Whoosh! Issue 14 -
November 1997


By Sherrie Johnson
Copyright © 1997 held by author
1627 words

A Proposal (01-02)
Historically Speaking (03-09)
The Decline of Romantic Friendships (10-11)
A Rebirth (12-16)

Xena and Gabrielle:
A Revisitation of the Classic Romantic Friendship

A Proposal

I'll get this 'royal wave' thing down yet! I am an Amazon
princess, after all!

Renee O'Connor on the syndicated talk show, VIBE (09/97).

"As long as we keep the friendship of Gabrielle and Xena true and honest, then anything we do that might be a little more intimate -- it's just very honest, very natural and just sweet. You know, it's a friendship"
-- Renee O'Connor in a radio interview at KYSM, Mankato, MN. April 24, 1997.

"They (Xena and Gabrielle) have a passionate love for each other, but a passionate love does not necessarily mean sexual love. And that's all I will say."
-- Xena: Warrior Princess writer R.J. Stewart on the topic of subtext. "An Interview with R.J. Stewart", by Bret Ryan Rudnick, Whoosh! Issue #09 (June 1997).

[01] From scholarly articles on Xena web pages, to tidbits of gossip shared on chat lines, to knock-down, drag-out fights on Universal's NetForum, the speculation regarding the relationship between the characters of Xena and Gabrielle has occupied enough bandwidth to sail an aircraft carrier through, and has provided fodder for flame wars that have had the intensity of small nuclear blasts.

[02] This article, however, is not just another reiteration of the "Are they?" or "Aren't they?" debate. The intent of this study is to share with you a vision of the recent past, when two female friends could hold hands, speak fondly and kiss each other passionately, but could still be considered, "just friends"; and to propose that the friendship displayed by Xena and Gabrielle may be an example of the rebirth of an intense kind of relationship that used to be called, "the Romantic Friendship."

Historically Speaking

"My love has a forehead broad and fair, And the breeze-blown curls of her chestnut hair Fall over it softly, the gold and the red A shining aureole around her head. Her clear eyes gleam with an amber light For sunbeams dance in them swift and bright! And over those eyes so golden brown, Long, shadowy lashes droop gently down... Oh, pale with envy the rose doth glow!... But for joy its blushes would come again If my lady to kiss the rose should deign."
-- poem written by a girl character to her female schoolmate in the story "The Lass of the Silver Sword," by Margaret Constance Dubois. Published in the children's magazine "St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks". December 1908.

Now listen.  Repeat after me.  You are *not* the

Gabrielle, whacked out on nutbread

"By the gods! ... You are beautiful!"
-- Gabrielle, falling on the floor, to Xena. ALTARED STATES (#19).

[03] Intimate friendships between women have always existed. Whether these friendships were recorded in history books, works of fiction, or sewn into pictures on a quilt, or were not recorded at all except in the hearts and memories of the women who experienced them, women have been connecting in passionate friendships since the birth of our species. How these friendships have been expressed, however, varies over time and cultures.

[04] Although scholarly research on the topic of women's friendships is scanty to say the least, in the book, "Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present" (William Morrow and Company, 1981), Lillian Faderman explores the classic romantic friendship through painstakingly thorough research of the art, literature, and correspondence of earlier eras.

[05] According to Faderman, the way women have been allowed to express their friendships has changed dramatically in European and American history. In centuries past, and culminating in the 1800s, passionate friendships between two women often included physical displays such as kissing, hand holding and mutual caressing. These "romantic friendships" were not only common, but were considered quite normal, even "sweet", and in some instances, uplifting.

[06] These relationships were "romantic" because they included almost all of the aspects of a modern heterosexual romantic relationship. Such friends would exchange verbal expressions of fondness, love letters and romantic poems. They would become jealous when others encroached upon the affections of their friend. The women in these friendships would declare their undying devotion to each other, and would profess to not be able to live without one another. They would spend all of their time together, or at least whatever time their husbands or fathers would allow, and they would pine for each other when separated. However, these relationships were "friendships" because in the ideal Victorian romantic friendship, although two friends could kiss, fondle each other, and hold one another all night long in sleep, there was no sex.

[07] For example, in the German novel by Elisabeth Dauthendey, Of the New Woman and Her Love: A Book for Mature Minds (1900) the protagonist is a woman who rejects the "impure advances of sapphists (lesbians)" and falls in love through her friendship with another woman. And so goes climactic scene:

Without a sound, in the silent ardor of deep, blissful joy we lay in each other's arms. And the breath of our beating pulses was just enough to let us speak the beloved name --

[08] Of course, maybe we should call this the "anti-climactic" scene since it was an event in a romantic friendship, and certainly not, in the author's intention, a "lesbian" encounter.

[09] In America and Europe, romantic friendships were so highly valued and well accepted in their day that a young woman in a passionate and intense friendship who did not express her fondness for her friend with public displays of kisses and hand holding was considered to be "cold". However, at the same time sexual -- or maybe, more specifically, "genital" -- expressions of love between people of the same sex were scandalous, criminal, and specifically for women were often considered to be impossible because of the lack of a phallus.

The Decline of Romantic Friendships

Ever get the feeling you were being watched?  Rewound? And
then watched again?

Draw your own conclusions, as Minya draws a bath,
in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39).

[10] Sometime in the early 1900's, however, the positive perception of romantic friendships began to disappear. Exactly what happened to cause the decline of the romantic friendship is unclear. Faderman has some ideas, and suggests that Sigmund Freud and the other sexologists of his day had something to do with it as they began to define such passionate relationships between two people of the same sex as "medical maladies." She also believes that the dawning realization by the men of the culture that women, even "decent" women, had sex drives too, may have had something to do with the decline. In part it may have been due to the dropping numbers of arranged marriages as people began to marry for love. Or maybe it was in response to the increasing power of women that made a life of independence from men a possibility rather than a mere fantasy.

[11] Whatever the reason, in the space of just a few years between 1900 and 1925 or so, and earlier in Europe, physical displays of affection between two women, or involvement in friendships that were too all-consuming, suddenly became "abnormal". Intense schoolgirl friendships began to be discouraged. Hand-holding and kissing between members of the same sex was frowned upon, and became signs of a relationship that could only be homosexual. However, social mores in this regard may be changing again, and as evidence we have the pop culture relationship of Xena and Gabrielle.

A Rebirth

Xena & Gabrielle audition for the off-brodway play GRAB A

Xena and Gabrielle, in a foreshadowing of episodes to come, ponder where each would be without the other
in THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (#49). Aren't the capes cool?

[12] Renee O'Connor herself stated in a May 1997 interview on Entertainment Tonight that, "I think Xena (the show) brings out a friendship of two women that hasn't been seen before." Indeed, examples in US television of a very intense friendship between two women combined with frequent physical contacts (kissing, touching, hand holding) are hard to come by. Even the friendships in shows such as Cagney And Lacy (1982-1988) or Kate And Allie (1984-1989) do not compare to the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle because they do not share the same physical expressions of fondness that Xena and Gabrielle exchange.

[13] The friendship displayed by Xena and Gabrielle in Xena: Warrior Princess hints at what could be a new romantic friendship. This is not idle speculation on the nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship, but an examination of the fact that despite the physical affection and powerful emotional bond Xena and Gabrielle have developed, their friendship can still reasonably be viewed as non-sexual, and therefore, societally acceptable even by conservative standards.

[14] Advertisers in American television are very sensitive to conservative standards. In an article titled "The Xena-Philes: TV's warrior princess draws a mighty following," (Contra Costa Newspaper, November 17, 1996) executive producer Robert Tapert explains that the word came down early not to make the characters of Xena: Warrior Princess: outright lesbians. "Advertisers don't like that," he says. However, he also says that he likes playing with the relationship between the two leads, and casting doubts in the audience's minds. "We blurred the lines," Tapert states.

[15] It is this vision of female friendship, of two women kissing, touching, and verbally expressing their love for one another, but who could still be "straight", that is new to American television, if not American culture.

[16] Societal norms often move in cycles. Possibly, Xena: Warrior Princess is leading or following an upward trend where women, gay and straight, may once again express their fondness for each other with physical displays of affection in public or private. Maybe someday soon we will be able to throw off the shackles of our "modern" and "liberated" view of relationships, which do not allow two people of the same sex to express their affection physically. Then we can get back to the prim, proper attitudes of the Victorian era when two women could kiss in public, but could still be considered "just friends."


Sherrie Johnson Sherrie Johnson
A former police officer, TrueBlue spends most of her life at her job as an investigator for the state. Specifically, she investigates complaints for the professional licensing boards, and busys herself with tracking down insurance-scamming chiropractors, quack doctors, and ear-biting boxers (but not THAT ear-biting boxer). Away from the office she uses her time to eat, sleep, chase after a two-year-old daughter, and find material to satisfy her XENA addiction. Any extra time that miraculously falls into her lap she spends writing. Check out TrueBlue fan fiction.
Favorite episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (#10)
First episode seen: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (#10)

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