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National Review

13 September 1999


Dressed To Kill

Tough chicks are in. Check out a poster for Nickleodeon on New York City telephone kiosks, which portrays the cable channel's ideal viewer: A young girl with straight hair and big glasses, she "rides a unicycle . . . [and] picked out the family computer." The clincher? She "can belch on command." A Little Woman no longer, this girl has arrived in Boys' Town, where she will, so the new stereotype goes, beat the guys at their own games: sports, computers, coarseness, and, it would seem from a clutch of TV shows, killing.

Of course, dramas about lethal ladies are nothing new. Just ask Hamlet's father. But those earlier murderous models were mere freelancers. The new bunch are organized, trained, and are probably, in some not so subliminal way, advertisements for women in the military. Sigourney Weaver, battling monsters in the four Alien movies, was a prototype. Since then, her character, Ripley, has been joined by an entire regiment. There's Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager, ably assisted by Amazons such as the USA Network's La Femme Nikita (secret agent, kills people) and WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (high- school senior, kills dead people). Interestingly, the violence on offer is often very hands-on. These women are not afraid of a good brawl. There is plenty of fistfighting, kick boxing, and, in Buffy's case, staking through the heart.

But if they took on Xena, the Warrior Princess, they would be crushed. Of all the rough girls, Xena is the roughest. Madeleine Albright claims to have adopted her as a role model-clearly without much success. Xena would have chopped up Saddam and Slobodan years ago. At times the show has been television's highest-rated first-run syndicated drama (which means it would have been watched in about 5 million households). Now beginning its fifth season, it has spawned a Xenaverse of websites, fan fiction, conventions, and Xenarabilia.

Played by Lucy Lawless, a former Miss New Zealand, Xena began life as a character in an episode of another syndicated series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. In the space of one hour, she killed six people, was referred to as a "murdering harlot," seduced Hercules' friend Iolaus, and ended up being awarded her own TV show. Xena itself is set in some vaguely classical past, with appearances by Greek gods, centaurs, and Prometheus, but with a time line so wobbly that it would embarrass Johnnie Cochran. As befits a TV heroine in an age with only the vaguest grasp of history, Xena, a person with a presumably normal life span, is at the siege of Troy, finds Moses' tablets of stone, helps David kill Goliath, has sex with Julius Caesar, and runs into the Knights of the Round Table. Widely traveled for a woman from the time of the trireme, Xena even manages to reach China, and, disastrously, India. (A Hindu group complained that, among other offenses, a "snide" warrior princess treated Krishna "in an extremely condescending manner": The episode was later pulled from rebroadcast.)

Through it all-clad, as the statuesque and nearly 6-foot tall Miss Lawless once put it, in a "corset and a whip"-Xena manages to rout all comers. She will use weapons, notably a sharp-edged discus called a chakram. Her favorite approach, however, is a punch-up, generally heralded by somersaults and a war cry of "yi yi yi."

The weaker sex, men, are either feeble, needing Xena's help, or wicked, en route to a drubbing from her. The only man in Xena's regular entourage is a ludicrous, Jar Jar Binks-like figure, Joxer the Mighty. His main function is to wear a stupid hat and to be periodically humiliated. Even Hercules seems a little effete when compared with a heroine who, in one memorable episode, kills a rat with her teeth and then (while still bound in chains) uses the dead rodent as a sort of missile.

In matters of the heart, the male sex likewise comes off as second best. For, it is implied, Xena has given her love to her trusty traveling companion Gabrielle-a petite blonde, girly, certainly, but still someone you'd want to avoid tangling with in hand-to-hand combat. The romance between the two is never explicit. It is, fans like to say, a "subtext." Sub? Episodes of Xena feature enough smoldering looks, "sisterly" kisses, and bathtub scenes to bring a smile even to the grim features of the late Mrs. Roosevelt.

She may have become a lesbian idol, but at least Xena is wittier than Ellen and (much) more attractive than Alice B. Toklas. With episode titles like "A Comedy of Eros" and a supporting cast that could pass muster on Baywatch, Xena doesn't seem to be a program that takes itself too seriously. Yes, yes, there's a message, but we can get over that. The show is fun, with plenty of pretty girls to bring in those vilified, but necessary, male viewers. Even as the Decade of Irony draws to a close, irony is, at least on the surface, the name of Xena's game. The characters speak in a sub-Melrose patois, interspersed with wisecracks and snatches of dialogue that could be pasted whole into one of those old movies about the Argonauts, Samson, or Richard the Lionhearted.

But sadly, for all the ironic overlay, the Nineties have really been a rather earnest and didactic little era. Women, we are told, need role models to help them overcome the everyday oppression of a brutish patriarchal society. Turning, as always, to the distinguished journal called HUES ("Hear Us Emerging Sisters"), we learn that women "should take the lead from [their] silver screen and TV sisters, and learn to physically defend [themselves], to become women of action rather than passive victims." And what better example than Xena? We should not be surprised that those who propagate one fantasy, that of male oppression, have turned to another for inspiration.

Well, in Hollywood, when it comes to the pieties of the age, a certain hushed and opportunistic respect is in the end always the rule. Irony has its limits. So Studios USA, Xena's distributor, claims that the show has become "the preeminent symbol of female empowerment." Meanwhile, in an interview, Miss Lawless solemnly intones that she gets a "lot of letters from women who tell [her] that, after watching Xena, they have bought the Harley-Davidson they always wanted or left an abusive relationship."

Oh, yi yi yi.

COPYRIGHT 1999 National Review, Inc.


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