Whoosh! Issue 99 - March 2005

GENDER AND GREATER GOOD IN XENA
By Jackie M. Young
Content © 2005 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2004 held by Whoosh!
2636 words


Gender and Greater Good in Xena (01-25)
Notes
Bibliography
Biography




Author's Note: Thanks to Lilli Sprintz and IfeRae for helping to research and check this paper

Gender and Greater Good in Xena

Xena, in her most famous publicity pose

Xena, a big woman with a big sword


[01] When the Xena: Warrior Princess series hit American TV screens in September 1995, American women (and men) were primed and ready for stories of a "shero" who was unapologetic and had no visible means of male support. After all, we had been through the 'Women's Liberation' movement of the '60s and '70s, but our TV menu didn't reflect that.

[02] As Ms. Magazine noted in 1996, "Many feminists have been dreaming of mass-culture moments like this since feminism came into being. But we've almost never seen these fantasies realized. The Bionic woman smiled too much. Even Cagney and Lacey worried about looking 'overmasculine.' No woman television character has exhibited the confidence and strength of the male heroes of archetype and fantasy." [Note 01] (4, p. 2) And although the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie preceded Xena by three years, the character of Buffy still was full of adolescent female foibles and she fully depended on male guidance. Not so Xena.

[03] As proof of the series' acceptance and popularity, in the beginning there was only Universal Studios' Net Forum and a few other sites to document the show's existence [Note 02]; recently, a Web search brought up 233,000 sites! In addition, historian Rob Weisbrot noted that "viewers responded mightily: in 24 of its first 25 weeks, Xena became the most popular new syndicated series. In its second season, Xena conquered a still larger share of the TV audience...becoming the top-rated hour in syndication." [Note 03].

[04] Xena was in a position to have a profound influence on our ways of viewing women, and women as role models. [Note 04] In this way, Xena bridged the faultline of gender. CNN News observed that "Xena has...become a hero to many fans, particularly to women, who see her as a role model and much more. [Series star Lucy] Lawless says she thinks the character is appealing precisely because of her strong-willed nature. 'She's empowering. She has a real "I can" message or "you can" message.'" [Note 05].

[05] Producer Liz Friedman (and in several interviews, series creator Robert Tapert) referenced the "outpouring of gratitude and affection from Xena's female viewers. As a child Friedman had watched Wonder Woman on TV and winced at the daintiness that crept into the star's fight scenes, as if 'she were afraid she might break a nail.' Not so Xena, who 'doesn't act in any ways associated with mass-cultural expectations of women.' Friedman cited a rule for the series: 'Don't write Xena any differently than if she were a man.'"[Note 06].

[06] In fact, Tapert says Xena "'doesn't fall into this svelte, silicone image. She's a big woman with big shoulders, big hipbones, and big thighs.' And a bloodcurdling battle cry." [Note 07]

[07] In her book, Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television, Elyce Rae Helford asserts that "the program does 'effectively challenge problematic aspects of gender essentialism, represents friendship between women as a positive and important element of women's lives,' and 'escapes static notions of sexuality and representations of homosexuality' by offering characters who can be read as lesbian, bisexual, or non-monogamous without including a critique of their lifestyles in the storyline." [Note 08]

[08] The series was a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Xena began as a simple farmgirl in Amphipolis, Greece, but a warlord took over the town and also killed her brother. Out of grief and to avenge her brother's death, Xena turned into a warlord herself. In time, Xena was seduced by the warring lifestyle and hung with it. But then she was turned to "the light" by Hercules, and the first Xena episode, SINS OF THE PAST, begins with Xena burying her weapons, intent on giving up the life of a pillager.

[09] But before Xena can accomplish her task, a band of ruffians arrives to kidnap some village girls for the warlord, Draco. Xena ends up fighting them off single-handedly, and is convinced by one of the spunkiest village girls, Gabrielle, to not give up her fighting ways and to take her (Gabrielle) with her on her journey of redemption.

[10] The whole premise of the show is set up in this one episode. Xena's "not like other girls", as Gabrielle would say, and she can beat up an entire army by herself. She's also respected and well-known amongst criminals and warlords (she has a dark side). She's an equal (or superior) to men. Each of the succeeding 133 episodes challenges our notions of what it is to be a woman in a man's world.

[11] The same spin is put on other characters in the show. The episode BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS creates a feminist ending for The Iliad. Xena asks Helen of Troy: "What do you want to do?" Helen remarks: "No one's ever asked me that before!" [Note 09]. And we find out in THE DEBT I that the alleged author of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, has been in a medically-induced coma caused by his wife, Lao Ma, for many years, and it is she, in fact, who has been writing the Tao Te Ching in her husband's name.



A rare photography of Helen of Troy Lao Ma grows blurry with time

Helen of Troy and Lao Ma, reinformed by Xena, the Warrior Princess


[12] In HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS, an episode taking potshots at beauty pageants, gender lines really get crossed when Xena, a "butch" woman, has to go undercover as a twitty female contestant to root out corruption, only to meet up with Miss Artyphys (played by the late real-life drag queen Karen Dior/Geoff Gann). As associate professor Joanne Morreale says, "Overall, the masquerades in Xena the drag queen, the warrior princess, and her doubling as a feminized warrior princess, convey a sense of ironic distance from gender stereotypes. Mimickry and parody become politicized textual strategies. It is in this sense that we may regard Xena as a feminist text, one that enables viewers to perceive the artifice of both masculinity and femininity." [Note 10]

[13] Furthermore, Xena bridged the faultlines of race and generation. In the episode THE PATH NOT TAKEN, "Xena is one of the first white women in TV history to passionately kiss a black man onscreen." [Note 11] And in the episode THE PRICE, Xena finally puts aside her racial stereotypes of her attackers to realize that we all hold some basic values in common, such as honor and justice, and uses her discovery to forge a truce. The effects of racial discrimination are explored in the episodes HOOVES AND HARLOTS and LAST OF THE CENTAURS, in which old grudges against a "racial" group, the centaurs, start a battle.



Xena and Marcus rarely allowed themselves to be photographed together

Xena and Marcus, who was her friend


[14] As for generational themes, "Xena receives advice from Hippocrates and fights in the Trojan War; one episode, the XENA SCROLLS, even takes place in 1940. As Mike Flaherty observes: 'Characters spout Shakespearean platitudes one minute, Brooklynese wisecracks the next. Plotlines don't so much careen across eras as commingle them, creating a milieu that's primeval, classical, medieval, and surfer dude all at once.'" [Note 12] And in episodes like ADVENTURES IN THE SIN and FORGIVEN, Xena is seen taking younger apprentices under her wing, and teaching them how to function in the world.



This is NOT a rare photo, though the fact that it's in color is highly unusual

Mel and Janice with a Xena scroll


[15] This is a multi-purpose show that bridges multiple faultlines.

[16] As for Xena's ethical dilemma, as Xena herself would say, "that's a toughie". Xena's "fatal flaw" is her checkered past of crime, pillaging, and murder. She's lied, and she continues to lie to protect her new friend, Gabrielle. She's manipulative and she's learned to use her sex to her advantage. Ah, how to reform?

[17] Xena's writers have used their hero's evolution as the backdrop for a sophisticated discussion on morality. Xena isn't good because of innate virtue. She has genuinely struggled with questions of ethics, and has finally chosen to act on her moral impulses. In fact, the show's greatest innovation may not be the toughness of its female lead, but her deep awareness of her own desire to exploit and intimidate others. Xena continually confronts the parts of herself that are least likable. She keeps meeting people who are terrified of her because of the atrocities they've seen her commit. And though she's reformed, Xena is one hero whose ethical struggles are never over. [Note 13]

[18] Xena uses both a deontological and a utilitarian approach in her journey of redemption. In the episode THE GREATER GOOD (ostensibly named for the utilitarian principle), Xena is incapacitated by a poisoned dart and Gabrielle has to impersonate Xena in order to save a village. When the cowardly salesman, Salmoneus (who brought them to the village and got them in trouble with the attacking warlord in the first place) does not want to stay to help, Gabrielle convinces him that it's for "the greater good". Xena ends up faking her own death (but risking actually dying if the phoney death goes wrong), then "rising from the dead" at the last minute to save the village, Gabrielle, and Salmoneus. In this case, risking the few to save the many is the moral of the story.

[19] In the episode CALLISTO, and its successor, RETURN OF CALLISTO, Xena battles her conflicting deontological duties to bring a known mass murderer (Callisto) to justice, and to make amends to Callisto for turning her into the criminal she currently is. As Callisto so poignantly reminds Xena, "you made me". (Xena had pillaged Callisto's village when Callisto was a little girl, and Callisto turned to violence to avenge her parents' death, much like Xena had turned to violence to avenge her brother's death.) Xena captures Callisto, turns her over to the woefully inadequate justice system at the time and even ends up defending Callisto against a lynch mob, only to have Callisto escape again. Xena captures Callisto a second time and surrenders her to the same woefully inadequate system that she escaped from in the first place (all the time fighting her desire to just execute Callisto on the spot, thereby saving the Greek taxpayers a lot of money).



Callisto always made for a great silhouette, as seen in this rare photo of her killing Perdicus

Can we ever thank Callisto enough?


[20] But Xena's angst is never more clear than in the near-final scene of RETURN OF CALLISTO where Callisto is sinking into a pool of quicksand after a dramatic chariot battle with Xena. Xena has to choose, and choose quickly, whether to save Callisto (who would go on to murder and torture other people if she lived), or to let her die a deserved death in the quicksand (but thereby not allowing Xena to make amends to her). In a judge-and-jury decision, Xena chooses to let Callisto die (this would not be the first time that the show would go against Hollywood type for a neat, happy ending).

[21] Earlier in RETURN OF CALLISTO, Xena faced other conflicting deontological duties: whether to teach Gabrielle how to fight, so that she can avenge her fiance's death at Callisto's hands. Should Xena protect Gabrielle or let her make her own choices? If Xena teaches Gabrielle how to fight, will she be responsible for leading Gabrielle into a life of violence? This dilemma is a constant issue in Xena, and comes to a head in such episodes as THE DELIVERER (where Gabrielle loses her blood innocence by being duped into killing someone) and the musical THE BITTER SUITE, in which Gabrielle finds out Xena lied to protect her (Gabrielle) from knowing that Xena had murdered again. In almost all episodes where this choice is presented, Xena chooses to protect her best friend, despite any other duties, and despite the consequences. In RETURN OF CALLISTO, Xena refuses to teach Gabrielle how to fight, and in DELIVERER, Xena feels guilty because she wasn't "watching over" Gabrielle, even though it was Gabrielle's choice to go wandering off on her own into a situation where she was duped to kill someone.

[22] Another example occurs in LEGACY, where Gabrielle accidentally kills the son of a chief whose tribe Xena is defending from a Roman attack. Under the tribe's law, anyone who kills someone else, whether by accident or not, is also killed. True to form, Xena rescues Gabrielle from the tribe's "justice". But before Xena also has to defend herself from the tribe's "justice" for the act of rescuing Gabrielle, the Romans conveniently attack the tribe (through Xena's manipulation) and Xena saves the life of the chief in the ensuing battle. Xena and Gabrielle leave the tribe peacefully because now "a life for a life" has been paid. So even though "the greater good" would've been to let Gabrielle die (to assuage the grief of the chief and to give peace to the tribe), Xena has chosen her deontological duty of loyalty to Gabrielle over it.



This hard-to-find photo of Xena with 20th century fans fetches a pretty price on eBay

And let's not forget Xena's ever-faithful fans!


[23] Yet in PROMETHEUS, it is clearly a simple "greater good" dilemma. Whoever frees Prometheus from Hera's chains will save humankind, but die in the process (cutting the chains with a sword of the requisite type of metal causes death to the person holding the sword). Xena fights with Hercules over the dubious "honor" of being the one to die while saving humankind. Through both of their efforts, Prometheus is released and humankind saved, so the situation is a "sacrificing the few to save the many" one.

[24] In fact, in the series finale, A FRIEND IN NEED, Xena sacrifices herself in a suicide fight with 20,000 Japanese soldiers so that she can be killed, but go on to live in the afterlife to battle a Japanese demon who is "stealing" the souls of 40,000 Japanese villagers. Xena's main motivation is her guilt over accidentally causing the deaths of those 40,000 Japanese villagers in a fire she started when she was on a drunken binge many years ago. Of course, in the end, Xena vanquishes the demon, but now Gabrielle has to face the choice of whether to bring Xena back from the dead (since she holds the container with Xena's ashes and is close to the magical water that can bring her back to life). According to Japanese afterlife "rules", the 40,000 souls won't be at peace unless Xena stays dead. Gabrielle is now the one wrestling with her deontological duty to her friend, and yet trying to follow her sense of "the greater good". Xena requests that she stay dead, finally ending her journey of redemption (and, thus, the series).

[25] As we have seen, Xena is a multi-layered, complex show, capable of being interpreted in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. It is a classic, like Star Trek: The Original Series, and will remain an icon for shows to come.



The famous Xena Scream Another rare photo capture of a variation of the Xena scream

Xena going where no female action hero had gone before






Notes

Note 01:
Minkowitz, Donna, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong and Popular," Ms. Magazine, vol. VII, no. 1, July/August 1996, page 2
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/ms796/index.shtml
Return to article

Note 02:
Austin Chronicle, Feb. 16, 1998, page 3
http://www.filmvault.com/filmvault/austin/x/xenawarriorprince1.html
Return to article

Note 03:
Weisbrot, Robert, The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, Doubleday, New York: N.Y., 1998, page 156
Return to article

Note 04:
Calvert, Sandra L., et al., "Young Adults' Perceptions and Memories of a Televised Woman Hero," Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, July 2001
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2294/is_2001_July/ai_81478073
Return to article

Note 05:
(3) CNNNews, Aug. 1, 1997, page 1-2

http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/9708/01/xena

Return to article

Note 06:
Weisbrot, Robert, The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, Doubleday, New York: N.Y., 1998, pp. 159-160.
Return to article

Note 07:

Minkowitz, Donna, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong and Popular," Ms. Magazine, vol. VII, no. 1, July/August 1996, page 6
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/ms796/index.shtml
Return to article

Note 08:
(6) Ramsey, E. Michele, "Gender in Contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy Television," The Review of Communication, January 2002, page 111
http://www.natcom.org/pubs/ROC/one-ne/January2002/RamseyonRae.pdf
Return to article

Note 09:
4.

Minkowitz, Donna, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong and Popular," Ms. Magazine, vol. VII, no. 1, July/August 1996, page 5
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/ms796/index.shtml
Return to article

Note 10:
Morreale, Joanne, "Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp," Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, Fall 1998, page 6
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/jpc
Return to article

Note 11:
4.

Minkowitz, Donna, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong and Popular," Ms. Magazine, vol. VII, no. 1, July/August 1996, page 3
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/ms796/index.shtml
Return to article

Note 12:
Morreale, Joanne, "Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp," Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, Fall 1998, page 3
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/jpc
Return to article

Note 13:

Minkowitz, Donna, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong and Popular," Ms. Magazine, vol. VII, no. 1, July/August 1996, pages 2-3
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/ms796/index.shtml
Return to article





Bibliography

Austin Chronicle, Feb. 16, 1998
http://www.filmvault.com/filmvault/austin/x/xenawarriorprince1.html

Calvert, Sandra L., et al., "Young Adults' Perceptions and Memories of a Televised Woman Hero," Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, July 2001
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2294/is_2001_July/ai_81478073

CNNNews, Aug. 1, 1997, page 1-2

http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/9708/01/xena

Minkowitz, Donna, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong and Popular," Ms. Magazine, vol. VII, no. 1, July/August 1996;
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/ms796/index.shtml

Morreale, Joanne, "Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp," Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, Fall 1998
http://www.mirrorblue.com/annex/jpc

Ramsey, E. Michele, "Gender in Contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy Television," The Review of Communication, January 2002, page
http://www.natcom.org/pubs/ROC/one-ne/January2002/RamseyonRae.pdf

Weisbrot, Robert, The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, Doubleday, New York: N.Y., 1998.

"Xena Episode Guide: Season Three," Xena: Warrior Princess: The Official Magazine, issue no. 4.

"The Xena Trilogy on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys", "Xena: Warrior Princess First Season Episode Guide," "Xena: Warrior Princess Second Season Episode Guide," Spectrum, vol. 1, no. 2, November 1997.

"Xena: Warrior Princess Fourth Season Episode Guide," Spectrum, vol. 1, no. 20, September 1999.

"Xena: Warrior Princess (Fifth Season; Part 1)" Spectrum, vol. 1, no. 24, October 2000.

"Xena: Warrior Princess (Fifth Season; Part 2)," Spectrum, vol. 1, no. 25, January 2001.

"Xena: Warrior Princess (Sixth Season)," Spectrum, vol. 1, no. 29, January 2002.



Biography

the author Jackie M. Young
A woman of mystery

 

 

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