Whoosh! Issue 30 - March 1999

IAXS project #657
By Carolyn Bremer
Copyright © 1998 held by author
3635 words

Introduction (01-02)
A Definition of Archetype (03-04)
A Vocabulary for Discussion Purposes (05-10)
Xena and Gabrielle as Archetypes (11-13)
Treatments of the Archetypes (14-16)
     Protagonist (17)
     Guardian (18-19)
     Reason/Emotion (20-23)
     Sidekick/Skeptic (24-26)
     Contagonist (27)
     Antagonist (28-29)
     Archetypal Balances (30-38)
Conclusions (39-44)

Archetypes in Xena: Warrior Princess

It slices, it dices, but wait!  There's more!

Xena: Warrior Archetype.


[1] This article will discuss archetypal characters and Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP). I find the subject fascinating, complex, and difficult to pin down. I imagine that at least some of what I write will be met with a raised eyebrow or two. Please consider it fodder for contemplation and not truth, and take the conclusions below in the spirit of one woman's point of view. I invite your comments.

[2] The body of this article contains four sub-sections. I will muster a definition of "archetype", lay out a vocabulary for discussion purposes, discuss ways Xena and Gabrielle align with the archetypes, and then tread into more dangerous ground to offer some personal opinions about why certain treatments of archetypes are more controversial than others.

A Definition Of Archetype

[3] An archetype, thus spake Webster's Dictionary, is "a pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies". It is a perfect example or a prototype. The word 'archetype' comes from the Greek 'archetypos' meaning "original pattern".

[4] Its earliest uses, before it became part of literary discussions, can be traced to psychology, and specifically to Carl Jung (1865-1961). Jung laid the groundwork about archetypes and the collective unconscious. According to Jung, the collective unconscious consists of archetypes, which are images and patterns that are shared by all of us, something universal and not dependent on personal experience. Archetypes and the collective unconscious are inherited. In literature, both author and reader instinctively understand these "familiar" images and behaviors. There is no definitive list of archetypes. It is more a way of considering qualities and characteristics than a single system governing literary or psychological representations.

A Vocabulary For Discussion Purposes

[5] For this article, I will borrow the major archetypes as delineated in Dramatica. Dramatica, written by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, is a theory of how stories work. It is a complicated and well-considered way of defining and using archetypes in drama. Please bear in mind that I use Dramatica's archetypes primarily as a springboard. Dramatica covers a great deal more territory than what I bring to this discussion. If you are interested in knowing more about Dramatica, you can find the complete book posted on the Web. There is a demo version of the accompanying software.

[6] According to Dramatica there are eight main archetypes. These aspects of a character are often combined into complex characters. They can be seen to work in balanced pairs. Here is the incredibly condensed version of archetypes according to Dramatica.

  1. [7] Protagonist and Antagonist - The Protagonist is the chief proponent and principal driver of the story. The Antagonist directly opposes the Protagonist and tries to keep her from reaching her goal. In other words, the Protagonist drives toward success, and the Antagonist drives to undermine success.

  2. [8] Guardian and Contagonist - The Guardian is a teacher and helper, a protector, and one who illuminates a path. The Guardian serves her function both mentally and physically. The Contagonist tempts, places obstacles in paths, lures the Protagonist from her goal, and deflects her. Guardian and Contagonist are conscience and temptation.

  3. [9] Reason and Emotion - Reason is calm, logical, cool, even cold or lacking in humanity. Emotion is frenetic, disorganized, driven by feelings, and wears her heart on her sleeve. They are intellect and heart.

  4. [10] Sidekick and Skeptic - A Sidekick is a faithful supporter of any character, though usually she is attached to the Protagonist. The Skeptic disbelieves and opposes a character. They are confidence and doubt.

Xena and Gabrielle as Archetypes

Why do I feel like breaking out into a Bing Crosby/Louis Armstrong duet?

Gabrielle and Xena, gone fishin'.

[11] Both Xena and Gabrielle are wonderfully rich combinations of these archetypes. The fact that these combinations change and relocate is one of the reasons the characters are so vividly three dimensional and human. Depending on the specific episode in question, these combinations can wildly shift the balances, but the following are the foundations of Xena and Gabrielle's characters.

[12] Xena is usually the Protagonist who drives toward the story's goal. She is usually the Guardian as well, often of Gabrielle but also of innocents and victims. She is more Reason than Emotion, but one is usually tempered by the effect of the other. She is a Sidekick for Gabrielle and rarely a Skeptic.

[13] Gabrielle is sometimes the Protagonist driving the story. She is the Guardian of Xena, though often more subtly than Xena is of Gabrielle. She is occasionally the unwilling Contagonist, getting herself in trouble and becoming an obstacle for Xena; more rarely, she is a willing Contagonist. She is more Emotion than Reason, though she can turn to Reason whenever necessary. Gabrielle is a true Sidekick, a faithful supporter. She occasionally plays the part of Skeptic.

Treatments of the Archetypes

[14] What I find fascinating and compelling is that there are two Protagonists on this show. That happens rarely in literature and even more rarely in television. Xena and Gabrielle usually trade off this role. In episodes which have an A and a B story, Xena is the main Protagonist while Gabrielle plays a secondary Protagonist in some scenes. For example, in CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102), as Xena and Darius maneuver toward peace, Gabrielle helps Sphaerus learn the ways of peace and rebellion against a warlord father. This splitting of the two main characters is relatively rare compared to television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993- ), and Star Trek: Voyager (1995- ) where the A and B plot scheme is used almost exclusively. Such splits occur frequently in the first season of XWP.

[15] The shows which generate the most boisterous fan responses, both positive and negative, are those that shift the balance of archetypes. Fans who felt the Rift Arc went too far could argue that we were presented with a Xena and/or Gabrielle in an unacceptable archetype. Others might celebrate the expansion of these characters into uncharted territory, making them more life-like and rich.

[16] In some cases, it not only does not matter who is who in the archetype categories, it is the fact that there are shifts and eddies that makes the show stronger. For instance, that Xena and Gabrielle are both Protagonists is wonderful! They are both Guardians. They are both Sidekicks. It is that amazing chemistry, synergy, and balance that gives us so much pleasure and faith in them (and therefore in ourselves). They defeat a prevalent patriarchal mode of thought which says that you must displace someone to get something. Xena and Gabrielle share; they do not displace. These complex and shared archetypes are why XWP is a unique show. Most other TV shows (particularly those with ensemble casts) have clearly defined characters who never cross those boundaries of archetypes.


Gabrielle is overcome by unidentified marketplace fumes

Gabrielle swoons in the Mighty Joxer's arms.

[17] When there is a single Protagonist, it is most often Xena. Gabrielle is the sole Protagonist in Lucy-lite episodes such as FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216). It is also possible to view The Friendship as the Protagonist. In some cases, it really takes the two of them together to get the crisis solved. Examples of this are THE PRICE (44/220), THE GREATER GOOD (21/121), and THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). An archetype does not have to be manifested in a character, and a plausible Protagonist in this show is The Friendship between Xena and Gabrielle.


[18] Usually, Xena is the physical Guardian and Gabrielle the moral or mental Guardian. There are many examples of this. Xena is the physical Guardian in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) and THE PRICE (44/220), while Gabrielle is the moral Guardian in those episodes. Xena even tells Gabrielle she is her "source" in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY, and she is then able to defeat the Persian army single-handedly (an "impossible thing") because of Gabrielle.

[19] We tend to enjoy role reversals with the Guardian archetype. These reversals have gradually folded into the characters as the show has progressed. Compare Xena's ineptitude at the end of the first season DEATH IN CHAINS (09/109) when Gabrielle turns to her for moral support, and Xena is at a loss as to how to comfort Gabrielle. By the third season, Xena is a natural Guardian for Gabrielle at Joxer's funeral pyre in BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302). Xena has learned the role of moral Guardian over the course of the show. Also, at first, Gabrielle was excluded from fighting, but in the fourth season Xena trusts her to defeat Caesar in A GOOD DAY (73/405). These reversals of physical/moral Guardian occur even more frequently in fan fiction, an indicator of just how many of us like those reversals.


[20] Xena and Gabrielle are both able to call on Reason and Emotion. When Xena strays too far into Emotion (whether it is her obsession with Caesar or something imposed on her such as in the Furies), however, some of us don't want to see her go there. She becomes less believable when she is too much on the side of Emotion. Similarly, when Gabrielle is too cold, too lacking in humanity (the Reason archetype), as she was seen to be in some spots in The Rift, our buttons are also pushed. Gabrielle very rarely visits the too Reasoned side.

[21] Let us look at it from the other perspective. When Gabrielle gets too emotional, frenetic, or disorganized, it pushes some but fewer buttons than Gabrielle going too far to Reason's side. I am thinking here about her need to save Hope in MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311), not listening to Xena, and only hearing her own heart as a Mother. She would do anything to save her child. We accepted that, I think.

[22] Xena far down the Reason path seems better than Xena as a heavy Emotion character. It is believable when Xena goes far into the Reason archetype. Take THE PRICE (44/220), for example. There, Xena dissolved all emotion and followed pure logic. It was not a great move on her part, and it took Gabrielle to find the true way out, but Xena's foray into Reason did not bother many of us. While we did not love it, we accepted it. Therefore, Xena as heavy Reason is okay, but heavy Emotion is not. Gabrielle treading into heavy Emotion is okay, but we do not want her going into heavy Reason.

Is that a chakram in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Xena is happy to see Gabrielle in LOST MARINER.

[23] A cross-section of both Reason and Emotion is what we most want to see (and usually get). Xena was a bit emotional when she jumped onto Cecrops' ship [LOST MARINER (45/221)]. That was okay. She flipped back and forth between Reason and Emotion in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313), and that was okay, too. In addition, in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY, Gabrielle was the rock-solid Reason but not without the foundation of Emotion. Gabrielle became Reason in the cute scene in A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) when she was trying to decide whether they should go after the warlord or save the village from the giant (which Xena solved with an illogical coin toss). Gabrielle became Reason in A GOOD DAY (73/405), but balanced it with Emotion. In fact, the crux - throwing the spear at Phlanagus' potential killer - was so ambiguous (did she miss intentionally or not?) that the transition from Reason (as commander) to Emotion (crying over Phlanagus' body) was seamless. There is no single point where you can see the junction between Reason and Emotion in that scene. It was a stunning effect, and it displayed how remarkably rich and vibrant these characters are.


[24] With Sidekick and Skeptic, we get into grittier territory. Gabrielle's original role on the show was as Sidekick. She was there solely as faithful supporter of the Warrior Princess. Even before the end of the first season, her repertoire of archetypes began to expand, but Sidekick has always remained her foundation. There are fewer clear instances of Xena acting as Gabrielle's Sidekick. She supports Gabrielle's decision to go in ATHENS CITY ACADEMY OF THE PERFORMING BARDS (13/113) and to return home in THE PRODIGAL (18/118). (Is it coincidence that clip shows, including THE XENA SCROLLS [34/210], and Lucy-Lite episodes seem to be the most apt to have Xena as Sidekick?)

[25] There are a few examples of Xena and Gabrielle as Skeptic, but they are rare. Xena doubts Gabrielle's unquestioning faith in Hope throughout The Rift. Gabrielle doubts Xena's motives, guessing they are tied to her obsession with Caesar in WHEN IN ROME... (62/316), and she doubts Xena's decisions about treating the dying men in THE PRICE (44/220).

[26] As long as it is accepted that Xena and Gabrielle are faithful supporters of each other, then everything is okay. As soon as that balance is tipped, however, if one or the other of them strays into skeptic lands beyond the point reached in IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124), we get uncomfortable. Hence, The Rift, where they doubted each other's motives and their very friendship, became for many a difficult point in the series.


The tragic result of too much black leather

Thalassa is one of Xena's loose ends in LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN.

[27] Most of the time, Xena's past acts as Contagonist, that which tries to deflect her from her goal. A prime example is LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407), where it is indeed a figment from her past which surfaces to divert her from her path. When Gabrielle gets the role of Contagonist to Xena's protagonist, we often do not like it. In THE DEBT (52,53/306,307), for example, Gabrielle tries to block Xena from killing Ming T'ien. Even Renee O'Connor felt compelled to ask her fans not "to get mad at Gabrielle". This betrayal comes back to haunt the bard in FORGET ME NOT (63/317). When she believes she is going to die in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313), she brings it up with Xena in an effort to put the issue to rest.


[28] The ultimate no-no (it seems) is when Xena and Gabrielle are set as Protagonist and Antagonist, trying to undermine the other's goals. We are programmed to root for the Protagonist and against the Antagonist, and we run into a terrible conundrum if we are asked root against Xena or Gabrielle. I see minor examples of this more commonly. For instance in FORGIVEN (60/314), Xena tries to "save" Tara, and Gabrielle just wants her out of there. In that scenario, Xena had to apply her role of Guardian to Tara. I think the idea of Xena as protector of Gabrielle (and vice versa) is sacrosanct.

[29] Of course, there is the emotionally charged "Gab Drag" in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). Our comfort zone was completely ripped away in that scene. They attacked each other, intent on killing, and we did not know what to wish for or who to root for. The writers played into our archetypal instincts of good versus evil, of Antagonist versus Protagonist, but made no effort to proclaim which was which. In a sense, they gave us two Antagonists. At the very least, they forced us to consider complicated human emotions in a way rarely seen in television. With the groundwork of a multi-faceted friendship in place, albeit one highly strained by the events in The Rift, we were taken outside the norm in that scene, stripped of Xena and Gabrielle's conventional archetypes, and plunged into a set of actions and reactions distinctly different from what we had seen before in their characters. All of this happened in the context of a devastatingly emotional scene. It was an enormous risk to take. The success of scene is still being debated, as are its motives and meanings.

Archetypal Balances

[30] What follows is a shorthand of archetypes in "standard" usage on the show.

[31] Protagonist: This is Xena and Gabrielle in any combination, but preferably side by side. The Friendship can also be considered a Protagonist.

[32] Antagonist: Never Xena or Gabrielle.

[33] Guardian: This can be Xena and Gabrielle in any combination. It is usually Xena as physical Guardian and Gabrielle as moral compass, but we love reversals of that.

[34] Contagonist: Xena and Gabrielle are rarely likeable as Contagonists, but there are acceptable exceptions, specifically when the Protagonist is misguided. An example is Gabrielle as Contagonist to Xena's Protagonist in THE PRICE (44/220).

[35] Reason: Both Xena and Gabrielle use Reason, but Xena more intensely and more often than Gabrielle.

[36] Emotion: Both Xena and Gabrielle use Emotion, but Gabrielle more intensely and more often than Xena.

[37] Sidekick: Originally, Gabrielle was Xena's Sidekick, but as The Friendship has developed, so this role has become more balanced between Xena and Gabrielle.

[38] Skeptic: Never Xena nor Gabrielle.


[39] The characters represent many archetypes, and we can root for them in different guises from episode to episode. It is rich, it is rewarding, and it is a barometer of real life. Both Xena and Gabrielle can take on five of the eight archetypes without question: Protagonist, Guardian, Reason, Emotion, and Sidekick. The occasional foray into Contagonist can occur when the situation warrants it. We have accepted reasons for deflection in THE PRICE (44/220). Two of the archetypes are the bell-ringers. When Xena or Gabrielle becomes the Skeptic or the Antagonist, it is harder to justify. It seems better (given the choice) to have a Xena or Gabrielle become the Skeptic instead of the Antagonist. We have a harder time accepting Xena and Gabrielle outrightly opposing one another than to have one try to deflect the other off her path.

C'mon Xena, try the eye liner.  You know you want to!

Xena and Alti share a moment in AITST2.

[40] Sometimes these archetypes get very complicated. ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69,70/401,402) had a past-Xena as Antagonist to a present-Xena Protagonist, a past-Guardian of Alti and a present-Antagonist in Alti, and a past-Contagonist and a present-Sidekick in the Amazons. It was a confusing show in that way, and what it was lacking was the clear presence of Gabrielle in any of the archetypal roles. Some thought the diversion/change was effective, while others missed the unifying force of the Xena and Gabrielle friendship. This is an episode where, for some, the archetypes were pulled and pushed too far.

[41] Where does Joxer fit in all of this? His archetypes are much more difficult to determine. According to the writers of Dramatica, it is rare for any single archetype to appear in more than one character at any given time. If Gabrielle is sidekick, then that omits Joxer from the role. If Gabrielle is Contagonist, making mistakes which deflect and lure away from the goal [THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310)], then that displaces Joxer from that role. Joxer certainly is not Antagonist or Skeptic. He never works against Xena and Gabrielle, and he never doubts them. He is not a Guardian because the writers have not given him the physical or mental tools to fulfill that archetype. Xena and Gabrielle have Emotion and Reason covered, so Joxer does not usually enter that equation. In this type of archetypal analysis, he is just sort of... extra.

[42] When we perceive Joxer as either Contagonist or Antagonist to The Friendship, particularly when The Friendship is seen in the role of Protagonist, he is "in the way". It is particularly difficult for those who view the mainstay of the drama as Xena and Gabrielle's relationship to have Joxer step in as Antagonist to that relationship. Joxer will not bother those who do not share the opinion that The Friendship is Protagonist because they can not see him acting as an Antagonist to something they do not even perceive. This may well be where the two camps stake their borders. Is The Friendship an archetype? Does Joxer become the Contagonist to The Friendship, luring Gabrielle away from Xena?

[43] When the show strays into those "no-no" categories, we hear many more negative voices in fandom. Most of us do not ever want to see Xena and/or Gabrielle as Antagonist or Skeptic. Some can tolerate these better, perhaps because they are optimistic sorts who can step back and see the whole overarching scheme which has Xena and Gabrielle walking off into the sunset together.

[44] The refreshing aspect of this analysis is the wide variety of archetypes these characters are flavored with. It makes them more like us, giving them a life-like quality that emerges from the anachronistic campiness of the show's veneer. We get a quirky soup of real and make-believe and a colorful palette for analysis and interpretation that means something to us personally.


Carolyn Bremer Carolyn Bremer
Carolyn Bremer is a composer of issue-oriented, experimental and political music, and head of the composition program at the University of Oklahoma.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Favorite line: Picking just one out of the plethora of deserving candidates is utterly impossible.
First episode seen: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216) And I'm really hoping that doesn't get bumped out of the bottom spot by a fourth season Joxer bumble.

Ms. Bremer has previously written for Whoosh!:

"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part I: Timetable And Overview", Whoosh! #26 (9811)
"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part II: The Intersection Of Myth And History", Whoosh! #27 (9812)
"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part III: The Ancient Greek Arts", Whoosh! #29 (9902)
"Duality and Completeness: An Analysis of the Xena: Warrior Princess Theme Music", Whoosh! #20 (9805)

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