Whoosh! Issue 24 - September 1998

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

Ellen Ripley vs. Xena

Can you open soup cans with this thing?

Ripley knows how to kick serious tail in ALIENS.

[21] With reference to the Alien film series, Paula Graham analyzed the phenomenon of lesbian viewers enjoying "a film with pleasurable lesbian-erotic undertones, but anti-feminist content" [Note 17]. Graham discussed the way the films "bring an Amazon into conflict with a monstrous 'mother'" [Note 18], which was a source of much of the dispute feminist critics had with the films.

[22] As much as I enjoyed the Alien films, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in my opinion, had several drawbacks as a feminist heroine.

[23] First, her gender was repeatedly made an issue. She (1) was "displayed as sexual spectacle in her underwear" [Note 19] in several of the films; (2) was constantly vulnerable to attack by the aliens; and, (3) was the victim of an attempted gang rape in the third film.

[24] Second, to combat the alien queen in the second film, Ripley transformed herself into a version of the male action adventure hero complete with what Graham described as "phallic hardware" [Note 20], but through her "relationships with the child, Newt, and with Hicks" [Note 21], the film "narratively heterosexualize[d] the female protagonist" [Note 22].

[25] Third, in order to defeat the monstrousness of the aliens in the second film, Ripley became a monster herself. In Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992), she was impregnated with a queen alien and declared herself "one of the family". The fourth film, Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997), made Ripley's monstrousness both literal and complete. Having died in the third film, she was cloned as part-human/part-alien, so that the queen alien larva inside her could be extracted. At one point, she introduced herself as "the monster's mother". She was torn between her humanity and her alien instincts and physiology. One scene showed her lying nestled in a tangle of slimy alien tentacles and limbs.

[26] In Alien Resurrection, females are inevitably monstrous and/or of unnatural origins. Winona Ryder's character, Call, turned out to be an android who loathed her body, wishing to be human. The queen alien extracted from Ripley's cloned body acquired human DNA and a human means of reproduction. Instead of laying the huge rubbery eggs we saw in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), she now has a pregnancy with a horribly distended belly and a birth which resulted in a female half-human/half-alien creature, that Ripley killed with particularly gory violence.

[27] Throughout the Alien series, the female body becomes more and more a site of revulsion and self-hatred, particularly in the scene which shows Ripley viewing a room full of grotesquely malformed failed clones of herself. Xena, by contrast, is obviously very comfortable in her body. From her improbable gravity-defying gymnastic ability to a comfortable shared bath with Gabrielle, she exudes a cheerful confidence and a lack of self-consciousness about her appearance. Unlike Ripley, she does not need to adopt a macho stance or become a literal monster to defeat her enemies. While Xena is continually fighting her dark past and her own violent and vengeful impulses, she is neither masculinized, nor is she a bully. She is motivated by compassion for those weaker than herself.

Sarah Connor vs. Xena

Do you have any idea what this does to your nails?

Sarah Connor is no shrinking violet.

[28] Another female hero, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991), was also portrayed in monstrous terms. In a notable scene, a videotape is frozen with her face in a furious snarl. Like Ripley, Sarah ritualistically transforms herself into a warrior, essentially adopting a version of Arnold Schwarzenegger's black costume as well as his impersonal ruthlessness. Her solution to the impending creation of the destructive Skynet computer is to try to murder the computer's unknowing creator in his home, but she bursts into tears, unable to complete the deed.

[29] When the computer programmer protests his innocence, Sarah engages in a very unappealing version of a feminist rant: "F*ck*ng men like you built the hydrogen bomb, men like you thought it up. You think you're so creative. You don't know what it is to really create something, to create a life, to feel it growing inside you. All you know how to create is death". Sarah's speech reduces feminism to a mindless biological determinism, and her ten-year old son, who asks if they could be a little more constructive, quickly puts her in her place. For all her competence with weapons and her resourcefulness, Sarah is shown as a deeply flawed heroine, one who needs the leadership of her son and the Terminator to do the right thing.

[30] XWP, instead, embraces a liberal, equal-opportunity feminism. Xena does not engage in male bashing (in fact, she rebukes the male-bashing female criminal, Glaphyra, in THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN [49/303]), but she does encourage women to define themselves without reference to men. In the episode BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (12/112), Xena helps Helen of Troy realize she can live a life independently of men and their attempts to possess her. At the end of the episode, Helen leaves Troy to travel on her own. Granted, XWP is wildly inaccurate in its depiction of history and mythology, but that is part of its charm as a pastiche. It does not pretend to be accurate.

[31] In the episode, HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211), Xena must go undercover at the world's first beauty contest, "Miss Known World". Both she and Gabrielle rail against the objectification of women's bodies, the spectacle of "underdressed, overdeveloped bimbos", and "a feeble excuse to exploit and degrade women", and then, at the end of the episode, the female contestants all withdraw, declaring their wish to be valued for more than their looks. The eventual winner is a female impersonator, Miss Artiphys, sympathetically portrayed by Karen Dior, aka Geoff Gann. That episode, in fact, was nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) media award.

Fandom and Social Pressure

[32] Of course, some fans will be disappointed if they expect XWP to express a consistently feminist, and queer-positive message. XWP is a popular culture commodity, and as such, it must bow, to an extent, to conservative social pressures. This phenomenon is seen most prominently in what subtext-fans derisively refer to as "the man of the week". Xena and Gabrielle are occasionally provided with male love interests, presumably to reassure 'phobic' advertisers and viewers, but these men also seem to serve the same function as the disposable girlfriends do in male-bonding films and TV series, and they are inevitably killed or disappear by the end of the hour.

[33] Many fans were dismayed at a scene in which Xena, on horseback, nearly dragged Gabrielle to her death [THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)]. While I doubt the series' creators intended to convey a message that abuse is acceptable, that was the unintended effect of a scene designed for its dramatic impact. What is remarkable, however, is just how overt XWP usually is in presenting feminist messages and a lesbian subtext. I can personally forgive them if they slip on occasion.

Xena: Feminist Role Model

[34] Some feminists might balk at the notion of Xena as a role model, since she usually solves her problems with violence. That is inevitable in an action-driven series that in many respects serves as a live-action cartoon, with comic-book-style heroes and villains. Much of the violence on the show is of the cartoonish variety, with patently unrealistic special effects and deliberately exaggerated sound effects. Unlike the grimly macho Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, Xena is having fun.

[35] The episode, A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), shows a typical day for our heroes, beginning with an early morning surprise attack. Xena leaps into battle with a group of armed warriors, disabling them with iron cookware. The campiness and implausibility of such scenes allow viewers an affectionately ironic stance. When Xena ruins the pair's one frying pan by throwing it chakram-style at the heads of three warriors (in a deliberately preposterous-looking special effect), Gabrielle is furious. She demands, "You do have weapons, don't you?" and Xena cheerfully replies, "I like to be creative in a fight. It gets my juices going", to which Gabrielle retorts, "Can we cook with your juices?"


I don't care what Steve Sears says.  We'll do it if we wanna!

Xena and Gabrielle have a friendly disagreement after the destruction of the frying pan.

[36] Gabrielle's line, "Can we cook with your juices", points to the other element that appeals to a lesbian audience: the sometimes-less and sometimes-more overt lesbian subtext. The subtext usually remains in the realm of what D. A. Miller calls "the shadow kingdom of connotation, where insinuations could be at once developed and denied" [Note 23]. This deniability allows some fans to deny strenuously that the subtext exists, and the coy and contradictory statements made by the series' producers complicate the issue.

[37] Even in an interview with The Advocate, lesbian producer Liz Friedman issued qualifications, saying, for example, "We never wrote Xena to be a lesbian ... But it's not our show, it's the audience's show. If the fans want to read Xena that way, great" [Note 24]. She added, "In terms of what's explicitly presented, Xena and Gabrielle are very close friends who, I do believe, love each other, whether or not there's a degree of sexual intimacy" [Note 25]. She also described them as "just a perfect little butch-femme couple ... What they do between episodes, I don't know" [Note 26].

[38] Producer Robert Tapert also neither denies nor confirms the subtext, suggesting that Xena and Gabrielle's sex life is their own business. Lawless herself has been known to compliment her lesbian fans in public statements and flirt with subtext, telling a Playboy interviewer that Xena's favorite vacation would be a "sailing trip to Lesbos". In a recent Whoosh! interview by Bret Rudnick (Whoosh! #22, ), producer and writer Stephen Sears confirmed that Xena and Gabrielle have a "love relationship," but stated that "they're not having sex", thereby dismaying many subtext-friendly fans.

[39] Full-scale battles rage on XWP Internet forums, with pro and anti-subtexters grasping at every bit of evidence from the series and from the creators' public statements to buttress their positions. It is more productive to argue, as Kathleen E. Bennett does, that "XWP is not so much capital-L 'Lesbian' as it is queer, an interpretive landscape where gender roles are uprooted and hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality coexist in the space of possibility. It both flirts with and sidesteps questions of sexual identity, but it never buys into them", but rather "questions conventional assumptions of compulsory heterosexuality and binary gender roles" [Note 27].

[40] It is evident that the series plays up camp elements to appeal to a queer audience. A famous first-season scene has the camera panning the pair's clothing and gear, strewn across several trees. We hear Gabrielle ask, "How was that?" and in a sultry voice, Xena replies, "Very good. You're getting the hang of it". The camera eventually reveals both women naked in a stream... fishing [ALTARED STATES (19/119)]. The same episode later has a drugged Gabrielle falling to the floor in front of Xena and exclaiming rapturously, "You are beautiful!"

[41] A second-season episode, GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204), takes place partially in what appears to be a lesbian disco populated by sexy female vampires in S/M garb. The vampires are actually "Bacchaes" or followers of Bacchus, and after Gabrielle suffers a Bacchae bite, she bites Xena, while Xena languorously sucks her finger.

[42] In another episode, BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302), it is unclear whether a mark on Xena's neck is a Bacchae bite or a hickey. When the hickey is noticed, Gabrielle looks away, embarrassed. In the beauty contest episode [HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211)], after female impersonator, Miss Artiphys, wins, "she" engages in a lip-locking kiss with Xena on stage. The only person who looks discomfited is Gabrielle.

[43] The episode, A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) features a fan favorite subtext scene: a lengthy hot tub bath shared by Xena and Gabrielle. This particular scene was even alluded to in XWP's companion series, HTLJ. In the campy female-impersonation episode, MEN IN PINK (H71/412), the Widow Twanky (Edith Sidebottom aka Michael Hurst, ironically, the director of A DAY IN THE LIFE) comes upon Autolycus (Bruce Campbell) and Salmoneus (Robert Trebor) in the bath. "She" demands haughtily, "Who do we think we are today, Xena and Gabrielle?" A DAY IN THE LIFE also features Gabrielle discouraging the lovestruck Hower by telling him that Xena "likes what I do". This was apparently an ad-lib or an error on O'Connor's part; the line was "She likes what she's doing", but the producers left it in, playfully acknowledging the subtext for queer fans.

I'm telling you that spinach is right *there*!

More subtext than a school of tuna.

[44] A subtext-lovers' favorite episode was the third season's FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS (64/318). Fans were struck by such double-entendres as "Gabrielle, let's get wet!" and "She wants me to fist a fish?" and by Xena's obviously rapturous facial expression when she was expecting a declaration of lifetime commitment by Gabrielle. The scene where Xena pulls Gabrielle out of the lake also drew much speculation, were her hands on Gabrielle's breasts on purpose? In this episode, again, the subtext is alluded to in a playful and suggestive manner.


[45] The subtext, however, is not simply an in-joke between XWP's creators and queer fans in the know. The love between Xena and Gabrielle is taken very seriously, and their overt declarations of love have increased in frequency as the series has progressed. A recent story arc involving a much-publicized rift between the two characters (parts of which were handled well, other parts, less well), concluded in a new understanding between them where their love conquers all their (very serious) differences, including a revelation of Gabrielle's jealousy of a woman in Xena's past [FORGET ME NOT (63/317)].

[46] In the first post-rift episode, ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313), Xena tells Gabrielle, "Even in death... I will never leave you". The lesbian viewer can both comfortably identify with and desire Xena, as XWP, with its camp elements, its heroine with her active agency, and her love for her partner Gabrielle, subverts the typical structure of active desiring male subject and passive female object.

[47] The most famous subtextual moment from XWP, a moment that has been captured on countless XWP web pages, was the famous kiss from THE QUEST (37/213), in which a dying Xena's spirit takes over the body of Autolycus, the King of Thieves, and meets Gabrielle in a dreamscape:

X: Gabrielle, Gabrielle, it's me. I'm not dead. At least, not completely.
G [crying]: Why, why did you leave? There's so many things I want to say to you.
X: Gabrielle, you don't have to say a word. We don't have much time. I need to get to the ambrosia; otherwise I will be gone.
G: Xena, I can't lose you again.
X: Gabrielle, I'll always be here.
[They kiss.]


[48] XWP appeals to fans on many levels. As a parent of a ten-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son, I appreciate the many feminist messages the series conveys. I believe that in standing up for herself and in essentially behaving as if her gender is irrelevant, Xena serves as a powerful role model for my daughter, as well as a lesson in respect for women for my son. At the same time, they see a male action hero, Hercules, who tries to avoid violence and who even changes diapers on XWP's companion series, HTLJ [TWO MEN AND A BABY (H65/406)]. As a lesbian and a feminist, I can also appreciate XWP for being one of the most dynamic and powerful relationships between two women on television, for the complexity of Xena's character and the series' themes, for the empowering feminist messages, and for the campy humor that tells me that XWP's creators are having fun with their series and hoping the viewers do as well.

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Note 01:
The character Ellen Ripley appears in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992), and Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeanet, 1997). The character Sarah Connor appears in Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991).
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Note 02:
Laura Mulvey. "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema." Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975). Rpt. in Feminism And Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. NY: Routledge; London: BFI Publishing, 1988. Hereafter refered to as Mulvey I. Page 59.
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Note 03:
Ibid., page 68.
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Note 04:
Ibid., page 63.
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Note 05:
Laura Mulvey. "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by Duel in the Sun." Framework 6, nos. 15-17 (1981). Rpt. in Feminism And Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. NY: Routledge; London: BFI Publishing, 1988. Hereafter referred to as Mulvey II. Page 72.
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Note 06:
Ibid., page 70.
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Note 07:
Which Mulvey defined as arising "from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight" Mulvey II, page 61.
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Note 08:
Ibid., page 62.
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Note 09:
Ibid., page 63.
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Note 10:
Paula Graham. "Looking Lesbian: Amazons and Aliens in Science Fiction Cinema." The Good, The Bad, And The Gorgeous: Popular Culture's Romance With Lesbianism. Eds. Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge. London: Pandora, 1994. Page 217.
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Note 11:
Ibid., page 211.
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Note 12:
Ibid., page 212.
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Note 13:
Donna Minkowitz. "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong-and Popular." Ms. 7, no. 1 (1996). Page 77.
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Note 14:
Anne Stockwell. "Flirting with Xena." The Advocate August 20, 1996. Page 81.
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Note 15:
Lorraine Gamman. "Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze." The Female Gaze: Women As Viewers Of Popular Culture. Eds. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshent. Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989. Page 10.
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Note 16:
Stockwell, page 82.
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Note 17:
Graham, page 214.
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Note 18:
Ibid., page 198.
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Note 19:
Ibid., page 200.
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Note 20:
Ibid., page 205
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Note 21:
Ibid., page 206
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Note 22:
Ibid., page 207
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Note 23:
D.A. Miller. "Anal Rope." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. NY, London: Routledge, 1991. Page 125.
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Note 24:
Stockwell, page 81
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Note 25:
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Note 26:
Ibid., page 82.
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Note 27:
Kathleen E. Bennett. Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response.
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Works Cited

Bennett, Kathleen E. Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response.

Gamman, Lorraine. "Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze." The Female Gaze: Women As Viewers Of Popular Culture. Eds. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshent. Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989.

Graham, Paula. "Looking Lesbian: Amazons and Aliens in Science Fiction Cinema." The Good, The Bad, And The Gorgeous: Popular Culture's Romance With Lesbianism. Eds. Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge. London: Pandora, 1994.

Miller, D. A. "Anal Rope." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. NY, London: Routledge, 1991.

Minkowitz, Donna. "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong-and Popular." Ms. 7, no. 1 (1996): 74-77.

Mulvey, Laura. "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by Duel in the Sun." Framework 6, nos. 15-17 (1981). Rpt. in Feminism And Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. NY: Routledge; London: BFI Publishing, 1988.

__________. "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema." Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975). Rpt. in Feminism And Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. NY: Routledge; London: BFI Publishing, 1988.

Stockwell, Anne. "Flirting with Xena." The Advocate August 20, 1996: 81-82.

Wald, Kevin. "Xena Operetta.".


Atara Stein Atara Stein
Atara Stein is an associate professor of English literature at an institution of higher learning in Southern California. She lives with her wife Ruth and her children, Sarah and Bradley, who are all wise enough to be XWP fans, and three cats who are not wise enough to be XWP fans. She writes both XWP and HTLJ fan fiction and spends too much money on Xena memorabilia.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215); BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); THE DEBT (52,53/306,307); ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313); FINS, FEMMES AND GEMs (64/318); THE BITTER SUITE -- after the "Gab drag" (58/312)
Favorite line: "No, no. Yes. No, I tried that. Yes, both ways. No, I don't know. No again. Are there any more questions?" BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); "Can we cook with your juices?" A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
First episode seen: RETURN OF CALLISTO (29/205)
Least favorite episode: THE DELIVERER (50/304), GABRIELLE'S HOPE (51/305)

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