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"Xena-mania: Why is TV's warrior princess a hit with women?"

MS Magazine

July/August 1996 Issue
Cover Story

Transcribed by Glaurung
 

Photo: the layout department at Ms. got ahold of onepublicity photo, of Xena, sword in hand, shouting her battle
cry, glaring right at the camera. Then they went a little crazy, using the SAME photo on the cover and FOUR times in
the article, in different sizes and at different angles.

Title: "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong--and Popular"

Author: Donna Minkowitz [Go Donna!]

A six-foot-tall woman dressed like a warrior walks into an ancient " bar" filled with men. When one pats her ass, she knocks him across the room. After that, every man in the bar is polite to her and her woman companion.

Three children stare gratefully at the fighter who has saved their village from an invading army. "Did you see the way she finished off those guys?" one boy chirps. "Zing! Pow!"

In successive weeks, a mortal woman rescues Prometheus, defeats the war god Ares, enters the underworld, and returns
from it. In between, she saves poor farmers from enslavement and defends women from a roving band of rapists. "You like
shoving women around so much?" she says to one. "Try me!"

***

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--or if she did, she was a one-episode fluke, and her anomalous presence could reassure viewers
that next week all the regular women characters would be back, nervous and self-questioning as ever.

Until now. Each week since September 1995, Xena: Warrior Princess has begun with these words: "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." The grim warrior, played by Lucy Lawless, wanders through the ancient world, protecting the powerless--chiefly women, children, and poor people. Xena, an "ancient Greek" hero invented out of whole cloth by the series' producers, doesn't apologize for being a better fighter than almost every man on earth. And she doesn't smile at men unless she really, really likes them--which is seldom.

Xena is a spinoff of the popular Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, itself a feminist and progressive retelling of Greek myth. But its female protagonist was initially conceived as an evil figure. Executive producer Rob Tapert says he based Xena on the "evil warrior princesses" portrayed by Hong Kong cult film star Lin Ching Hsia in movies like 'The Bride with White Hair' and 'The Swordsman' II and III.

When Xena first appeared as a guest character on Hercules, she pillaged the countryside at the head of a rapacious army and murdered thousands. She delighted only in profit and cruelty. Xena, who came from a family of farmers like the ones whose homes she burned, was eventually called "princess" because she was such a powerful warlord.

MCA TV, the studio to which Tapert proposed the spinoff, and which now syndicates the show, was not pleased with the character's image. "The studio said, 'Can you get her turned around so that she's good?'" Tapert remembers. "I said, 'I guess, but it won't be as much fun.'" After initial misgivings, I, for one, am glad about the change. Xena's writers have used their hero's evolution as the backdrop for a sophisticated discussion of morality. Xena isn't good because of innate virtue. She has genuinely struggled with questions of ethics and has finally chosen to act or 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. In one episode, after a prolonged period of imprisonment and beatings, Xena slugs her best friend, Gabrielle. The punch is presented as stemming from the imperfections that are a part of us all--even feminist superheroes.

In just one season, Xena has become the most successful new action series in syndication, and has ranked as high as
number 11 overall, beating out Baywatch and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Many local station masters initially refused to
air the show because "they thought no one would want to see a woman hitting men," says executive producer Tapert, "but they were wrong." Tapert and coexecutive producer Sam Raimi had built their careers with male fantasy thrillers and cult movies like Darkman, but Tapert was eager to try his hand at a fantasy story with a female hero. "I believe, in the
basest and crassest of ways, that there's a formula to stories about heroes," Tapert says, "and no one had ever tried to do it before with a woman hero. Or if they did, they made excuses for her being a woman."

Fighting men and refusing to smile aren't the only ways that Xena breaks the rules. There's also sex:

<> The warrior princess doesn't have a boyfriend. Xena has taken a number of male lovers, including, on occasion,
Hercules, but never settled down with any of them. "That will never happen," promises Tapert.

<> Xena is one of the first white women in TV history to passionately kiss a black man onscreen. Several times, in
fact. She was in love with this character, a warrior named Marcus, who reappeared in several episodes.

<> In our interview, Tapert spontaneously brings up the possibility that Xena also has love relationships with women. "People ask me frequently about Xena's sexual orientation," he informs me, "especially about her relationship with Gabrielle. I tell them that she has had a string of lovers in her life and that now she is trying to get control of her emotions." It's hard to imagine a more ambiguous statement, but it's certainly not an utter denial. Indeed, Tapert proudly tells me that the show "has become a favorite with gay women" and that some lesbian bars have special Xena viewing nights. (So do a number of women's prisons.) "Early on, the studio came down on me, because they wanted to make sure no one perceived Xena and Gabrielle as lesbians," the producer says. He doesn't seem to be trying very hard to accede to their demands.

On the show's Web site, male and female viewers allude supportively to Xena's perceived sexual relationship with
Gabrielle, whom Xena rescued from a forced marriage in the opening episode. Ever since then, the pair have been
inseparable. Gabrielle, a girlish storyteller with lots of pluck but not much combat skill, functions as a feminine foil for her kick boxing friend. (As the season has progressed, Gabrielle has gradually learned how to defend herself under Xena's tutelage. In the season's final episode, Gabrielle led the people of her home village in a successful stand against an imperialist army.)

The Xena-Gabrielle friendship is a deeply committed one. The women risk their lives for each other, refuse to leave each other for men, even work on "issues" in their relationship, such as Xena's reluctance to include Gabrielle in situations that might become dangerous. Despite the innuendo, the two women are never overtly sexual with each other, as they are with men (although Gabrielle, fascinatingly, is a virgin, a status depicted as neither superior nor inferior to Xena's status as sexually active). If they are lovers, it is mostly in the covert Batman and Robin way.

Whether Xena is gay or straight is ultimately beside the point--but it is disturbing that in a show set in ancient Greece, not one of the characters has an identifiable gay or lesbian relationship. "I've proposed that to the writing staff, but I have to tread very carefully," Tapert says. "We don't want to alienate people. We don't want to alienate kids."

While Xena is breaking new ground in its treatment of sex, it doesn't ignore the old standby of adventure films--violence. But even here, there's a progressive gloss on the mayhem. Unlike some feminist fantasy figures--say, Hothead Paisan--the warrior princess and her sometime costar Hercules never attack out of vengeance. They nurse their enemies' wounds after a battle. And they kill only to defend themselves.

Still, Xena isn't primarily a political vehicle, but a delightfully cheesy schlock drama that often looks like Spartacus, American Gladiators, and Mad Max rolled into one. It wouldn't he entirely truthful to say that the show doesn't romanticize violence. Half its thrill comes from the blows our hero administers to exploiters and rapists. So much time and love are devoted to the combat scenes that we might as well see the ecstatic Pow! and Zap! titles they used on the sixties Batman TV series. It's probably impossible to completely separate fantasies of ethical resistance from fantasies of breaking heads and making people crawl. But for what it's worth, Xena and her creators try hard to do just that.

All these surprises, plus the campy story lines, add up to a program that is extremely popular with young adults of
both sexes. According to Tapert, Xena's most faithful viewers are women and men ages 18 to 34. That's almost
identical to Hercules' demographics, except the strongman pulls in more kids. "Hercules has a much bigger audience
among girls and boys ages four to six, the toy-buying demographic," Tapert says. "Xena's audience is older and
probably a little hipper." Tapert will not speculate as to why this is. Are little boys unwilling to watch a woman
warrior? The conventional wisdom among producers of children's television is that boys won't watch shows with
female leads, but girls will watch shows with female or male leads. If that's right, why aren't girls watching Xena by
themselves? Is it possible that parents object to Xena's feminist content?

Though they apparently aren't watching the show enough to make a dent in the demographics, young girls do write fan
letters by the hundreds to Lucy Lawless. "I'm thrilled," she tells me in a phone interview from her native Auckland, New
Zealand. "They write about how encouraging it is to see someone who's so strong. Mostly very young girls. I have all
these photos of little girls with Xena costumes on." Tapert says Lawless got a letter from a pair of five- and
six-year-old sisters who refused to use their proper names. "They just wanted to be called Xena."

But Lawless seems defensive when asked if she thinks Xena is a feminist show. "No, I don't! Well . . . yes, it
is. But it is not anti-men! I suppose it could be called feminist in that it's about women who do not see themselves
as at all limited by their femininity. Personally, I never believed in glass ceilings or in being handicapped because
of being a woman, but if women draw strength from the show, that could be called feminism. Though we're not male-bashing in any way!"

Lawless says she is not a feminist, though she does allow that "feminists might identify with me because I'm
unapologetic in what they think is a male-dominated world . . . no, I guess, what is a male-dominated world, but
in my microcosm [New Zealand, women are not disadvantaged, except by their own fear." Lawless says that as a child she never longed to see a woman superhero like Xena, because "I never saw it lacking from my life." Good thing she's a good actor.

Lawless also differs from Xena in her approach to athletics: she's not in the least delighted with the physical training she's had to endure for the role. "I've been trained and bullied into some level of proficiency. When I started, my coordination was hopeless." In fact, her grueling schedule of weight training gave her a back injury, Lawless says. As for her costume, a sort of sleeveless leather-breastplated jumpsuit that, nicely enough, doesn't emphasize her breasts, Lawless describes it as "hellish to wear." In Auckland, where the series is filmed, "in winter it's utter cold, and you're running along some cliff with the wind whipping at you, in this costume that leaves your lungs bare, and it's tight. Being in constant discomfort
can make you cry, especially if you're doing bloody kung fu."

I suppose a worker-friendly environment and a politicized star would be too much to ask from a show that has already favorably portrayed the Amazons (Gabrielle became an honorary Amazon after a mysterious bonding ceremony with the Amazon Queen) and created a feminist ending for The lliad (Xena to Helen of Troy: "What do you want to do?" Helen: "No one's ever asked me that before!").

Sex appeal is surely another reason that people watch the show. "Everything about the show is sexy," Lawless offers, "because it has this energy--charisma, self- confidence. We want to take people out of the humdrum." But a friend of mine took one look at Xena's long legs and tight leather breastplate and decided that the warrior princess was just another R. Crumb drawing in the guise of a feminist hero.

Is Xena sexually objectified by the show? If so, does it matter? The answer probably depends on your definition of objectification. On the Internet, Tapert says, there are arguments between men and women as to whose hero Xena is:
"whether she's a hero for women, or a hero and a sex symbol for men."

Although having men treat a feminist hero as a sex object might make many of us uncomfortable, I can remember
only one occasion on which Xena's sex appeal was depicted offensively--a commercial for the show in which a male
character stared up at the warrior and sighed, "Those boots! That leather! Those legs!" It's worth noting that Hercules'
star, Kevin Sorbo, displays his body just as much as Lawless does. "We've gotten a lot of feedback, from both straights
and gays, that people really like it when Kevin takes his shirt off," Tapert says. It's important to consider, too, that men who are Xena fans may be motivated by factors other than sex appeal. Many women fans somehow manage to bring
together an appreciation for Xena's feminism with an appreciation for her body. Why is it so difficult to imagine men doing the same?

Finally, if straight men find Xena erotic, it may be a sign that their eroticism is changing. Both Hercules and Xena make occasional, coded references to women dominating men sexually ("You're cute when you're nervous," Atalanta, Greek mythology's powerful runner, told Hercules in one episode, lifting the blushing hero high in the air). Then again, some men who watch the show may simply be excited by a woman who refuses to be subservient. Or by a woman of tremendous physical strength and courage. "She doesn't fall into this svelte, silicone image," Tapert says. "She's a big woman with big shoulders, big hiphones, and big thighs."

And a bloodcurdling battle cry.

[Blurb]
Donna Minkowitz is writing a book about the religious right and the gay movement for the Free Press.

 


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