Xena - Lesbian Icon or Big Tease

FAZE Magazine
Jan-Feb 1998

Lesbian Icon or Big Tease? by Christi Keith
(pic of Xena, smiling and small promo pic of Xena almost kissing Miss Artiphyce)

It's no secret that the television show Xena: Warrior Princess has a lot of lesbian fans. The show's producers know it and talk show hosts from David Letterman to Howard Stern know it. The stars, Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor, get asked about it in nearly every interview, and Lawless herself mentions it without being asked. But with all the sizzle, is there any steak? Are Xena and Gabrielle Sapphic Sisters, or just good friends? And does it matter? If you've been living under a media rock for the last two years, the basic premise is this: a powerful and evil warrior princess is reborn as a defender of justice after an encounter with Hercules (as played by Kevin Sorbo on the show of the same name), who shows her the error of her ways. She now roams the countryside with her sidekick, the bard Gabrielle, a fiesty little strawberry blonde with a killer set of abs, seeking to protect the innocent and atone for her evil past. Xena: Warrior Princess is the top-rated show in syndication, beating out it's parent show, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, and all Star Trek shows (long the champions of syndication).

Fans And 'Phobes

Xena and Gabrielle love each other, and have acknowledged it many times. Xena fans have hotly debated the nature of that love all over the internet, and the fight's not pretty. One participant in an online Xena forum said, "I was just wondering why, when a majority (not all) of people see two people who are intimate mentally, (they) always find it necessary to turn it into something sexual? I really don't understand it. To meit seems sad that two people can't share an intimate friendship, and be totally open and honest with each other, without others thinking there's something sexual going on."

Snorted a fan with a different viewpoint, "I think people who deny subtext are choosing not to see it. Either that or they have incredibly intense relationships with their best friends, much more so than I ever did." Variations on that exchange, many of them far less polite, appear with mind- numbing frequency on the mainstream Xena internet sites, message boards, newsgroups and e-mail discussion lists. They usually set off ugly flame-wars, with the lesbian "subtext-friendly" fans fighting tooth and nail with those who swear the subtext doesn't exsist except in fevered lesbian imaginations. The battle got so heated that several subtext-friendly forums were created, including the Usenet newsgroup alt.tvxena-subtext, OnQ'sQueer Xena Chat on America Online, the Xena Campfire Girls e-mail discussion list, and the web- based Museum of Subtext.
"Why did I create the Museum of Subtext?" writes the site's creator. "Because I am tired of hearing the mental gymnastics created and executed by the 'phobes on other Xena lists. So I figured I would take a little proof and lay it at their feet...just to see how many of them can slide an "S" curve without bending their backs. What's my point? Love is love--get over it!"

The Xena Campfire Girls feel the same way. Their web page proudly proclaims their list to be "subtext--friendly," and one of the list owners says as far as those who don't believe in subtext go, "That's fine. We aren't going to hunt you down and beat you or anything. You're entitled to your opinion. I wouldn't recommend you joining the list, however."

Subtext, Subtext, Who's Got the Subtext?

Renee O'Connor, who plays Gabrielle, said in a 1997 People interview, "The more lesbians started watching, and the more feedback we received from them, our characters strated to develop a little more intimately. We have to keep it a family show, but the subtext is there." The family show thing might not fly too much longer, with the demonic rape, incest, madness, and murder dominating the third season of the most popular show in syndication, and O'Connor, while still evasive, was a little more forthright at a recent Xena convention in San Francisco. "I can't guarantee anything, " she said when asked if Xena and Gabrielle will ever come out as a lesbian couple. "You never know what to expect in Xena-land...the innuendo is mostly between Lucy and me. We read the script, and look at each other and just do it."

"I don't see it that way," said one upset fan at the convention. "I see them as sisters, not that OTHER way. People never look at Hercules and Iolaus and say they have that kind of relationship. It's a double-standard."

O'Connor looked uncomfortable, but didn't respond. (the unhappy fan had clearly missed an earlier segment with Michael Hurst, who plays Iolaus; he premiered a clip of a recent episode in which he preformed a musical number in drag and drooled over Hercules).

A twelve year old girl dressed as Gabrielle at the San Francisco convention said, "If Gabby and Xena are girlfriends, they should just say it. I like the how because of the stories and to see them fight, and either way it doesn't matter to me." She shyly asked not to give her name, but her aunt, who brought her to the convention, said, "I'm a lesbian,and this show is part of
what's brought (my niece) and I closer together. Her mom and dad know why I like the show, and they thought it was great I wanted to bring her today."

The show's lesbian producer, Liz Friedman, addressed the issue directly. "the most important thing for me, as a queer," she said at the Xena convention, is they don't run around saying "They're straight, they're straight. So don't worry, " she told the show's legion of lkesbian fans, "we are not disavowing the possiblity (of a lesbian relationship between Xean and Gabrielle). We're not shying away from intamacy; we're leaving the door open."

Subtext 101

Ultimately, debates over subtext, affirming quotes from production insiders, and the stars in the eyes of lesbians fans have to face the reality of the show itself. What, pray tell, does subtext look like? It looks like the tender, full-mouth kiss Xena lays on Gabrielle in "The Quest." It looks like them sleeping in each others arms in "Been There, Done That." It looks like the famous underwater kiss of life between Xena and her beautiful mentoi, Lao Ma, in "The Debt." It looks like the hickey on Xena's
neck in "Been There Done That" and the guilty look on Gabrielle's face when Joxer asks where Xena got it.
Subtext is in the eye of the beholder, though; homophobic Xena fans insist this is all nonsense. Seems some people would rather believe anything but that Gabrielle was sucking on Xena's neck the night before.

The Big Tease

Are the show's stars, producers, and writers just playing with their lesbian fans? Yes and no. There is no question that by and large, Xena's lesbian fans are treated with a great deal of respect in all public forums. Lawless has done public appearances in lesbian venues, spontaneously mentions the show's lesbian fans in interviews, and shrugs off implications that this might
harm her career or her popularity. Not even executive producer Rob Tapert, engaged to Lawless, will say a word against the icon status his fiancee has attained among dykes. He told Ms. magazine that the show "has become a favorite with gay women...Early on, the studio came down on me, because they wanted to make sure no one perceived Xena and Gabrielle as lesbians."

"He doesn't seem to be trying very hard to accede to their demands," comments interviewer Donna Minkowitz dryly.

"All I can say about that (subtext)," Tapert told Knight-Ridder writer Jennifer Weiner, "is that Gabrielle satisfies her every whim"
However, there's also no question that all overt sexual and love relationships for the stars on the show are with men. The great love of Xena's life is the dead Marcus; she falls head-over-heels (and remarkably unconvincingly) for Ulysses; her past lovers include Hercules and Caesar. Gabrielle attracts a string of male admirers, one of whom she marries. Unfortunately, he is murdered on their wedding night by Xena's great enemy, Callisto. (In fact, all of Gabrille's male love interests die, something that has become a standing joke on the show.)

"And That I Loved Her..."

In the end, it may be that the love between Xena and Gabrielle will never speak its name. On the other hand, maybe it will. Since no one will rule anything out, and so far as the Religious Right hasn't seemed interested in the show (though we can't wait for FAZE to end up on the 700 Club), who knows what future episodes will bring? Advertisers haven't seemed to mind the subtext, as long as it's not too overt (although Friedman says one got a bit shaky over a Centaur cesarean delivery), so there's really no pressure on the producers to pander to the most homophobic common denominator. Do Xena and Gabrielle love each other? Absolutely. When Xena temporarily dies in "The Quest/Destiny" two parter. Gabrielle eulogizes her at length,
concluding by wishing she could tell Xena how much she meant to her, "and that I loved her." Even Xena has thawed her butchness a time or two and murmured the words "I love you, Gabrielle," usually in moments of great crisis.

The Future of the Xenaverse

What does the future hold for Xena? Some dark themes have emerged this year, and a much-publicized rift between the two heroines is making the show's fans nervous. O'Connor said, "Don't worry, the reunion will make the rift worth it," but Friedman deadpanned, "How do you know there'll be a reunion?" Tapert went so far as to say that Gabrielle's affections might stray to another woman in the near future, and rumor has it that Gabrielle's half-demon daughter Hope ends up being raised by the bitch goddess Callisto, and killing someone near and dear to Xena. All this on top of revenge, insanity, rape, assisination,
and betrayal. Welcome to Season Three in the Xenaverse; did someone mention love?

(three other pics--Xena looking up; promo X&G; promo Gab).


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