1 October 1997

Thwack! Pow! Yikes! Not Your Mother's Heroines

When I was a girl, my friends and I had no interest in Barbies. To entertain ourselves we played "Charlie's Angels," fighting over who got to personify Kate Jackson' s character, the brunette who was, as per '70s convention, much smarter than her interchangeable, feather-haired blond counterparts. We didn' t understand why the women we were imitating usually caught criminals by dressing up as hookers or otherwise seducing them, so we devised alternative crime-fighting methods. What we saw were three bright, beautiful women who knew how to shoot guns, solve crimes, and throw well-placed kicks punctuated by stiletto heels. At the time, it didn' t concern us that the "Angels" success rate seemed proportional to the plunge in their necklines.

Today, girls who enjoy play-acting do not have to compromise their developing intellects to find worthy heroines to impersonate, enjoy and respect. Today, instead of Charlie's Angels, girls play Xena and Gabrielle. Profeminist options are springing up on almost every network- -the following are three of the most subversive and campy programs on TV. Happy viewing!

Xenite (n.)--a loyal fan of "Xena: Warrior Princess," a "bad-assed, kick-ass, pre-Mycenean girl who traverses the time lines" with Gabrielle, her female traveling companion, as described by series star Lucy Lawless.

We all owe much to the picket-line warriors who fight for women's equality in the political realm. But true change comes as much from struggles fought in the innocuous realms of everyday life: the grocery line, the corporate cafeteria ... your TV screen. Rebellion can ride in on a bloodcurdling, heart pounding battle cry. This is the space filled by "Xena: Warrior Princess."

In "Here She Is, Miss Amphipolus," Xena infiltrates the first-ever Miss Known World pageant to protect the contestants from their egocentric, warmongering sponsors. Miss Artifice, a drag queen, sashays down the runway for the crown after Xena inspires the winner and first three runners-up to quit the contest.

In "Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts," Xena saves Helen of Troy, and becomes the first person to ever ask the woman whose face launched a thousand ships what she wants out of life.

In "Warrior, Princess, Tramp" a drunken man harasses Xena in a bar. When reasoning with the fellow doesn't work she lifts him up by his chin using only two fingers, walks him sideways on his tiptoes several steps away from her, and, with a flick of her wrist, tosses him to the ground.

Thinking Xena dead in "The Quest," scribe sidekick Gabrielle mourns her as if she had lost a lover. "She just left me. How could she do that?" Gabrielle cries. "There are so many things I wish I could have told her. Why didn't I when I had the chance? [Like,] how empty my life was before she came, and all the lessons I learned, and that I love her." Later, after Xena reveals she is not wholly dead, the two women share a classically romantic scene on a mountaintop.

Throughout her travels with Xena, Gabrielle has progressed from a chatty damsel-in-distress to a woman so confident and adept with a staff that the Amazons, an ancient tribe of warrior women, make her their queen in "Hooves and Harlots."

Contrary to the superhero genre, the women of "Xena: Warrior Princess" are unique, multifaceted individuals, whereas male characters are depicted as one-dimensional despots, jesters, or babes. Nowhere in "Xena's" thematics are women implied to be inherently moral or tender; rather, they are complex human beings who must work to reject evil and choose the right path. Despite do-gooder Gabrielle's girlish optimism and Xena's heroics in the quest for redemption, the show allows space for the exploration of all sides of women's characters. Week after gloriously kitschy week, viewers are introduced to female nurturers, heroines, heretics, and psychopaths. When two women fight they are not shown as catty or kinky; Callisto, Xena's female archnemesis, is her most formidable foe. At the same time, women's friendship is shown to be stronger than any other worldly ties--Gabrielle's love for Xena is powerful enough to summon the dead warrior's spirit back to life, and Xena risks lifelong blindness to save Gabrielle from a coerced marriage.

Crisis and grief complicate the notion of the "good woman" within the series. Tenderhearted Gabrielle's rage is unleashed when Callisto murders the former's husband the morning after their wedding, (How convenient: the virginal sidekick has a brief honeymoon, affirms her heterosexuality to viewers uncomfortable with the hinted romantic underpinnings of her relationship with Xena, yet does not have to deal with a pesky husband for more than one night.) Consumed by misery and anger, Gabrielle rejects her vow never to take a life and sets out for Callisto's blood. After an intense period of moral ambiguity, Gabrielle refuses to kill Callisto and reclaims her sense of self.

Similarly, many episodes are devoted to Xena's unrelenting remorse for the sins of her past and the evil that lies dormant within her. Unlike classic superheroes, Xena is not decency incarnate. Far from it: before her moral awakening (when she was just another enemy on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), Xena commanded a barbaric army of male soldiers who killed and destroyed everything in their wake. Our heroine's internal struggle revolves around the knowledge that her former brutality can never be erased, nor can her potential for cruelty.

Every time she protects maidens from rapists, rescues gifts from slave traders, and defends poverty-stricken villages from greedy kings, these are rituals of contrition as well as compassion. In our flawed society, where violence is so often used to control women through fear and pain, Xena's formula for the use of force in self-defense and for the protection of others is healthy and empowering. Throughout her many battles, we rarely see her kill. She may, by the use of some Eastern acupressure technique, for example, extract information from villains by temporarily cutting off the flow of oxygen to their brains, but she almost always allows them to live in the end, and often dresses the wounds she inflicts on her attackers. Each day in which she doesn' t take a life is a personal victory. Xena is a recovering warlord, sans twelve-step program.

Many people, often feminists, have labeled the show sexist based solely on Xena's dominatrix-influenced duds. To the idea that "Xena" is merely an excuse to objectify partially naked women under the guise of female power (think early "Wonder Woman"), I offer a question, then a comment. First, why is it that the costumes of most sitcom women reveal more cleavage than Xena's warrior wardrobe, yet we rarely hear feminist condemnations of "The Nanny"? Second, my advice: never judge a warrior by her leatherbound, whip-wielding cover.

RuPaul once said we're all born naked, the rest is drag To paraphrase the diva, we all choose different armor to help us survive. Xena thrives in a rather brief leather jumpsuit with intricate metal breastplates and solid, knee-high boots (the better to defend you in, my dear). Her favorite accessory? A sharp, seemingly sentient discus that ricochets off every target her imagination can conjure, slices enemy blades and arrows in half, and, like a metallic homing pigeon, invariably returns squarely to her hand. You won't catch her fumbling with frills or teetering on the stilts so many women have accustomed themselves to from nine to five: her work gear is much more functional.

Is Xena sexy? Absolutely, not only because of her lithe, muscular body, but because she is entirely comfortable living, fighting, and loving inside of it. Unlike most television women, she neither denies nor exploits her own sexuality. What better model for positive female behavior could we present to girls maturing amid insistent virgin/whore stereotypes, and in a culture in which eating disorders run rampant?

Do some men tune in to "Xena" solely because they think she's hot? Certainly the eye candy element is a factor. But, hey--how fabulous is it that a strong, confident, and valiant woman can finally be seen as sexy? And Xena's expression of sexuality is ambiguous, to say the least. On rare occasions she is moved to take lovers; her on-screen lust-bunnies have all been male, but a pronounced lesbian subtext between she and her "best friend," Gabrielle, has made the show a dyke cult hit. If Lucy Lawless, rather than Yasmeen Bleeth or some other genetic jiggler, is the subject of male (and female) fantasies, I say "Bravo?"

Xena's sexuality is not, by a long shot, the majority of her appeal. Her unapologetic nature, unrivaled strength, ceaseless compassion, fierce loyalty, and quest for justice are what make Xena as much a hero for our times as she was "in a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings."

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