Whoosh! Issue 44 - May 2000

SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION IN XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, OR
WHERE ARE THE THREE NAKED, DANCING AUTOLYCI?

By Rachel Gordon
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
3156 words



Introduction (01-02)
Objectification of Men in the Media (03-07)
Men on Xena: Warrior Princess (08-13)
Ares (14-15)
Objectification of Women in Xena: Warrior Princess (16-23)
Acclimation (24-29)
Objectification and the Price of Port in Amphipolis (30-32)
Control (33-35)
What Now? (36)
Balance (37-40)
Bibliography
Biography



Sexual Objectification in Xena: Warrior Princess or
Where Are the Three Naked, Dancing Autolyci?




Is that a quill in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Joxer's thoughts in the form of nekkid Gabrielles come to life in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER.


Introduction

[01] A key factor in the success of Xena: Warrior Princess has undoubtedly been the physical attractiveness of its two female leads. Throughout the show's nearly four and a half year run (at the time of this writing) the portrayal of these women as sexual objects to be admired has remained a constant, although for the most part this depiction has taken a backseat to plot and character development.

[02] As a result of this emphasis on the emotions and inner workings of its main characters, many have viewed Xena: Warrior Princess as a positive force in the movement towards the equal portrayal of men and women in the entertainment media. It can be argued, however, that this is no longer the case. This change in perception stems from two themes that are of equal importance:

  1. the absence of sexual objectification of men.
  2. the increased sexual objectification of women.

Objectification Of Men In The Media

[03] An examination of recent media depictions of men shows a strong trend towards both increasing objectification and diminishing attire. Examples of these portrayals can be seen in commercials, music videos, and other television series.

[04] In a TV ad for Docker's Khakis, an attractive young man removes his shirt, hands his wallet over to an attractive women, and seats himself on a collapsible bench over a tank of water. This enables many women to both trigger the device that repeated submerges him in the water as well as to enjoy viewing the provocative effects of such an action on his partially clad body.

[05] In a Blink 182 music video, the three male band members run naked through various public settings, while interested crowd members look on.

[06] A recent episode of Charmed (TV, 1998- present) shows the female leads observing through a window and making appreciative comments on an attractive male who happens to be washing his car. In another episode, female college students use a Valentine's Day spell to transform household pets into well-muscled, naked young men.

[07] What makes these examples even more refreshing is that they appear to target female viewers. In the past, as occurred several years ago when the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue first provided its photographs of attractive men in various stages of undress, displays of men as sex objects have been labeled "homoerotic" and effectively dismissed. The implication being that only men are interested in visualizing individuals as sex objects. This is a highly sexist concept.


Men On Xena: Warrior Princess

[08] Despite the show's efforts to break established stereotypes through its portrayal of female heroes displaying the traditional "male hero" characteristics of leadership, respect by males, and the ability to "save the day", Xena: Warrior Princess has lagged behind the times in its depiction of attractive men in the stereotypically female role of the sexual object.

[09] In fact, it can be argued that when men are placed in this position on Xena: Warrior Princess they are specifically made to appear unattractive. In THE BLACK WOLF (11/111), there is an essentially gratuitous scene of submerging prisoners in a floodable chamber. Xena gets dunked, basically for aesthetic purposes, and later on so does Salmoneus. As an outsider, and not an obvious Black Wolf sympathizer, there was no reason for Salmoneus to be chosen for this purpose. A better choice from both a plot and sexual objectification perspective would have been the Black Wolf's markedly more attractive boyfriend.


I never got to do this on SEAQUEST

Joxer becomes Attis in FINS.

[10] In FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318), Joxer appears naked. Yet even if one were to argue the Joxer is an attractive character, it is clear that he is not intended to be attractive in this instance. His body is part of the humor of the scene, and Gabrielle, far from being pleased by the sight of it, turns away quickly.

Joxer as Attis: (taking the pink nightie) Hmm, what's this?
Gabrielle: Oh, no, no, no that's mine. A garment of this quality could only adorn a perfect body. (looking down at Attis in horror and changing her mind) Put it on -- quick.

[11] He eventually dons a long, loose pink garment, an item that undoubtedly would have been designed to be both shorter and tighter had it ever appeared on Gabrielle's body.

[12] A double standard is obviously at work. Naked or nearly naked women, such as the beauty contestants in the bath scene in HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211) need to be very attractive. In A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), one does not recall Minya joining Xena and Gabrielle in the hot tub for a quick dip. Naked men are present for comic relief.

[13] Consistent with this notion, the scantily clad male dancers in LYRE, LYRE, HEARTS ON FIRE (100/510) appear with Jace and are part of the comic relief. Since Jace is the gay brother, if they are erotic, then they are "homoerotic", but one would be hard pressed to call them erotic at all. Especially with that less than dignified bunny-hop step they do. Apparently on Xena: Warrior Princess real men wear pants.


Ares

[14] On occasion attractive male characters will be shown with their shirts open, or briefly off, as in the case of Ares in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208). However, this is the limit to the disrobing. We note that the wound that necessitated Ares' clothing removal is in his back. We are not talking about a thigh wound that would have required Ares to remove his leather trousers, for instance. No gratuitous leather thong scene here.

[15] Furthermore, Ares is never undressed and put in a position where he is an object to be viewed by other characters. No one cuts his clothing off with a sword as he did to Xena in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). No one ogles his body as he did with the three naked, dancing Gabrielles in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER... (56/310).


Objectification Of Women In Xena: Warrior Princess


Baid a biddud.  By dung id duck.

Metaphors abound in MARRIED WITH FISHSTICKS.

[16] In a prior Whoosh! essay, the third season of Xena: Warrior Princess was examined specifically in terms of sexual power and the shifting of that power from Xena and Gabrielle to other characters on the show [see "Sexual Power in Xena: Warrior Princess" by Rachel Gordon, Whoosh! #27 (November 1998), http://whoosh.org/issue27/gordon3.html]. In part this shift was demonstrated through dressing and undressing of individuals as well as the vulnerability inherent in nudity, particularly when that nudity is combined with perceived shame or embarrassment.

[17] With the exception of Xena's being stripped of her clothing by Cyane in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402), there were very few examples of this shift during Season Four. One might have believed that Xena and Gabrielle had recovered the power they had lost during Season Three. Alas, Season Five came along, and with it a decided shift away from female sexual empowerment and towards an objectification of women the likes of which had only previously been seen on Baywatch. Oh yes, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

[18] A few of the more vivid examples include the bathing room scene in CHAKRAM (92/502) when Ares chooses to converse with "innocent" Xena's naked breasts.

Xena: You know what's strange? I know those words, I know their meaning, but somehow they have no connection -- here."
Ares: (staring at her chest) That's gotta be tough.

[19] Earlier in CHAKRAM we are introduced to Gabrielle in her new costume, an event that Joxer acknowledges with a wolf-whistle, thus reinforcing the perception of Gabrielle as an object for our viewing pleasure. In addition there is the fact that said costume consists predominantly of a series of strings -- particularly protective when fighting "baddies" with edged weapons, no doubt.

[20] SUCCESSION (93/503) is most memorable in this context for its "dueling cleavage" shots of Gabrielle and Mavican. The episode also introduced the previously unknown Newtonian Law of the Conservation of Exposed Skin, in which Xena appears wearing pants and a modest top, and the other female characters compensate for the loss.

[21] In SEEDS OF FAITH (99/509), in a presumably highly dramatic scene, Gabrielle holds Eli as he dies. One supposes that the visual impression was to be of a Pieta, Mary embracing the body of Christ in her lap after his death on the cross, as numerous Eli/Christ parallels were present in the episode. However, the center of the screen is instead occupied by Gabrielle's cleavage. So much so that the areola on her breast is visible. What was the plot again?

[22] In LYRE, LYRE, HEARTS ON FIRE we see Draco's Gabrielle fantasy in which he strips off her top in a hot tub. Later in the episode he actually traps her in a go-go cage (and a go-go bikini). She responds by shimmying rapidly inside the cage as if this technique were the time-honored method of escaping from locked go-go cages. Strangely enough, it fails.

[23] But most of all, in this episode we see a production of the song: "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves", that 1980's anthem to female empowerment sung on Xena: Warrior Princess by lots of women in bikinis and three naked women showering. The latter appeared to be a visual reminder of those Season Three naked, dancing, Gabrielles.


Acclimation

[24] One possible consequence of this increased objectification of women in Xena: Warrior Princess is that viewers, and others, become acclimated to it.

[25] If one looks back to some of Renee O'Connor's early interviews, such as her Season Two Vibe TV interview, the actor makes reference to her modesty and the generous use of Velcro to maintain it despite a revealing costume and the need to do her own stunts.

Vibe Interviewer: When...Lucy Lawless was on Howard Stern she was talking about how you guys sometimes come out of the outfits during scenes.
Renee O'Connor: Pop out.
VI: Pop out is the word I'm looking for.
RO: Yeah.
VI: Is that true?
RO: I, um...we do.
VI: We actually have a clip.
RO: No!

(He was kidding. And later:)

RO: I guess I'm modest, during the fight scenes and stuff, that I've asked them to Velcro everything to my body.

[26] More recent interviews, such as in the November 1999 issue of For Him Magazine (FHM) and its associated bikini underwear photo shoot, suggest the actor may have developed a new philosophy on this issue. Of course it is highly unreliable to attempt to understand an actor's true views on a subject merely from interviews, but if one allows that Renee O'Connor wields a certain amount of power concerning the production of Xena: Warrior Princess, it seems unlikely that the recent clothing trends could have occurred without her support.

RO: We know there's a bit of titillation in what we wear. I encourage them to put me in sexy outfits. I think it's important for the show.
(FHM, Issue 19, November 1999, p. 64)

[27] As the show continues to move in this direction, the fans, and probably the actors, become more comfortable with the furthering of the trend. A certain anticipation develops as to how Gabrielle's clothing will be removed in the next episode.

[28] It seems possible that the show's censors would become acclimated to this trend as well. Otherwise it would be unusual for a shot of a main female character's naked breasts to get by the censors and appear on American prime time TV. Especially if these are the same censors that forced Joxer's stunt double in FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS to wear shorts during the brief, background, naked tree-swinging scenes.

[29] At this point, most of us take Gabrielle's near nudity for granted and wait for the next instance to occur. The question is, does this detract from the respect we have for her character and her character's development? When Eli's death is upstaged by Gabrielle's cleavage, one must assume it does. When entire plot devices are built around the goal of getting Gabrielle into a compromising position, such as the mud wrestling scene in LITTLE PROBLEMS (98/508), there seems little doubt as to what the show's focus has become.


Objectification And The Price Of Port In Amphipolis


You know, maybe I could pose for men's magazines!

Xena goes blonde in HERE SHE COMES, MISS AMPHIPOLIS.

[30] So what does objectification really mean and how is it important in a person's life?

[31] Objectification of individuals can have both a light side and a dark side, so to speak. On the lighter side, it is a lot of fun to look. We can fantasize that we own what we see and this can give us a sense of empowerment. We feel more in control of the world. Also, as the object reflects (and therefore appears to reciprocate) our desires, our desires are validated. This can be good.

[32] It can also be bad. Objectification of an individual means that we are no longer dealing with a human being, hence the rules and mores of humanity have only limited application to the object. The object does not feel, rather it is a vessel for our own feelings. The object can be possessed. It is passive and it is acted upon rather than having its own volition. The potential dangers of such a philosophy should be self-evident.


Control

[33] We have seen that objectification is present in the portrayal of women on Xena: Warrior Princess. Particularly attractive women. This objectification of a character can easily translate into objectification of the actor playing that character. The question arises -- do women have any control over the process? Let us look at that FHM article again.

RO: I think there's a fine line to creating art and exploiting yourself so we'll see how far I'll go when the pictures come out.
(FHM, Issue 19, November 1999, p. 61)

[34] The concept of "self-exploitation" suggests that the object has some control over the exploitation process. This may be an actual belief, or it could be an attempt to make something true simply by stating it as a fact -- a variation on the theory that "eventually we all become what we pretend to be". However, we know that physical attractiveness, and appearing as a sexual object, matter in the film industry. We know that posing for revealing pictures will frequently advance a person's career in Hollywood, because we have seen it happen before. These facts suggest that the object has less control over the exploitation. Furthermore, earlier in the article we hear from the interviewer and author Neil Ridgway (who is also listed as the magazine's editor). He comments on the fact that ROC is in her underwear on a very cold outdoor photo shoot.

NR: Too bad for her. Looking so damn good means she's going to have to stay bare to the breeze for quite some time. Agreed, gentlemen?
(FHM, Issue 19, November 1999, p. 61)

[35] Although ostensibly a "tongue-in-cheek" comment, it depicts an individual reveling in the power to objectify another. It also suggests that the readers of the interview desire the illusion of sharing in that power.


What Now?

[36] So what can be done about objectification in Xena: Warrior Princess? Well, TPTB (the powers that be) can start by making the situation a little more equal. If men and women are both objectified, a form of equality is created. It seems more likely that this will occur in the entertainment media than that the objectification of women will cease. Another option is to tone down some of the blatant sexism seen in Season Five. It is possible for a show to be sexy without being painfully sexist. We have seen this feat accomplished, to varying degrees, in Seasons One, Two, and Four.


Balance


You want the soap?  Come and get it!

Right characters, wrong hot tub.

[37] According to THE PLAY'S THE THING (85/417), sexual exploitation is necessary to get the attention of the audience.

Joxer the Producer: Uh, I just figured, you know, a little eye candy, what's the harm? Doesn't affect the vision thing. It's all still the same.

... (later)

Gabrielle: These are your changes: blood ... sex ...
Joxer: And a hot tub. I've got the guys working on it in the back. I thought to myself, 'Joxer, what is it that you like?' And I figured, 'that's what the public wants.'

... (later)

Gabrielle: A message means nothing if no one hears it.

[38] Therefore a show needs to compromise on certain issues in order to have its most important messages heard, or it will be limited to preaching to the choir. Yet, Joxer's suggestions regarding "eye candy" are not about the objectification of men and women: just women. In addition there is the question of whether or not Joxer actually represents "the public"? If the Xena: Warrior Princess fan base is truly as diverse as we have heard it is, how can this be the case? The episode's conclusion, however, seems to back up his assertion.

[39] Furthermore, which messages should take priority over others? This episode suggests that peace is the most important message art can deliver. But should peace come at the expense of equality? Can the world truly have the former without the latter?

[40] Ultimately, there is no simple answer except to say that balance is key. As with most concerns, we need to be aware of the various issues and their potential repercussions in order to make educated choices. In the meantime, bring on the Naked, Dancing Autolyci, Palaemons, Rafes, Darnelles, and Cupids, and let Xena and Gabrielle defend them from the darker side of objectification.


Bibliography

For Him Magazine. Issue 19, November 1999. EMAP Australia/ EMAP Consumer Magazines.

Vibe. 1997 Time Warner Productions.

Xena: Warrior Princess. 1995-2000 Renaissance Pictures/ Universal Studios.



Biography

Rachel Gordon Rachel Gordon
Rachel Gordon is a graduate of Columbia University in New York where she studied liberal arts. She recently completed her medical training and is currently a physician in New York City. Rachel initially began watching XWP for its novel approach to action/adventure centered around a female hero. She soon discovered that it was actually a "message show" in disguise, and has not missed an episode since then.
Favorite episode: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313)
Favorite line: Michael: "Are you insane?" Xena: "Depends who you talk to." FALLEN ANGEL
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: LYRE, LYRE HEARTS ON FIRE
Other articles by Rachel Gordon:
"Just How Subversive is XWP? A Brief Examination of the Post-rift Gabrielle" Whoosh! #21 W21 (June 1998), http://whoosh.org/issue21/gordon2.html

"Sexual Power in Xena: Warrior Princess" Whoosh! #27 (November 1998), http://whoosh.org/issue27/gordon3.html

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