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Xenaphilia. Fan of XENA Have Fomented a Cultlike Passionfor TV's Most Ferocious and fetching Heroine. But is their Devotion Enough to Ciut a Swath for Female Action Stars?


Posted 01-12-99

Entertainment Weekly
03/07/97
By Page 38
Photos: "WOMEN UNDER THE INFLUENCE: Now that Xena's Lucy Lawless has butt-kicked her way to femme-fatale fame, here's a salute to her sisters in arms: (1) Wonder Woman's Lynda Carter, (2) Goldfinger's Honor Blackman, (3) Police Woman's Angie Dickinson, (4) The Bionic Woman's Lindsay Wagner, (5) Aliens' Sigourney Weaver, (6) Barb Wire's Pamela Lee, (7) The Avengers' Diana Rigg, and (8) Barbarella's Jane Fonda ; PHOTO: [Honor Blackman and Sean Connery in movie Goldfinger]; PHOTOS: Angie Dickinson in TV show Police Woman]; PHOTO: [Lindsay Wagner in TV show The Bionic Woman]; PHOTO: [Sigourney Weaver in movie Aliens]; PHOTO: [Pamela Lee in movie Barb Wire]; PHOTO: [Diana Rigg in TV show The Avengers]; PHOTO: [Jane Fonda in movie Barbarella]; PHOTO: Lucy Lawless as Xena, Warrior Princess; PHOTOS: [Lucy Lawless in TV show Xena: Warrior Princess]; PHOTO: BEHIND THE XENA: From left, Lawless with O'Connor; kissing Dior's Miss Artiphys; putting her best foot forward at the first official convention [Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor in TV show Xena: Warrior Princess]; PHOTO: [Lucy Lawless and Geoff Gann (Karen Dior) in TV show Xena: Warrior Princess]; PHOTO: [Lucy Lawless karate-kicking]; PHOTOS: Following in Xena's boot steps at the Burbank convention are Laura Wolfe, Daryl Bartosh, and Olivia Joncich, [Laura Wolfe and Daryl Bartosh dressed as characters from TV show Xena: Warrior Princess; Olivia Joncich dressed as Xena]; PHOTO: IT'S REIGNING FEMMES: The X-Files' Anderson, Nikita's Wilson, and Voyager's Mulgrew are TV exceptions, not the rule [Gillian Anderson in TV show The X-Files]; PHOTO: [Peta Wilson in TV show La Femme Nikita]; PHOTO: [Kate Mulgrew in TV show Star Trek: Voyager]

COMMENTARY
Major report on XENA fandom. Calls IAXS a "Web-based think tank of sorts". Also mentions WHOOSH, the journal. Quotes tons of people including Kym Taborn.

REPRINT

   In a time of pop-savvy adolescent couch potatoes, urbane camp addicts, and
postfeminist professionals, a land in turmoil cried out for a heroine: She was
Xena, a mighty princess, forged in the heat of prime-time syndication.

   Striding through the TV landscape in truly mythic fashion, our heroine has
dealt a decisive blow to her competition in record time. Midway through its
second season, the Universal Television fantasy-adventure series Xena: Warrior
Princess (check your local listings) regularly beats syndication champs Baywatch
and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, not to mention the sibling lead-in from which it
was spun off, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Earlier this year, the show even
won its Saturday prime-time slot against network competition in New York and
L.A. 

   Xena's weapons? A snarky, kitchen-sink warping of one of TV's most
notoriously formulaic genres---the superhero odyssey. And the introduction of a
lead character (played by Lucy Lawless) who has single-handedly upped the ante
on women's place on television. As Xena, the Amazonian Lawless traverses the
known world--with faithful sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) in tow--defending
the defenseless, righting wrongs, and vanquishing anyone who gets in her way.
Each episode affords a plethora of ass-kicking opportunities, in giddily absurd,
hyperkinetic action sequences equally reminiscent of Jackie Chan and TV's
Batman: See Xena vanquish foes with her trusty chakram, a razor-sharp metal
circlet she hurls with ludicrous accuracy and force! See Xena vault into
multiple midair somersaults! Hear Xena's "Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" battle cry, a
bansheelike wail her fans avidly ape!

   Lately, those fans have become legion. Like Star Trek and The X-Files before
it, Xena is speeding toward that most oxymoronic of distinctions, mainstream
cultdom. Evidence includes the first official convention (in Burbank, in
January), numerous Xena-fests (organized by fans), Xena-themed apparel, trading
cards, fanzines, action figures, CD-ROMs, and a Web presence of more than 60
sites and counting. Perhaps more indicative of Xena's pop-culture infiltration
are the increasing homages on network television: Both Roseanne and Something So
Right have featured Xena doppelgangers.

   What separates Xena from its cult predecessors is its ability to reach a
variety of rabid audience segments on totally different levels. There's
something--and something quite different--for everyone. For the
married-with-children set, the show offers nearly bloodless action and a
morality tale in which good triumphs over evil. Feminists like Dana Eskenazi, a
37-year-old schoolteacher from New York, see a take-no-crap grrrl breathing
fresh air into an estrogen-deprived genre. "There hasn't been a female TV
character who is totally independent of a male figure in her life," says
Eskenazi. "This is a woman who can fight--and beat--men, who walks the world
like so many male adventurers have."

   And Xena's invasion of a staunchly male domain, by the way, doesn't offend
straight guys. Hardly: "What's not to like? The show is a scream. Xena's a total
babe. Not only that, she's a babe who likes other babes...it's a babe-fest,"
says 20-year-old George, an online devotee. "I watch her in action and think,
'Wow, she could kick my a--,' and I kind of dig that." Gay females, ironically,
are hooked for much the same reasons.

   At Meow Mix, a New York nightspot, all eyes are glued to the TV screen over
the bar, where Xena is about to plant The Kiss. As she leans in and locks lips
with those of Gabrielle, her fresh-faced charge, the distaff horde packing the
bar erupts in a cacophony of whoops and whistles. A few rapturous seconds later,
Gabrielle opens her eyes only to find she's not been kissed by Xena at all but
by a man--albeit a man carrying Xena's soul in his body. Disappointed moans
erupt at this typically tantalizing sleight of hand--followed, seconds later, by
a full-throated cry of "Rewind!"

   A fixture of Gotham's downtown lesbian scene, Meow Mix has also become a sort
of pulse point for the burgeoning cult. Once a month the club presents Xena
Night, featuring a screening of--and Rocky Horror-esque interaction with--three
episodes, followed by a toy-sword fight in honor of the warrior princess. "It's
the one show on TV where I don't feel invisible," says Montana, a 29-year-old
library-science student who appreciates the show's acknowledgment, however
indirectly, of her lesbian lifestyle.

   Though the character of Xena is regularly shown in the intimate company of
men, sexual ambiguity is a mainstay of the show--which openly gay Xena producer
Liz Friedman is all too happy to admit: "I don't have any interest in saying
they're heterosexuals. That's just bulls---, and no fun, either."

   Much speculation attends the Xena/Gabrielle bond--and the appeal of the
relationship is that you can believe what you want. "They have love for each
other," says Xena supervising producer Steve Sears of the two women, who teamed
up in the first episode (Xena saved Gabrielle from a wicked warlord). "It's up
to the audience to determine what that love is."

   "It's sort of like the old Star Trek," says Kym Masera Taborn, chairperson of
the board of the International Association of Xena Studies--no kidding--a
Web-based think tank of sorts. "It's so off-the-wall and seems so cut off from
everything that you can do some pretty controversial things."

   Truth be told, the show is more slyly teasing than downright naughty, which,
smartly, keeps it family and advertiser friendly. During a recent episode, Xena,
masquerading as a contestant in the Miss Known World beauty pageant, pastes a
lingering kiss on the winner, Miss Artiphys. The miss is really a mister
(natch)--and, in typically envelope-pushing fashion, the producers cast drag
queen, gay rights activist, and recent inductee into the Adult Video News'
pornstar hall of fame Karen Dior, a.k.a. Geoff Gann, in the role.

   Sexuality isn't the only thing Xena plays fast and loose with. In chronicling
the exploits of the babelicious leather and metal-clad crusader, executive
producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert adopted the campy, irreverent signature they
used to comic effect in their Evil Dead film trilogy. In the Xenaverse--the name
given to the show's timeless sense of place by its devotees--history is bunk.
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. One
episode finds our heroine plunked into the middle of the Trojan War (turns out
Helen was an old acquaintance); in another, she's visiting 1940s Macedonia.
Somehow, hilariously, it works.

   But while the show might be a goof, Xena's power is not. "In the past, when a
woman had been inserted into a basic male archetypical story, [TV producers]
made the female almost too female," says Taborn, who also edits the online Xena
'zine WHOOSH! (a reference to the show's omnipresent sound effect). "With this
one, they've kept her pretty serious." Friedman agrees, contrasting Xena with a
TV predecessor: "Wonder Woman's nails were always perfect, and she really looked
like she cared about it. If Xena were in the middle of a fight, and a guy
accidentally yanked off her top, she wouldn't go 'Aah!' and cover her chest.
She'd punch the crap out of him."

   The aptly--and truly--named Lawless (Flawless to her fans) debuted as Xena on
Hercules in a three-part arc that aired in the spring of 1995. In her original
incarnation, Xena was an evil warlord and foe of the mythic strong man. When
overwhelming viewer response led Tapert and John Schulian to create a spin-off,
Xena underwent a transformation to become a force for good, though one still
plagued by the sins of her marauding past.

   With her severe good looks, Xena evokes a long line of pop-cult
visages--Barbarella, Vampirella, even '50s pin-up queen Betty Page--as she
rapidly joins that pantheon. To embody this uberwoman, Lawless, an Auckland, New
Zealand, native, has made good use of her comedy background (she appeared on the
New Zealand skit-com Funny Business at age 20), her training in music (the
former opera student will sing her own songs for an upcoming straight-to-video
Xena/Hercules cartoon), plus a self-assuredness in storming traditionally male
strongholds (during a brief stay in Australia, she was one of the country's few
female gold miners). And as the separated mother of an 8-year-old girl, Lawless,
28, is sympathetic to young women's need for a role model. "I hope it does
become the next great TV phenomenon," she told the Baltimore Sun in January. "I
think it has caught a wave, a need of some kind for a stronger female hero." But
the actress quickly added that Xena's greater purpose is to make you laugh.
"It's mainly a hoot."

   Still, Xena represents a refreshing divergence from the mawkish,
movie-of-the-week brand of female heroism that has proliferated in the '90s. And
Raimi wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he's cashed in on postfeminist
heroism before, in his depiction of Sharon Stone's strong, silent gunslinger in
the 1995 film The Quick and the Dead. That role, along with an evil hell-raiser
portrayed by Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin in The Bride With White Hair (1993),
was to some degree a forerunner of Xena. With Xena's success, Raimi believes,
the people have spoken, and he's hoping his new action series, Spy Game,
starring Allison Smith (see review on page 56), will benefit from a growing
taste for kickboxing chicks. "The audience is not afraid of watching some women
break out of the conventional mold," says Raimi. Unfortunately, he adds, "the
Hollywood establishment may not be aware that the audience really wants that."

   Currently, next to Lawless' Xena, the most conspicuously empowered female
leads in prime time are The X-Files' brainily alluring Dana Scully (Gillian
Anderson), Kate Mulgrew's Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, and the USA
Network's La Femme Nikita (starring Peta Wilson and based on the 1991 movie of
the same name). Since three out of those four are very popular (Nikita debuted
less than two months ago), why do meaty female action roles continue to be such
a rarity?

   "I think that television in particular is a medium of the familiar, not of
breathtaking new changes," says Xena's Friedman, who points out that in TV's
50-year history, only a handful of successful, rock-'em sock-'em female leads
have emerged--Emma Peel (The Avengers), the Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Cagney
and Lacey--and most of them in the more politically strident '70s.

   A predictable target of blame: the still-male-dominated ranks of TV execs.
"It's a bias of the TV industry, [this belief] that women will watch shows about
men, but men won't watch shows about women, and therefore half the audience will
be lost," says Susan Douglas, author of Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female
With the Mass Media. The Xena audience proves that theory wrong: About half of
its adult viewers are male. Granted, they're watching as much for Xena's
pulchritude as for her pluck; nevertheless, it's sending a message.

   For the most part, though actresses playing forceful women must navigate a
tightrope between strength and femininity. "I'm often cautioned not to cross a
certain line one way or the other--'Don't be too butchy, don't be too
vulnerable,'" says Kate Mulgrew of playing Janeway. "But I'll tell you, I'd much
rather have this set of challenges than play some bimbo on Melrose Place."

   Kay Koplovitz, founder and CEO of USA Networks--a rare female network
head--maintains that the balancing act is in deference to viewers of both
genders. "I think when you develop this kind of role, you risk having a strong
action figure who is not sympathetic. It can be intimidating, it can be
off-putting. Women who are too strong can be overbearing to men and women."

   Friedman believes that Xena has figured out a way to solve that problem. How?
In a word, subversion. "I've always been a big believer in the power of popular
culture," she says. "The best way to convey more challenging ideas is to make
something that functions on a mainstream level but that has subtext that people
can pick up on--or not." Add a Trojan horse and you've got an episode of Xena.

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