Whoosh! Issue 81 - September 2003

By Hannah Jennings-Voykovich
Content © 2003 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2003 held by Whoosh!
2343 words

A Fan Culture is Born (01-03)
Lesbian Subtext (04-11)
Effect of Internet Fandom (12-17)
Blurred Reading (18-19)


"She'd never let a man get close enough to do her, at least not that kind of do her... but a young, innocent looking girl like me..."
--Gabrielle in SINS OF THE PAST

It's so good to be alive and a baby lesbian!

Gabrielle in her young and innocent days

A Fan Culture is Born

[01] Meanings for Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) have come under scrutiny ever since the first episode aired in 1995. Around this time, the development of the World Wide Web effected a massive increase in Internet usage. From the outset, XWP fan culture was predominately Net-based[Note 01]. The wealth of instant responses from fans readily available on the Internet meant that the XWP writers had the ability to (and consequently did) adapt their forthcoming episodes by catering to fans' tastes. The Internet's ability to provide an instantaneous response from viewers subsequently shaped the program's narrative. This ready availability of information from fans affected how the program was structured narratively, and as a result two readings can be taken from the narrative.

[02] The preferred reading of the text would suggest that the two main characters of the show, Xena and Gabrielle, share a very close friendship, and bond quickly beginning from the first episode. However a second, oppositional reading would suggest that the two are engaged in a lesbian relationship and are close because they are lovers. With very little lesbian following in its infancy, the preferred reading of XWP in the first season (1995-1996) is the friendship of the two women. In later seasons however, the lesbian subtext becomes more apparent as the lesbian following grew, and effectively moved from an oppositional reading to that of a "minor preferred".

[03] Focusing on the interaction that Xena and Gabrielle shared throughout the series can show how the lesbian subtext became more apparent as the homosexual audience increased. This was apparent through the gazes between the two women; the dialogue between not only Gabrielle and Xena, but the people they encountered; and most importantly, the intimacy the two shared as the series progressed. The two women moved from a friendly kiss on the forehead in the earlier episodes such as THE GREATER GOOD and IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? to later seasons, where the two share a bath in A DAY IN THE LIFE and an astral kiss on the lips in THE QUEST. The idea of their kisses moving down the face in a very gradual process protected the audience who enjoyed the preferred reading of the text, whilst hinting just enough at the lesbian subtext to keep the audience interest in the homosexual reading watching.

Are you in the Xena or the Gabrielle line? The JOXER line? Gack!

Xena fans come in all ilks -- some real and some ficticious

Lesbian Subtext

[04] The first season (1995-1996) of XWP contained few references to the lesbian subtext, which were to become apparent in the seasons to follow, but the dialogue, gazing, and intimacy that Gabrielle and Xena shared can still be viewed from an oppositional level.

[05] In THE GREATER GOOD, Xena is hit with a poison dart during the opening sequence. As the poison takes effect, her limbs are rendered useless and she discusses the symptoms with Gabrielle. The two wander off topic and begin discussing Gabrielle's pony:

Xena: Did you leave Tipany with your sister?
Gabrielle: No, actually he got very sick one day. I thought he would get better but that's just what happens with things you love. Sometimes they just leave you.

[06] The preferred reading of this dialogue would be that Gabrielle is just worried for her friend's health, but the oppositional reading is fed slightly by implying that the two are in love, and Gabrielle is afraid that her lover will die.

[07] A later scene, through the use of the gaze that the two share then adds to the meaning of this interaction. Gabrielle returns from battle triumphant and eager to tell Xena of her victory. She is then informed that the poison dart has taken hold of Xena, who is presumed dead. As she kneels by her bedside, she stares deeply into Xena's face looking for a sign, a glimmer of life[Note 02].

[08] Gabrielle's gaze can be interpreted in two ways: the preferred and the oppositional. The preferred reading would suggest that Gabrielle's gaze is one of worry and dismay at the death of her friend. However in this instance, the oppositional reading takes precedence over the preferred through the use of production techniques. As Gabrielle gazes intently at Xena, the camera adjusts to soft focus, and moody, melodic, almost romantic music accompanies the scene. This gives fuel to the argument that the two are lovers, as the shot suggests that the two women are in love and Gabrielle is staring intently at her lover, mourning her passing.

[09] This shot is unusual to a series that prides itself on the depiction of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship as a

"passionate love for each other...[that] does not necessarily mean sexual love" [Note 03],
as the hierarchy of meanings, which usually favors the preferred heterosexual reading over the lesbian subtext reverses. In this instance, the homosexual following is given evidence to support the argument that the two are lovers. Subsequently, the scene shows that readings can in fact coexist within a reading of XWP, by appeasing both heterosexual and homosexual audiences at one time.

[10] This underlying lesbian subtext remains subtle in the first season and only implies sexual activity between Xena and Gabrielle in ways that only a viewer searching for the subtext could find. Just as Xena's life is threatened in THE GREATER GOOD, the narrative of a later episode, IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE is driven by Gabrielle being fatally wounded in battle. Xena cradles her like a baby as she convulses and passes out. Xena proceeds to give her CPR, and when this fails, beats on her chest pleading for her friend to return. Gabrielle takes a breath and Xena pulls her closer, kissing her on the forehead twice.

[11] In this instance, there is little dialogue to suggest the existence of an oppositional reading; however Xena's desperation to bring Gabrielle back, in this instance shown through body language, can again be read in two distinct ways. Firstly, given the idea that Gabrielle is her sole companion, it is not unusual that Xena should grieve at her loss. The oppositional reading however would state that as in THE GREATER GOOD, the loss of a lover is being mourned. The evidence to suggest this could be the loving way that Xena cradles Gabrielle and the intent stare that she holds during the climactic part of the scene (as in the aforementioned episode.) Also, the perception that the kiss they share is a lover's kiss in a lover's embrace could also be viewed as containing a homosexual subtext. The existence of both these narratives can be read in the same instance, showing that a preferred and oppositional reading can coexist within a media text.

Self-tanning can be hell

Xena needs comfort

Effect of Internet Fandom

[12] This subtlety of meanings is forgotten in the latter seasons of XWP, due to the popularity of the lesbian subtext among the users of internet-based fan sites, dubbed the "Xenaverse" [Note 04]. It appears that once the lesbian following became a large part of the audience, the XWP writer's began to make the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle more inherently homosexual. The subtext's promotion from an oppositional to a more minor preferred meaning is clearly shown in the episode THE QUEST.

[13] In THE QUEST, Xena's body is inhabited by Autolycus, a male friend of Xena and Gabrielle. Xena figures out how to talk to Gabrielle using Autolycus, and their spirits wind up on some astral plane together. After stating that there was so much they 'wanted to say' whilst gazing into each other's eyes intently, the two women lean in as if to embrace[Note 05]. The audience is then confused by an array of editing and camera techniques, which conclude with a shot of Gabrielle and Autolycus kissing. The question remained among viewers: Was it Xena or Autolycus kissing Gabrielle?

[14] This was a clever move on the part of the writers, who had created a scene where the lines between the heterosexual and homosexual readings had blurred. The preferred reading states that the male influence of Autolycus was the reason for the kiss. However, the oppositional reading states that the closeness of the two women in the moments leading up to the kiss show that it was Xena and Gabrielle who both initiated the kiss and followed through with it. This returns to the idea that "if you want to see that you can, and if not, you do not have to" [Note 06]. The preferred and oppositional readings can coexist within XWP, and although in this case, interfere with each other, an audience can read the text in the way they want to, and subsequently ignore the other.

[15] The aforementioned scene from THE QUEST is one of many instances in the later seasons of XWP where the lines between preferred and oppositional are blurred. Two episodes later A DAY IN THE LIFE reopens the case for questioning Xena's sexual preference. The interaction with Hower and Minya, a married couple in a besieged town; the comments they make; and the gazes they use all further the "opposition" of the lesbian subtext. When asked if Xena thinks of marrying, Gabrielle replies that "settling down is [not] for Xena". Gabrielle then tells Xena of Hower's fascination with her in saying "the blue eyes, the leather...some guys just love leather" in a cheeky fashion.

[16] This dialogue alone can carry one of two meanings. The preferred, heterosexual reading would suggest that Gabrielle knows Xena very well and is right in saying that Xena could never settle down (and that men are actually fond of her leather suit). An oppositional homosexual reading would suggest that Gabrielle secretly wants Xena for herself and is warning off any possible male suitors. Following on from this is the sequence that has been dubbed by fans, the infamous "Hot tub scene" [Note 07]. The two women bathe together, wash each other, and discuss the day's events in a very intimate manner. The obvious preferred reading of this would be that in the mythical time that Xena is set, baths were rare, and people would conserve water by bathing together. However, the subtext is hard to ignore. Xena and Gabrielle engage in a water fight that can be read as very flirtatious. In a scene such as this, it is actually easier to come to the normally marginalized reading of Xena and Gabrielle as lovers who were sharing an intimate bath together[Note 08].

[17] However it is not the duty of a single viewer to ascertain the preferred reading of this scene. Instead, it will suffice to say that the scene itself has been deliberately structured to blur the lines of the preferred and oppositional readings, meaning they can coexist.

Mocking online fans? Moi?

Lucy Lawless plays an Obsessive Internet Fan

Blurred Reading

[18] The XWP series is a confusing text when studying possible preferred and oppositional readings. The diminishing dominance of the preferred, heterosexual meaning from the first series, and its replacement with a blurred sense of sexuality means that the idea of finding static dominant and aberrant readings is difficult. This difficulty arises from the malleability of the narrative, due to the wealth of public opinion readily available on the Internet.

[19] The views of fans on XWP websites are comprehensive and are consequently hard to ignore. Their love of the subtext was no doubt an advantage to the writers, who manipulated the narrative to incorporate the subtext as a "minor preferred" text. This results in the difficulty to select a dominant reading. XWP shows that despite common theory on preferred and oppositional reading, their need to be two distinct categories within a text is inherently wrong. In this case, writers can incorporate both meanings into a text without literally "losing the plot" or a large percentage of their audience in the process.

Subtext becomes maintext, and then they kill her

So, what's YOUR reading of this text?


Note 01:
Jones, Sara Gwenllian. "Histories fictions and Xena: Warrior Princess". The Audience Studies Reader. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. New York: Routledge, 2003.
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Note 02:
Silva, Anita Louise. "The kiss: Xena and Gabrielle". Whoosh! Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies #4 (December 1996). Site created by Kym Masera Taborn 1996
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Note 03:
R.J. Stewart in Rudnick, Bret Ryan. "An interview with RJ Stewart". Whoosh! Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies #9 (June 1997). Site created by Kym Masera Taborn 1996
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Note 04:
Jones, page 187.
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Note 05:
Sheldon, Suzanne. "Xena: Feminist Icon. To be or not to be? Lesbian subtext in Xena: Warrior Princess". Whoosh! Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies #9 (June 1997). Site created by Kym Masera Taborn 1996
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Note 06:
Stewart, page 2.
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Note 07:
Sheldon, paragraph 43
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Note 08:
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Jones, Sara Gwenllian. "Histories fictions and Xena: Warrior Princess". The Audience Studies Reader. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Rudnick, Bret Ryan. "An interview with RJ Stewart." Whoosh! Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies #9 (June 1997). Site created by Kym Masera Taborn 1996

Sheldon, Suzanne. "Xena: Feminist Icon. To be or not to be? Lesbian subtext in Xena: Warrior Princess." Whoosh! Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies #9 (June 1997). Site created by Kym Masera Taborn 1996

Silva, Anita Louise. "The Kiss: Xena and Gabrielle." Whoosh! Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies #4 (December 1996). Site created by Kym Masera Taborn 1996

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the author Hannah Jennings-Voykovich
A woman of mystery.



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