Whoosh! Issue 24 - September 1998

EMPOWERMENT AND XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
IAXS project #586
By Michelle Frazier
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2759 words



First Impressions (01-04)
Female Empowerment: A Xena Message (05-12)
The Third Season: Deconstructing Positive Messages (13-21)
The Real Problem (22-23)
Biography



Empowerment And Xena: Warrior Princess




First Impressions

Iolaus, don't get all sulky just 'cause I've got bigger biceps
than you!


Xena makes her debut in an early HERCULES episode.


[1] I stepped into this Xena phenomenon earlier than most. I was watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and one night I caught this really cool episode where Hercules was pitted against a female warrior named Xena. I thought, "This woman can really kick b*tt! She is so cool!" I was hoping to see more of her, and lo and behold, TPTB did a spin-off series. I caught it about as regularly as I caught Hercules. Some friends, with whom I played Magic: The Gathering, started raving about the show and saying how Lucy Lawless was six feet tall and gorgeous. The thought that ran through my mind was, "Oh, another supermodel wanna be actress". Then I hit the websites and found the background on Lucy Lawless, and I was hooked. I could relate to this woman. She has five brothers? I thought three was bad. She worked for a gold mining company in Australia? Geological mapping is something I am quite familiar with; I am a Civil Designer and Surveying Intern. That is when I began actually watching the show regularly and taping it when I was not going to be home.

[2] That was the summer of season one, and this is when my life began to change. I was seeing a show that validated everything I believed. I had grown up with strong women in my life. I knew that a woman could do anything a man could do mentally and physically, with the exception of father a child.

[3] I grew up on a farm/ranch in South Texas. Inside the house, there was still inequality -- the separation of "women's work". My mother and I did the cooking and cleaning, and my father and brothers were not expected to do anything. Outside the house, however, everyone was equal. I was expected to keep up with my brothers, and I was right there with them, carrying stuff, driving tractors, and building things. What you knew and what you could do were much more important than if you were a girl or a boy.

[4] At school, I experienced some ostracism because I did not wait around for a guy to handle the heavy work, and I was made to feel like less of a woman just because I could do all the things that the guys could do.


Female Empowerment: A Xena Message

[5] Then came Xena, this "bad-*ss, kick-*ss, Pre-Mycenaean chick" who was handling the world on her own terms. She showed me that a woman could do all of this and still be sexy as h*ll. This was empowerment to me. She could go about her business of redemption and fighting for the "Greater Good" without worrying about having to fight the other stupid battles that many women have to fight daily. It actually put me more in touch with my feminine side. Brad Carpenter, a former Director of Marketing at Renaissance Pictures, said it best when he said that when Xena walked into a bar, she had nothing to prove because she was the toughest. Here was a world where the only thing that mattered was what you could do and not whether you were a man or a woman. No one ever said to Xena, "You're just a woman; what can you do"? She did not have to prove herself to anyone but herself.

[6] This message was passed on to the women she encountered in her travels. This was the message Xena seemed to be teaching Gabrielle. She was not showing us that men were bad or that men were less, but simply that there were good people and bad people in the world, regardless of gender. The introduction of Callisto was a stroke of genius. It reinforced a non-gender-biased notion of good and evil.

[7] In BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (12/112), Helen was torn between a husband she barely knew and a man who did not love her any more. When she asked Xena what to do, Xena asked Helen, "What do you want to do?"

[8] In TIES THAT BIND (20/120), the village girl was ashamed because she offered herself in exchange for her sister's life and freedom. Gabrielle told her that this was a great, unselfish act, that she should not be ashamed of it and not expect to be condemned for her actions. When her sister welcomed her back with open arms and heartfelt gratitude, the unselfish act was redeemed.

Don't mistake the nair for the shampoo or this can happen to you!


Even after exposing a male contestant, Xena lends a sympathetic ear in HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS.


[9] In HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211), Xena had a sincere chat with the beauty contestants and learned for herself that these women were all special and had their own unique stories to tell. They should not have been dismissed, by Xena herself or anyone else, because of stereotyping.

[10] These examples are just a small representation of a common message that was woven throughout the first and second seasons of XWP. The message was that it is okay to be a woman and to take on the world on your own terms.

[11] As we began to learn more about Xena's past and what made her turn evil, I was greatly pleased to find that her story had nothing to do with gender-related issues. She began her journey down that dark path, not as a woman scorned, as is too often the case, but as someone protecting her home and family.

[12] That a woman could be doing this is not a new concept for me, but seeing it there on my television screen was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone was showing us that being women did not stop one from arming herself and fighting back. You did not have to stand behind a man; you could stand beside him or even lead him. I came away from each show feeling empowered and energized. There were light episodes and dark episodes, but the empowerment was always there. When bad things happened to our heroes, it was because of who they were, not what they were, and these bad things were dealt with accordingly. Xena would kick b*tt when necessary, and Gabrielle would use words when necessary.


The Third Season: Deconstructing Positive Messages

[13] Then the third season hit. The very first episode [THE FURIES (47/301)] sent forth a powerful message that the series would deal with women's issues this season. We got the message that a woman should not be punished for protecting her children from an abusive father. We also got an added bonus in the form of a Public Service Announcement with Lucy Lawless supporting the Domestic Violence Hotline. Then, after a light episode where Joxer was actually used effectively [BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302)], we get an episode [THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303)] in which I was forced to listen to a man spouting sexist remarks and being confronted by a man-hating woman, and the message of the entire series began to change. Now I was being told that sexist men were just misunderstood, and that he could say these things to us and did not have to account for them if he was one of the "good guys". The whole episode seems to be writer, Steven L. Sears, thumbing his nose at all women who might have slighted him in the past.

[14] As I watched the rest of the season, I realized that a fundamental aspect of the show had changed. No longer were Xena and Gabrielle two heroes who happened to be women, they were now two women who happened to be heroes. They were also subjected to many bad things that could not have happened to our heroes if they were not women. I also realized that although women's issues may have been brought up (or thrown into our faces), they would simply be plot devices, used and discarded as unimportant in the telling of the larger story.

[15] As each episode of third season unfolded, the message was there as a slap in the face to all that had been shown to us in seasons past. Liz Friedman, at the second Burbank Convention, discounted the issue of rape [THE DELIVERER (50/304)] in January 1998. "It's not the representation of a man climbing on top of Gabrielle in an act of sexualized violence", she stated, although the only difference I could see was a matter of semantics. Gabrielle's body was still violated, and she was impregnated against her will. When the outcry from the fans continued, the XenaStaff stood behind their words, "It was not a rape" and sent the fans the message, "If you can't deal with it, then it's your problem".

[16] The story went on to tell us that Gabrielle was forced to submit to Dahak's will because she "allowed" her blood innocence to be taken from her. We were told that Gabrielle made a conscious choice to kill Meridian. This story line continues throughout the rift arc where it is emphasized that bad things happen because Gabrielle allowed that child to live, and Hope is referred to repeatedly as "Gabrielle's daughter". By continuing in this vein, the horrific idea of blaming the victim for rape was perpetuated. We got the message that everything was Gabrielle's fault, and this was her mess to clean up. It was further perpetuated when, in GABRIELLE'S HOPE (51/305), Xena notes that Gabrielle looks "about four months pregnant", punctuated with a look that seems to say, 'Who've you been messing around with?' Rape became a plot device to be used and then ignored when it became inconvenient, and we got the message that "this is merely a woman's issue and, therefore, not important in the greater scheme of things".

[17] The third season went on to deconstruct other original, positive themes as well. In the second season episode DESTINY (36/212), we were shown that Xena turned evil because of the death of a friend and mentor, M'Lila. That message was changed in THE DEBT (52,53/306,307), and we were told that Xena actually turned evil because a man, Caesar, betrayed her.

And an hour later, you want to study again!


Lao Ma is an important teacher for Xena.


[18] As her past with Lao Ma unfolded, the previously non-existent gender role gap was widened. Xena was told that in order to become great, she must assume the traditional woman's role and "serve others". She had to stand back and take it as she was called a "worthless whore", and she could not retaliate. The very idea that Lao Ma had to lead from secret was distasteful. Her life-course was dictated by her gender, not her abilities. This is the antithesis of the message of empowerment from the previous seasons. When Xena refused to bow to this way of life, she was deemed a failure. We are slapped in the face with the new message: "If you can't fit into the traditional woman's role, you are a failure".

[19] The supposed end to the rift arc starts out with a brutal scene as Gabrielle is dragged halfway across the Grecian countryside by her companion. I am of the opinion that this was not out of character for Xena. I believe she is quite capable of it in her state of mind. I did not believe it was a violent demonstration of abuse until the whole issue was just dropped. It was never mentioned again and the consequences were never discussed. The horrible act was further diminished when we were told by Steven L. Sears in an American ON-Line chat, "That's something that can be assumed was handled off-camera". Again we get the message that "This is a woman's issue and, therefore, not important in the greater scheme of things".

[20] In FORGIVEN (60/314), we are reminded painfully that fights between women, catfights as it were, are not to be taken seriously. After all, Xena does not bat an eye at the fact that Gabrielle is bleeding from deep scratches and a bite. The irony is that this follows on the heels of ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) where Xena intones, "You're my source, Gabrielle". We are further shown that the way to get a possibly abused kid to change her attitude is by beating her senseless.

[21] Something else that has entered the XWP world is Joxer's unwanted sexual attention to Gabrielle. While we understand that Gabrielle can pound him to mush, these advances are coming from a recurring character, which means the issue must be dealt with repeatedly. It is a tired joke, and it's extremely distasteful. FORGET ME NOT (63/317) was the most extreme case. As Joxer is trying to give Gabrielle back her "good" memories, he changes her stories so that he is the hero instead of Xena. He also adds in sexual scenarios between Gabrielle and himself that never occurred. While from a sub-text standpoint one can laugh and say that maybe she did those things with Xena, from the other side, it just shows a growing tendency to sexualize Joxer and give us the message that it is okay for a man to force his attentions on a woman, and that he should only be pitied for it. They try to redeem him by having him wise-up at the last minute and admit that he has lied to her about all of it, although he lies again and excepts the part about Gabrielle dancing nude in the rain for him. Yet, the damage is done. He has gone down that road, if only mentally. We also get the message that it is okay to take advantage of someone with diminished mental capacity and to brainwash her with your own pathetic fantasies.


The Real Problem

[22] I picked up the recent interview with Xena: Warrior Princess writer Chris Manheim, in the Starlog Yearbook (1998) and a bit of the interview made me stop in my tracks, "I don't know if our fans would follow us if we got any darker". This made me see that the writers have no clue as to the message they are really sending with the events of this season. Darker is not a problem. Introducing important issues and then dealing with them by saying, "It's all in the past", is the problem. Yes, our heroes are women, but you cannot have it both ways. You cannot introduce serious women's issues and then refuse to deal with them. Stop diminishing women by not dealing with problems that are uncomfortable or might get in the way of the "bigger story".

[23] In conclusion, after this season, am I still a fan of Xena? Good question. I have stopped recommending the show to my friends, I hear the rumors of fourth season and flinch, and I am passe about whether or not I watch anymore. I am still a fan of Lucy Lawless, and I am an eternal optimist. I have sat through more bad movies than I can count because I wanted to see how they turned out. The third season has given us some excellent acting and great cinematography, but when the substance is the message "this is what happens to women who think they can make a difference", what's the point? I have been fighting that message all my life, and I am certainly not entertained by it.



Biography

Michelle Frazier Michelle Frazier
http://www.gweng.com/flawless/index.html
I was born and raised on a farm/ranch in South Texas with three brothers. I have a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Design from Texas A&M University. I am a Civil Designer for a small Engineering firm in the same town I grew up in. When I am not adding to or rebuilding my own computer, I build and troubleshoot Personal Computers on the side. My musical interests are eclectic, I enjoy classic rock, blues, and have been caught listening to heavy metal, classical, and even country. Patsy Cline gets me every time. She and Nina Simone share my CD player. My other hobbies are painting, reading, playing guitar, and writing. I also maintain a small web page dedicated to Lucy Lawless.
Favorite episode: ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) -- The last episode in which Xena & Gabrielle still seem to like each other.
Favorite line: Xena: "I wasn't going to let you take off with my best friend". LOST MARINER (45/221)
First episode seen: WARRIOR PRINCESS (H09/109)
Least favorite episode: most of third season

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