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Fans of 'Xena' have fomented a cultlike passion for TV's most ferocious and fetching heroine. But is their devotion enough to cut a swath for future female action stars?
By Mike Flaherty
In a time of pop-savvy adolescent couch potatoes, urbane camp addicts, and postfeminist professionals, a land in turmoil cried out for a heroine: She was Xena, a mighty princess, forged in the heat of prime-time syndication.
Striding through the TV landscape in truly mythic fashion, our heroine has dealt a decisive blow to her competition in record time. Midway through its second season, the Universal Television fantasy-adventure series Xena: Warrior Princess (check your local listings) regularly beats syndication champs Baywatch and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, not to mention the sibling lead-in from which it was spun off, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Earlier this year, the show even won its Saturday prime-time slot against network competition in New York and L.A.
Xena's weapons? A snarky, kitchen-sink warping of one of TV's most notoriously formulaic genres---the superhero odyssey. And the introduction of a lead character (played by Lucy Lawless) who has single-handedly upped the ante on women's place on television. As Xena, the Amazonian Lawless traverses the known world--with faithful sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) in tow--defending the defenseless, righting wrongs, and vanquishing anyone who gets in her way. Each episode affords a plethora of ass-kicking opportunities, in giddily absurd, hyperkinetic action sequences equally reminiscent of Jackie Chan and TV's Batman: See Xena vanquish foes with her trusty chakram, a razor-sharp metal circlet she hurls with ludicrous accuracy and force! See Xena vault into multiple midair somersaults! Hear Xena's "Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" battle cry, a bansheelike wail her fans avidly ape!
Lately, those fans have become legion. Like Star Trek and The X-Files before it, Xena is speeding toward that most oxymoronic of distinctions, mainstream cultdom. Evidence includes the first official convention (in Burbank, in January), numerous Xena-fests (organized by fans), Xena-themed apparel, trading cards, fanzines, action figures, CD-ROMs, and a Web presence of more than 60 sites and counting. Perhaps more indicative of Xena's pop-culture infiltration are the increasing homages on network television: Both Roseanne and Something So Right have featured Xena doppelgangers.
What separates Xena from its cult predecessors is its ability to reach a variety of rabid audience segments on totally different levels. There's something--and something quite different--for everyone. For the married-with-children set, the show offers nearly bloodless action and a morality tale in which good triumphs over evil. Feminists like Dana Eskenazi, a 37-year-old schoolteacher from New York, see a take-no-crap grrrl breathing fresh air into an estrogen-deprived genre. "There hasn't been a female TV character who is totally independent of a male figure in her life," says Eskenazi. "This is a woman who can fight--and beat--men, who walks the world like so many male adventurers have."
And Xena's invasion of a staunchly male domain, by the way, doesn't offend straight guys. Hardly: "What's not to like? The show is a scream. Xena's a total babe. Not only that, she's a babe who likes other babes...it's a babe-fest," says 20-year-old George, an online devotee. "I watch her in action and think, 'Wow, she could kick my a--,' and I kind of dig that." Gay females, ironically, are hooked for much the same reasons.
At Meow Mix, a New York nightspot, all eyes are glued to the TV screen over the bar, where Xena is about to plant The Kiss. As she leans in and locks lips with those of Gabrielle, her fresh-faced charge, the distaff horde packing the bar erupts in a cacophony of whoops and whistles. A few rapturous seconds later, Gabrielle opens her eyes only to find she's not been kissed by Xena at all but by a man--albeit a man carrying Xena's soul in his body. Disappointed moans erupt at this typically tantalizing sleight of hand--followed, seconds later, by a full-throated cry of "Rewind!"
A fixture of Gotham's downtown lesbian scene, Meow Mix has also become a sort of pulse point for the burgeoning cult. Once a month the club presents Xena Night, featuring a screening of--and Rocky Horror-esque interaction with--three episodes, followed by a toy-sword fight in honor of the warrior princess. "It's the one show on TV where I don't feel invisible," says Montana, a 29-year-old library-science student who appreciates the show's acknowledgment, however indirectly, of her lesbian lifestyle.
Though the character of Xena is regularly shown in the intimate company of men, sexual ambiguity is a mainstay of the show--which openly gay Xena producer Liz Friedman is all too happy to admit: "I don't have any interest in saying they're heterosexuals. That's just bulls---, and no fun, either."
Much speculation attends the Xena/Gabrielle bond--and the appeal of the relationship is that you can believe what you want. "They have love for each other," says Xena supervising producer Steve Sears of the two women, who teamed up in the first episode (Xena saved Gabrielle from a wicked warlord). "It's up to the audience to determine what that love is."
"It's sort of like the old Star Trek," says Kym Masera Taborn, chairperson of the board of the International Association of Xena Studies--no kidding--a Web-based think tank of sorts. "It's so off-the-wall and seems so cut off from everything that you can do some pretty controversial things."
Truth be told, the show is more slyly teasing than downright naughty, which, smartly, keeps it family and advertiser friendly. During a recent episode, Xena, masquerading as a contestant in the Miss Known World beauty pageant, pastes a lingering kiss on the winner, Miss Artiphys. The miss is really a mister (natch)--and, in typically envelope-pushing fashion, the producers cast drag queen, gay rights activist, and recent inductee into the Adult Video News' pornstar hall of fame Karen Dior, a.k.a. Geoff Gann, in the role. Sexuality isn't the only thing Xena plays fast and loose with. In chronicling the exploits of the babelicious leather and metal-clad crusader, executive producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert adopted the campy, irreverent signature they used to comic effect in their Evil Dead film trilogy. In the Xenaverse--the name given to the show's timeless sense of place by its devotees--history is bunk. Characters spout Shakespearean platitudes one minute, Brooklynese wisecracks the next. Plotlines don't so much careen across eras as commingle them, creating a milieu that's primeval, classical, medieval, and surfer dude all at once. One episode finds our heroine plunked into the middle of the Trojan War (turns out Helen was an old acquaintance); in another, she's visiting 1940s Macedonia. Somehow, hilariously, it works.
But while the show might be a goof, Xena's power is not. "In the past, when a woman had been inserted into a basic male archetypical story, [TV producers] made the female almost too female," says Taborn, who also edits the online Xena 'zine WHOOSH! (a reference to the show's omnipresent sound effect). "With this one, they've kept her pretty serious." Friedman agrees, contrasting Xena with a TV predecessor: "Wonder Woman's nails were always perfect, and she really looked like she cared about it. If Xena were in the middle of a fight, and a guy accidentally yanked off her top, she wouldn't go 'Aah!' and cover her chest. She'd punch the crap out of him."
The aptly--and truly--named Lawless (Flawless to her fans) debuted as Xena on Hercules in a three-part arc that aired in the spring of 1995. In her original incarnation, Xena was an evil warlord and foe of the mythic strong man. When overwhelming viewer response led Tapert and John Schulian to create a spin-off, Xena underwent a transformation to become a force for good, though one still plagued by the sins of her marauding past.
With her severe good looks, Xena evokes a long line of pop-cult visages--Barbarella, Vampirella, even '50s pin-up queen Betty Page--as she rapidly joins that pantheon. To embody this uberwoman, Lawless, an Auckland, New Zealand, native, has made good use of her comedy background (she appeared on the New Zealand skit-com Funny Business at age 20), her training in music (the former opera student will sing her own songs for an upcoming straight-to-video Xena/Hercules cartoon), plus a self-assuredness in storming traditionally male strongholds (during a brief stay in Australia, she was one of the country's few female gold miners). And as the separated mother of an 8-year-old girl, Lawless, 28, is sympathetic to young women's need for a role model. "I hope it does become the next great TV phenomenon," she told the Baltimore Sun in January. "I think it has caught a wave, a need of some kind for a stronger female hero." But the actress quickly added that Xena's greater purpose is to make you laugh. "It's mainly a hoot."
Still, Xena represents a refreshing divergence from the mawkish, movie-of-the-week brand of female heroism that has proliferated in the '90s. And Raimi wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he's cashed in on postfeminist heroism before, in his depiction of Sharon Stone's strong, silent gunslinger in the 1995 film The Quick and the Dead. That role, along with an evil hell-raiser portrayed by Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin in The Bride With White Hair (1993), was to some degree a forerunner of Xena. With Xena's success, Raimi believes, the people have spoken, and he's hoping his new action series, Spy Game, starring Allison Smith (see review on page 56), will benefit from a growing taste for kickboxing chicks. "The audience is not afraid of watching some women break out of the conventional mold," says Raimi. Unfortunately, he adds, "the Hollywood establishment may not be aware that the audience really wants that."
Currently, next to Lawless' Xena, the most conspicuously empowered female leads in prime time are The X-Files' brainily alluring Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), Kate Mulgrew's Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, and the USA Network's La Femme Nikita (starring Peta Wilson and based on the 1991 movie of the same name). Since three out of those four are very popular (Nikita debuted less than two months ago), why do meaty female action roles continue to be such a rarity?
"I think that television in particular is a medium of the familiar, not of breathtaking new changes," says Xena's Friedman, who points out that in TV's 50-year history, only a handful of successful, rock-'em sock-'em female leads have emerged--Emma Peel (The Avengers), the Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Cagney and Lacey--and most of them in the more politically strident '70s.
A predictable target of blame: the still-male-dominated ranks of TV execs. "It's a bias of the TV industry, [this belief] that women will watch shows about men, but men won't watch shows about women, and therefore half the audience will be lost," says Susan Douglas, author of Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media. The Xena audience proves that theory wrong: About half of its adult viewers are male. Granted, they're watching as much for Xena's pulchritude as for her pluck; nevertheless, it's sending a message.
For the most part, though actresses playing forceful women must navigate a tightrope between strength and femininity. "I'm often cautioned not to cross a certain line one way or the other--'Don't be too butchy, don't be too vulnerable,'" says Kate Mulgrew of playing Janeway. "But I'll tell you, I'd much rather have this set of challenges than play some bimbo on Melrose Place."
Kay Koplovitz, founder and CEO of USA Networks--a rare female network head--maintains that the balancing act is in deference to viewers of both genders. "I think when you develop this kind of role, you risk having a strong action figure who is not sympathetic. It can be intimidating, it can be off-putting. Women who are too strong can be overbearing to men and women."
Friedman believes that Xena has figured out a way to solve that problem. How? In a word, subversion. "I've always been a big believer in the power of popular culture," she says. "The best way to convey more challenging ideas is to make something that functions on a mainstream level but that has subtext that people can pick up on--or not." Add a Trojan horse and you've got an episode of Xena.
(Additional reporting by Tricia Laine)
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