National Review
Sept 13, 1999

Dressed To Kill

Mr. Stuttaford is a writer based in New York.

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.)


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