Whoosh! Issue 50 - November 2000

By Lady Jane Gray
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
2439 words

Author's Note: With apologies to Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott. [Note]

Intro (01-02)
Lawless Speaks (03-08)
The Nature Of Celebrity (09-16)
Colonialism And Subtext (17-24)
Dealing With The Devil (25-27)

Do Online Fans Dream A Digital Xena?

Considered for one of the post-XENA spinoffs

Do replicants dream of XENA?


[1] The fiftieth issue of Whoosh! happens to coincide with some other historic Internet events. Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that MP3.com (http://www.mp3.com) must pay Universal $250 million in damages for copyright violations. At the same time, the battle to shut down the far more dangerous Napster (http://www.napster.com) has become mired in the courts. Most provocatively, the Australian Xena site (http://www.auspix.com) has published a copy of an interview where Xena star Lucy Lawless talks freely and unflatteringly about some of her Internet fans.

[2] Separate, isolated incidents? I think not! With a paranoia worthy of any Fox Mulder or Oedipa Maas, I will link all these in a chain leading all the way to...but that would be telling. Along the way, I will stop for visits with the anti-Joxer faction, Xena newsgroups, and the eerie world of fan fiction authors.

Lawless Speaks

[3] An interview to be published in DREAMWATCH #74 contains the following:

The aforementioned gay subtext, which the show's writing staff has always been careful to keep in the background, has prompted a good deal of heated online debate, but sometimes that tone can get downright nasty. For example, when Ted Raimi's character was first introduced, his arrival was greeted by an explosion of 'Kill Joxer' web sites created by fans that believed the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was being threatened.

"I do not plug in any more, I just don't," Lawless insists. "There are a lot of really smart people out there, and in fact, one of our writers Melissa Good came from that background, and she's doing terrifically well, so it's not the bulk of them, but maybe one in a thousand fans has pernicious intent, and they find one another. It's the one sorry thing about the Internet, that it allows very deeply unhappy and disturbed people to find one another, and a deeply disturbed and unhappy society is not going to produce good results. They're not going to have happy offspring. "Actually, the only thing that bothers me - if you don't see it, who cares - but what is a little bothersome is that so many young and genuine fans go on there and come up against these people, who have only vile things to say. I would not want my children exposed to minds like those. There are people who are regularly vicious, and I'm talking about people who have a very sick connection to the show, where they cannot help but write on average five or six times a day. Perhaps those people have a problem - wouldn't that ring warning bells for you? They have nothing better to do, and they're living in a reality of their own making. As long as I don't go on there, it doesn't bother me."

[4] As in all her interviews, it is impossible to avoid noticing Ms. Lawless' loyalty to the cast and crew. Yet it hardly seems fair: Joxer was the only character that had not died more than once, and when the actor, Ted Raimi, decided to leave the show, the writers did kill him off. Is Ms. Lawless' complaint that the fans were premature?

[5] The comment demonstrates a naivet‚ that might have been charming when the weight of fame originally settled on the show. Five years on, however, it seems disingenuous. Money. Power. Fame. Each is a Faustian bargain, and the devil will always take his due. Ms. Lawless has all three, and it should come as no surprise that, as a consequence, she and her show have become targets of hate speech.

[6] None of this is anything to rejoice in, or to be taken lightly. Those of us who wish Ms. Lawless well often find ourselves praying in private e-mails for her safety, though this is a side of Internet fandom she likely does not see. Yet the question remains, why raise the Joxer issue at this late date?

[7] Perhaps the best metaphor is found in Season Five's Cleopatra episode [ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (108/518)]. One sees the romance of Anthony, Caesar, and Cleopatra in soft lens, but underlying it are the sharp facts of economics: Rome needed Egyptian grain, and the man who could ensure the uninterrupted supply of that grain stood a good chance of ruling Rome. Call it subtext.

[8] I would like to propose a bit of subtext for Ms. Lawless' comments. The real issue is not one character or who sleeps with whom; it is who controls the content and distribution of the show.

The Nature Of Celebrity

When eye makeup sticks


[9] Fame and the diseases that accompany it have been known for centuries, but celebrity is a relatively new phenomenon. The star system came into being largely for economic reasons in support of major Hollywood studios, and by the late 1990s, it had evolved into a sophisticated collection of interlocking interests with the goal of making money from entertainers. When Lawless appears with Regis or Leno, on the cover of TV Guide, or in sound bytes on Entertainment Tonight, she is using her celebrity status both to sell her show and to sell the media in which she appears. Stars are good for business, and this in itself is no more than a clich‚ of the times.

[10] At first glance, the Internet serves the same purpose. When People Magazine Online conducted its first poll, many fans visited the site repeatedly, with the result that Lawless was voted the winner. This represented a subversion of the traditional celebrity machine, and demonstrated the ability of online fans to influence the star system.

[11] But, while People Magazine noticed the sudden stardom of Lucy Lawless, something much deeper and far more troubling was occurring on the Internet: fans were gathering and asserting their power to control how the show should be perceived. Images, quotes, video clips, rumors, and alternative fiction could be posted with virtually no effort, and distributed at practically no cost. Online fandom had signaled the end of the monopoly on distribution of content about stars.

[12] The description of Internet fan reaction to Joxer as "fans that believed the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was being threatened" sounds a bit thin to anyone who has actively participated on Internet discussion boards. In fact, fans who dislike the Joxer character do so for various reasons.

[13] While the introduction of Joxer marked the descent of the show into juvenile humor, it also shifted the comic burden from Gabrielle, allowing the writers to develop her character. On balance, we gained far more than we lost. What is important here is the one-dimensional, simplistic discussion in the Dreamwatcher interview, contrasted with discussions of the above type, which are common among Internet fans.

[14] Traditional celebrity allows its stars a louder voice. It gives them the power to define the issues and the terms on which those issues are to be discussed. The Lawless interview afforded the opportunity for an exceedingly clever rhetorical trick: Internet fans were presented as malicious, with a part of their malice derived from their obsession with subtext.

[15] This is not the fandom that I know. A striking character of online fandom is its diversity. I have met ordinary housewives in Germany, students in England, Greek immigrants, Norwegian professors, and Americans of all races, ethnicities, and genders. One newsgroup participant is a professional author whose novels have won the highest awards in her genre. Another is a scholar and editor at the most prestigious scientific publishing company in the world. A third sits on the board of her state's ACLU, leads the Alliance for gay rights, and has been the driving force behind the repeal of repressive anti-gay legislation. What these people have in common is that they reject the traditional celebrity system. They define the show and its stars on their terms, not the terms of studio heads or media celebrities. Such a seizure of power is the most threatening aspect of online fandom.

[16] The contrast between old and new celebrity is most evident in the "subtext" issue--that is, whether Gabrielle and Xena have a conscious or unconscious sexual attraction to each other. Before I begin my discussion, I want to say that I have nothing but respect for Mss. Lawless and O'Connor, who have chosen to present the possibility that their characters are bisexual. Such a decision took great professional and personal courage.

Colonialism And Subtext

[17] That said, the presentation of gayness on Xena: Warrior Princess is an example of colonialism, the appropriation of one culture by another for commercial purposes. The colonizer decides what portions of the exploited culture can be represented to the outside world. In this case, the dominant discourse of white, privileged heterosexuals has determined the "proper" representation of the despised and underprivileged gay minority.

Blondes *do* have more fun, baby!


[18] In HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211), we meet a vacuous drag queen, the highlight of whose life is to win a beauty contest. In BLIND FAITH (42/218), it is a hairdresser and in LYRE, LYRE HEARTS ON FIRE (100/510), a sequined singer in campy musical productions. Where are the gay teachers, public advocates, legislators, and doctors?

[19] If the show itself offers us nothing but the basest of stereotypes of gay men, how does that affect the purported sexual tension between Xena and Gabrielle? The public position is that any sexuality between them was placed there as a lark, an in-joke amongst the actors on the show. Those associated with the show have never explained why being gay has struck anyone as particularly humorous.

[20] I became a Xena fan in the spring of 1996, when I began posting on the Internet newsgroup alt.tv.xena. Night after night, homophobic remarks and personal hate mail would appear. Gays and straights alike would reply, making sure that no taunt or vicious remark was left unchallenged. Over the course of months, homophobia became unacceptable in the newsgroup. It was a small victory for human rights and for human dignity, and it again subverted the official view of the show.

[21] The most compelling example of the subversion of the show by the Internet is the infamous fifth season, for which even the producers and lead actresses in the show have publicly apologized. Two aspects of this are relevant. First, words and phrases similar to those used in the apologies can be read in almost any Xena Internet discussion group. It resembles an apology to the Internet audience, a group that forms only a small fraction of the total viewer base.

[22] The second, and perhaps more startling, development to be birthed in Season Five was the hiring of fan fiction writer Missy Good to write professionally for the show. This provides an interesting example of the collapse of traditional celebrity on many levels.

[23] From the very beginning of the show, Xena producers made it clear to fans that they would accept only scripts that had been submitted through recognized agents. This is an essential precaution against plagiarism charges, to be sure. Yet, this very process was circumvented in the case of Good. By her own account, she had at the time no professional credits to her name when the producers asked her to write for the show. More interesting still, Good began her writing career as an author of subtextual fan fiction. As Lawless has remarked, Internet fans are but a small percentage of all those who watch. In what world would the catering to such a minority make any economic sense?

[24] An analogy can be drawn with the Presidential elections. Candidates will win or lose based on the popular vote, but they initially need a political base and a good deal of money. And so it goes with Xena. The series may rise or fall based on Nielsen ratings, but before it is even aired, it must be sold. The stations carrying it must be convinced that it is a property that will attract their advertisers and audiences. A minority, even a minority comprised of online fans, can indeed influence the perception of what is and is not 'attractive'.

Dealing With The Devil

[25] At the beginning of Season Six, the distinctions between Internet celebrity and media celebrity are in disarray, seemingly at the desire of the professionals. It did not have to be that way. While The Simpsons (TV, 1989-present), Buffy (TV, 1997-present), and Star Trek have all strongly enforced their copyright protections on the Internet, Xena has chosen for the moment to wait.

[26] The terms of the inevitable devil's bargain for Internet fame are murky. Payment is due in some unforeseen future. Rumor has it Ms. Good has begun receiving personal threats. The death's head grin of celebrity now even smiles upon her. And, Ms. Lawless finds Internet fandom disconcerting.

[27] An analogy with the film Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) may offer some insight. The storyline has humans constructing artificial versions of themselves, to be used as soldiers or slaves. Before long, the artificial version of humanity begins to mingle with the genuine. Love happens, and violence, and life, and no one can control or predict the future of any of it. That is the way it should be.

Note: Dick is the author of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, upon which the film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, was based.


Lady Jane Gray Lady Jane Gray
Lady Jane Gray enjoys history, archaeology, anthropology, literature and is something of a snob. Active pursuits include tennis, sarcasm and innuendo. She is a professor at a major University, but would really prefer to be Sydney Fox. Her partner is a counseling psychologist, and the two live in Austin, TX, with their four imaginary children. They enjoy travel and want to show each other around Tokyo and Sydney, respectively.
Favorite episode: For clarity of vision and integrity: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101). For drama, ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402).
Favorite line: Xena: "And?" THE QUEST (37/213); Gabrielle: "I'm with you because I want to be. I love you, Xena." WHEN IN ROME... (62/316).
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: Any episode where the leads are raped, sadistically beaten, or crucified. Just not into it I guess.

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