Whoosh! Issue 24 - September 1998

IAXS project #007
By Atara Stein
Copyright © 1998 held by author
5156 words

Author's Note: This is a re-write of a somewhat shorter version of a paper which was presented at the Popular Culture Association of America's Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, April 9, 1998. The original was geared for a more general audience than the average Whoosh! reader. Please pardon the basic information with which you are already familiar.

Introduction (01-03)
Xena: Objectified Princess? (04-08)
The Lesbian Gaze (09-12)
Leather, Some People Just Love Leather (13-15)
Xena: Feminist Heroine (16-20)
Ellen Ripley vs. Xena (21-27)
Sarah Connor vs. Xena (28-31)
Fandom and Social Pressure (32-33)
Xena: Feminist Role Model (34-35)
Subtext (36-44)
Love (45-47)
Conclusion (48)
Works Cited

Xena: Warrior Princess, The Lesbian Gaze, And The Construction Of A Feminist Heroine

Careful.  I'm havin' a bad sword day.

Xena, Warrior Princess and Icon.


[1] I was introduced to Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) by my then eight-year-old daughter, and almost immediately became an obsessive fan. I quickly learned, however, that XWP is a popular culture phenomenon, appealing to a wide range of fans across a demographic spectrum. XWP has a tremendous presence on the World Wide Web, with countless fan pages featuring images, sounds, articles, and fan fiction. There are several XWP news groups and mailing lists, and, of course, our own WHOOSH. But XWP has been particularly embraced by lesbian fans, who applaud the heroine's kick-*ss attitude, spectacular good looks, feminism, and the unmistakable lesbian subtext in her relationship with her sidekick, Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor).

[2] XWP is a spin-off from its companion series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in which Xena (Lucy Lawless) originally appeared as a ruthless warlord leading a pillaging army. Over the course of three episodes, she reconsidered and decided to devote her life to doing good and atoning for the sins of her past. As her own series began, she acquired a sidekick, Gabrielle, who was a bard and became an Amazon princess. Xena and Gabrielle roamed the countryside, protecting the weak, fighting evil warlords, having confrontations with annoying Olympian gods, and working on their relationship, which they defined in terms of "best friends" and "family", but which many fans see as that of lovers.

[3] Lesbian viewers applaud a series in which a powerful, intimate, and loving relationship between two women is celebrated, can identify with Xena kicking the bad guys' collective behind, and can lust over actress Lucy Lawless' marvelous physique all at once. While some feminist viewers complain about the ways in which Xena is objectified, Lucy Lawless is hardly the waif-thin, passive, feminine ideal. Unlike some other female warrior vehicles, most notably the Alien series and the Terminator films [Note 01], where the female hero becomes both masculinized and monstrous in her pursuit of her goals, XWP embodies a much more satisfying feminist message.

Xena: Objectified Princess?

[4] Is Xena a sex object? Her costume and armor certainly reveal much more than they protect. In an essay entitled, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Laura Mulvey argued that films typically reenact male domination of women by objectifying the heroine. Mulvey wants to destroy "the erotic pleasure in film" [Note 02] , which she defines in terms of voyeurism, sadism, and "the fetishistic representation of the female image" [Note 03] . The male viewer, according to her thesis, identifies with the "omnipotence" of the male protagonist and the "active power of the erotic look" [Note 04] . In a later essay, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'", Mulvey addressed the female spectator, arguing that she oscillated between a "transvestite" [Note 05] masculinization (in identifying with the male hero) and "passive femininity" [Note 06] .

[5] Mulvey's argument, although reductionist, accurately described certain features of traditional films. However, at the same time, in associating power exclusively with males and passivity exclusively with females, she recapitulated the binary gender roles she was attempting to deconstruct. She does not seem to fathom that a man can serve as a sex object, or that a woman can lustfully gaze at a man on screen. If she gazes at a woman in such a fashion, according to Mulvey, she does so by identifying with a masculine perspective.

[6] Furthermore, Mulvey's condemnation of scopophilia [Note 07] and her split between the "active/male" subject who gazes and "passive/female" object of the gaze [Note 08] have already been critiqued by her peers.

[7] In context of this paper, the character Xena certainly appeals to the pleasure in looking, yet she is hardly a passive object. Mulvey argues that, for a male spectator, "a male movie star's glamorous characteristics are thus, not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete ideal ego" because "the character can make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator" [Note 09].

[8] Why cannot a female hero serve such a function for a female spectator? Paula Graham posits a "lesbian subjective space" in which "the female warrior is sexually objectified, but also identified with as 'phallic' (desiring) subject" [Note 10]. There is, thus, "an identification with and desire for the masculinized female body", a space in which "both protagonist and spectator occupy 'phallic' positions in the relay" [Note 11].

The Lesbian Gaze

[9] But what if the active protagonist's body is not masculinized? It can be argued that a lesbian spectator need not desire or identify with Xena from a transvestised masculine subject position, but rather from a lesbian one. It is possible that the lesbian gaze encompasses both an appreciation of Xena's stunning physique and an identification with her strength and power.

[10] Xena offers a lesbian spectator what Graham described as "the elements of powerful agency located in the pleasures of bodily action" [Note 12]. The opening credits sequence of the series reveals this conjunction between Xena's status as a sex object and her abilities as a warrior. The sequence alternates between a loving camera tilt up Xena's body as she adjusts her armor, and scenes of Xena in battle.

[11] Donna Minkowitz argued that "Many women fans somehow manage to bring together an appreciation for Xena's feminism with an appreciation for her body", and also notes, as many others have, that the star of Xena's companion series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, "displays his body just as much as Lawless does" [Note 13] . Hercules' Kevin Sorbo wears tight leather pants and a sleeveless, open shirt, and several episodes reveal the camera slowly panning his chest and arms, even zooming in on his Adam's apple as he swigs a long drink.

[12] XWP also has a lesbian producer, Liz Friedman, who makes very clear that she sees Xena as a lesbian's dream date. She told The Advocate she would date Xena "in a heartbeat", explaining, "Xena's perfect! She's tough, smart, funny, and good with a sword" [Note 14].

Leather, Some People Just Love Leather

I'm a fraction of the cost of Xena and twice the fun!

Minya, the other leather queen.

[13] Lorraine Gamman cites "the pornographic scenario of fetishised male fantasies about women in leather" [Note 15] , but do lesbians not have such fantasies themselves? Xena's costume may well appeal to those with a leather fetish, but XWP subversively comments on Xena's sex appeal, deflecting any possibility of viewing her merely as a sex object. In a scene from the episode, A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), Xena and Gabrielle make fun of a young man, Hower, who has developed a puppy-like crush on Xena at first sight.
G: Another one's fallen for you.
X: Again? Why does this always happen?
G: It's the blue eyes, the leather. Some guys just love leather.
X: I think a wardrobe change is in order.
G: You could wear chain mail.
X: Yeah, but I think that'd just attract a kinkier group.
G: You're probably right.
[They both laugh]
X: On the other hand, I could just stop bathing and wear a smelly wolfskin. That'd turn them off.
G: That's true. Of course you'd also be traveling alone.

[14] Xena is anything but flattered by Hower's attention. She is both amused and annoyed by it. Of course, Xena's costume is intended to catch the viewer's eye, but Xena and Gabrielle's conversation in this scene points to the error of equating the character with her leather-clad surface.

[15] Hower is revealed to be a fool who refuses to accept Xena's blunt rejection ("Ya got a snowball's chance in Tartarus with me," says Xena) and who lustfully returns to his girlfriend, Minya, once she adopts a version of Xena's leather costume and punches out a burly warlord.

Xena: Feminist Heroine

[16] As Donna Minkowitz's profile of the series in Ms. magazine revealed, Xena is a satisfyingly feminist heroine. Of course, there are as many definitions of feminism as there are feminists, but to many, what makes Xena stand out in contrast to other action heroines is the fact that her gender is simply not an issue. While the series usually makes clear that Xena and Gabrielle do not need men, it portrays Xena as neither a victim of nor as inherently superior to men.

[17] As producer Liz Friedman states, "Xena doesn't apologize ... She doesn't accept that being a woman is a disadvantage in this world" [Note 16].

[18] The opening sequence describes Xena as a "hero", not a heroine. It is never questioned on the series whether a woman can be a warrior. Xena is the favorite of Ares, the god of war, and she receives the undivided respect of both her enemies and those she protects. Xena's most feared enemy, Callisto, is also a woman, who has no trouble recruiting armies of followers. Several episodes feature the Amazons, who taught Gabrielle to fight with a staff. In the Xenaverse, it is simply taken for granted that a woman can be a hero and a warrior, and can single-handedly defeat an entire group of armed fighters.

[19] Like any fantasy hero, Xena is infinitely resourceful. She does gravity-defying flips, she's an accomplished horsewoman, she is skilled in medicine, she can interrogate enemies with a potentially fatal nerve pinch, she can catch an arrow in mid-flight, and she has a variety of weapons at her disposal: a bullwhip, a sword, and her signature weapon, a chakram, a razor-sharp flying disk. As fan Kevin Wald's Gilbert and Sullivan-style "Xena Operetta" put it:

My armory is brazen, but my weapons are ironical;
My sword is rather phallic, but my chakram's rather yonical.

[20] Xena may have appropriated "phallic" power if we assume that power is exclusively a phallic property, but she is an equal-opportunity warrior, battling male and female foes with equal relish and competence. She is strong enough to knock out enemies with single blows and inventive enough to create a kite to channel lightning to kill a giant [A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)].

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