Claire Regnault, Senior Curator New Zealand Culture and History, talks about the legacy of Xena: Warrior Princess and a new exhibition in Christchurch, We Could Be Heroes: The gods and heroes of the ancient Greeks and Romans, where her costume is currently starring until Oct 2017.
In 1995 a new heroine, tormented by a dark past and searching for redemption, flashed across our TV screens. She was Xena: Warrior Princess.
Xena began her screen life as bit-part in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. But it quickly became clear that Xena had enough charisma and narrative scope to star in her own show.
Developed by the American company Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Xena: Warrior Princess was filmed in Auckland and starred Lucy Lawless in the title role.
Of Xena’s character, the curators of We Could Be Heroes, Penny Minchin-Garvin and Terri Elderthe, write:
‘Set in ancient Greece, the plot drew on classical mythology and featured many gods and heroes from Greek and Roman traditions. Accompanied by her sidekick Gabrielle, Xena travelled the world destroying tyrants and monsters in an attempt to find atonement for her own bloody past. Possibly the offspring of a divine parent (Ares, god of war), Xena is in many respects like the heroes of ancient myth, but she is different in one fundamentally important way: she is a woman.
‘In Greek and Roman mythology, heroines were mothers, faithful wives or maidens awaiting rescue. They supported and encouraged the male hero but did not actively influence events. For contemporary audiences, however, Xena is an embodiment of an important change in western cultures, encapsulating the move towards equality between the sexes. Here is a powerful woman who, despite her faults, achieves great things in the defence of her community. Just like male heroes in contemporary comics and movies, Xena is a new spin on an ancient hero.’
Xena did indeed capture the public’s imagination, providing an alternative female role model to the passive female characters so often trotted out on screen.
In the below episode of Tales from Te Papa, Anna Greaves, a former Te Papa staffer and committed ‘Xenite’, discusses Xena a symbol of female friendship, strength, competence.
She also provides an insight into just why Xena appears to have such large feet – all the better for kicking butt with yes, but there is a bit more to it.
When Xena: Warrior Princess came to a close in 2001, the producers kindly gifted Xena’s signature costume to Te Papa, along with that worn by her side-kick, Gabrielle.
Xena’s costume was initially designed by Barbara Darragh, then reworked by Ngila Dickson. The weapons and other props were designed by Robert Gillies. Nglia Dickson has subsequently gone on to dress numerous heroes for the screen, including Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hal Jordon aka ‘The Green Lantern’ (2011), and Matilda from Mr Pip (2013).
The curators have positioned Xena’s costume in the ‘Monsters and Anti-heroes’ section of the exhibition. She is amongst some staunch female company, including an Amazon in the midst of battle (below).
In Greek mythology, the Amazons are a race of warrior women. In the 1940s, the myth gave rise to the comic book character Wonder Woman, who is currently gracing the big screen – and as Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) works as a curator of ancient weapons at the Lourve in Paris! – and certainly influenced the creation of Xena.
Girl power – the Amazons
As symbols of female empowerment, the Amazons have inspired generations of women.
In Te Papa’s collection, we have two uniforms named after mythological race – an ‘Amazon Corps’ uniform worn by a member of the Wellington Ladies’ Khaki Corps in 1901 (below) – the group was also known as ‘the Amazons’ – and a 1970s uniform worn by a member of the Amazons lesbian softball team.
Was there really a tribe of Amazons? Read Amanda Foreman’s article in the Smithsonian magazine.