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What Xena Giveth, Xena Taketh Away.

I saw Xena for the first time a few months ago when my five-year-old son Noah and I were looking for something fun to watch on television. The fighting scene that we stumbled onto, in which Xena defied gravity and battled multiple assailants, immediately captivated Noah. I was taken in and delighted by the notion that she did all of these things in order to rescue her friend, Gabrielle. Interactive email with a predominantly lesbian subtext streamed across the bottom of the screen, a 5'10" woman wearing leather cracked a whip, and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed damsel in distress awaited her--princess? Shock at the realization that this was appearing on mainstream television gave way to excitement at the thought that I was witnessing a consummate drag act. In short, I fell in love. For several weeks Noah and I grabbed our dinner and stampeded into the playroom to sit side by side and watch Xena, which seemed to me part Rocky Horror, part Monty Python, part Prime Suspect, and part Venus in Furs.


Picking our pleasures is complicated. Maria and I are two women in a long-term committed relationship, and we are raising a son together. We feel the need to be mindful of inaccurate representations of queer families that come our way. That made Xena a particularly good find. We had seen the Xena contingent in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, had heard about the show from friends, and had appreciated Lucy Lawless (who plays Xena) on Politically Incorrect. She took care not to sacrifice her queer fans, and appeared aware and concerned regarding the plight of gay and lesbian adolescents. Friends spoke of the show fondly but had reservations, describing it as "watered down" and "mostly silly." Xena was often located as a "feminine top," and our gay male friends expressed relief at the idea that lesbians finally had a sexy, aggressive idol. Anyway, a kid is a great excuse to watch a "watered down" and "mostly silly" TV show. So it was veiled. We're used to seeking ourselves in the shadows, cloaked in double me anings that require decoding.

At first I thought Noah and I were deriving our tidily separate pleasures from the show. Noah, who has been attending classes in Tae Kwon Do and capoeira since the age of three, had an immediate appreciation for Xena's gymnastic talent and combat skill. He liked her fighting, her annor, her sword, and especially her front flips. I got a kick out of being part of an insider spectatorial community and delighted simultaneously in having this shared exciting object with my son. I laughed off the Christian innuendo, accepted appropriated story lines as parody, and extended the benefit of the doubt to the relentless, near-lesbian hits and misses that book-ended every episode.

Then, one evening we watched as Xena was reunited with a past male lover and the two had sex. Noah asked, "Who does Xena love?" I replied, "It varies." Noah looked troubled. "I thought she loved Gabrielle," he said. I realized that our pleasures and interests with regard to the show were not as separate as I had first imagined. We were together in our loyalty to Xena and Gabrielle's relationship. Now the show had abandoned us, and my boy was looking to me to make sense of it. What had appeared a relatively benign and playful version of closet humor--a mild tease--now became recognizable to me as something tantalizing and, in effect, immobilizing. I began to realize that what the show offered with one hand, it took away with the other.

I researched Xena on the Internet. I discovered that there are over 1000 Websites dedicated to the program and the actors. I sifted through hundreds of comments, poems, birthday cards, and tributes, many made by lesbians who expressed gratitude to the actors and producers of the show for "challenging conventions" or "providing role models for young girls" or "making lesbians look good." The series was ending in June, 2001, and on one website I learned that a campaign was on for Xena and Gabrielle to kiss each other in the final episodes, "tongues and all." This struck me as such a paltry request in light of the show's story line. After all, explicitly queer themes and even sexual encounters, particularly between women, broke ground on mainstream television at least ten years ago.

Another site featured a debate over whether Xena is, in fact, gay. "She is, but they have to be subtle about it," asserts one fan.

Why? The show isn't subtle about anything else. Another person writes, "She's not, don't you know that Lucy Lawless is happily married to a man?" Well, that certainly clarifies any confusion with regard to Xena's sexual orientation! Another: "She is. Just because they don't have sex doesn't mean they aren't lesbians." This explanation conjures the archetypal "sexless lesbian" destined to die alone, but for the company of her cats. And finally, "She isn't; lesbians see what they want to see." As do we all. Nevertheless, I maintain that the not-so-ambiguous lesbian subtext that weaves in and out of every episode is a consciously orchestrated and heavily cultivated phenomenon. Whether they understood the exact nature of Xena's appeal or not, the producers realized at some point that the lesbian thing was indispensable to the show's broad success, and they found ways to work it without taking any real risks.

Xena just completed its sixth and final season, ending syndicated television's highest rated first-run series. It aired in approximately 115 countries and held the interest of many different segments of the population. Demographic viewership included young children, prepubescent girls, adolescent boys, both lesbians and gay men, and adult heterosexual men. Many websites also suggest that a large number of heterosexual women considered Xena a contemporary feminist icon. The obvious explanation for these unlikely bedfellows is that we each took our discrete pleasure from what we were viewing. I am suggesting instead that, just like my son and me, this heterogeneous audience shared a common pleasure in Xena.

In the very first episode, Gabrielle is eager to abandon her well-planned life with a "boring" man in favor of living an uncertain life with a "dangerous" woman, Xena. She invokes the person of Oedipus Rex, referring to him as a "tragic fool." It is the first instance of the myth pillaging upon which the series relied for its scripts. The Oedipus story seems an interesting choice with which to start, a myth that Freud famously used to illustrate the family drama whereby children develop into "healthy" heterosexual adults. In response to Freud's prescriptive invocation of Oedipus, feminist writers and social critics have argued that the myth demonstrates the extent to which "fate" is little more than the residue of ignorance.

In fact, the most sustained and sustaining theme of the Xena series has to do with Xena and Gabrielle's increasing awareness of their primary place with one another, and their evolving articulation of the extent to which this unusual arrangement, whether explicitly sexual or not, allows for possibilities for both of them as women that a conventional lifestyle would never have permitted. Heterosexuality, for either of them--although rigorously enforced at the level of the narrative--is exposed as alternately laughable and tragic when held up against the depth of feeling and devotion they share.

Traditional gender binarisms fare no better than heterosexuality. In one episode, Xena and Gabrielle are taking a bath together when they hear a noise at the door. Xena jumps out of the bath and throws the door open. A man who had apparently been leaning his weight against the other side of the door falls into the room and lands at the feet of Xena's naked body. Completely un-self-conscious, Xena demands an explanation. He responds obediently, nervously looking up at her and addressing her as "Sir." "Sir?" Xena replies. Amused at his expense, she and Gabrielle exchange a mischievous grin.

This quality of gender play was probably stumbled upon and embraced half-heartedly in the fashion of an afterthought. I suspect that Xena was originally conceptualized as the quintessential hetero-male sexual fantasy--a woman with noteworthy cleavage and thighs, who's able to survive repeated beatings, crucifixions, dismemberments, mutilations, and murders. Gabrielle provided comic relief, necessary distraction, and a hint of lesbian action for male viewers. However, what emerged on the set was this leather-clad, iron-breasted, whip and sword wielding she/he. Lawless riveted a wide range of viewers precisely by blurring previously well-demarcated gender boundaries, and making mincemeat of stereo-typical sex roles. The sidekick idea turned out to be lucrative, but not only for the guys who are into "lesbian" porn. These actors are genuinely sexy together, in a way that was immediately recognizable to lesbians and intriguing to other viewers. For all of the official disavowals, the lesbian theme persisted beca use the series' success was inseparable from the Xena and Gabrielle love story.

Indeed, the show's producers and actors have always been ambivalent about this aspect of the show. When asked about it early on, Lawless replied, "We are mildly amused, and then we go on with our day." Later, Lawless acknowledged a more conscious attempt on the part of the show to "play" with the relationship between the two women. Commenting on the show's "lesbian following," executive producer Robert Tapert said he felt obliged to keep the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle "broad" out of regard for the "large following of children who view them as absolute role models." Renee O'Connor, who played Gabrielle, said in one interview, "We have to keep this a family show." And other of the show's producers resorted to "the children" as justification for keeping the sexual energy between Xena and Gabrielle unstated.

Do these children include the children for whom Lawless expressed concern on Politically Incorrect--the staggering number of adolescents who are killing themselves rather than coming out? It's maddening! This TV show proudly features cannibalism, ritualistic sacrifice, bodily mutilation, rape, insemination by demons, matricide, infanticide, crucifixion, and vivid scenes of torture, yet draws the line at two women acknowledging desire for each other. Once again, same-sex love, surely the most redemptive aspect of this show, is damned to the margins of representability. Xena can tie Gabrielle to the back of her horse, and drag her body through fire, water, bush, and stone, leaving her torn, burned, and bloody. Gabrielle can discover Xena's naked, bloody, decapitated body hung, in Tapert's words, "like a side of beef," and then be made to grope around for the severed head. Acknowledging that they are in love, however, would set a bad example for the children.


There are a number of visual and narrative enticements that might explain Xena's popularity: nearly naked women in compromising scenarios, exciting battles, hilarious exchanges, over-the-top raunch, and tender moments, all of which make the show fun to watch. At the same time, one can't help but notice the number of plots that revolve around Xena and Gabrielle being forced to separate and made to feel desperate for each other. When they're not separated, these two women sleep together, bathe together, proclaim their undying love for one another, agonize over rifts, delight in inside jokes, request shared burial sites, express jealousy, frustration, and rejection, occasionally sort-of kiss, but never consider having sex. The viewer's interest in the elaborate story lines is sustained by parallel stories about the two women as they yearn for one another from afar.

The limitations that this production placed upon itself, the risks it was not willing to take, alert us to its prevailing reactionary agenda. No other TV show or film comes to mind that has played the sexual ambiguity card so ruthlessly--so opportunistically--as Xena has. Episodes such as "A Day in the Life," "When Fates Collide," and "Many Happy Returns," to name just a few, are relentless in their efforts first to engage a lesbian spectator interest (in all viewers, not just lesbians) and then frustrate the viewer around her or his investment in that outcome. Sometimes there is a long and tormenting separation between Xena and Gabrielle that finds closure in a brief and superficial reunion. A passionate outpouring of affection is abruptly dissipated. A mutual loving gaze is interrupted by the insertion of a man's face. There is unrelenting insistence upon heterosexual affirmation and resolution. Increased intimacy induces amnesia. Alternatively, crucifixion and torture provide the backdrop against which th e most explicit and loving exchanges between the two women occur. By hook or by crook, the cultivated lesbian interest is diluted, deflected into heterosexuality, or punished.

All of the elements mentioned above are present in the much-hyped series finale. The "kiss" for which the queer fans "campaigned" occurs after Xena has been shot full of arrows, beheaded, and hung naked for Gabrielle to find. And the "kiss" is actually not a kiss at all (although many Internetters have worn their videotapes thin combing the shot for evidence to the contrary). According to the narrative, at the moment that their lips finally touch, Gabrielle is really just attempting to put water into the mouth of Xena's ghost. The queer fans that this "kiss" is supposed to appease have to overlook the fact that Xena is dead and beheaded, and that Gabrielle is not really trying to kiss her at all.

The finale provoked considerable rage and sadness from a number of fans. Feminists expressed dismay over the defilement of Xena's body and the message that this sent to young girls about the dangers inherent in stepping out of bounds. Many parents expressed anger over the violence in the final episode. A number of adolescent boys wrote moving letters to Lawless expressing what could only be described as heartbreak over what had happened to her character. And lesbians were angry both inwardly and outwardly at having been fooled, as one Internetter put it, "yet again." Lawless's response to her fans' outrage appeared to be confusion. She didn't seem to get the problem with ending on the image of Xena's corpse and Gabrielle's vague, impoverished relationship to a tantalizing ghost. Why wouldn't she be confused? What occurred in the finale was no different from what she had been doing so successfully all along.

Tapert, in one interview, responded to the outrage by reminding fans that "this show is not meant as a vehicle for social change" but rather a source of "entertainment." Etymologically, to entertain means to hold in place, and the show succeeded in doing exactly that. Lawless may have been brilliant in her ability to subtly defy the confines of a "straight" script. Whether consciously or not, she delivered a transgendered and truly disorienting performance. But on balance, Xena consistently functioned to instill a sense of sexual impossibility in the viewer rather than possibility. Fortunately it's not up to Tapert to decide whether this series provides a vehicle for social change. Transformation occurs by way of interpretation, not intention. But, to the extent that it was possible to undermine empowerment with seduction, discourage risk with retaliation, thwart impulse with repetition, defeat curiosity with trickery, erode ambition with inertia, or grind momentum with evasion, this show did.


Noah, the little capoeiristo who's working on his "Xena flips," loves both Xena and Gabrielle. He says that they remind him of our family. He laughs until his belly shakes when Xena and Gabrielle engage in their domestic squabbles. He gets worried when either of them is in danger. He delights in Xena's irreverence, hates when they are separated, and giggles when they flirt. He roots for them, jumping to his feet and fighting at the TV screen when bad guys come around. He yells at Xena to fight harder if she's getting beat, and gets mad at her when she doesn't defend herself adequately.

We don't shield Noah from difficult things; we help him with them. But in this instance, I'm not telling Noah that Xena has died until he's older. I'll wait until he's a black belt and her flips don't seem so impressive anymore; until she is as small in his mind as she deserves to be; until we've successfully wrestled queerness apart from death in the cultural unconscious and Noah can feel confident that he has two parents who will live and die just like everybody else.

Robin Silverman, a psychologist and a law student at University of California, Hastings, has published extensively on the social aspects of mental illness in children and families.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gay & Lesbian Review, Inc.
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Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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