No. 63, Autumn, 1999.
"Xenas Feminine Mystique"
*Many thanks to Mardi for the transcript and the scans
by Marion Williams,
"Only in the 90s could the star of a childrens fantasy drama be invited to two successive Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The star was Xena, the mythical Warrior Princess, with whom most of the television viewing world has become acquainted."
The mystical sphere of the "Xenaverse" has imbedded itself in the psyche of nearly 60 per cent of Australias children, not to mention those of the youth of Afghanistan, Russia and Iran. In America, Xena Warrior Princess has become the highest rating syndicated drama on television. The internet also has more than 100 Xena sites with content ranging from lesbian fantasy to pseudo-intellectual critique (http://whoosh.org).
In real time, people are attending conferences, clubbing at venues with Xena theme nights, receiving newsletters and purchasing a giddy array of paraphernalia. At Sydneys 1998 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 122 Xena look-a-likes marched up Oxford Street to the delight of the crowds. Whats more, American universities offer Xena 101.
Even a cursory observer must ask what is the fascination with Xena all about?
Creating the Xenaverse
Xena combines a montage of genres. It has been described by Ms magazine as "a delightfully schlock drama that often looks like Sparticus, American Gladiators and Mad Maxall rolled into one".
Cheesy, slap-stick humour is woven into a tapestry of occult and mythological themes which draws us into a surreal world of heroic adventures. It is constructed in postmodern filmic format, where postmodern means an aesthetic which emphasises the fragmentary nature of images, the appropriation of images from previously created images and their resistance to a single local unity or subject position. In Xena, we not only see fragmented representations of Greek and Roman mythology, but also a mismatched combination of cultural dress, language and history.
In the opening episode "Sins of the Past", we hear Balkan women singing a chant with Bulgarian lyrics to what sounds like Bulgarian bagpipes and Eastern European drum rhythms. To this Tune Xena travels to her home town of Amphipolis in Ancient Greece. However, it is a lush green countryside we see on screen.
Later, in the same episode, Xena, a Greek female warrior, uses Asian martial art moves on some villanous character dressed in Northern European costumes whose leader is played by a Maori actor. Again, the time is Ancient Greece but the dialogue is spoken in todays West Coast English. Adding to this montage, Xena is filmed in New Zealand.
Xenas story can only be understood in the context of her past; a past that we are not visually privy to, but which has left her with a deep legacy to be reckoned with. An online Xena devotee tells her story:
Tales of the Warrior Princess were told for years. She ravaged the Greek world as a bloodthirsty warlord, bent on nothing but evil. But she was not always such. She was once an ordinary young woman, who cared about her family and her village. But then a warlord named Cortese came, and laid waste to her home village of Amphipolis. Bent on preventing this from happening again, she embarked on a quest to keep all enemies of Amphipolis weak But on one of her raids, she encountered a person that would forever change her life, and her outlook on it: Julius Caesar. After he betrayed her and subjected her to crucifixion she was rescued by a female warrior who helped her find healing. Xena then changed into a blood thirsty killer. For years, she travelled the world, wandering into many wars as a mercenary, then finally forming her own army to terrorise the peaceful Grecian countryside. On her journeys she met Lao Ma, ruler of an Eastern faction who saved Xena from the king, and began to teach her some form of mysticism. She learnt the ability to move objects with the power of one' mind, and to harness the energy that flows around us all. Xena' first attempts were poor, and she was never able to utilise these powers until very recently. But it was a run-in with the noble Hercules, son of Zeus that diverted her from her evil ways, onto a path of righteousness. She has become a fighter for truth and justice, but she can never forgive herself for her past misdeeds.
It might also be noted that Xenas pillaging and plundering history took a dramatic turn when she rescued a baby and was abandoned by her troops. It is here at the turn around that we are invited to participate.
Xena as wish fulfilment
In attempting to ponder the phenomenon of Xena-mania it is vital we understand academic theories of viewing motivation. In reviewing the literature on the psychology of television consumption, most propose that a fantasy world is created to meet the conscious and unconscious psychological and emotional needs of the viewer. The material plays a wish fulfilment function.
As academic Tannenbaum has observed, television programs are a "series of packaged fantasies". Adler, likewise suggests that television is a "vivid projection of our collective subconscious through which powerful messages are translated into an acceptable code for presentation .it is a process of disguising societal needs and wishes".
While psycho-dynamic theories are out of vogue, the phenomenon of Xena-mania lends itself well to their scrutiny. We may deny that base impulses of anger, fear and desire influence our choice of television programs, but we can be sure Hollywood knows the score and will be doing its best to exploit these emotions.
If we find it hard to accept that we are glued to Xena because our primal instincts are stirred, it may be easier to look at the psychological process of identification to explain our fascination with her.
Burton and Whiting proposed a status-envy hypothesis which holds that a character has traits that the viewer desires and this evokes envy of coveted resources. It does not require a psychology degree to work out why people would want to identify with Xena, or her side-kick Gabrielle, for that matter. (More about this later.)
Some coveted characteristics found to be important for TV star idolatry are physical attractiveness, sexually suggestive behaviour, romance, prestige and power. Sound familiar? All these qualities, of course, need to be couched in a continuing narrative and moulded by the complexity of filming and editing devices to complete the identification process. Implicit also in this theory is the notion that the processes of identification requires the psyche to be a fertile ground of deprivation or alienation from which this envy of a hero grows.
In light of these theories we can look at the construction of Xenas character, her journey and her relationship with Gabrielle. The world is gossiping about the gay subtext of the latter which is nothing new, but it reveals a new boldness in television that is unprecedented, especially for a childrens program.
The new woman
Xena has been described as a "babe who kicks butt". Her outfit is comprised of boots, leather and breastplate, packing cleavage and thigh in suitable warrior attire. Her blue eyes, white teeth and blue-black hair are more princess than warrior, not unlike Wonder Woman ..but scarier.
Through various waves of feminism beginning with the Suffragettes, women have attempted to break through the barriers of social forces in the search for identity and mastery in a world that was once purely defined and organised by men. From the 70s onwards we have even been faced with the entrance into society of an unashamed female sexuality that is assertive, self contained and doesnt rely on men or culturally feminine imagery to give it identity and value.
For many reasons this portrayal of womanhood is still seen as not quite complete, and in many circles still deviant. It can be suggested that Xena embodies the essence of such a female and she is in touch with her soft side to boot. One could even say Xenas angry violent past is an analogy of angry feminism that had its place in history but is now seeking integration with other aspects of femaleness.
Australian writer Richard Neville has identified Xena as "just a big, brassy, pseudo-Greek legend waylaying everything in her path, especially men".
It has been pointed out that in Xena we see that the traditional male lead role of a warrior, symbolising the essence of masculinity, represented by a woman. Xenas outward appearance is one part harem girl (feminine) and one part warrior (masculine). Her clothing highlights her femininity while at the same time shielding it. Her sword, a masculine image of strength and power, which could be seen as a phallic symbol, is worn on her back or side. Her chakram, a circular metal disk with a razor sharp edge which can slice through steel as well as flesh when thrown, is worn on her hip. Its circular shape is symbolic of the female gender and it is her ultimate weapon and source of strength.
Dixie Harrison, a 38-year-old mother of five, grandmother of three and webmaster of Xena Online Resources shows the influence Xena as the new woman can have on personal lives:
I was brought up on the tradition of bowing to certain inevitabilities as a female, my job was compliance, cooperation and peacemaking. Any outward signs of resistance or feelings of rebellion were unacceptable Xena is Xena and does what she thinks needs to be done But she has her hidden weak points too she is not infallible. She carries much pain with her shes just a woman with all the fears, fallacies and pains of a woman who strides the world boldly as a person.
As a woman who does battle with warlords, monsters, gods and mortals, she is one hell of a role model. Neville points out that Xena "overturns the last impediment to a world of total equality", and Xenas wish fulfilment function can be seen very clearly when reviewing her physical abilities: combat and warfare skills; agility, acrobatics and martial arts. Smart, fearless and heroic she always tries to solve things peacefully; but once committed to a course of action, she is unrelenting.
The power of friendship
Despite the obvious advantages of Xenas great power, audiences understand that it means nothing to her without the strength and life gained from a loving relationship.
The tension between Xenas two sides is played out in her close relationship with the blonde Bard, Gabrielle, who escaped from an approaching forced marriage to join Xena in her adventures.
Gabrielle is protegee as well as handmaiden or should I say warriors companion. Xena and Gabrielle have a mutual trust relationship, but Xena is usually the protector, mentor and all knowing one. Gabrielle has brought the caring and soft human side out of Xena; a side that was once buried under the warrior. In a recent episode Xena said to Gabrielle, "Ive seen so many changes in you, things I could never have expected. But as hard as the changes have been, youve got to know its for a reason. All of this is for a reason, otherwise whats the point? I was asking myself that same question when I first met you."
This vignette of the nature of their relationship has a sisterhood feel, highlighting the help women can give each other in their journey to freedom. It can also be suggested that the merging of Xena and Gabrielle as an interdependent unit may in some way draw the female viewer into identifying and uniting both parts of herself; the tough competent and strong, protecting the sensitive, vulnerable, nurturing and good. Most women would testify to the dangers of wearing ones persona the other way around.
Not surprisingly, in light of such an intense portrayal of friendship, Xena has become a lesbian icon, which has helped the program achieve cult status. Mr Showbiz, in an on-line interview with Lucy Lawless, who plays Xena, quizzed her about the speculations about the nature of Xenas relationship with Gabrielle:
"Ah! You mean do we play it up? .We do have fun with that aspect, but I never want to shove it down peoples throats because it can also be alienating and we dont want to do that to any sector of our audience. But we dont want to alienate our lesbian following. We love em all! I think I can speak for some of the people who work on the show we all like pushing the boundaries We try to make highest common denominator viewing".
Liz Friedman, Xenas producer, calls herself a "representationally starved queer" (quoted in Woosh Online). (sic) "Honestly," she says, "we didnt write the characters to be explicitly lesbian. Going into it we never really had any thoughts about that. I think what we really wanted to do was we wanted to make a very trong and real relationship between two of them in that their friendship does not consist of the two of them talking about their boyfriends and what kind of sanitary protection they like, which tends to be what you see on television when women talk. They have a real concern and respect for one another."
Intimate moments when Xena and Gabrielle are together seem to overlay classic images of a heterosexual-stance. There is sensuality with a subtle edge of eroticism and flirtatious banter, sometimes appearing as sisterly care, yet allowing an interpretation of romance. Perhaps the best example of this is the kiss between Xena and Gabrielle in the episode "Quest". The kiss occurs in a kind of a dreamscape while Xenas spirit is in the body of a man. Xena and Gabrielle are shown at the beginning of the kiss, but just before their lips meet, the image changes to show the man and Gabrielle kissing. This scene has produced some of the longest Are they?/Arent they? debates in Xena fan-dom.
Diane Silver, in the August 1997 edition of Woosh Online, (sic) suggests we can apply a lesbian reading to Xena and Gabrielles relationship due to its similarity to the daily realities of lesbian life, which consists of caring and vulnerability, commitment and the impact of loss of the other. One could argue, however, that these sentiments can be found and encouraged in platonic friendship.
Why is it that Hollywood is unable to portray intimacy with out a sexual overtone? Are we, in our hurried and detached loves, producing a society which hungers for intimacy to the point where saccharin screen sexuality, as a substitute for true, deep connection, must appear everywhere for a decent rating?
It is hard to know how much Xena is written to cater for its gay audience. (Oh yes, by the way, the program is not just for the kids!) Is it a coincidence that most of Xenas heterosexual encounters were in the days when she was evil? As a redeemed person intent on doing good she has rescued Gabrielle from an arranged marriage. Now neither of them need men, although opportunities abound. They have a choice.
How does this subtext translate to the cultural acceptance or diffidence to the lesbian relationship? A queer reading of text means we must deconstruct previously held stereotypes and understandings of homosexuality. Xena and Gabrielle, if they in fact are supposed to be lovers, contradict the stereotype of the lesbian as butch and somewhat invisible. They are sexy, stunningly attractive, have enjoyed men at times yet they choose each other at this time and place.
Spirituality in the Xenaverse
Are there also spiritual metaphors in Xena? We must not forget, as this prologue describes, "Xena is set in the Golden Age of myth, long before ancient Greece or Rome, on the distant frontier of known civilsation far away from the land of mighty Hercules. The whims of capricious gods and their greed of human tyrants make her world a treacherous one."
Xena borrows imagery and ideology from pluralistic Graeco-Roman civilsation, where blending of mythologies and civil concerns gave rise to individualised cults and philosophies. Xena, like the Roman Empire, has absorbed and synthesised many streams of thought and practice, making it a melting pot of spiritual, moral and philosophical notions.
The meta-narrative is that there does not seem to be one. When visually reading Xena, there doesnt seem to be any clear differentiation between right and wrong, real and imagined, mortal and immortal. Apart from the situational ethics which guide individuals in their own story, there is no mega-story which defines the nature of good and evil.
Through the course of her adventures, Xena has dealt with many gods and goddesses. Sometimes her dealings are peaceful, sometimes not. She has encountered the most powerful beings in her world and survived. She teaches us that nothing is beyond our power, internal or external.
Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, speaks of his pre-conversation enjoyment of theatre in the arena, the cultural heart of the Roman Empire. Here the morality of plays were drawn from pagan Greek mythology and the loves of the gods were mimed for the audiences. Augustine observed that the gods were a projection of sinful human qualities, engendering a curious fascination in the observer.
Are we drawn to Xena in the same way people were drawn to the ampitheatre two millennia ago? Because the program is rated for children we are only viewing milder forms of the whims and agendas of the gods, but we are never the less feasting on their reality. Is that what television is all about; dressing up our primal desires in a palatable theatrical form?
It is interesting that Xena has appeal for those searching for a form of spirituality which is viewed as much less confronting, morally challenging and parental than Christianity, which appears offensively steeped in male-dominated tradition. Especially attractive and popular is the ideology and mysticism of eco-feminism with its goddess cults and ancient mythology, which urges us re-attune body and soul to the rhythms of mother earth and the sacred feminine.
This form of spirituality tells us something about what women are searching for in God and community. Its theology and expression side-steps the patriarchal or masculine order of conventional religion in an attempt to align itself with a greater female authority, one whose sovereignty is based on the principle of interconnectedness, and who inspires from a position of indwelling rather than transcendence or supremacy.
The goddess does not rule the world; she is the world and is present, accessible and available. In a recent discussion paper for Deakin University: "Womens Spirituality" The Place of Transcendence in the Feminist Pantheon", academic B. Dobin suggests powerful goddess figures represent the externally sheltering womb. Enter again, Xena Warrior Princess.
If Xena embodies the essence of a pagan goddess, or more simply the invincible self made woman, it is easy to understand why viewers, especially those in the lesbian community, are drawn to identify with her. For women who have been personally, socially or politically injured by men, as well as those who have a deep desire to connect with an all-encompassing, nurturing power, she stands as sword and shield.
Christians must in this cultural moment remember that God has referred to himself in the Bible many times as both male and female, exhibiting qualities which far transcend the narrow gender roles Christians often impose on him. While Xenas reliance on violence and powerful conquest is cathartic for many women oppressed by male domination in whatever form, it is obviously not a realistic motif for lasting personal and social transformation.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if one day Xena strayed into the farthest desert, and met a travelling sage who spoke of how one should not slay ones enemies but "offer the other cheek", release others from debt and act in accordance with the law of love. Wouldnt work, would it?
[Marion Williams is a counsellor specialising in sexuality and gender, and director of Womens Ministries at Exodus, South Melbourne. She wishes to thank Xena-fan, Dr. Louise MacIntosh, for her kind input into this article. Email: Maz_Williams@iname.com ].
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