Whoosh! Issue 75 - January/February 2003


By A. Martinez
Content © 2002 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2002 held by Whoosh!
2817 words

An Unnatural Woman (01-03)
Of Warlords and Princesses (04-07)
It is How You Look (08-13)
It is What You Wear (14-17)
Essence of Xena (18-29)
Making Sense Out of Paradox (30-33)


An Unnatural Woman

Having been told they taste just like chicken, Xena can't resist the temptation to barbeque on a large scale
Xena has engaged in some pretty superhuman stunts.

[01] Abusing my position as TV watcher in a real world with real people and real problems watching peopled worlds that are not real, I dare to ask, Is Xena real? [Note 01] Because the Warrior Princess can fly [Note 02] and catch arrows in her teeth, and die and rise, and die and rise, and die and rise again without the benefit of a single divine or magical or genetic superpower, she is unnatural.

[02] The unnaturalness of Xena is conveyed with the repetition of immoderate acts such as contemporary superheroes can accomplish only with the added pizzazz of extra-terrestrial conception or acquired arachnid DNA. If she had caught that arrow but once, we could attribute that to chance. In South America, El Nino sneezed at Africa, which made the Sahara sigh towards Greece, and that unforeseen alteration in the winds slowed the arrow, cleared our princess's eyes, and quickened her jaw, just so. However, El Nino does not daily bluster by, or even yearly. If she does it that often, it is simply not the weather.

[03] Xena's often mentioned many skills were developed through discipline and craft. Xena's art is Xena. She is the artist and craftswoman who built the artifice and masterpiece that is the Warrior Princess.

Of Warlords and Princesses

[04] Forget, for one moment, Xena's save-the-world hobby; consider only war and royalty and the differences between their players. The two figures are juxtaposed first in THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105), where virgin princess--clean and soft and pink--and lecher warlord--crass and mean and foul--meet and do not converge.

[05] The princess's life philosophy can be summarized through a sweeping happy-ever-after with her prince. The warlord knows not love, but only rape, pillage, and kill. He exhibits a power-lust so overwhelming that nothing or no one else can be squeezed into his universe. The princess has no power, only breeding. The warlord has no breeding, only power.

[06] In THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105), the figures of princess and warlord are juxtaposed. Nevertheless, our Princess is a Warrior, not a warlord. Where warlord has seized power, and achieved relative stability of domination, warrior actively engages in warfare. The warrior continuously must negotiate the power balance between herself and her partner in war: her opponent, her enemy. Even the naughty Xena [Note 03] never was a warlord: she never lingered long enough to assume governmental control, staying in one place only as long as it took her to complete her conquest.

[07] The fast, mean Xena of the past created her warring self deliberately. She learned as much as she could from as many as she could and cultivated her image to precede her. In that ancient world with no photographic journalism, thumbprints, or DNA testing, her image is her self. Her look is recognized and feared. Her mien constitutes her warrior's grandeur. Craft, not candor, made the Warrior Princess.

It is How You Look

Model for the new Warrior Princess Barbie
Xena has been a beauty queen as well as a Warrior Princess.

[08] The artistry of Xena's style is manifest in her warrior aesthetic and performance. Xena's protective war gear is unnatural because scant. Her male counterparts wear so much more and are that much more protected. Highly stylized, her costume stimulates the fantasy of Warrior Princess that Xena's guile has, in effect, made real. Xena arrays her body not only with patches of iron-laced leather, she also wears her abilities. What the sparseness of her outfit reveal exposed, her many skills conceal protected, skills not just cardinal to the warrior, but princess skills as well, all exacting for mastery.

[09] Meticulously tailored and designed to serve her in any situation, the skills in Xena's wardrobe constitute the warrior, the princess, and the Warrior Princess just as much as her iron breast-plate and her luscious cleavage.

[10] In HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211) two pageant contestants are in the same position: Drag. Miss Artiphys in Xena's armor, IS Xena, as (mis)recognized by a member of the audience. Xena a billowy pastel gown is hyper-feminine beauty queen Miss Amphipolis. In both cases we have non-normative gender characterizations: a man dressed as a woman dressed as a warrior, and Xena dressed as a Warrior Princess [Note 04] dressed as a beauty pageant contestant.

[11] The difference between these stage drag acts is a matter of intensity. Miss Artiphys, with her drag from woman to warrior, flirts with her audience, letting them in on her make pretend for their excitement. Xena, on the other hand, relies on secrecy in her warrior to queen act. In fact, her own life and the lives of those around her depend on her ability to convince her audience of her queenliness. In each character's daily drag, this relation cannot be drawn as clearly because we are not allowed into Miss Artiphys' private life, but the base of her man-to-woman drag is discoverable, whereas Xena's is not. Xena wears her Warrior Princess drag continuously and too well for anyone to catch a glimpse of what may lie beneath.

[12] Both Xena and Miss Artiphys recognize that if their contestant cover is blown, their off-stage drag is imperiled. Each must keep the other's secret because it is her own. Drag is the one, same secret they share.

[13] Xena's layering of costumes suggests a self-representation illustrated in a photograph of Norman Rockwell painting his Triple Self-Portrait [Note 05]. In the painting, the artist looks in the mirror to paint an image of himself looking in the mirror to paint his portrait. This is a segment of an infinitely telescoping succession of painter painting a portrait of himself. Like Norman Rockwell, Xena fabricates her illusion of Warrior Princess, a fantasy atop which she piles costumes. She is but a portrait painting a portrait of herself.

It is What You Wear

[14] A particularly interesting example of Xena's costuming occurs in THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105). Good Xena apparently decides not to infiltrate the warlord's domain incognito, dressing instead as "herself." In this case, she takes advantage of her knowledge of her audience in designing her costume: she lets them draw what conclusions they will. Her costume consists of looking exactly like the ruthless and mean Xena the warlords once knew. Curiously, by not altering her wardrobe at all, she dresses up as someone else entirely.

[15] In a stroke of genius, in the same episode, she dresses as someone else by creating for her adversary the illusion of nudity, achieved by covering her armor with a bathrobe and showing some leg. She leads him to believe that she is exposing for him the woman beneath the Warrior Princess guise, when she is actually adopting a further front, beyond the new Xena dressed as the old Xena.

[16] In the next episode, THE RECKONING (06/106), the Warrior Princess dresses up by undressing. Her jailers associate her mythical warrior's invincibility with her armor. When she is nearly naked before them, they mistake her for weak. In allowing them to strip her form Warrior Princess to common woman, she gains an advantage over them.

[17] In both cases, the artificial and temporary masks are subordinate to the fundamental artwork of the Warrior Princess. This is Xena's self of preference-the most beautiful, the most demanding, a creature consistently modeled to representational perfection.

Essence of Xena

Somehow I don't think that 'L' is for Lucy...
Not everyone sees Xena in a flattering light, as Gabrielle noted in IF THE SHOE FITS.

[18] Given the artful construction of Xena's persona, one question must arise. Is there a fundamental Xena upon which these magnificent artifices have been built? If there is, it is never presented to us directly. As Gabrielle commented to Xena in the telling of her fairy-tale in IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412), Xena's anger is misplaced and is a way to avoid deeper emotions and intimacy. "You need to get in touch with your inner child." She may as well have said, "You need to get in touch with your inner Xena."

[19] Xena's deeper emotions, in whatever core of herself might exist, were misplaced and misrepresented in her games of dress up. Intimacy and essential contact became impossible because that essence is misrepresented, indeed, dare I say, unrepresentable. The inner child Gabrielle mentioned suggests that there might be a pre-Xena Xena, the creature that may have existed before appareling emerged in her life: the naked newborn.

[20] Gabrielle engaged in this sort of soul-searching psychoanalytic activity with her friend and Season Five therapist Aphrodite, most obviously in her PUNCH LINES (101/511) session, but Xena's pastimes and pursuits are different. The two times Xena approached this figurative nudity are, appropriately and brilliantly, counterintuitive. The first was through a mirror that could provide but altered, reverse images. The next was in a dreamscape, where everything is illusory.

[21] In CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102), when her peaceable host confiscated her armor, Xena proceeds to don garb she had not worn since her prepubescent, pre-Cortese days in Amphipolis: pastel frills. Everything this dress recalls-wife, homemaker, mother-is diametrically opposed to everything the Warrior Princess has made of herself. In the ten years prior to the events of the episode, Xena has denied tenderness, going so far as to renounce (temporarily, driven by the despair of an oft-broken heart) all love in order to procure the power of the Rheingold Ring. She had fornicated relentlessly with her male co-conquerors. She had destroyed countless homes (among which Callisto's figures eminently). She had forsaken her son. In putting on this dress, a mighty clash of inimical currents provoked a crisis, however brief, within the Warrior Princess.

[22] The whirlwind arising from the fusion of two such strangely matched principles becomes material in the wind. A draft alters the figure in the mirror, provoking first the shock of non-recognition (whose is this synchronal image?), then the wonder of recognition (the soft woman on the wall is Xena). The woman in the glass is real, yet incongruous with the warrior's reality. The warrior is then displaced as Xena's self and acknowledged as fabrication. [Note 06]

[23] Contrariwise, in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), Xena, along with Gabrielle, is forced into intensive psychoanalysis (of the spill-your-guts-or-I'll-yank-them-out-with-my-bare-hands variety) in order to the eschewal of their, in order for Xena to strip herself down to a costume-free state. Xena, who could not make spontaneous confessions in the realm of the living and speaking, resorted to a highly stylized mode of communication in the realm of the nearly-dead and singing in order to unleash the unprepared, unbridled rawness of her soul.

[24] THE BITTER SUITE's musical form, rehearsed to exhaustion, crafted to perfection, premeditated, choreographed, and studied, becomes the expression of the essential Xena. Furthermore, this spell of soul-bearing takes place in the land of Illusia, which the fantastical Callisto describes as a place "where you see what is not there." Perhaps her suggestion contradicts the existence of an essential Xena. It is only in this land of illusion that Xena can avow, "Now I'm left without a mask."

[25] If what she sees is not really there, then her Xena-ness, perceptible only in Illusia, really does not exist. If Xena sees at the beginning of Season One that she is but the fantasy of a warrior princess, Illusia takes the fantasy to meta-fantasy. (And what could be more fantastic than a world in which Xena and Gabrielle sing a spontaneous heart-to-heart in rhymed iambic tetrameter?)

[26] By entering Illusia, Xena experiences a kind of outfitting opposite her Warrior Princess. In THE BITTER SUITE, a slightly different kind of clash creates a crisis so dire that it propels both women into a world governed by an alternate reality. Xena, who loves no being or thing as much as she loves Gabrielle, is faced with a countercurrent of rage and hatred that tries to overwhelm her love. But Xena's love, at least as strong as its opposite, will not be overwhelmed.

[27] With Gabrielle in an identical state, the clash results not in a quick victor, as in CHARIOTS, but it erupts and fractures their reality. It casts them into fantasy and they must relate differently within what world they have erected.

[28] In the fantastic spaces of Illusia, Xena and Gabrielle see each other without masks and delve deeper than costumes to realize finally their relationship with one another. Clear in their harmonious duet, "Hearts are Hurting" is each woman's realization of the other's connection to her. In other words, the song is their empathy and communion together.

[29] Perhaps it is in this moment that Xena can best appreciate her Xena-ness. The diverse perceptions of her self-her self-perception, her fantasy perception, Gabrielle's fantasy perception of her, and possibly Gabrielle's "real" perception of her [Note 07] -may intersect in her real Xena-ness. Or not.

Making Sense Out of Paradox

[30] Most beautiful about Xena: Warrior Princess is its uncanny ability to make sense across complications and contradictions. The most powerful argument for Xena's being real is precisely this: she is not congealed. Because, even starting in her very title, Xena encompasses radically different ideals, she must always be in negotiation first with herself, and then with Gabrielle and with the world.

[31] The title given Xena is accurate: it does not assume fixed power, unlike gods, warlords, and kings. The power of the warrior is fleeting, existing only during moments of victorious combat. The princess had no political power whatsoever. Whatever her "royal" power may have been, it is an accidental result of her breathtaking beauty. However, Xena is neither the warrior nor the princess; she is both, unstable, all-encompassing, fluctuating.

[32] Thus Xena remains fluid within her self and gives rise to unresolvable contradictions: good and evil, masculine and feminine. She negotiates once and again with Gabrielle redemption, family, and love. The non-cohesive nature of the Warrior Princess is placed within a fragmentary world of mythology, religion, and fantasy, a world that imagined itself historical, with a unique appreciation of time, creating a reality of paradoxes. Indeed, things often do not make sense. [Note 08] That is Xena's beauty.

[33] Ultimately, Xena is real, because nothing could be mere fancy that can complicate itself so much and still stand tall, bare, and gorgeous in the snow.


Note 01
More real than either our tangible world or the Xenaverse, is the fascination we share for the fantasy of Xena, which imbues it with realness and makes it tangible for us. What is really real is that so many love it so much, that is what makes Xena real.
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Note 02
By "fly", I mean leap unnaturally high or far for any span of time, and do any number of tumbles and twists in midair. Not "fly" literally, of course. When she is a guest on The Simpson's, Lucy Lawless is careful to clarify to those of us who tend to confuse character and actor in our over-zealous belief in Xena that even though she (Ms. Lawless) can fly, Xena cannot.
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Note 03
I resist the term "Evil Xena" because I resist the concept of "Evil Xena". The Xena of yore may have made mistakes and hurt people, but as the Hercules Warrior Princess Trilogy and her ex-fellow warrior Marcus in THE PATH NOT TAKEN attest, Xena never is one to slaughter innocent, defenseless children. Besides, no further proof of the existence of Xena's heart is necessary than that it is broken by Caesar's killing of M'Lila and betrayal of Xena, and broken again more deeply by her own unwilling beheading of her beloved Akemi.
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Note 04
Recall Gabrielle's lines to Xena near the beginning of their life together: "You're not much for girl talk, are you. Of course, you're not like most girls."
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Note 05
For an analytical commentary on the postmodern implications of this painting, see The Crafty Reader by Roberts Scholes. Yale University Press, 2001.
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Note 06
Is it mere coincidence that the mirror has the shape of the chakram, and through that roundness, Xena sees her self? Gabrielle also sees images of Xena through circles, notably in MARRIED WITH FISCHTICKS (105/515), where a wedding garland recalls her memories of Xena.
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Note 07
Because they claim their hearts are "hurting beyond words", we can assume that Xena and Gabrielle experience the indescribable. Going with the theory that our reality is shaped and defined by how we name it, the unnamable experience Xena and Gabrielle have in Illusia is different from the reality of their "real" world. It is an undefined experience.
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Note 08
Like the bizarre reasons Xena gives for remaining dead in FRIEND IN NEED, which just go to show how wonderfully human and endearingly messed up she is.
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the author A. Martinez
A woman of mystery.

Favorite episode: THE DEBT
Favorite line: Xena to the reporter: "Well, technically..." YOU ARE THERE
First episode seen: IF THE SHOE FITS
Least favorite episode: LITTLE PROBLEMS



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