Whoosh! Issue 45 - June 2000

By Ilin Chen
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!

Abstract: Life as an American female in the 1950s differed greatly from the 1990s. Society shifted its standards with regards to a woman's physical beauty, mental capability, social status, and economic dependency. Since the health boom of the 1980s, people advocated for more healthy, athletic builds rather than thin figures. More women have found the courage to pursue their education, which allows them to gain better jobs and become more economically dependent. In turn, these factors all affect their roles in society. The television show, Xena: Warrior Princess, best represents such changes. Since television reflects the trends in society, the character Xena can portray women and men in ways that would have been improbable four decades ago. Xena: Warrior Princess proudly represents the struggle of women and their ultimate triumph.

Four Decades of Women's Bodies (01-06)
Then Came Xena and Gabrielle (07-14)
Paradigm Shift in Self-Identity (15-17)
Art Mimics Life (18-22)
Life Mimics Art (23-36)
Living Without Men (37-40)

Xena: The Zenith of Evolving Gender Roles from 1950 to the Present

Four Decades of Women's Bodies

Now with 'stab-in-the-back' action arms!

Roman Empire Xena -- Barbie for the Millenium?
[01] Since the 1950s, American women have emancipated themselves from the constraints placed upon them by society. The image of a typical 50s woman included a thin, happy housewife who cooked the food, cleaned the house, and watched the children. Few women received a higher- level education and many stayed home while their husbands worked to support the family. Yet, the gender roles have evolved over the last four decades. Ideas about the physical, mental, economic, and social purposes of women in America are no longer the same as they were four decades ago, which is reflected in the show, Xena: Warrior Princess.

[02] A woman's body has always been under scrutiny by males, the media, and popular culture. Beauty magazines, such as Playboy in the 1950s, have been successful due to their ability to prey on self- conscious women. Even the Miss America Pageant, first televised in 1954, sent the message across America that a good body and a great smile were necessary to be the ideal woman. Meanwhile, the Barbie Doll, created in 1959, manifested the idea in popular culture that thin equaled beautiful [Note 01]. This ideology was painfully present in the 1960s when most of America idolized Twiggy, a willowy figure of 5'6" and 91 pounds.

[03] A high school dropout, Twiggy's slight build made a huge impact on female teenagers, who suffered through diets to obtain her look [Note 02]. The surge in the dieting provided an impetus for the multi- million dollar industry Weight Watchers, which started in 1961 when a 37-year old suburban homemaker decided to lose weight. Jean Nidtech, a chronic dieter, found that most diets produced no result. She and a group of six friends started a mutual support group, thus launching the popular franchise, which implied that thinner was better [Note 03].

[04] During the 1970s, women did not have a clear- cut idea of who or what they were supposed to be. Television characters such as Wonder Woman, Jamie Sommers the Bionic Woman, and Emma Peel from The Avengers hinted that women could be physically strong. Yet, the fitness boom of the 1980s finally confirmed that women could be fit and not simply thin. The movement toward health, fitness, and all around wellness embodied more than just a physical change in Americans. This social movement significantly impacted the lives of American women by altering the traditional perception of the female body [Note 04].

[05] Numerous reports and medical findings show that

"exercise increases the following personal characteristics: academic performance, assertiveness, confidence, emotional stability, independence, intellectual function, internal focus of control, memory, positive mood, perceptivity, popularity, positive self image, self control, sexual satisfaction, well being and work efficiency" [Note 05]

[06] As women followed Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, and Kathy Smith in fitness exercises, they slowly began to take control of their own lives. "All the sweating and grunting redefined the cultural parameters of female attractiveness" [Note 06]. Instead of a thin, sickly figure, the beautiful female could now possess a healthy, athletic build.

Then Came Xena and Gabrielle

[07] Since the health boom of the 80s, America has focused more on maintaining athletic bodies. For example, Xena, a 140 pound fighting machine, stands at a commanding 5'10", but her 5'4" sidekick Gabrielle also commands attention with her powerful build. Xena also possesses god-like strength, which allows her to intimidate men and women alike. A withered form would barely support all the armor and weapons she carries. Even the petite, staff-wielding Gabrielle, who has evolved from a defenseless peasant girl into a deadly combatant, presents a formidable presence to thugs and warlords. Through years of travel and training, she and Xena hone their bodies and skills into lethal weapons.

[08] Both characters also depend on their might to stay alive. Gabrielle is basically defenseless until she learns how to use a staff. She first appears as a useless tag-along, more a target than a threat. Yet once she begins her staff training, she develops into more of a sidekick and aids Xena in battle. Once Gabrielle masters the art of using sais, she becomes fully involved in the action. No longer a helpless bystander, she has become more like Xena's equal. Unfortunately, Gabrielle lacks Xena's ability to heal quickly. In THE GREATER GOOD (21/121), a mysterious figure shoots Xena with a poison dart, and Xena loses consciousness. However, her body heals and revives itself in time to stop a warlord from killing her.

[09] Week after week, Xena also performs gravity- defying stunts, which resemble those in Hong Kong action films. The moves are not supposed to be realistic, yet they further emphasize the point that women can be as athletic as men. Xena is a woman of tremendous physical strength and courage. "She doesn't fall into this svelte, silicone image," says Rob Tapert, the executive producer for the show. "She's a big woman with big shoulders, big hipbones, and big thighs" [Note 07].

[10] The July 1996 issue of Ms. Magazine lauded the series for pioneering a new image of women. Donna Minkowitz's profile of the show stated:

"Many feminists have been dreaming of mass-culture moments like this since feminism came into being. But now we've almost never seen these fantasies realized. The Bionic Woman smiled too much. Even Cagney and Lacey worried about looking "overmasculine." No woman television character has exhibited the confidence and strength of male heroes... Until now" [Note 08]

[11] Even Lucy Lawless, who plays Xena, comments on the thousands of letters she receives from little girls who "write about how encouraging it is to see someone who's so strong" [Note 09]. If the show had been aired several decades ago, it probably would have received the same criticisms that other shows such as Hill Street Blues and Cagney And Lacey faced. According to some critics, these shows featured women who overindulged in their masculine side, often taking on the role of the aggressor. However, Xena and Gabrielle embody the essence of strong females.

[12] Xena's strength allows her to fight warlords, kings, Titans, Cyclopes, and numerous other villains, and Gabrielle fights alongside with her "little stick". They both endure the physical strain of leading a nomadic life while righting wrongs and helping others. Being weak is not an option for either of the women since it becomes a matter of life or death. Neither heroine has time to worry about diets and body image. Instead, they focus their energies on creating and maintaining healthy bodies in order to stay alive.

[13] In response to the public scrutiny of the female body, HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211) satirizes beauty pageants by uncovering the conspiracy behind the scenes in the Miss Known World pageant. The episode exposes the backstage backstabbing and sabotaging and reveals how the women truly feel about being paraded like prize pigs by their boyfriends. The writers take a final jab at beauty pageants by allowing Miss Artiphys who is played by Karen Dior, a renowned "drag queen extraordinaire", to win the crown [Note 10].

[14] Xena: Warrior Princess also features other women warriors such as the Amazons, who spend their entire lives training and preparing for war. With such dominant female roles, Xena: Warrior Princess is a step towards the realization that women do not need to be thin in order to be happy. The show contains a plethora of assertive, confident, independent, and healthy women who do not worry about looking slim. After years of plastering emaciated models on billboards and in magazines, the media is taking a larger step toward promoting positive models for women to follow.

Paradigm Shift in Self-Identity

[15] Not only are women feeling more confident about themselves physically, the same confidence has also developed about their mental capabilities. Daniel Defoe stated in 1719, "I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world... that we deny the advantages of learning to women" [Note 11]. During the 50s, the majority of women required little education past the elementary level since they did not work in the same professions as men. Teaching most women anything beyond how to maintain a proper household seemed superfluous until they began seeking employment outside the home. The main difference between boys and girls while growing up is that the girl learns that her place is in the home. The boy learns that his place is not in the home. By the time she is in high school, a girl has been brainwashed.

"Girls only go to college to find a husband and ... are inferior [because they] simply want an easy life... [Young women are] bright, enthusiastic, and full of hopes, but, like most women, they will go out in the world knowing their place, and that place is secondary to men" [Note 12].

[16] Despite the mentality that pervaded the general public at this time, more women began to obtain a higher education by infiltrating male-dominated college institutions. Harvard University, one of the most respected in the nation, finally accepted its first twelve women in 1950, though it has been in existence since 1636. In 1957 there were 1,326 institutions for higher education. Out of that number, 13% were strictly male colleges, 13% were strictly female colleges, and 74% were coeducational. During the 1960's, universities such as the University of Minnesota began to offer educational programs to encourage college attendance by older women. The year 1969 marked the admission of the first undergraduate women to Yale University, another institution founded in the seventeenth century. Women made enormous progress when Congress passed Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which prohibited sex discrimination by any educational institution receiving federal funds. By 1976, only 9% of all colleges were strictly male or female [Note 13].

[17] The trends continued, and in 1978, more American women entered college than men. By 1983, women earned more than half of the undergraduate degrees, half the master's degrees, and one-third of the PhDs. The number of women who entered institutions of higher learning had doubled since 1975 [Note 14]. However, these increases do not purport that women have become smarter over the years. Aggregately, women have always been intelligent beings, yet they did not have the chance to demonstrate their abilities. Now, women are seeking higher education more actively and are not afraid to pursue admission to prestigious universities. By the 1990s, the disparity between female and male enrollment has greatly decreased in most schools. The successes of these women demonstrate that they can function as well as men on an intellectual plane.

Art Mimics Life

Whoa!  You've put on a pound or two babe!

Xena and Ares have danced together in the past, both physically and metaphorically.
[18] Not only physically strong, Xena's intelligence has saved her life and other people's lives on more than one occasion. She effectively uses her brilliant battle strategies to terrorize and conquer most of ancient Greece. Throughout the series, Xena often outwits the gods and goddesses. In THE RECKONING (06/106), Ares, the God of War, tries to lure her back under his fold by framing her for murders she did not commit. However, Xena manages to save herself without shedding anyone else's blood. Ares promises to bring soldiers of her choice back from the dead, but she uses his promise to revive the murdered villagers, who clear her name. Though angry about losing this round, even the God of War is impressed by her cleverness.

[19] Xena's personal conflict with Ares becomes a point of contention in future episodes, and she manages to outsmart him each time. Xena also tricks other gods such as Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hades, and Hera. For example, Xena helps Ulysses escape Poseidon's wrath and return home safely. She angers him again when she solves his riddle and releases Cecrops from his curse in THE LOST MARINER (45/221). Her actions anger the gods yet instills a sense of fear and respect for the mortal as well. She likewise outfoxes the Furies in the episode THE FURIES (47/301). The three women plague Xena with insanity because she has not avenged her father's death. Unfortunately, the killer is her own mother. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Xena finally convinces the Furies that her father is still alive and is relieved of her curse.

[20] Because of her intellect, people often turn to the warrior princess for help. In THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105), the prince of Colonus begs Xena to help him rescue his fianc‚e from a wily arms dealer. This is not the only time that royalty requests Xena's aid. Kings and queens from as far as Egypt consult Xena for advice or ask for her help. Even the gods have humbled themselves to obtain her assistance. During DEATH IN CHAINS (09/109), Hades, God of the Underworld, needs Xena to rescue Death who has been imprisoned by King Sisyphus. He seeks her help again when his Helmet of Invisibility is stolen and his power usurped in MORTAL BELOVED (16/116). In TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208), the God of War turns to Xena for assistance when his sword is stolen and he is reduced to a mere mortal. Both Ares and Aphrodite seek Gabrielle's aid in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310) when they lose their powers because of an enchanted scroll. Their powers are finally restored when Xena figures out how to reverse the spell.

[21] The show portrays both Xena and Gabrielle as intelligent women while the bumbling idiots are usually male. One such example is Joxer "the Mighty", who roams the countryside searching for those who need his help. Unfortunately, he does more harm than good when he does attempt to help. Joxer provides the comic relief for the series, which allows the women to behave in a more serious and dignified manner. They appear as profound, thoughtful characters while the male takes on the burden of slapstick comedy.

[22] This arrangement differs greatly from classic 1950s shows such as I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. In those shows, the father was always the dominant figurehead whom all the children admired. Ricky took care of Lucy when she got into trouble, which was every episode. He was the father-like husband who took care of his impish wife while the audience enjoyed watching and laughing at Lawless' antics. The title Father Knows Best even indicates that the male character is more sagacious. He is head of the household, responsible for making the difficult decisions, and the mother simply agrees with him because he is so wise.

Life Mimics Art

[23] In response to a Redbook questionnaire, seventy-five percent of the 120,000 respondents agreed "the media degrades women by portraying them as mindless dolls" [Note 15]. Now in the 1990s, the male character does not always need to outsmart the females. The skillful women of Xena rely on their wits as much as their strength in order to survive.

[24] Since the vast improvement in the education of women, their roles in the workplace have also changed. In the 1950s, only thirty percent of women earned wages, but the percentage slowly increased over the decades. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned sex discrimination in employment, and roughly thirty-five percent of all women worked in the 1960s [Note 16]. During the 1970s, women gained more attention to further their causes. Feminist activity flourished with women such as Gloria Steinem, the popular media symbol for liberated female activists, leading the way.

[25] August 26, 1970, which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted women the right to vote, marks the date of the "Women Strike for Equality" demonstrations held all over the country. These marches were called "a twenty- four hour general strike...of all women in America against the concrete conditions of their oppression" [Note 17].

[26] In 1970, almost forty-four percent of all women were working, including forty-one percent of married women. Females prospered in careers as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and machinists. However, society repeatedly tested women by demanding they demonstrate their capabilities as workers to prove themselves. Though attitudes had begun to change, the full incorporation of women into the workplace was a slow, tedious process.

[27] By 1980, more than one-half of all women were in the workforce. About sixty percent of American women participate in the labor force today, a dramatic increase from forty-four percent in 1970 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). During the 1980s and the 1990s, the number of women in managerial positions more than doubled in percentage since 1965, yet one-third of women still held low- paying clerical jobs. Women also emerged in traditionally male-dominated careers. The percentage of women lawyers had increased to twenty-four percent, eight times the original amount in 1970. The Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act in 1992 provided money to train women for jobs in traditionally male fields [Note 18].

[28] Armed with better educations, women have capitalized on the opportunities presented to them. Prominent women in today's society include Janet Reno, the first female Attorney General for the United States as well as Sandra Day O'Connor, named the first female Supreme Court Justice in 1982 and later joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993. The president of the Washington Post is Katharine Graham, and successful CEOs include Lillian Vernon and Martha Stewart. Barbara Walters is now a television journalism legend, leading the way for other on-air women by proving that women are equally capable interviewers [Note 19].

[29] These women are not only pioneers for the millions of women who follow their examples, they are also role models who show society that females can function in the workplace. Women occupy professional positions such as doctors and lawyers while taking control of their own destinies. They no longer have to prove their worth because it has already been done. Women's success today provides testimony for the competence of women in the work force.

[30] Though work in ancient Greece differed from that of today, males still dominated many professions. The word "warlord" engenders an image of a strong male who leads his army into victorious battles. Yet Xena is not only a warrior, she is one of the deadliest and most feared of her time. She has led her army to numerous victories and conquered much of ancient Greece before deciding to change her ways. Even after she decides to fight for good, she still remains an unbeatable warrior.

[31] Nonetheless, Xena is not as well known as her counterpart, Hercules. In BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302), Neron prays to the gods to send a hero to end a curse that is making the day repeat itself. Xena asks him why he did not say anything to her when he saw her walking through the streets. He sheepishly replies that he was waiting for Hercules, or Sinbad at least. Despite the lack of acknowledgment Xena receives, she remains on the warrior's path. Similar to women such as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole, Xena has held her own in a male-dominated profession.

[32] Meanwhile, Gabrielle is also emerging in a predominantly male vocation. Since she was a child, Gabrielle has dreamed about traveling around the world and telling stories about her adventures. As a bard, she competes with other world-renowned poets such as Euripides and Homer in ATHENS ACADEMY OF PERFORMING BARDS (13/113). She records the accounts of her escapades with Xena and is mostly responsible for sharing such stories in order to promote a positive image of Xena. The name of the warrior princess no longer instills as much fear in the hearts of people because Gabrielle has been successful in spreading the encouraging stories.

For a fleeting moment, Mel considers giving Janice a chakram to the back of the head

Mel and Janice -- just a couple of bubbas?
[33] Even the Xena Scrolls (34/210), an episode set in 1940 Macedonia depicts the descendants of the two women in traditionally male-dominated careers. Most women of the 1940s neither worked outside the home nor received their doctorates, yet the offspring of Xena and Gabrielle do both. Doctor Janice Covington, Gabrielle's descendent, is a gritty archaeologist who wears a fedora hat and totes a gun, much like Indiana Jones. Melinda Pappas, Xena's descendent, is a South Carolinian belle who specializes in translating ancient texts. Both women live in the shadows of their fathers who were forerunners in their respective fields. However, the two women manage to accomplish what the males fail to do, recover the Xena Scrolls. Melinda and Janice, working together, emerge from the shadows of their fathers similar to the way Xena and Gabrielle emerge from the shadows of a male-dominated society. By recovering the Xena Scrolls, which have the ability to rewrite history, Melinda and Janice also validate the importance and success of Gabrielle as a bard.

[34] Confident in their physical appearances and mental abilities, women are entering the workplace and gaining independence. "The greatest consequence of this increased labor force participation has been [a woman's] economic gain...Women are earning more money and are probably more independent from men as a result of their labor power" [Note 20]. According to a New York Times survey, sixty percent of the women said they chose to work in order to support their families as well as themselves [Note 21].

[35] In 1955, women earned an average of sixty- three cents for every dollar a man earned. Surprisingly, the figure dropped to sixty cents for every dollar in the 1960s though the 1963 Equal Pay Act established equal wages for equal work excluding domestics, agricultural workers, executives, administrators, and professionals. The average woman in the 1970s and the 1980s only earned fifty-nine cents for each dollar that a man would make. In 1992, figures reported that a woman earned seventy-one cents to every male dollar. Fortunately, the amount has risen to seventy-five cents to each dollar [Note 22]. Though wage equality remains elusive, workplace conditions have improved greatly since the 1950s.

[36] Of course, with this economic gain also comes a sense of social independence. Current statistics from the US Census Bureau indicates that the population of unmarried women will soon surpass the number of married women [Note 23]. The number of divorces has also increased significantly in the past forty years. There were about 385,000 divorces total in 1950, roughly 2.6 percent of the adult population. However, the number of divorces increased to 1,182,000 in 1990. The burgeoning economic and social independence of women lessened the reliance on men for financial and emotional support. Women have learned how to succeed without relying solely on men.

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