WOMAN AT THE CONVENTION: A SURVEY
PART ONE: LESBIAN FANS
By Catherine M. Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Content © 1997 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 1997 held by Whoosh!
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article represents the results of a survey conducted with women who attended the Burbank Convention. It will be presented in two parts and ran over two issues of WHOOSH. Part One highlights women who identify as lesbians; part two will highlight women who identify as heterosexual.]
The minute I walked into the conference center on Saturday, January 11, 1997, I noticed the lesbians. As one lesbian told me, the first thing she said to her straight woman friend who came with her was, "Wow! Dyke City!" There was a large lesbian presence on Saturday, not to mention quite a few families with children, since Saturday was Hercules Day. But on Sunday, Xena Day, the lesbian fans were out in force!
As a lesbian, I was interested in knowing more about the lesbian fans of the show, especially those who would go to an event like the Convention. I asked for volunteers to fill out a questionnaire and I also spoke to a number of women, both at the Convention and by private correspondence afterwards, about their experiences at the Convention. The views reported in this article represent the views of approximately 35 women who identify as lesbians. This is by no means a scientific survey nor is it intended to reflect the views of all lesbian fans of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS (XWP).
WHAT THE LESBIAN FANS AGREE ON
Every woman who answered my questionnaire stated that XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, was her favorite television show. There was a significant minority of women who did not watch any other TV show. Other favorite shows of the lesbian Xena fans were STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, BABYLON 5, STAR TREK: VOYAGER, THE X-FILES, ELLEN, and DR. QUINN: MEDICINE WOMAN.
Every woman also stated that she taped every episode of XWP. Some women taped other shows as well, but the majority taped only Xena.
A very large majority (95%) stated that they read XENA fan fiction, especially the lesbian fan fiction.
That XWP was the favorite TV show ("waaaaay up there") of every lesbian I asked, did not seem surprising to me. No TV show has ever allowed lesbians to see so much of themselves and their relationships on screen the way XWP has. One woman I spoke to said that the show made her feel that she was no longer invisible, that someone in mainstream society felt that she had a right to exist. What did surprise me was that about half the women reported that there are no other shows that they never miss.
That lesbians are also avid readers of fan fiction should come as no surprise. The writers of fan fiction take Xena and Gabrielle places where the show's producers cannot or will not go. For many, the fan fiction is as important as the show itself. Some have even stated that fan fiction is *more* important, because it addresses relationship issues that are addressed nowhere else, and because some lesbians have been disappointed this season that the Xena/Gabrielle relationship has been toned down a bit.
One woman wrote:
"The XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS show is becoming less interesting for me as an audience member. The fanfic is so incredible. ... There is some awesome work being done. So, in a way my attention is being drawn toward the venue which touches my heart and feelings the most. There are many talented writers out there who have an incredible understanding of the Gabrielle and Xena relationship. They are taking me places so wonderful and magical that the show hasn't taken me since the first season."
Lesbians were unanimous in stating that they were glad they went to the Convention. Only one woman said that she would not go to another one, because she felt that this convention was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that no subsequent convention could live up to.
WHAT LESBIANS LIKE ABOUT THE SHOW, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
What appeals to lesbians about XWP is, obviously, the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. But equally important to lesbians is the portrayal of women as strong and independent. A small number of women stated that the primary appeal of the show for them was Xena, or Lucy Lawless, herself. Thus, it is not merely the lesbian innuendo that draws lesbians to the show. Lesbians share with their heterosexual sisters the need to see women portrayed as human beings with lives and ambitions and needs of their own. That Xena and Gabrielle are seen as people with a right to work out their own destiny is a rare thing on television, and it is no wonder that women of all sexual orientations have made the show their own.
In answer to the question, "What is it about the show that appeals to you as a lesbian?", one woman wrote:
"The portrayal of strong, independent, self-defined women and the portrayal of a close emotional relationship between two women. They are willing to die for each other, laugh with each other, challenge each other to stay on the right path, and care for each other in moments of emotional or physical need."
Another woman said:
"On the surface it was seeing a woman be just as strong (or stronger) than a man. Xena doesn't need anyone to *save* her. But over the course of my addiction, my love for this show has grown on so many levels. The love and protection Xena shows towards Gabrielle. And the fact that although Xena is the (physical) protector, we *know* that she needs Gab just as much as Gab needs her. The relationship between these two characters is the greatest I have ever seen (on TV or elsewhere). I used to think that I was looking for *my Xena* (warrior/protector/savior), now I believe I'm also looking for *my Gabrielle* -- someone who'll stand by me no matter what. That is what keeps me tuning in week after week (and re-playing taped eps over and over). The fact that NO MATTER WHAT, Xena and Gabrielle will always *ride off into the sunset together*. Well, that and watching Xena beat up guys <g>."
Another woman said:
"I love the sensuality of a strong, beautiful woman who accepts and celebrates her strength and power. I love Lucy's ability to speak to my heart with her eyes and her body language. She crosses the line between male and female character traits while never losing her feminine appeal. The more powerful she is, the more vulnerable she becomes."
Another woman mentioned "the romantic dynamics that lesbians experience, particularly in unrequited love, and a strong, independent woman who doesn't need men, and who doesn't fit in terribly well with the world around her."
Most of the lesbians placed the portrayal of strong, independent women first among the things that are most important to them in the show. A close second was the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, including the lesbian innuendo that the production staff has admitted to putting into the show.
Several women mentioned, however, that the innuendo mattered far less to them than the dynamics and the development of the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, something that they believe matters very much to heterosexual fans as well. Whether or not people see Xena and Gabrielle as potential (or actual) lovers, their obvious love for each other and their complex and evolving relationship are much more important than, for instance, teasers like 'lesbian/vampire disco scenes.'
Another woman wrote:
"Sure, I see the innuendo and that's icing on the cake. But more importantly, it's the friendship between the two. These two characters have a friendship that most of us only dream about. They care about each other and aren't afraid to show it."
The next most important aspect of the show for lesbians was Xena herself, her dark past, her journey to redemption, and the wonderful story lines that address these issues.
Also important to lesbians was that the women characters on the show were 'easy on the eyes,' and that the viewers appreciated the show's camp and comedic aspects.
Least important were the action and martial arts sequences (although many of the women liked those aspects very much) and the special effects.
Other things that were mentioned were:
"Xena's deeply compassionate heart, hidden by her gruff demeanor. The sometimes spectacular writing that pops up from time to time."
Clearly the lack of TV shows or movies that appeal to women is a factor in the popularity of XWP with women.
As one woman said:
"I can remember going to the video store, and staring blankly at my few choices again and again. 'Shall we watch RED SONJA tonight, or the CONAN with Grace Jones in it?'"
So when she saw XENA on TV, she was ecstatic.
"The guys weren't coming to her rescue. She was ... their complete EQUAL. I was in heaven. The fact that she was a woman never even came up. People admired her for what she made of herself, feared her for what she had been, but no one ever said "Oh, she's just a woman, I'm sure I can whip her with one hand tied behind my back." Her fearsomeness was *never* a surprise. They never made excuses for what she could do, either. She just *was*. The Hero, the Villain, the Paradox. . ."
Of course, the discovery of the lesbian subtext is a powerful experience.
"Then, in the episode PROMETHEUS [#08], my gf and I suddenly sat up and said 'Wait a minute! Look at that! She just said "I'm off to die" to her 'lover' Herc with about as much feeling as if he were a rutabaga. THEN she said a long, cuddly, tearful good-bye to her cute little *female* sidekick!!!!! Are we imagining things here???????"
WHAT LESBIANS DO NOT LIKE ABOUT THE SHOW
The aspects of the show that lesbians disliked the most were Gabrielle's boys-of-the-week and Joxer. A few women mentioned that this season there had been less Xena/Gabrielle interaction, which they found alarming, and that the producers seemed to be 'playing it safe' in terms of toning down the lesbian sensibility of the show.
One woman mentioned that she did not much care for the references to monotheistic religions in a show that portrayed a pantheistic culture.
A few women felt that the women's costumes were designed too much to create 'eye-candy' and stated that female friends of theirs could not get past the seeming sexism of that display of women's bodies to be able to appreciate the show.
Some women were fearful that the show was losing many of the elements that made the first season so memorable.
One woman stated: "I fear that without a renewed emphasis on the emotional life of the characters, instead of on their superhero misadventures, this show will lose the edge that made it unique."
On the whole, however, there is very little that lesbians do not like about XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS.
WHAT LESBIANS ARE WILLING TO TOLERATE TO KEEP THE SHOW ON THE AIR
All of the women were willing to tolerate Joxer if he was necessary to keeping the show on the air. Many stated that if either Xena or Gabrielle pairs off with a man permanently, they would no longer watch the show. Several stated that as long as Lucy and Renee are in the show, they will tolerate ANYTHING!
Other things that might cause lesbians to stop watching were: Lucy leaving the show, Renee leaving the show, Gabrielle and Xena breaking up, or a major personality change in either Xena or Gabrielle.
The lesbians at the Convention came from all over the country, including such cities and states as Milwaukee, Alabama, Florida, Denver, Missouri, and San Francisco. Many were local women. Only two said that they broke their budget to attend. Most seemed to think that the cost was reasonable.
The women spent anywhere between $100 and $800 to attend the Convention. For most, it was not an economic hardship. Every woman stated that she bought quite a bit of Xena merchandise from the vendors, including photos, scripts, mugs, hats, the CD-ROM, the CD, magazines, comic books, t-shirts. Some of the women also bought weapons and armor. Most said that they would have bought more had it had been available.
All of the women wanted a better selection of merchandise. Requested items were more photos and scripts, jewelry, Xena trading cards, Xena calendars, replicas of Xena's weapons, Gabrielle merchandise, action figures of other characters in the show, more books, more posters, and Xena art work.
Overall, the lesbians who attended the Convention were well able to afford the weekend and were very willing to buy any Xena merchandise they could get their hands on.
WHAT LESBIANS LIKED MOST ABOUT THE CONVENTION
Seeing Lucy Lawless was almost the unanimous response to the question, "What was most significant to you about going to the Con?" Many women stated that meeting the other stars, especially Hudson Leick, was second in importance, while an equal number of others stated that meeting other lesbian fans was second. Many of the lesbian fans belong to women-only groups of Xena fans and others have many lesbian friends they have made through the Internet. All of the women who have made online friends were looking forward to meeting many of them at the Convention. Meeting the production staff and non-lesbian fans came next in importance. The opportunity to buy merchandise was also important to many of the fans.
HOW MANY LESBIANS ATTENDED THE CONVENTION?
The lesbians I spoke to all agreed that, on Sunday especially, there was a significant number of lesbians at the Convention. To my question, "How many of the women at the Convention were lesbians?" I received the following answers: most, lots, 60-70%, half, one third, 75-80%, over one third, 75%, 50%, three fourths. All the lesbians I spoke to were aware of the large number of lesbians there.
As one woman said:
"We were everywhere--and most of us were armed." ;->
FEELING VALUED AS LESBIAN FANS
One of the most important questions (to me) was, "Do you feel that as a lesbian you are a valued part of Xena fandom?" The great majority of women said that they did. Two did not feel valued.
Most of the women said things like the following:
"I feel very valued. Perhaps the biggest reason why is in the support that I feel I get from the production company and Lucy Lawless. I've seen this in interviews and noticed it at the con during people's onstage presentations and the interactions lesbians had with LL at the autograph table (and with Hudson Leick)."
"I know that some heterosexual fans who are on-line are made uncomfortable by our presence, but we also have so many supporters -- both heterosexual and lesbian/ bisexual. As rocky as the relationship can sometimes be between straight and lesbian/bisexual fans, I also think we are learning to live with each other and respect each other. Surprisingly, my involvement with XWP has helped me to get over some of my anger at heterosexuals."
One woman who did not feel valued said:
"...I think we are more visible in Xena fandom. But the constant and consistent flame wars that keep occurring on the mailing lists and the NetForum convince me that we are not valued, we are perceived as just 'pushing' a different viewpoint about the show. One mailing list even banned all speculative discussion of the X/G relationship. Even lesbian fanfic is classified as 'alternate'..."
"I felt that the huge dyke presence was carefully kept in the closet at the Con."
Another said: "The word 'subtext' was used in place of 'lesbian.' It didn't feel like censorship, or fear of using the "L" word. It just seemed everyone was respecting everyone's sensibilities."
A LESBIAN ROOM?
Something mentioned by many fans was that they would have liked to have had meeting rooms where, for instance, Internet fans could have gotten together. I asked the lesbians if they would have liked a lesbian room. With only a few exceptions, all the women said that they would have visited such a room.
Suggested names for the Lesbian Room: The Bard's Tavern, Xena's Bedroom, The Lavender Chakram, Sappho Room, Isle of Lesbos, Subtext Room, Innuendo Room, the Xena and Gabrielle Room.
A number of women said that they would be glad to have the room open not only to lesbians but to lesbian- friendly heterosexual women. Others felt that the room should be open to all, men and women of any sexual orientation, as long as they were 'subtext-friendly.' One of the remarkable things about Xena fandom is this inclusiveness. I have participated in many events (women's music concerts) that were closed to all but a very narrowly defined group. I found the opposite attitude at the Convention. The largest lesbian group there was also open to lesbian-friendly heterosexual women. Several women mentioned to me that while it was important to them to spend time with other lesbian fans, they preferred to do that at private parties. They did not want to be ghettoized at the Convention itself.
WHAT LESBIANS SAID (OR WANTED TO SAY) TO LUCY LAWLESS
The overwhelming answer to this question was, "Thank you." Almost every woman wanted to express her thanks to Lucy Lawless for being aware of us, for including us, for not being afraid to have her character perceived as a lesbian, and for her portrayal of a strong and independent woman who does not apologize for her strength or her skills.
WHAT LESBIANS SAID (OR WANTED TO SAY) TO THE PRODUCTION STAFF
The answer to this question was essentially the same. Lesbians wanted to thank the production staff for making a place for us, for not disavowing the things in the show that we find significant, for tossing in the bits of innuendo that they can get away with, but most of all for giving us an on-screen relationship between two women that is loving and intimate and clearly of the greatest importance to both women, whether or not the relationship ever becomes a sexual one.
One woman mentioned that, as a person of color, she appreciated the diversity in the casting of the show:
"Not that they hire persons of color for extra casting or starring roles, but the fact that it's not as a plot device. These people are hired for their *talents* not the color of their skin. I speak mainly of Draco and Marcus, and other minor roles. So many shows today act as if they're obligated to hire a person of color. It's nice to watch a show that looks beyond the color line."
Another woman had this interesting observation:
"I think the staff ... need to seriously reexamine just what kind of a show they have on their hands. I'm sure that the original idea was to have an action show in a comic book format... The reality is, they have created a character with far more depth than can be handled by that limited format. They should begin dealing with the show as a serious drama, with some moments of lower key comedy interspersed at appropriate moments along the way. Xena's internal struggle, as well as her growing relationship with Gabrielle, would take priority over an endless series of contrived fight sequences. ... TPTB [The Powers That Be] are also going to have to realize that by taking risks, they will create a better show."
LESBIANS AS INTERNET FANS
Because my friends and acquaintances among Xena fans were all made over the Internet, and because the questionnaire was distributed by email, all the lesbians I spoke to are online. All of them are members of at least one Xena mailing list. Some have web pages. Being part of the Internet community has been an important part of being a Xena fan for most of the women.
One woman said:
"Being part of the on-line Xena community is a wonderful opportunity for me to participate in what sometimes feels like a wild experiment. In a sense, I think this internet XWP world has created a first -- a place where lesbians/bisexuals interact openly and freely with heterosexuals, including many heterosexuals who have never before knowingly interacted with gays. Sometimes the interactions are angry and hurtful. Sometimes they are supportive and loving. Over time, though, it seems that most of us are learning to respect each other and to just, well, get along. We're even learning to 'be nice.' What an incredible thing."
In closing I would like to quote a woman who can easily envision the 'subtext' turning into main text. I imagine that some day we will see the portrayal of a romantic relationship between two women on television, but it cannot come soon enough for many of us or for the young people who desperately need to see themselves and their lives validated around the national campfire.
"Imagine having these two women loving each other, day-in-day-out in the world of Xena? ... Why not allow them to love each other passionately? These sort of relationships are built in battlefields or on great adventures. Why not go over the line and let these two women explode into one another's lives beyond their own wildest dreams? This isn't one American's preoccupation with the sex thing ... This is about love and the expression of love..."
[Next month in WHOOSH, Ms. Wilson will present Part 2 of her "Woman at the Convention - A Survey" which will cover the views and opinions of heterosexual women who attended the historic convention]