Whoosh! Issue 37 - October 1999

IAXS project #714
By Valerie Foster
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
6618 words

Introduction (1-6)
The Midnight Cowboy Factor (7-30)
Romantic Friendship (31-52)
Homo-Eroticism (53-71)
Conclusion (72)

Yes Lucy, There Is Still a Subtext on Xena


[1] When the fourth season of Xena: Warrior Princess commenced in September of 1998, most fans gritted their teeth in anticipation of how the season premier would resolve the apparent sacrificial suicide of Gabrielle. Many other fans, however, were anticipating another, seemingly far more important issue: what was going to become of the lesbian subtext on the show.

The Celebrity Deathmatch and WWF Appearances will be pay-per-view

Two fightin' women, no waiting.

[2] This concern was prompted by a scattering of interviews and comments, which were made by the stars and staff of the program, downplaying the continued existence of subtext. One of the most memorable in that vein was a quote from Lucy Lawless herself in a recent TV Guide interview in which she engaged with Star Trek: Voyager (TV, 1994) actress Jeri Ryan. In the interview, when asked about the lesbian subtext on the show, Lawless stated, "We'd drop a few jokes into the scenes here and there. They weren't in the script, just impromptu lesbian high jinks on the day of filming. But we've moved on. I mean, how long can you keep that going?" [Note 01]

[3] Ms. Lawless may not have been mistaken in her comments that the show's producers and writing staff have "moved on" from the subtext, as she described it. The "She likes what I do" and "Is that a hickey?" impromptu subtext statements that had almost immortalized the second season and pre-rift third season were all but absent in the fourth season.

[4] However, there is also little doubt to many after a full viewing of the fourth season that the lesbian subtext is still alive and well on Xena: Warrior Princess. In her book, Lucy Lawless & Renee O'Connor: Warrior Stars Of Xena, which was published before the beginning of the fourth season, author Nikki Stafford describes the Xena/Lao Ma relationship as such,

"The scenes with Xena and Lao Ma have a more serious lesbian innuendo than those with Gabrielle and Xena have ever had, for although Xena is the more powerful physically, Lao Ma is still in control and she makes Xena fall in love with her. Never have we seen Xena have this much respect for a single person, but Lao Ma earns every bit of it."

About Lao Ma's famous "I don't eat meat" line, Stafford said, "Jacqueline Kim delivers the line seriously and with dignity, the way subtext should be treated on the show" [Note 02].

[5] It is my assertion that the show has subtly, almost stealthily, adopted the seriousness of the subtext Xena/Lao Ma relationship that Stafford described and has applied that context to the Xena/Gabrielle relationship. Thus, the "high jinks" of the beloved second season have been replaced by contexts more serious, more intense, and arguably more legitimate of a true loving and romantic lesbian relationship.

[6] This article will illustrate how this phenomenon has been accomplished by deciphering the episodes into three contexts of subtext: the first context which I call the Midnight Cowboy factor, the second being the Romantic Friendship context as first described by Sherry Johnson in her 1997 Whoosh! article, and the third context being homo-eroticism, all of which were prevalent throughout the fourth season.

The Midnight Cowboy Factor

The low-rent Xena and Gabrielle alternative

Joe and Ratso -- Xena and Gabrielle parallells?

[7] The 1969 motion picture Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger) is a three-time Oscar-winning film about Joe Buck (John Voight), a tall and handsome male hustler from Texas and his sidekick/best friend Ratso Rizzo, (Dustin Hoffman), a short, tubercular, and talkative pimp-wanna-be. In the film, Buck travels to New York City to make it big as a studly call boy to wealthy women. He meets Ratso and quickly learns that prostituting himself to men proves to be more lucrative. Although this plot is the framework for the film, in the more intense underlying story, Buck, who is heterosexual, basically sells himself to men in a desperate attempt to raise money to take Ratso to Florida for much-needed tuberculosis treatment.

[8] Author Raymond Murray, in his book Images In The Dark: An Encyclopedia Of Gay & Lesbian Film & Video, stated about the film, "The homosexual attraction in the complex but tender relationship between Buck and Ratso is hinted at and seen as obvious by most, but is never explicitly developed" [Note 03]. Sound familiar?

[9] However, to distract the viewer from the obvious, both Buck and Ratso were portrayed as raging homophobes, spewing anti-Gay epithets and, in one scene, beating a gay man to a pulp. In that regard, the late Vitto Russo, in his now famous publication, The Celluloid Closet, commented about Midnight Cowboy, "When buddy films returned in the late sixties, the presence on screen of [other] homosexual characters was a perfect way of saying, 'Oh, no, this isn't what we mean at all.' Homosexuals draw suspicion away from the buddies - it was yardstick time again" [Note 04]. Substitute boy-of-the-week or flashback-dead-lover for "other homosexual character". Again, sound familiar?

[10] Yet, actor John Voight compared Buck and Ratso to actual bums living in the Bowery district of New York who would pair up and split things 50/50. "It's beautiful," he said, "Like the relationship between Dusty and me in the movie. It's really a love affair, though it never becomes sexual. But it's still love" [Note 05]. Really sounding familiar now?

[11] The overall premise of Xena: Warrior Princess is framed almost exactly like that of this 30-year-old critically-acclaimed film. Two friends engage in a questionably non-sexual love affair and are willing to do literally anything for each other. Nothing of the love affair is spoken, but the implications are beyond obvious. Thus, the Midnight Cowboy factor can be characterized as how the subtext relationship is portrayed in the overall plot of the episode, and, in some episodes, how either other characters enhance the hinting of the Xena/Gabrielle love affair or what other characters of the show notice or express as obvious of the love affair.

[12] In ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE I (69/401), Xena is willing to cross over into death to see Gabrielle again. She is not concerned about the lasting implications of her actions, as Gabrielle is "the only friend". Interestingly, Cyane immediately senses the seriousness of Xena's feelings toward Gabrielle, referring to her as "your precious Gabrielle", a line previously reserved only for Callisto.

[13] In SIN TRADE II (70/402), the flashback Cyane saw an Amazon in Xena. She explained that Amazons "live for each other, not ourselves", the quintessential Xena/Gabrielle Mission Statement. Later, back in the present, Alti seems threatened by the importance of Gabrielle to Xena. "Tell me who she is. Tell me who the blond one is". Ultimately, Xena is able to kill the arguably more powerful Alti only after she discovers that Gabrielle is still alive. It is as if the wonderful news galvanizes her to destroy Alti. Afterwards, "Gabrielle" is the first word Xena utters when she brings herself back. She knows instantly that the Amazon holy word is now "love". Completing her mission, Xena is now able to return to Greece and to her love.

[14] In A FAMILY AFFAIR (71/402), (even the title is suggestive) Xena returns to Gabrielle's hometown to find her. Even before doing so, she is willing to protect Gabrielle's parents from the Destroyer and Hope. Xena does all this despite the fact that the folks treat her like the proverbial unworthy boyfriend. Specifically, Herodotus complains that Xena is guilty of, "seducing [Gabrielle] away from home." Hope likewise continues to feel that she means nothing to Gabrielle. She questions Gabrielle's love for her and, correctly so, assumes Xena is first in her mother's heart.

[15] IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404), the first of the fourth season comedies, portrayed Xena and Gabrielle as bickering spouses in the classic vein of A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215). Most noticeably, each woman contracts the other's bodily ailments, suggestive of their close contact, while Joxer only contracts the same food poisoning that he causes and from which Xena, Gabrielle and everyone else in the village suffer. In the later comedy, A TALE OF TWO MUSES (74/406), the still bickering twosome find time to work as a team as both fighters and dancers. As Xena states, "My lovely assistant and I will put it together".

What happens when the makeup ladies go on strike

There are step-nasties aplenty in IF THE SHOE FITS.

[16] In the third installment of the "bickering couple" comedies, IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412), Xena delivers probably the most acidic line, something one can expect only from their spouse:

GABRIELLE What do you want from me? My skirt? My boots? My underwear? XENA Oh no, that would be too cruel.
[17] The episode continues to emphasize Gabrielle's distress over her less-than-perfect companion when she, as "Tirella", states to the symbol of Xena, as the evil step-mother, "...your anger is misplaced. It is a convenient way to avoid your deeper emotions, the same way your mistreatment of me and my belongings is your way to avoid intimacy". It is no wonder that Gabrielle and Xena would later part company temporarily, exclaiming, "I need space".

[18] The very fine episode, A GOOD DAY (73/405), is the first of the fourth season episodes to stray away from a specific plot point of the Xena/Gabrielle relationship. However, unlike KEY TO THE KINGDOM (78/410), DAUGHTER OF POMIRA (79/411), and TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE (87/419), A GOOD DAY does manifest plenty of subtext. With the Midnight Cowboy factor, the episode parallels the Xena/Gabrielle relationship with that of the married couple, Phlanagus and Nogalin. This is best displayed in the exchange between Gabrielle and Nogalin before the first battle:

NOGALIN I've never been in a war. I've only wondered what it was like. When I think of Phlanagus out there fighting, sometimes the thoughts are too much to bear. GABRIELLE: I know what you mean.
[19] Also, the very handsome Temecula would have been a boy-of-the-week for Gabrielle two years ago, but the Xenastaff has moved on, hopefully for good.

[20] The other two episode which focus on a plot not involving the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, but which do contain some subtext are PAST IMPERFECT (77/409) and THE PLAY'S THE THING (85/417). In PAST IMPERFECT, Xena is focused on the events of her past. However, she appears equally concerned about the infamous death "vision" and Gabrielle's vulnerability.

[21] THE PLAY'S THE THING (85/417) was actually a vehicle for the Xenastaff to poke fun at itself, with violence and sex being the running comical themes. What makes it so interesting on a subtext level is that every time there is a reference to violence, it is logically about splitting heads and splattering blood. However, every sexual reference is about either the desire for more skin exposure or Xena and Gabrielle frolicking in a hot tub. There is not one single heterosexual sexual reference, involving either woman in this episode.

[22] Then, there is Minya's proclamation that she is a "Thesbian". Well, that is what I heard her say.

[23] In LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407), Xena receives a sentence of life imprisonment. After an attempted embrace on the docks, Gabrielle follows her to Shark Island Prison, presumably to be with her (something virtually no one would do in real life) until she learns that Thalassa is alive and is the one mistreating Xena. Then Gabrielle's mission shifts to assisting Xena in escaping Shark Island. Thalassa, who appears smitten with Gabrielle, is notably jealous over Gabrielle's devotion to Xena. By contrast, in CRUSADER (76/408), Xena is willing to abandon Gabrielle to a female replacement, Najara, presumably to save Gabrielle from the death "vision". When she learns that Najara is a murdering zealot, the "vision" become secondary to getting Gabrielle away from Najara. Xena, who senses Gabrielle's attraction for Najara, is also notably jealous over those perceived feelings.

[24] By the way, when the two women warriors fight, both times, they are fighting over their mutual "weakness" - Gabrielle. This rivalry between Xena and Najara continues in THE CONVERT (86/418), where Najara literally comes between Xena and Gabrielle as displayed by their intense arguments with one another. Najara toys with both, telling Gabrielle that staying with Xena will only force Gabrielle away from her path of peace while working Xena's guilt by emphasizing Xena's life of violence, the "vision", and Gabrielle's tragic destiny as a result of that violence.

[25] PARADISE FOUND (81/413) is what I consider to be the prelude episode to the India Arc, for although it does not actually take place in India, it sets the physical, spiritual, and sensual tone of the three episodes that do take place there. PARADISE FOUND and the India Arc episodes are, simply stated, subtext abundant. In PARADISE FOUND, Xena first leaps into an infinity-length hole into which she assumes Gabrielle has fallen. Again, she is not concerned about the consequences of her actions. She is then willing to leave Gabrielle to avoid letting the beast within her hurt or kill Gabrielle. When Xena discovers Aiden's true nature, she allows that beast to surface both mentally and physically, confident in the fact that Gabrielle, even in a catatonic state, will work with her to defeat Aiden and prevent any casualties.

[26] In DEVI (82/414), Xena is willing to fight Gabrielle's body to save her soul. In BETWEEN THE LINES (83/415), both Xena and Gabrielle work together to save their karmic cycles. Alti nearly kills Xena and Gabrielle when they battle her individually, but together they are able to defeat her. It is also in this episode that it is first suggested that Xena and Gabrielle are soulmates. As Naiyima tells them, "You both walk a path together. Think of yourselves as lines in the mehndi, separated but forever connected".

Paradoxically, in this shot, Lucy is 2-dimensional and Ted is 3-dimensional

Ted's character is about to take his frustrations out on a Xena standee.

[27] In this regard, something has to be said about DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422). It is rather ironic that in this clip episode, it would be the reincarnated Joxer (who is interestingly a female) who would finally confirm to the reincarnated Xena (who is interestingly a male) and the reincarnated Gabrielle that they are indeed soulmates. It took him awhile, two millennia, but even Joxer is no longer clueless as to the love affair between Xena and Gabrielle.

[28] Closing out the India Arc, in THE WAY (84/416), Xena prays to a god she neither knows nor has reason to trust, in the hopes that she will be given the power to save her love from the king of demons. For her part, Gabrielle is first willing to fight and expectantly die at the many hands of Indrajit when she believes he has killed Xena. Later, she is willing to stay with Xena despite their opposite paths in life.

[29] The what-I-consider two-part season finale, ENDGAME (88/420) and IDES OF MARCH (89/421), displayed very little subtext in the overall plots, but like the India Arc, was very heavy in subtext under the other two contexts to be discussed. Nuances under the Midnight Cowboy factor do exist, however. In ENDGAME, Xena, the onetime Destroyer of Nations, assumes the role of Gabrielle's subordinate, her military leader in their mission to return the imprisoned Amazons to Ephiny's tribe. In IDES OF MARCH, Xena drops her mission to assassinate Caesar when she learns that Gabrielle is in Roman custody. Vision or no vision, saving Gabrielle becomes instant priority.

[30] In IDES (89/421), the strongest element to come out of the Midnight Cowboy factor, however, is the presence of Callisto, who has obviously been aware of the Xena/Gabrielle love affair since her famous battle with Xena on the ladders. She refers to them as "partners" and remarks that they can "live happily ever after" if Xena accepts her offer. She knows, as does Caesar and Ares, that Gabrielle is always the best card to play against Xena.

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