Whoosh! Issue 65 - February 2002


By Alison Ashworth
Content copyright © 2002 held by author
Whoosh! edition copyright © 2002 held by Whoosh!
7167 words

          Xena as Lesbian Role Model (01-10)
          Xena: A Lesbian Romance (11-39)



Xena as Lesbian Role Model

Hmm, BBQ... there's a thought...
Xena set things on fire, literally, in SINS OF THE PAST.

[01] In her analysis of tough women in the media, Sherrie A. Inness concludes that Xena provides a positive and progressive role model for women. She argues that, although not perfect, her toughness is not diminished to the same extent as other tough women she has considered. From a lesbian perspective, however, we can argue that Xena's suitability as a role model is significantly advanced by two factors which Inness identifies as diluting the impact of the other women: her glamour and the emphasis placed on her maternal side[Note 01].

[02] In respect of Xena's 'glamour', Inness argues that she fails to challenge the idea that the hero should be gorgeous and thereby supports dominant gender conventions[Note 02]. However, glamour only diminishes Xena's impact if we accept that she is a heterosexual, whose appearance is designed to appeal to men. This, of course, is a valid argument. However, if we accept that she is a lesbian character, this element can be seen as a positive in the context of historical media representations of lesbians. Traditionally, lesbians have been imagined as a narrow and homogenous physical group, characterized as dowdy and unattractive. Xena's glamour can therefore be seen as resistant to these stereotypical images, forcing viewers to question their validity.

[03] In respect of Xena's maternal and nurturing sides, it is evident throughout the text that these traits exist in the character, although Inness does not consider their implications. However, these aspects of Xena's character do not become the focus of her life. Indeed, we are well into the narrative by the time we find out that Xena has a son, Solan, given up to the care of the Centaurs in an attempt to protect him from Xena's enemies. The absence of Solan in the narrative obviously lessens the emphasis on Xena's maternal instincts, but it does not deny them. It is therefore a positive way to acknowledge that motherhood does not necessarily compromise toughness, nor indeed, a woman's ability to be a hero. Xena was again shown to become a mother in the series, and it is extremely interesting to examine how this was dealt with in the text.

[04] The pregnancy, which dominated the fifth season, was a narrative necessity due to the real life pregnancy of Lucy Lawless. However, Xena does not become pregnant in the narrative by the traditional method but in a way that validates our lesbian interpretation: immaculate conception. Indeed, it is explicitly confirmed within the text that she has conceived in the absence of heterosexual sex, and that she perceives Gabrielle as the child's other parent. Xena's reaction to the news is helpful in this respect:

Xena: It's impossible! I cannot be pregnant. If you weren't such a quack, you would know that getting pregnant involves certain physical requirements that I haven't met in a long time - and I mean a very long time. No one - zilch, zippo. I am a love-free zone. Therefore, it is utterly impossible that I be up the duff. So, what's your diagnosis, now? (ANIMAL ATTRACTION (94/504))

[05] She later adds "Gabrielle's gonna freak!" and refers to Eve as "our daughter". Xena can therefore be seen to both reflect the realities of lesbian parenting and to acknowledge its existence as a valid choice. We can therefore conclude that the maternal and nurturing sides of Xena are evident but do not support dominant notions of what a mother should be like or the limits of her possibilities. By the nature of her family unit and mode of conception, Xena can therefore be seen to question and resist rather than support the status quo, at the level of connotation, by challenging the idea that parenting should be reserved for heterosexual couples.

[06] Despite her criticisms based on Xena's glamour and white ethnicity, Inness finally concludes that

Xena is [...] involved in broadening the definition of who can be a hero. She shows her audience that it is possible for a woman to be strong and heroic and not need a man to rescue her. Even today, this is an unusual message for the mainstream media to convey. More controversially, Xena cares a great deal more about her horse and Gabrielle than about any man. When men are provoked by her sexual charms, she is disinterested, and she and Gabrielle are easily interpreted as a lesbian couple. In these ways, the show challenges the belief that a woman should be heterosexual or at least appear actively interested in men[Note 03].

[07] Such progressive portrayals are worthless, however, if they do not affect a significant proportion of viewers. In this respect, we can argue in favor of Xena's mainstream status by acknowledging that the series aired on more than 200 American TV stations and reached 99% of the U.S.A, according to Studios USA Domestic Television. The studio's President, Steve Rosenberg, once commented that the show

"... has been an outstanding performer for us since its September 1995 debut, finishing No. 1 among all first-run syndicated dramas for the past four consecutive seasons [...] The series has been nothing short of groundbreaking in redefining the female action hero on television and has inspired a host of imitators across the television landscape"[Note 04].

[08] Rosenberg's analysis both acknowledges the show's cultural significance for women and reflects its successful 'sale' to a number of market segments. As George Comstock observed earlier, a show's success substantially depends on it having 'elements that appeal strongly to several distinctive segments of the public and at least are acceptable to fair-sized proportions of most'[Note 05].

[09] In Xenas case, we can easily identify some of the ways in which the show speaks to at least four mutually exclusive social groups simultaneously. It appeals to children for its slapstick comedy, adventure, and action. It can be seen to be popular with adult men for its play with adult sexual themes and signifiers, the many opportunities it offers for scopophilia (utilizing Mulvey's understanding of the term[Note 06]), and for its sometimes risqu‚ humor. It may be popular with women for offering a multiplicity of strong female role models and portraying a variety of situations showing where women are more competent and successful than men. The fourth view would be the lesbian reading. Although the reasons why the show is popular with lesbians in romantic terms is the principal rationale for this discussion, it is worth acknowledging at this point the extent to which it could also be popular for the way it affirms lesbian existence in culture and society at large, by restoring lesbian visibility in history, albeit in its own distinctive way.
Disappointed that no one liked the new salad he 
invented, Caesar plots revenge
It was Xena's destiny to meet Caesar.

[10] In support of this final view, I would point out that Xena meets many celebrated historical and mythical figures and creatures during her adventures, and often influences the outcome of received history. She has an affair with, and is executed at the behest of, Julius Caesar. She saves Cleopatra from assassination. She helps David overcome Goliath. She helps to free Prometheus. She outwits the Fates and the Furies. She fights Odin and condemns Lucifer to Hell. She restores Ulysses to his throne. She encounters cannibals and Centaurs raise her child. She has been a visitor in Heaven, Hell, Hades, and Valhalla. She has also participated in revised versions of several popular cultural texts as illustrated by the episode titles A SOLSTICE CAROL (33/209), THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303), and A FISTFUL OF DINARS (14/114).

Xena: A Lesbian Romance

As a hopeless romantic, I too became completely engulfed by the sheer magnitude of the love story... Yes, I did say a love story, because, to be perfectly frank, regardless of how one may inevitably "choose" to perceive each and every aspect of this show, when all is finally said and done... and the insurmountable evidence of season six is tabulated... oh what an epic love story this has been [...] For me, watching 'Xena' was like uncovering a priceless treasure... an intellectual buffet of unsurpassed romance[Note 07].

[11] Turning to Xena as a lesbian romantic text, it is useful to begin by acknowledging that, if a man and woman were to appear as the central characters in a six season long mainstream TV serial during which they explicitly display the array of behaviors which have enabled us to claim Xena and Gabrielle as lesbian characters, there would be no question that we would understand that they were romantically and sexually involved, even though they are never confirmed explicitly to be lovers. I would argue that we tend to resist the obvious (romantic) interpretation in Xena and Gabrielle's case, even whilst acknowledging its existence, in response to our heterosexist conditioning, our habit of privileging the heterosexual and dismissing competing meanings as subordinate.

[12] Subtext can be seen to operate at the level of connotation in Xena. Yet, contrary to Barthes' use of the term, its status as a subordinate interpretation places it in a position to challenge rather than support dominant ideas at the level of secondary signification[Note 08]. Further, if we also consider that a substantial proportion of communication is non-verbal, it is easy to see how we, as lesbian spectators, can use our shared sub-cultural knowledge to construct an account of Xena, which plausibly explains Xena and Gabrielle's relationship as gay. Any such assessment would have to account for the characters' explicit heterosexual behavior, and this can be done by rationalizing these behaviors in the light of lesbian lived experience, where our identities are also 'hidden' and can often exist unconsciously. The weight of evidence available in the text is so strong that, seen as a whole, we are almost compelled to interpret Xenaas a lesbian love story. It is therefore appropriate at this stage to acknowledge that only a modest proportion can be examined in any depth here.

[13] We must also recognize that for Xena to qualify as a lesbian romance, it must satisfy both conditions. The situations described below are therefore mobilized to demonstrate that their story can be coherently explained as essentially romantic in nature and lesbian in substance. In the context of a dictionary definition of homosexuality as "sexual attraction to or sexual relations with members of the same sex", the latter point must involve establishing that sexual desire exists between the characters, and also that a space exists within the text for a sexual relationship to have developed[Note 09].

[14] The narrative opens when Xena and Gabrielle meet, and they are immediately drawn to each other. Not consciously aware of the true nature of their attraction, they understand it simply in terms of a close friendship. The rationale for this can be seen as the product of the world they inhabit. They live and participate in a heterosexual world, where every woman's purpose and aim centers on the duty to marry and have children. Their expectations are no different, never having been aware of any alternative. Both acknowledge they are 'different', but Gabrielle interprets her difference simply as a yearning for experience before succumbing to her proper place in life.

[15] We quickly understand that Gabrielle has an idealized view of love and a deep sense of duty but these elements are always in competition with her desire to be independent and make her own choices. Xena sees her 'difference' as the inevitable result of her past experience, a road she never chose but which shaped her and from which there is no going back. However, even though her past has given her the rationale and justification for opting out of heterosexual activity, at this stage she is still tempted by the offers of heterosexual legitimacy when they come.

[16] The first and much of the second season shows both women experiencing several heterosexual romantic encounters, and both fall in love with their ideal men. Gabrielle's husband, Perdicus, is killed the day after they marry. I it is worth noting that (1) Gabrielle and Xena kiss shortly after the ceremony, (2) Gabrielle spends her wedding night worrying about Xena, and (3) makes Perdicus agree to naming their first daughter after Xena.

[17] Xena's serious liaison involves the ultimate in 'safe' relationships, a dead man. It is interesting at this point to briefly engage with the ambiguous meaning given to the term 'friend' in the text. Lesbians often use this term as a non-confrontational synonym for 'lover'. THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105) has considerable implications for our understanding of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship in this respect, as Xena's comments at Marcus' funeral demonstrate: "He was my friend. My friend. My friend". This episode is closely followed by story lines in which both Xena and Gabrielle refer to each other as "best friends", and, soon after, Callisto describes their relationship to Xena as "the friendship of your life". The term seems strikingly out of place in Callisto's sentence since we usually associate the phrase with the word 'love' in place of 'friendship'. This mechanism alerts us to the artificiality of the term in relation to Xena and Gabrielle's relationship. Indeed, it is interesting to note that by the time the series concludes, Xena has introduced Gabrielle to another character as her "soulmate"[Note 10].
You shouldn't swim until at least an hour after 
eating, Gabrielle
Xena explains about being dead, and not for the last time.

[18] In any case, by this stage, they have acquired heterosexual legitimacy for their relationship -- both constructed, effectively, as loyal widows. They subsequently get on with doing what they really wanted all along: to explore and experience the world without the burden of heterosexual duty. Significantly, it is relatively soon after these events that we witness the second, and unmistakably romantic, kiss between the two in THE QUEST (37/213), although substantially shrouded in ambiguity for the benefit of the faint hearted.

[19] The following period in their story, in terms of lesbian lived experience, can be seen as when they begin to become conscious of the deepening significance of their relationship and choose to distance themselves emotionally from each other with acts of betrayal and deceit rather than acknowledge their feelings. The third season concludes when Gabrielle makes the ultimate sacrifice: Gabrielle dies so that Xena may live. However, Gabrielle has not by this stage yet fully resolved her feelings towards the earlier tempestuous period. She spends the following season, once she has been confirmed to still be alive, questioning her assumption to stay with Xena, exploring possible alternatives, and eventually developing and demonstrating a strong commitment to pacifism.

[20] Gabrielle's sacrifice was a defining moment for Xena, a moment when Gabrielle demonstrated in the most unequivocal way the depth of her love for and commitment to her. This is such a serious jolt to Xena's subconscious that her grief and guilt force her to recognize her emotional and romantic isolation, interrogate her feelings and face up to her own part in Gabrielle's destiny. When Gabrielle is confirmed to be alive, she resolves to ensure that it is never repeated. Xena thus spends season four seeking a better and safer life for Gabrielle, even at the expense of her own happiness, since her residual guilt continues to make her feel unworthy of Gabrielle's love.

[21] Gabrielle's behavior can be rationalized as a re-evaluation of her perception of her relationship with Xena, in the light of her discoveries of Xena's deceptions in season three. She also, therefore, questions whether Xena is worthy of her love. We must remember that Gabrielle has experienced a romantic kiss initiated by Xena in THE QUEST (37/213) but, to our knowledge, has never received any explanation for the event. In terms of lived experience, this behavior can be seen as analogous to situations when, whilst not in full control of our inhibitions (for example, when drunk), we prefer to pretend that an event never happened rather than deal with its implications. As lesbians, we can therefore understand that Gabrielle questions her own perception of the event during this period and seeks to force the issue by demonstrating willingness to part from Xena. Gabrielle frequently displays anger disproportionate to the situation when Xena expresses her fear of the vision becoming a reality. As lesbians, we can read this as a frustration that Xena refuses to recognize the true - homosexual - nature of her own feelings, despite her belief that they will soon die. However, things are about to change.

[22] Towards the end of the fourth season, it is established that Xena and Gabrielle are destined to be together in many lives and that their fates are forever intertwined. This, along with the realization of Xena's vision, forces them to confront their feelings and make their final declarations of what they mean to each other. It is at this stage that it is helpful to ascend to the level of secondary signification and to recognize that the constraints of commercial reality dictate that any representation of sexual desire or activity takes place 'off screen', and to understand that, in the context of lesbian invisibility in the media, any such representation can exist explicitly only in the form of metaphor.

[23] We have already seen many instances of sexual desire existing between the characters - their kiss in THE QUEST (37/213), their expressions when Joxer asks Xena if she has a "hickey" on her neck in BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302), Xena's smile when Gabrielle disappears beneath the surface of the lake while swimming naked in ALTARED STATES (19/119), Xena's declaration to a female rival in CRUSADER (76/408) that "if I can't have her, nobody's gonna have her" - and there are many others to come, as we shall see. However, it is at this stage of the narrative that the space exists for us - as lesbians operating at the level of connotation, basing our perceptions of the situation on our own lived experience in a heterosexist world, and sharing sub-cultural knowledge of lesbian signifying behaviors - to imagine that Xena and Gabrielle's relationship has now developed beyond the platonic, and has therefore become unambiguously homosexual in nature.

[24] As lesbian viewers, we can see the explicit textual events of the episode IDES OF MARCH (89/421) as metaphorically representing the passionate and romantic precursors to sexual activity, and the moment of crucifixion as a metaphorical representation of the moment of sexual consummation. In this episode, we see Gabrielle unequivocally abandon her pacifist ideals in favor of Xena when she indiscriminately hacks down Roman soldiers in her defense, thus demonstrating very powerfully the level of her commitment to the relationship. We also witness Xena finally confronting and dealing with her guilt, and both characters exploring the meaning of their relationship, as evidenced in the following dialogue:

Xena: I made you leave the way of love. (Whispers) It was my fault. Gabrielle: I had a choice - to do nothing or save my friend. (Whispers) I chose the way of friendship. Xena: (Whispers) I'm sorry for all the times I didn't treat you right. Gabrielle: (Whispers) Xena - you've brought out the best in me. Before I met you, no one saw me for who I was. I felt - invisible. But you saw all the things that I could be. You saved me, Xena.

[25] The following scene can then be seen metaphorically as the physical and spiritual expression of their feelings, as Internet subtext commentator Xena Warrior Lesbian's account will help explain:

As they are being nailed to crosses, Xena turns to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, you're the best thing in my life."

"I love you, Xena."

Xena's spirit detaches itself from Xena's body. The first thing it does is finds Gabrielle. They hold hands as they are absorbed by a white light[Note 11].

[26] If their verbal declarations in this scene can be seen as the moment they finally articulate their feelings, the symbolic events can be seen from a lesbian perspective as representing the highly romantic notion of sexual consummation as a spiritual union. This narrative suspense is resolved in the first episode of the fifth season, FALLEN ANGEL (91/501).

[27] However, before examining the implications of that episode, it is useful to pause and consider the implications of the episode that disrupts this narrative continuity, DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422). However, for our purposes, it is more helpful to see the discontinuity between these three episodes as symbolic continuity.

[28] DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422), which ostensibly disrupts the narrative flow, provides an explicit confirmation not only of the characters' shared destiny but, by involving a significant temporal shift to modern day America where we meet reincarnations of the characters, it also allows us to continue to see the events played out in metaphorical terms. Xena Warrior Lesbian's observations are useful in this respect, particularly when we consider that Xena's soul has been reincarnated into Joxer's body, and the 'Xena' referred to is therefore spiritually a woman, Xena, and physically a man, Joxer:

"I do feel strangely attached to you," says 'Xena' to 'Gabrielle.'

"It's been a long time," returns 'Gabrielle.'

"It's been too long, friend."

Then they KISS! Full on the mouth! So THAT's what they mean by friendship!

Finally in this episode we get the meaning behind the word "friend." Apparently, "friends" kiss full on the mouth and have relationships. Hmm, so do lesbians. *Gasp* Then when Xena and Gabrielle's souls are in female bodies, they must be (drum roll please...) LESBIANS! How else can one interpret the ending of this episode? No more subtext! It's now maintext![Note 12]

[29] These conclusions are confirmed by the final season episode SOUL POSSESSION (132/620), which explicitly acknowledges that Xena's spiritual form in a man's body is married to Gabrielle. More significantly, SOUL POSSESSION (132/620) concludes where Xena's spirit is restored to female form, and Gabrielle leaves the physical form of her 'husband' behind as she follows Xena. Therefore, we must conclude that she sees herself as 'married' to the spirit of Xena, rather than the body of Joxer.

[30] If IDES OF MARCH (89/421), therefore, created the suggestion of and space for a physical consummation of their relationship, and the reincarnation theme evoked sexual suggestion and probability by utilizing signifiers of heterosexual activity, the next episode, FALLEN ANGEL (91/501), which continues the spiritual theme and narrative of IDES OF MARCH (89/421), can be seen as an explicit metaphor for the sexual and spiritual consummation of their relationship. In this episode, Xena and Gabrielle exchange wildly romantic dialogue about eternity and destiny in a highly symbolic spiritual setting, the ultimate outcome of which is Xena's pregnancy, the necessary conditions for which, of course, strongly evoke the idea of sexual activity. This is further supported by Xena's subsequent declaration that Gabrielle is the father! From this point on, we see our lesbian interpretation confirmed as the story of season five subsequently unfolds.

[31] This season was not popular with subtext fans, many complaining that Xena and Gabrielle seemed distanced and spent little time alone together. However, it can be seen as the point their relationship matures, and the subtext therefore becomes more constructed around the theme of parenting, rather than in outright acknowledgements of feelings, as Furman argues:

I am confused that fans seem disappointed at the lack of subtext in Season Five. Here we see two women trying to build a family together, trying to figure out whether to settle down or remain errant, trying to sort out how to raise a kid together, and there are people out there complaining that subtext has been dropped? ... If the subtext in prior seasons was about lesbian courtship, then the subtext of Season Five is about lesbian marriage. It is about coming together as a family and presenting a unified front to the world.

Make no mistake about it, Xena and Gabrielle are married. They have exchanged vows of loyalty and braved hell (literally) for each other in the presence of angels, who have agreed with Xena and Gabrielle that their destiny is to be together. They are facing the problems of any gay marriage [and] Cyrene, Xena's mother, is shoving men at Xena in an effort to give the pregnancy heterosexual legitimacy[Note 13].

[32] The final part of our lesbian romance involves consideration of the sixth season, which concludes the series and therefore the entire narrative. As lesbians, we can see this as the period in which they both come to terms with the true nature of their relationship and stop pretending that it is anything other than romantic: in other words, they 'come out'. Xena Warrior Lesbian had already raved "I would now like to declare this the best subtext season ever" after viewing only the eighth installment of the series. This comment was prompted by an overt recognition of lesbian desire in the episode THE RING (120/608), explicitly evident in the exchange between the characters of Odin and a female warrior, Brunhilda:

Odin confronts Brunhilde: "My ravens, they tell me you've fallen in love with her partner. Is it possible you thought that killing Xena would kill any chance you had with Gabrielle?"

[33] After viewing the final episode of this trilogy, Xena Warrior Lesbian commented that "I find it difficult to believe that there may be anybody out there who has any doubts of the true nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship"[Note 14]. In the final installment, RETURN OF THE VALKYRIE (121/609), we witness what can be argued to be a lesbian appropriation of Sleeping Beauty where the handsome prince (Xena) has lost her memory and, after a significant absence, returns to revive the sleeping Gabrielle with a kiss. The real tease in this respect, however, occurs in the episode YOU ARE THERE (125/613), a strange post- modern pastiche in which a modern day journalist seeks to resolve the issue by interviewing many of the regular characters in the context of their own time. The journalist asks Xena and Gabrielle if they are 'lovers', and signal interference is simulated just as Xena is about to respond.
The acoustics in here are better than at many 
Creation events
Even in an altered timeline, Xena and Gabrielle meet.

[34] The episode WHEN FATES COLLIDE (130/618) reinforces the romantic notion established in an earlier episode, REMEMBER NOTHING (25/201), that Xena and Gabrielle were destined to meet even if their lived experiences had been entirely different. The episode features many instances of very explicit dialogue, such as Alti observing that Xena's husband would give anything for Xena to look at him the way she looks at Gabrielle, and Gabrielle telling Xena "when I'm with you this emptiness I've felt my entire life is gone". However, none are more meaningful than their discussion of this Gabrielle's play, Fallen Angel. The play concludes with the hero saying to the hero 'our love is stronger than the Elysian Fields or Tartarus', with the hero responding 'we're going to be together for Eternity'. This duplicates exactly Xena and Gabrielle's words to each other in the Xena episode of the same name. During their discussion, the following exchange takes place:

Xena: In the third act you had the hero throwing himself off the cliff with no fear of dying. All for her. Do you really believe that kind of love exists? Gabrielle: It's what we all dream about isn't it? Someone that looks so deeply into our souls that they find something worth dying for.

[35] We may therefore conclude that the story told in FALLEN ANGEL is romantic enough to be imagined by Gabrielle even after an entirely different life, her imagination producing a classically romantic story in which she instinctively defines the characters as heterosexual. As spectators, then, we have now therefore received confirmation that we can unproblematically interpret the earlier exchanges in FALLEN ANGEL in sexually romantic terms, as Gabrielle obviously does.

[36] A further affirmation of our lesbian interpretation exists in the episode MANY HAPPY RETURNS (131/619), here described by Xena Warrior Lesbian:

Gabrielle pokes Xena's breasts when asking her not to play any practical jokes on her (because it is her birthday.) When J'nia mistakes Xena for a god, she wraps herself around her and says "Take thy humble servant, J'nia, to thy bosom."

"Whoa!" warns Xena, "these are spoken for." [...]

Xena and Gabrielle engage in some nude frolicking at a local pond. Gabrielle squeals and giggles when she believes that an eel in her bed is, in fact, Xena. [...] Gabrielle gets all excited when she finds out they are travelling to Thebes to see Sappho perform.

For her birthday, Xena gives Gabrielle a poem she had Sappho write for her: "There's a moment when I look at you, and no speech is left in me. My tongue breaks, then fire races under my skin and I tremble and grow pale, for I am dying of such love, or so it seems to me." Both are overwhelmed by the poem and hug [...]

Tons of subtext in this episode. Tons. After that ending, one could probably officially declare them "out of the closet"[Note 15].

[37] All good things must end, however, and Xena's end was rapidly approaching. However, instead of the romantic happy ending lesbian viewers were hoping for, the narrative concluded by Xena meeting a grisly, yet heroic, and seemingly irrevocable, end. Together with a lack of the explicit confirmation desired, this ending has provoked considerable anger and disappointment from many viewers, as the Adelaide Advertiser reported shortly after the event:

One of the biggest online communities in the world, made up of fans of cult television series Xena: Warrior Princess, erupted in a flaming ball of grief and anger yesterday as news of the show's series-ending finale swept through cyberspace ... Chat rooms and e-mail lists have exploded in the last 24 hours with close to hysterical reactions to Xena's death ... rumours even spread of two fans killing themselves in the aftermath, which thankfully proved to be a hoax.[Note 16]

[38] Such a degree of disappointment may stem from Rob Tapert's earlier promise that Xena and Gabrielle would not die, and from observations that the ending was 'defiant'. However, if we consider what our experience of gay representations in the media has taught us, we, as lesbians, would have perceived the characters living happily ever after as truly 'defiant'. Instead, we were presented with one of several tired cliches historically mobilized to extinguish homosexual desire in mainstream narratives, which therefore makes it a typical and tiresomely predictable ending for lesbian viewers.

[39] According to Vito Russo, in his account of homosexual representations in cinema, "overt, active or predatory gays were killed off [...] The repressed, tormented types usually committed suicide, and scattered cases were 'cured' by sufficient attention from the opposite sex"[Note 17], a position he underlines by pointing out that between 1962 and 1978, twenty-two of the twenty- eight major gay screen characters died violently or committed suicide[Note 18]. This ending therefore dashed the raised hopes of many lesbian viewers in the extreme, not only by failing to provide an outright confirmation of the characters' essentially lesbian relationship but by killing one of them off, thus potently reminding us of our continued powerlessness and isolation in a heterosexist world.


I'd have to say that I think Gabrielle is probably searching for her soul mate and that she found it in Xena, actually. Having been through the entire series, she's probably been searching for the love of her life - which is Xena. -- Renee O'Connor (Gabrielle)[Note 19]

I saw it for the first time last night and I went home and said to my husband [Rob Tapert], "you've outed my character" [...] I.. I just...I can't believe I'm saying this.. I didn't run this by anybody, but I don't think there's any doubt in my mind anymore. -- Lucy Lawless (Xena)[Note 20]

[40] During the course of their narrative, Xena and/or Gabrielle engage in a number of behaviors and situations that support the position that they are heterosexual. Such behaviors available in the text include legally recognized marriage, conception via heterosexual sex, and intimate physical contact with and statements of romantic interest in men. However, a rationale can be mobilized which explains these behaviors within a plausible and coherent narrative that establishes that Xena and Gabrielle are, more likely than not, lesbians. We must, however, remember that the behaviors we have recognized as signifying lesbian identity are far less obvious and overt than those signifying heterosexuality outlined above. Indeed, this very state of affairs can be argued to support the lesbian position since it can be seen to merely reflect the realities of lesbian experience, where such an orientation is also 'hidden'.

[41] Xena appeared to provide the perfect conditions in which an epic and unique lesbian romance could be played out. The narrative centers on two attractive, intelligent, independent, physically capable and confident women, who are both, although flawed in many respects, essentially 'good' in nature (rather than psychopathic) and who do not become 'cured' of their homosexuality. Its use of camp and its articulation of sub-cultural codes 'hail' us as homosexual viewers and invite us into a world where lesbian existence is acknowledged in history and culture, the very distortions presented prompting us to question the validity of received accounts. The generic and narrative range of the show provides many vicarious experiences for lesbians, previously denied by the mainstream media. Its very form as a television series has helped to compensate for our cultural invisibility by giving us the time to revel in this acknowledgement of our existence in the mainstream.

[42] The show has provided progressive and important role models for women, regardless of sexuality, and has created a space for lesbians to imagine their own heroic possibilities. It has encouraged us to believe that we can all leave our pasts behind and change our lives, that we can fulfil our respective potentials and achieve our ambitions - no matter the odds - and has powerfully articulated the progressive and ultimately optimistic and empowering message that love does not respect gender. Ultimately, it is this aspect of the show - its underlying romantic narrative - that sets it apart in terms of media representation and importance to lesbian viewers.

[43] Even the most positive representations of lesbians in the mainstream, such as there are, have failed to engage with this element, and this alone makes Xena unique. The television comedy series Ellen and the feature film Bound, for example, are both good quality, positive and relatively successful lesbian texts existing in the mainstream, but neither are romantic in tone. Indeed, it is interesting to note that Bound does conclude with a lesbian happy ending, an event so rare in popular culture that it is used in this case to enhance the film's narrative tension and to make the film transgressive enough to secure its status as a successful neo-noir text.

[44] We may conclude that, as a lesbian text, Xena confirms lesbian existence in history and culture, increases lesbian visibility and provides important role models and we may also conclude that, as a lesbian romance, it articulates lesbian desire and provides many opportunities for vicarious experiences previously denied to lesbians in the mainstream. In these respects, there is therefore still much to admire about Xena, despite the ending.

[45] It is easy, as lesbian viewers, to feel bitter and betrayed by the show's narrative conclusion. Some might conclude that the chance for a place in history has been missed since, by refusing to explicitly acknowledge Xena as a lesbian text, the producers have effectively produced a typical and predictable, rather than a defiant and transgressive, text. Xena can no doubt be claimed as a positive and progressive text in relation to women, but its identification as a lesbian text would have made it many times more transgressive, resistant and culturally significant, in the context of lesbian invisibility and cultural exclusion.

[46] Sadly, we must acknowledge the possibility that being closeted has kept Xena with us for this long, since the commercial imperatives in play dictate that profit-maximization is rather more important than fairness. In other words, straight people do not generally watch gay-themed shows. The breadth of market appeal demanded by mainstream television decision-makers simply cannot be achieved within a minority audience. The circumstances surrounding the show's conclusion certainly raised our hopes, as lesbians viewing a lesbian text, that we would at last have a confirmed heroic and romantic depiction of a lesbian relationship on mainstream television, only to harshly dash those hopes.

[47] The ending therefore cogently reminded us that so little progress in terms of lesbian representation has actually been made over the years: Xena may have given us more than just a 'tasty crumb' to savor, but a whole bite, much less a meal, still appears to be too much to ask. The show's conclusion has sharply highlighted the absence of any other comparable romantic lesbian possibilities currently available in the mainstream. This painful lack in place of the anticipated plenitude may yet serve to translate this anger and disappointment into action, ultimately, although unintentionally, politicizing a new community of lesbians.


Note 01:
Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
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Note 02:
Ibid., p. 167
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Note 03:
Ibid., p. 176
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Note 04:
Steve Rosenberg, quoted on Xena: Warrior Princess
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Note 05:
George Comstock, Television in America, The Sage Commtext Series, 1, 2nd edn (London: Sage, 1991), p. 52.
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Note 06:
John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, 2nd edn (Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall / Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997), p. 140.
Storey quotes Mulvey's definition of scopophilia as 'using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight' rather than simply as the pleasure of looking.
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Note 07:
Bridget Patrella, 'Saying Farewell to Xena: Warrior Princess - A Final Tribute', Upbeat Entertainment News Online
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Note 08:
Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, p.83.
Storey explains that it is at the second level of signification or connotation that myth is produced for consumption. In a political sense, Barthes sees myth as an 'ideology understood as a body of ideas and practices which defend the prevailing structure of power by actively promoting the values and interests of the dominant groups in society'.
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Note 09:
Hanks, Collins Dictionary, p.734.
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Note 10:
The reverse also occurred in THE RING, when Gabrielle told Brunhilde that she and Xena were soulmates.
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Note 11:
Xena Warrior Lesbian
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Note 12:
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Note 13:
Rich Furman, Deconstructing Fan Gripes In Season Five, Whoosh #51 (Dec 2000)
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Note 14:
Xena Warrior Lesbian
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Note 15:
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Note 16:
'Xena Fans In Shock Over Grisly Series End For Warrior Princess', Adelaide Advertiser, 20 June 2001, quoted on Australian Xena Information Page
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Note 17:
Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p.156.
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Note 18:
Ibid., p. 52
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Note 19:
Renee O'Connor, quoted in Bridget Patella, 'Deeply Soulful and Subtly Engaging', Upbeat Entertainment News Online.
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Note 20:
Lucy Lawless, quoted in 'Lucy Lawless Outs "Xena"', Queery
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Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993)

Robert C Allen, ed., Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed (London: Routledge, 1992).

alt.tv.xena: Subtext FAQ

Australian Xena Information Page

Kathleen E. Bennett, Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response
[no longer active]

Paul Burston and Colin Richardson, eds., A Queer Romance: Lesbians, Gay Men and Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000).

Danae Clark, 'Commodity Lesbianism', in Abelove, Barale and Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), pp.186-201.

George Comstock, Television in America, The Sage Commtext Series, 1, 2nd edn (London: Sage, 1991).

Robin Eggar, 'Is it a Bird?', The Sunday Times: Style, 27 July 1997, p.8.

Jib Fowles, Why Viewers Watch: A Reappraisal of Television's Effects, rev edn (London: Sage, 1992).

A A Gill, 'A Night at the Camp Site', The Sunday Times: Culture, 20 July 1997, p.27.

________ 'A Teeny Pain in the Neck', The Sunday Times: Culture, 24 January 1999, p.30.

Sara Gwenllian Jones, 'Starring Lucy Lawless?', Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, April 2000, pp. 9-22.

Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge, eds., The Good, the Bad and the Gorgeous (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1994).

Patrick Hanks, Collins Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edn (London: Collins, 1986)

John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Patricia Holland, The Television Handbook (London: Routledge, 1997).

Stuart Hood, ed., Behind the Screens: The Structure of British Television in the Nineties (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1994).

Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

Shameem Kabir, Daughters of Desire: Lesbian Representations in Film (London: Cassell, 1998).

J Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (London: Davis- Poynter, 1974).

Joe Nazzaro, 'Hercules & Xena: Introducing Two Television Legends', Starburst Special 27, April 1996, pp.22-27.


Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Nick Setchfield, 'Kick-Ass Angels', Cult TV, vol. 2, no. 3, March 1998, pp.28-33.

Anneke Smelik, 'Gay and Lesbian Criticism', in Hill and Church Gibson, eds., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.135-147.

John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, 2nd edn (Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall / Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997).

Subtextopedia: Your Guide to Xena Subtext

John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Macmillan, 1983).

Upbeat Entertainment News Online

Whoosh: Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies

Tamsin Wilton, Lesbian Studies: Setting an Agenda (London: Routledge, 1995)

Xena - Warrior Princess
[no loger active]

Xena: Warrior Princess: The Official Magazine, issue 10, August 2000.

Xena Warrior Lesbian


Allison Ashworth. An Oasis In A Cultural Desert Part One: Introduction and the Cultural Desert. Whoosh #62 (November 2001)

Alison Ashworth. An Oasis In A Cultural Desert. Part Two: The Creative Context. Whoosh #63 (December 2001)


Alison Ashworth Alison Ashworth

I am a 37-year-old Health & Safety Inspector from Luton, Bedfordshhire, UK and I wrote this as my dissertation for my MA in Popular Culture.
Favorite line: Callisto: "Love, love, love, love. Oh, it unites, you're right" RETURN OF CALLISTO
First episode seen: Don't remember
Least favorite episode: LYRE, LYRE, HEARTS ON FIRE

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