The Baltimore Sun
By Page E1
Photo: "Swordplay: Lucy Lawless tears into the part."
Written as a dispatch from the first official XENA.HERK convention (Burbank 01/97), Zurawik quotes 3 fans at the convention and Lucy Lawless. IAXS was mentioned, along with the names of the following articles "Xena and Heathcliff: Byronic Heroes" [by Cathy H McClain] and "The Lesbian Spirit of Xena Warrior Princess" [Diane Silver, WHOOSH staff emeritus].
Outside the ballroom of the Burbank Airport Hilton, a woman named Minerva Adams is describing the outfit she is wearing -- copper-and-leather helmet, leather tunic top with breastplate, flared skirt made of thick leather straps and leather-stocking style boots that lace up to her knees. She is just at the part where she is explaining the significance of the two fierce-looking brass lion's heads with rings through their noses on each side of her breastplate, when a very tall man wearing only a mask and various pieces of fur wrapped around his body walks up, looks her over and, without introduction, says, "Hun?" "No, Roman, actually," Adams responds in a tone that suggests she doesn't welcome the interruption. "Roman?" the guy says incredulously as he peers more closely at her outfit through the eyeholes of his mask. "Roman? You're kidding, right?" At which point, Adams turns to flash him a look every bit as fierce as that of the lions on her breastplate and reaches for the sword she is carrying in a scabbard on her back. "Yeah, Roman, OK, I see it now," the man in the fur says quickly, his tone changing appreciably, as he starts to move away. "Early Roman, but definitely Roman. Yeah, Roman. OK, fine. And may the gods be with you, Xena." Welcome to the official "Xena: Warrior Princess" convention -- where women are fierce and they don't take no guff off guys dressed as Visagoths. It was the first annual official "Xena" gathering -- held here Sunday -- and virtually everything about it screamed that "Xena" was on the fast track of moving from cult-hero status to a full-blown pop culture phenomenon after only a year and a half on syndicated television. Maybe it was seeing all those little 8-, 9- and 10-year-old girls dressed in miniature Xena outfits proudly practicing kung-fu kicks as they walked around the convention floor. Maybe it was finding out there is already an International Association of Xena Studies with its own online journal full of articles with such titles as "Xena and Heathcliff: Byronic Heroes" and "The Lesbian Spirit of Xena Warrior Princess." Or, perhaps, it was just seeing how quickly the convention organizers -- the same folks who stage the "Star Trek" gatherings -- sold out their 2,000 tickets priced at $ 15 and $ 30, leaving 200 fans standing in the rain outside the center all afternoon on the maybe off-chance they would be admitted when Lucy Lawless, the statuesque New Zealander who plays Xena, finally made her appearance. Almost everything Xena sold out Sunday -- Xena posters, Xena CD-ROMS, Xena dolls, Xena calendars and Xena videotapes -- by the time Lawless made her appearance. It was an appearance worth the wait. More than 2,000 Xenites packed into an auditorium designed to hold 1,600 standing on their chairs, clapping, cheering, yelling, whistling, popping hundreds of flash bulbs and chanting, "Do it, Lucy, do it." And Lawless did it, giving a big kung-fu kick, throwing her head way back and letting go with the high-pitched, banshee-like, Xena war cry, "Yii-yii-yii-yii-yii-yii-yii." It's the one she sounds at the big dramatic moment on her television show when the bad guys of ancient times have gone too far in pushing around Xena or those whom she protects and, in the words of Lawless, "Xena has to start kicking mythological butt." The "Xena" phenomenon starts with the television show, which has become the most successful new action series in syndication since "Baywatch." It is among the top 10 syndicated series worldwide and regularly beats such hits as "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" in Nielsen ratings here and elsewhere. Xena, the character, was created out of whole cloth by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, a talented filmmaking team responsible for such cult and horror movies as "Evil Dead." Tapert says they patterned her on the "evil warrior princesses" played by Lin Ching Hsia, a cult film star in Hong Kong, in such films as "The Bride With White Hair." In her first appearance in 1994 on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," which Tapert and Raimi produce, Xena was all evil -- murdering, pillaging and burning villages with her army of thugs. But when Raimi and Tapert tried to sell executives at MCA Universal -- the studio distributing "Hercules" -- on "Xena" as a spinoff, they were told no thanks unless they could figure out a way "to get her turned around so that she's good." In September 1995, "Xena" debuted with these words, which still open each episode: "In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle." Xena was turned around far enough to suit the executives at Universal, but she is still a very human hero, who has all sorts of what Lawless calls "wicked impulses." Developing Xena as a flawed hero is one of the smartest things about the show. Probably the smartest, though, is how many different levels the series plays at and how open it is to various interpretations by different viewers. In its most progressive and feminist sense, "Xena" is one of the first television series to take the psychic power of mythology and the Hero Quest and plug a woman into that archetypal male journey. That's the "Xena" recently celebrated in a Ms. magazine cover story. That is also the "Xena" many of the Xenites and others in attendance spoke of when asked about the appeal of "Xena." "She's a strong, independent woman, and I think it's a good thing that my kids are so into her," said Carolyn Jenz, 41, of Long Beach. "She's a good role model for my daughter." Her daughter Stephie, 10, was wearing one of the mini "Xena" outfits, which Mom had made. "Yeah, she's a good model," Stephie says of "Xena," as she does a twirl to show off her outfit and falls down. But there are other ways of seeing "Xena," one of which is essentially the flip side of the feminist view. In this one, "Xena" is seen as sex object for male viewers, a kind of oversized, mythological Crumb creation of leather, flesh and various body parts. Jim Rockermann, an 18-year-old high school student who drove down from Seattle to see Xena, articulates this position when he says, "What can I say? Xena's hot, totally hot I want her." The Internet is full of arguments about whether Xena is feminist hero or sex object. She is, of course, both if that's the way different viewers perceive her. Nor does it stop there. Lesbian viewers have made their own sense out of "Xena" as the article "The Lesbian Spirit of Xena Warrior Princess" indicates. In the premiere episode of "Xena," the warrior princess rescued a young woman named Gabrielle (Renee Gordon) at the altar of a loveless marriage. The two have become faithful traveling companions -- a kind of Batman and Robin of ancient Greece. Their relationship is a deeply committed one that is at the heart of the show for some viewers. For her part, Lawless says people will see what they want to see in the show. She points out that Xena has also been involved in physical relationships with Hercules and several other men. Lawless, who sat down for an interview backstage Sunday as the crowd out front built and built, said she's comfortable with all the sociological talk about "Xena" as long as it doesn't obscure what she thinks is the main point: the show's sense of fun. "I hope it does become the next great TV phenomenon, and I think it has caught a wave, a need of some kind for a strong, female hero. I think it definitely makes people feel something, even though they might not be able to say exactly what it is that it makes them feel. That's my goal anyway: to make people feel something every episode. "But don't forget that it's mainly a hoot. It's great fun from a bunch of twisted individuals making a show that we really like," she says. "There's really a lot of satire and irony in what we do, and we are always winking at the audience." The show certainly reflects that sensibility with a campy sense of humor, wisecracks often delivered in modern-day language and mind-boggling Xena battle acrobatics that offer their own kind of goofy viewing pleasure. Lawless -- the 30-year-old mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Daisy -- sort of winks her way through the interview. What does she think about the crowd building out front and, in fact, a whole convention devoted to her character? "Well, mainly, I just want to giggle, you know. I mean, I haven't been out there yet, so I don't know what to make of it, do I?" She saves the biggest wink for just before she goes onstage, as the crowd that has been at the Xena convention for seven hours now starts to stomp. She comes over to the reporter who has been asking her all the questions about popular culture and she says, "You know what my real goal is? To infiltrate every level of popular culture. I'm coming into your home, America, every home." And, then, she bounds onstage, setting off the din of all that pent-up energy and adulation as she launches into the keening Xena battle cry, and 2,000 voices try desperately to respond by getting their tongues around the same eerie sounds. It's a moment silly and profound, screwy and wonderful and absolutely mesmerizing. "Yii-yii-yii-yii-yii-yii-yii." And may the gods be with you, Xena, warrior princess.
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