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Princess of the Xeitgeist. All Hail Xena, Warrior Princess, Whose Power and (yes, Ambiguous) Sexuality have Boys and Girls of all Ages Simply Swooning

Posted 01-12-99

Los Angeles Times
By "Calendar", page 9
Photo: "GRRRL POWER: Lucy Lawless and sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor)"

Major article on the XENA phenom, and it mentions WHOOSH, and gives our old url.


   Growing up in the '50s, I longed to be a swashbuckling adventurer like my
favorite movie heroes. The problem was back then women didn't get to buckle any
swashes. So I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be Errol Flynn or marry him.

   Now the choice is clear. I want to be Xena, Warrior Princess--though in a
pinch I'd settle for her comely blond sidekick, Gabrielle. Xena kicks butt.
Literally. She also fights with swords, staffs, knives, crossbows and any other
weapon that may come to hand, including a frying pan. She's capable of defeating
a minimum of three or four guys at once without breaking a sweat. Only when
she's truly in a tight corner does she resort to her special weapon: a
razor-sharp circular metal boomerang known as a chakram.

   If things get really tough, she can always employ the Xena Touch, a close
cousin of Mr. Spock's famous Vulcan nerve pinch, which gives her victim 60
seconds to submit or die. Xena also walks up walls and does a double flip onto
the back of her horse, Argo, from a standing start. And, oh, yes, when she feels
like it she breathes fire. Plus she gets to run around in a sexy leather
bustier-and-miniskirt outfit that looks like something Jean-Paul Gaultier might
have dreamed up for the World Wrestling Federation.  

   Of course, Xena is on the side of good, defending those weaker than
herself--and isn't everyone?--against tyranny and oppression. But she has a dark
past: Xena was once a merciless killer bent on wreaking destruction on anyone
who crossed her path. The old, bloodthirsty Xena has a way of surfacing in
satisfying flashbacks.

   In case you don't live with a school-age child, didn't attend the West
Hollywood Halloween parade or missed her on the cover of TV Guide, you should
know that Xena (pronounced "Zee-na") is the eponymous star of a syndicated
series for Universal Television, produced by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, creators
of "Darkman," "The Evil Dead" and "The Evil Dead II."

   Raimi and Tapert also produce the syndicated TV series "Hercules: The
Legendary Journeys." Xena, portrayed by New Zealand's Lucy Lawless, started out
as the adversary and ultimately the ally and lover of Hercules, portrayed by
Kevin Sorbo. In short order, she spun off into her own series. Both shows have
been renewed through 2000 by stations covering 70% of the United States. They
are seen in more than 50 other countries. At present, they are both more popular
in syndication than any of the "Star Trek" derivatives, though "Xena," as the
highest-rated drama in national syndication, has a slight edge over "Hercules."

   If you don't already know that this is Xena's world and we just live in it,
consider the following:

   An animated feature, "Hercules and Xena: The Battle for Mount Olympus," is
soon to be released by Universal Home Video. At Universal Studios in Orlando,
Fla., a popular new "interactive experience" is "Hercules and Xena: Wizards of
the Screen," in which selected audience members dress up in costume and play
roles right alongside Hercules and Xena through the magic of computer graphic
imaging. Costumed "walk-around" Hercules and Xena characters roam the Universal
Studios tourist attractions in Los Angeles and Florida. And thanks to special
training, the Xena impersonators are fully certified in the Xena battle cry, a
series of ululating yips that I personally would love to be able to duplicate.

   Xena's many Web sites include "Whoosh: Journal of the International
Association of Xena Studies" (http://www.thirdstory.com/whoosh/), named for the
sound Xena's chakram makes flying through the air. Using your official Xena
mouse pad, you can unearth such musings as a list of the similarities between
Xena and another beloved female character, Mary Poppins: "Both have a compulsion
to carry something pointy--Mary never goes anywhere without her umbrella; Xena
never goes anywhere without her sword."

   So far, an official replica of Xena's sword is not available, but plenty of
other merchandise is. Universal's marketing division has licensed Hercules and
Xena action figures, buttons, magnets, stickers, novelty clocks, watches, key
chains, balloons, candles, wax figurines, costumes, books, video games,
postcards, posters, trading cards, calendars, stationery, bank checks and
checkbook covers, jewelry, Christmas ornaments, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats,
jackets, nightshirts, mugs, glassware and temporary tattoos. I have a particular
yen for the "Chak-pin," a pin in the shape of Xena's chakram that looks
suspiciously like what in my day was known as a "virgin pin." This one clearly
has a whole 'nother meaning.

   You can order most of this merchandise by mail or acquire it in person at the
Hercules and Xena conventions organized by Creation Entertainment, which also
maintains official Hercules and Xena fan clubs and newsletters. At the first
convention, held in January in Burbank, hundreds of dedicated fans stood in the
rain in the hope of gaining admittance to the sold-out event. The lucky ones
lined up again as Lawless, Sorbo and the other stars signed nearly 2,000
autographs for two solid hours. Xena's prop chakram was auctioned off for
charity at $ 8,500--the highest bid on record for any item from any of the
company's thousand-plus previous conventions. The second annual Burbank
convention is scheduled for Jan. 17-18. Xena is going to be there in person the
second day--and so am I!

   Even though some disbelievers ask, "How can you watch that silly show?" I
don't have to feel too guilty about listing "Xena" as one of my guilty
pleasures. I know I'm not alone. Roseanne has fantasized on air about being
Xena. On "Ellen," Ellen herself uses "Xena" as her self-defense power word. In
"Men Behaving Badly," the two leads were watching "Xena" and one of them said,
"How can you forget a woman who can crush a Cyclops head between her thighs?"

   Women like Xena because she's strong, sexy, powerful and doesn't depend on a
man to solve her problems. Men like Xena because . . . well, as one man who has
been known to behave badly in real life said to me, "She's got an incredible
rack on her."

   There's further proof that "Xena" has become irreversibly part of the '90s
zeitgeist. Former Paramount executive Dawn Steel said that she knew her
marketing campaign for the first "Star Trek" feature was successful when she saw
a cartoon in the New Yorker captioned, "Star Trek: The Ashtray." By that
standard, Xena has arrived. The Nov. 17 issue of the New Yorker featured a
cartoon by Lee Lorenz showing two businesswomen of a certain age shaking hands
with adversarial hauteur, while a co-worker comments, "Here we go--Xena, Warrior
Princess, versus Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."

   How to explain the "Xena" phenomenon? "It turned out to be the right time for
a tough female superhero," says producer Tapert, reached by phone at the
Auckland, New Zealand, location where both series are filmed. "And we saw right
away that Lucy was a star." As for Tapert, Lawless has this to say about him:
"Hubba-hubba-hubba!" She cited him in People magazine as one of the sexiest men
alive. He also happens to be her fiance.

   But it's the on-screen liaison between Xena and Gabrielle, played by American
actress Renee O'Connor, that grabs the attention of many Xenaphiles. For
instance, there's the whole kiss thing. In "The Quest," an episode originally
aired in January, Xena and Gabrielle kissed (although Xena was dead at the time
and inhabiting a man's body--don't ask). And in a recent episode, they declared
their love for each other in so many words. Their attraction, needless to say,
has proved attractive to a lesbian audience. One unofficial "Xena" Web page is
designed specifically for lesbian fans.

   People connected with the series take an attitude toward their burgeoning
lesbian demographic that might best be described as cautiously welcoming. When
pressed--are they or aren't they?--Tapert will say only that "it's a
relationship about love--Xena and Gabrielle are the best of friends and, yes,
they do love each other." However, he "wouldn't rule out Gabrielle having
romantic feelings for another woman, other than Xena, later on in the series."

   More startlingly--at least to me--Tapert also reveals that Xena is "most
likely from Bulgaria" and that Lawless herself, despite her shining ebony mane,
is not a natural brunet. "When she was cast, she'd already been in an episode of
'Hercules' as the girlfriend of a centaur, and she had red hair. So we dyed her
hair black."

   Actually, Xena and Gabrielle seem to have more in common with Laverne and
Shirley than Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Gabrielle is the Shirley-ish
Girl Scout, while Xena is definitely Laverne. In an episode in which she was
driven temporarily insane by the Furies, she acted like all Three Stooges at
once. Even crazy, she still succeeded in defeating all comers, including a
blow-dry "Baywatch"-muscled version of Ares the God of War, who may be her real
father but probably isn't.

   Fans have a name for this world: They call it the Xenaverse. It's a place
where anything can happen and anyone can show up at any time: Julius Caesar,
Cleopatra, Laotzu and the real power behind his throne, his wife, Laoma, who, it
turns out, actually wrote all his teachings. A recent two-parter, "The Debt,"
borrowed from "Apocalypse Now," "The Naked Prey" (starring Cornel Wilde) and the
old "Kung Fu" series with David Carradine. And those are just the influences I

   Not to be outdone, "Hercules" recently featured an episode that was a homage
to the film "Strictly Ballroom," with Hercules' sidekick, Iolaus, played by
Michael Hurst, in drag as the traditional English pantomime character the Widow
Twanky. Hercules ends up literally dancing his enemies off their feet. You've
heard of "kitchen sink drama"? This is "everything but the kitchen sink drama."

   Asked who is his ideal audience, Tapert says simply, "Me." If that's true,
then the kind of show he likes is a lot like the make-believe dress-up games I
used to play with my sister way back when. We had our own special word for our
flights of fancy: "dramantic," a cross between "dramatic" and "romantic."

   "Xena" is extremely dramantic. That's the nutty charm of it. The formula is
fairly basic. No one speaks "forsoothly," as we used to call it. In fact, most
scripts aren't dialogue-heavy. There's plenty of action and swordplay, sometimes
on horseback. But the girls get to do it all. There's even a female villain, the
evil goddess Callisto, played with obvious relish by Hudson Leick.

   How can you not love a show in which sexy Amazons in quasi-aboriginal masks
and midriff-revealing outfits perform a dance number that looks as though it had
been choreographed for Rita Hayworth by Hermes Pan channeling the ghost of
Isadora Duncan? The evil Amazon queen is named Velasca, which sounds vaguely
like a brand of hot sauce.

   I'm not making this up, but somebody is, and all I can say is, my hat's off
to them.

   Forget the Spice Girls. This is true "Girl Power" in action. If I were 8
years old, you wouldn't be able to get me away from the TV set. Battle on,
Xena! You're every young girl's dream of an action hero, and we need you.

   "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" air Saturdays
at 8 and 9 p.m., respectively, on KTLA-TV Channel 5.

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