Whoosh! Issue 56 - May 2001

By Philip Tracy
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
8248 words

They Call It The Xenaverse (01-04)
The Shape Of The Beast (05-11)
A Little Help From My Friends (12-14)
Born Free (15-21)
How Subtext Got Started (22-28)
The Short Life And Long Death Of A Subtext Show (29-36)
The Once And Future Warrior Princess (37-38)
APPENDIX I: Varieties Of Xena Fiction (39-50)
APPENDIX II: Bards Of The Xenaverse (51-67)


They Call It The Xenaverse

Engaging in 'Red Riding Hood' and 'Big Bad Wolf' roleplay
Xena and Gabrielle head East again to help A FRIEND IN NEED.

[01] This is the weekend, May 4-6, 2001, it all comes together. The producers, the actresses, the bards, the illustrators, the video artists, the fan club, the chat room and posting board members, the fanzine staffs, the merchandisers, and the finale. Well, almost. The actual finale, the very last episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, obliquely named FRIENDS IN NEED II (134/622), is scheduled to air in the middle of June. Nevertheless, the end is nigh.

[02] They call it the Xenaverse and most of the time it is up there on the web: three or four thousand interconnected websites housing millions of words, a ton of minutiae, tens of thousands of photographs, maybe 5,000 fictional stories or novels, thousands of illustrations, hundreds of rock videos, original music inspired by the show, and a glut of ersatz merchandize. But this weekend, starting Friday, the center of the Xenaverse will shift to the 6100-seat Pasadena Center. They are coming together to celebrate the end of the show and throw themselves "the biggest Xena party of this century", as one website host described it. In particular, Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor, who play Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle, are coming, marking the first and possibly last time they will take the stage at a fan convention together.

[03] It is called The Official Hercules and Xena Convention, a throwback to an earlier time, before the Xenaverse happened and Hercules was relegated to the minor role of "molder of the warrior princess". This time around (the first Hercules and Xena Convention took place in Burbank in January 1997), Kevin Sorbo, the guy who played Hercules, is not even around. This time, Lawless and O'Connor reign unchallenged, co-queens of a phenomenon that has never quite been seen before.

[04] The Xenaverse is uncharted territory, a multi-faceted tribute to the lure of classical romance: in this case, between two women. It is not the oldest fan network. That would belong to the followers of Star Trek. Nor is it the largest, although there is no sure way to quantify something as ephemeral as a fan network. But the Star Trek, Star Wars and even Buffy The Vampire Slayer networks all show much higher counts when you do a search for their fan sites. What it is though, is the most passionate fan network ever to assemble: the most involved, the most generous, the most supportive, and the most creative. It has produced an outpouring of fiction that cannot be matched.

The Shape of The Beast

[05] Its exact size will never be known. The show's executive producer, Robert Tapert, recently estimated the show's hardcore fans at 100,000 while the current ratings work out to an audience of 3.4 million. The population of the Xenaverse is somewhere between those two numbers. Yet, its territory is distinct and open to anyone with a reasonably late-model computer and Internet access.

You're a Bacchanalian, I'm a Dionysian, it wouldn't work out!
Gabrielle becomes a bardly mentor in ATHENS CITY ACADEMY OF THE PERFORMING BARDS.

[06] First, and foremost, it has bards. A bard is a storyteller ala Homer (who made an appearance in one of the earlier episodes, ATHENS CITY ACADEMY OF THE PERFORMING BARDS (13/113)) and more pertinently Gabrielle, who was a bard, for the first few seasons anyway.

[07] Bards write stories, sometimes novel-length, that incorporate episodes from the series but vastly expanded their romantic and very often erotic storylines (see below APPENDIX I: Varieties of Xena fiction). Several of the more prominent bards have their own websites where you can download the stories in zipped files (see below APPENDIX II: Bards of the Xenaverse). But most, and the best estimate I could come up with is that there are between 2,500 and 3,500 bards, are located on some 40 to 50 fan fiction indices.

[08] Then there are illustrators. They come in two versions. Those that work with bards, providing covers for the novels the bards post and those that do stand alone drawings or montages. Barron (http://barron.simplenet.com/index1.html) and B.L. Miller (http://blmiller.net) are the names you see most often. Most illustrators use photo images from the show, digitized "screen gabs" that come from the episodes directly and are manipulated to form different images. Almost all feature the faces of Xena and Gabrielle and will often include specific scenes from a certain episode, "the kiss" (of which more will be discussed later), being the most popular. Those that draw have more leeway in what they depict. They can also show Xena and Gabrielle in poses they would never strike on television.

[09] The video artists take clips from the show, digitize them, and match them to songs by recorded artists. Since the process requires a fair degree of computer skill, there are far fewer video artists than bards, perhaps 30. There are some 175 videos devoted to Xena, Gabrielle, and several of the supporting characters. One artist, Video Vixen (http://www.iwantmyxtv.com) has 34 on her website alone. Unlike the bards, most video artists have their own websites. These are linked to index sites that offer dozens of videos for downloading in compressed files. When you extract to your hard drive, they eat between 4 to 10 megs of memory. The Xenaverse encourages the purchase of a CD burner even quicker than the Napster does.

[10] There are fanzines. The biggest is WHOOSH! (http://whoosh.org), named after the sound made by Xena's chakram, a round metal thingy she throws with god-like accuracy. Published by the International Association of Xena Studies, WHOOSH has been publishing monthly since September 1996, averaging seven or eight articles an issue. Submitting an article is one of two ways to get into the Association (the other is picking a thesis topic that must be finished "before the polar icecap melts".) It currently has over 2,500 members. All 55 back issues are available on-line at the site (http://whoosh.org/archive).

[11] A number of other Xena fanzines publish regularly using email lists rather than websites. A typical one is the Xena-Zine, which published bi-monthly for most of the year 2000 then trickled off to a couple of issues over the last six months. Its editor publicly apologized for slacking off but she had the best of reasons. She had met her new lover through involvement in the Xenaverse. Not willing to let a good story slip away from her, Lady Adrell wrote a cover piece for the February Aphrodite Day issue titled "The Xenaverse: A Neat Place To Pick Up Chicks". In addition to reviews of recent fan fiction, it also has a news of the Xenaverse section, featured Xena links with summaries of what they are, reviews of past episodes of the show, a reader's favorite quote from the show and a Xena joke. The last can be from the show or heard in the Xenaverse. Example: How many Gabrielles does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: None. They just sit in the dark and b*tch until Xena changes it. It also has advertising from web-based sponsors, including Amazon.com. The Xena-Zine is emailed to a list of subscribers and is now back on a more consistent schedule. It is archived on http://www.xenaexine.f2s.com.

A Little Help From My Friends

[12] One thing that distinguishes the Xenaverse from the dozens of other show-based Internet fan networks are the incredible number of ancillary websites designed to aid the Xena fan in her or his quest for knowledge of all things Xena. The index sites are the most important since fan fiction varies in quality only slightly less dramatically than air does from water.

[13] Perhaps the oldest continually functioning Xena index site is Lunacy's Fan Fiction Reviews (http://lunacy.simplenet.com). A librarian and Internet trainer, Lunacy hosts one of the most popular indices because her recommendations are consistently superior. She also works at it. Her site contains links to 2,500 stories or novels. It also links to 175 music videos or parodies, has links to a list of 84 volunteer editors, 17 writer's reference libraries, and a list of links to ancient and mythological resources on the net. The site lists 26 articles about fan fiction and 12 foreign language fan fiction sites. Xena fan fiction is currently being written in seven languages, including Dutch, Portuguese, and Hebrew. If that were enough, Lunacy also has a page with nine citations of notable women in history, including my favorite, The Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads. You could spend a year studying the Xenaverse without going farther than a Lunacy link. The same could be said of Mary Draganis' Australian Xena Information Page at http://ausxip.com.

[14] For a first time author looking to write some Xena fiction, the resources specifically designed to help you rival those available to your average college freshmen. The Blue Quill (http://www.gabwhacker.com/xwp/bluequill) offers tips on everything from plot construction to the use of ellipses. Not sure exactly how Xena got started, then go to http://www.xenite.org/xenahist and you can read a concise and coherent narrative of Xena's life and history that has been extracted from the various episodes. Want to know the name of Xena's hometown, look it up in the Encyclopedia Xenica (http://www.jps.net/mythology/xenaica/ex.html). Never posted a story on the web, then try http://lunacy.simplenet.com/postingfanfic.shtm for a step-by-step explanation. Think what you have written deserves an award? Try entering a monthly contest at http://www.forevaxena.com/fanfictiondelights/bardmonth.html. Not sure if the story is good enough, well dozens of volunteer editors await you at http://lunacy.simplenet.com/beta.shtm. Need an expert to help guide you around a tricky subject that has come up in your story? Http://lunacy.simplenet.com/experts.shtm has lists of volunteer experts available to the Xena writer in 24 different categories, from foods and herbs to religion and music. Then there are dozens of sites that exist solely to post the writings of new bards. The resources available to video artists are dramatically smaller in number but as technically proficient as you need them to be. All of this and more, is absolutely free.

Born Free

Everyone looks stunned as Xena invents break dancing
Gabrielle got to see what she wrote came true in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER.

[15] Free is the backbone of the Xenaverse. The characters, Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer (comic relief), Callisto (the bad-un), Ares (S.O.B. extraordinaire), and every other figure that has ever appeared in one episode, even for one second, belong to Renaissance Pictures, USA Studios, and Universal Studious. If anyone were to try and profit in some way, no matter how obscure, from the depiction of these characters, the sharks that lawyer for these esteemed institutions would devour them faster than gods appear and disappear in the show's episodes. Whether or not they actually own the Greek gods that have been on the show -- and a whole pantheon of them have appeared over the years, many of them falling to Xena's hand -- is probably a matter for litigation. But if you were to take one of those gods and stick 'em in a new show, portrayed by the actor who played them on Xena or dressed in a costume similar to the one worn on the show, then you might well have yourself a lawsuit.

[16] So how do the bards and the video artists get away with it? Well, every story posted has a disclaimer stating that writer means no infringement of the rights of the copyright holders and does not intend to profit from what has been written. The same is true for the videos. Each has a disclaimer at the end. Of course the stories and videos are infringements of the copyright but by stating the lack of intent to infringe, it is felt that the copyright holders are let off the hook from the court-required injunction to police violators of trademark infringement or lose the mark. It is also argued that, at least as far as the bards are concerned, what their doing qualifies as fair use, since they are not making any money. Speaking of the Xena characters she writes about, LJ Maas says, "I don't own them, I just play with them for a while and, like the good girl I am, I put them back when I'm done."

[17] Another reason the holders of the copyrights on Xena might not want to sue members of the Xenaverse is because they are the ones who started it. Xena: Warrior Princess began airing in the United States in September 1995. One month later, Universal Studios opened a Xena: Warrior Princess NetForum. In November, alt.tv.xena came online. Both venues saw the first postings of Xena fan fiction. Maribel Piloto, AKA Lunacy, was among the earliest members. She has written in WHOOSH that with

"the early NetForum posts no longer available, it's impossible to confirm which was the first piece of XWP fan fiction ever posted, but by the Spring of 1996, it was already common to see on the NetForum at least one or two new fanfic posts each week."

[18] The earliest writers, with names like Wishes, Anon, and Tim Wellman would post their stories like dueling banjo players, one after another. Piloto recalls the early days with fond memories.

"NetForum regulars would anxiously log into the site searching for that next story installment or just to see Wishes and Tim posting one brilliant piece of fanfic after another in their nightly wars with trolls."

[19] Trolls being deranged troublemakers who would invade sites just to be disruptive and obnoxious. She recalled Anon's "Childhood's End" as the first piece of fan fiction that caught her attention. The people reading soon began calling the writers bards.

[20] Piloto points out that "one major disadvantage of posting fanfic was that older posts quickly disappeared and, in the case of the NetForum, permanently". The web provided the solution. In June 1996 Tom's Xena Page (http://www.xenafan.com) premiered, managed by Tom Simpson. This site quickly became the first major fanfic archive in the Xenaverse. It is still going strong today.

[21] In the fall of that year, a bard named Dax premiered her Obsession page, which was dedicated to stories built around the romantic and first-time physical love between the two characters. What happened next was a two-step process. First the lesbian viewpoint came to dominate the Xenaverse. Then the Xenaverse's point of view came to dominate the show.

How Subtext Got Started

Early Xena Palace view
Subtext got a huge kick start in ALTARED STATES.

[22] In the Xenaverse, the lesbian or potentially lesbian nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship is called subtext. During that first year, the subject was widely and heatedly debated on the two forums. After all, this was pre-Ellen. There had never been a show on TV with lesbians as the lead characters, and many fans, especially the male fans, were resistant. Before the Obsession website, lesbian bards had distributed their stories through private mailing lists, calling them alternative or alt. fiction, as opposed to general fiction, stories that had no romance or sex in them or paired the characters up with men. It was all very subvert, underground, hush-hush. With Dax's "Life from Death" and Bat Morda's "Broken Arrow" up on the Obsession site, alt. fiction went public and quickly found a very receptive audience in the Xenaverse. The argument over whether these two characters were romantically linked gradually began to dissipate.

[23] It turned out more than lesbians were interested in the romantic possibilities of Xena and Gabrielle. Straight women, gay men, and even straight men found the proposition alluring. Certainly, the bards thought so. Within no time at all, they were generating two alternative stories for every general fiction piece. In time, the gap would grow considerably. Subtext made for a much cleaner storyline. With a romantic slant, everything was centered on the two characters. No messy entanglements with guys who had to be killed off at the end of the episode. Then too, the adventure storyline would feed the romantic one and vice versa. The more adventures they had, the deeper their love became. The stronger their love, the more dramatic the dangers they were facing could be portrayed. Subtext also strengthened the comedic aspect of the show. The sly innuendoes and biting repartee that was a staple of the program right from the beginning, were even funnier if you thought of the two women as lovers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the show's zealous fans of all persuasions should find resonance in the proposition that the two characters were lovers or would be some day.

[24] Lesbians watching the show, and Xena's outfit alone, made it certain that many who were watching the first night it aired, were the first to notice what Jeff Lundrigan, who writes a media column for the web-based IGN-sfi calls a

"butch/femme dynamic, especially that first season when Gabrielle's rather girlish full-length peasant skirt and blouse contrasted distinctly with Xena's neo-dominatrix leathers and armor."

[24] At first, no one on the show had a clue. Asked in a 1997 interview by The Advocate whether they were conscious of the lesbian overtones, Lucy Lawless told the gay publication,

"We really weren't! We had a lot else going on. It was six or eight episodes before the headlines started coming back to us. I remember the day! I remember the studio we were in when someone sent over a fax from the office, and we were just laughing! We could not believe the conclusions people were drawing. Then we would go, 'Well, I guess it's obvious,' but we never saw."

[25] First, there was a mention in The Village Voice. Then the New York lesbian bar Meow Mix started hosting Xena nights. The show had opened at the very bottom of the top 20 syndicated shows and the producers were anxious to give it a goose.

[26] Starting in the spring of 1996, well into the first season, fairly overt allusions to a lesbian relationship were pasted into the scripts. In ALTARED STATES (19/119), the scene opens with both women's garments scattered on the shoreline of a lake. Off camera, Gabrielle asks, "How was that?" to which Xena purrs "Verrry Good. You're getting the hang of it." The camera pans around a bush to the two women in the middle of the lake. "Come on, Gabrielle. You know you've been wanting to do this for ages," Xena tells her. Gabrielle submerges and breaks the surface clutching a fish, this being a fishing lesson, ala Xena, who likes catching them with her bare hands.

[27] Two episodes later in THE GREATER GOOD (21/121), Xena appears to die from a poisoned dart and Gabrielle risks her life to protect what she thinks is her partner's body. At the end of the show, after Xena's recovered and dispatched the bad guys, she thanks Gabrielle, who smiles warmly and tells her "Change the subject or I'm liable to get all mushy on you." To which Xena smiles ruefully, "Oh, we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?"

[28] Season two brought the show's subtext themes to its highest pitch. The fourth episode, GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204), featured the god Bacchus and a cabal of female followers dressed for a lesbian Halloween dance, which a sultry Gabrielle soon joins. In the next show, RETURN OF CALLISTO (29/205), a crestfallen Xena kisses Gabrielle on the mouth farewell, as the young bard embarks on what turns out to be the briefest marriage in television history, her husband being killed less than quarter-way through the episode. Eight episodes later, in THE QUEST (37/213), they have a full, romantic kiss, albeit in the "dreamscape", with a cutaway shot to some guy named Autolycus whose body Xena is inhabiting. Still, a kiss is a kiss and two women kissing had not been seen on television before.

The Short Life And Long Death Of A Subtext Show

Amazons prepare to cut their own throats after seeing scripts for Season Five
Amazons abound in THE QUEST and its counterpart A NECESSARY EVIL.

[29] THE QUEST (37/213) was the second highest rated episode of the Xena show, which had started at the bottom of the top 20 syndicated shows but began a fairly quick ascent to the number one position, replacing the ever-jiggling BAYWATCH, about the time the subtext jokes started arriving. THE QUEST was second of a two-part story that had Xena dying for real and Gabrielle making a quest for the ambrosia, which would restore her to life. The first part, DESTINY (36/212), earned a 6.4, the highest rating for Xena: Warrior Princess, then to date. It also contained a trailer for the second part that showed "the kiss". THE QUEST received a 7.7 and was followed the next week by A NECESSARY EVIL (38/214) that earned a 7.8, the all-time high mark in the ratings. After that, the numbers started tumbling. The next show, A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), was a subtext comedy replete with references, including an intimate bathing scene and a would-be Xena who points to her boyfriend and says, "He's mine!" and then points to Gabrielle "and she's yours!" It earned a seven.

[30] After A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) the overt subtext references became muted and the show's numbers began to dwindle downward between the mid to high fives, with the exception of ULYSSES (43/219), which earned a 6.7. ULYSSES was also noteworthy, in that Xena was set to settle down with the handsome wanderer. It was Gabrielle's turn to look crestfallen. Fortunately, the rumor that Penelope was dead turned out to be false, so they did not get to kiss each other good-bye. In fact, the women would not kiss again until the ninth show of the current, last season in RETURN OF THE VALKYRIE (121/609).

[31] The third season began with Xena being driven mad by the Furies. Those fans who had hoped for more kisses and greater subtext suffered the same fate. The opening episode garnered a 6.1. As the season wore on, the numbers hovered in the low sixes, with the ninth show of the season, WARRIOR...PRIESTESS...TRAMP (55/309), garnering a season-high 6.6. Ratings for subsequent episodes tapered off to the mid-five range level. Gabrielle's sacrificing herself in a fiery pit to save Xena at the end of year three earned a 5.4. The show never saw another 5.0 or higher rating again.

[32] The plain fact is that the kiss produced the highest ratings that the show ever had. Yet, the producers choose to stage a retreat that would rival Napoleon's exit from Moscow. They never backed away from the subtext entirely, but the show moved into dramatically new areas for its two characters, such as betrayal, guilt, and revenge. By the fourth season, you could actually believe, as the producers were putting out, that the two characters were "just good friends". By the fifth season, it was not clear whether they were even friends. In the finale for that season, for example, Xena kills Gabrielle who was in the process of killing Xena's daughter. Now that's coming a long way, baby.

[33] Why they did it will probably never be known. It was as if the producers of BAYWATCH decided to recast their jiggling lifeguards as button-downed librarians. I can tell you this much reader, the Xenaverse has absolutely no shortage of theories, conspiratorial or otherwise, as to why the most popular aspect of the show was slowly driven underground for three long years.

[34] Robert Tapert, the show's executive producer, claims it was the subtext that drove down the ratings. "We've seen this in research over and over again" he told WHOOSH in an in-depth interview this January, "people don't like subtext, they don't like goofy flips, and they don't like the warcry, so eventually they got driven out of the show." Again, later in the interview, he says, "Research has told us so specifically that our audience doesn't want this and people turned it [the show] off because of subtext." All one can say in the face of such fabulous sophistry is that Tapert had the choice of believing his research or his ratings, and he chose to believe his research. Personally, I would bet my last dinar that Jesuits educated the guy.

[35] This last season, with the show now ranked dead last in the top twenty syndicated programs, subtext has returned, albeit somewhat obliquely. In explaining this switch in direction, Tapert remarked, "the [writing] staff wanted to heal the wounds in their relationship and show the love between the two characters and fandom can interpret that any way they want." Alluding to unspoken difficulties, he went on, "It's a difficult road to walk." Then, a paragraph later, he lets slip his real dilemma: "We don't want to be accused, as we have been, of pandering to the 'pink vote' but you also don't want to lose your show."

[36] Alas, the gambit did not work. By the time he spoke those words, the show had already been cancelled. Even subtext could not save the warrior princess.

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