWP has helped to make these varieties of conventional and innovatory interpretations and responses possible [Note 59]. Camp is particularly suited to the visual medium of TV. It often relies on bodily performance and timing. In XWP it uses bodily performance, visual immediacy, and the juxtaposition of well-known images from a variety of historical periods and cultural contexts.

[86] The episodic nature of XWP enables a kind of campy play with genres so that a discontinuity is set up between episodes that are done in specific, varied genres and styles. Some episodes are comedies, which are also seen by many as containing a lot of camp subtextual play and innuendo. Others are dramas/melodramas, where the artificial immediacy of the sight-sound medium works impressionistically.

[87] There is some discontinuity between types of comedies and dramas, from A COMEDY OF EROS, to FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS, the WARRIOR...PRINCESS series, A DAY IN THE LIFE or BEEN THERE DONE THAT; from vampire drama to the epic THE DEBT and ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE to the monster horror genre of A FAMILY AFFAIR. There are further discontinuities between a direct portrayal in some episodes of the Xena and Gabrielle characters, and those moments and/or episodes that are self-referential, where the main characters slip into self-parodies or become the actresses that are portraying them. But across all these episodic discontinuities are continuities: in character, plotlines, themes, and the use of camp strategies of artificiality, exaggeration, masquerade, irony and parody.

[88] There are both consistency/continuity and inconsistency/discontinuity built into the style and format of XWP. The main point of contact is two women whose attractiveness and power is conveyed through the way they are dressed and presented, and the charismatic way they interact with each other. Exactly how much consistency and continuity in characterization and plotline should one expect from a program that operates from within such parameters, where there is always space left for our imaginations to work? Certainly, one should expect more consistency within an episode than across episodes. Beyond that is uncertain. But, then, maybe that is the point.

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