Whoosh! Issue 43 - April 2000

EXPLODING SUBTEXT:
SHADES OF QUEER IN ALTERNATIVE SUBTEXT BELIEFS

By Stacey Capps
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
3146 words



What Happened to Subtext? (01-04)
Callisto and Xena (05)
Ares and Xena (06-08)
Lao Ma, M'Lila, and Xena (09)
Joxer and Gabrielle (10-11)
Najara and Gabrielle (12)
And What's Up with Alti? (13)
Ares and Strife (14)
The Widow Twankey and Hercules (15)
Joxer and Ares (16-17)
Humor's Role in Subtext (18-19)
BDSM's Role in Subtext (20)
Fan Fiction's Role in Subtext (21)
The Round Subtext Thing (22-23)
Some Thoughts on the Future (24-27)
Notes (28-30)
Biography



Exploding Subtext: Shades of Queer in Alternative Subtext Beliefs




What happened to subtext?


Anchovies?  Xena, we talked about this!

It doesn't get much more subtextual than this.

[01] Subtext has remained a strictly lesbian concept for many of those who are not involved in group discussions dedicated to subtext. Subtext may reach no further to such people than Xena, Gabrielle, and perhaps Callisto. However, in my discussions online with many hardcore subtext fans, I have discovered a wide range of interests in subtextual couples and topics that could be better categorized as queer than as strictly lesbian.

[02] This evolution in the basic function of subtext was caused by a number of converging factors. First, there have been events within the episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess that have caused viewers to rethink their assumptions about the show's characters. Second, some hardcore nutball fans have come to startling conclusions while reevaluating their understanding of certain elements in the show in the light of their subtext beliefs. Finally, fan fiction authors have fueled fans' imaginations in areas that might otherwise have remained deeply buried within the subconscious of the huge majority of fans.

[03] The result of these factors has been a gradual expansion in the concepts attributed to subtext. New developments include the addition of male/male relationships and even a couple of male/female relationships in the subtext arena. Icons from the show, like Xena's chakram, her whip, and the characters' outfits have taken on new meanings to some subtexters as well. These newer interests can be grouped together under the term "alternative subtext". While I could write volumes on the beliefs of alternative subtexters, I will try instead to cover their main topics of interest and explain where their beliefs originate from.

[04] Before I begin, I would like to point out that nearly all (but not quite all) subtexters agree that Xena and Gabrielle are the true embodiment of subtext. However, when it comes to recognizing other couples and topics as subtextual, beliefs differ widely from one person to another. I personally do not hold an interest in all of the alternative subtext beliefs present in this article. Nor do I know any other person who does. Alternative subtexters can be likened to diners around a buffet table. With a wide range of options before them, they pick and choose which couples and topics will be the main dishes and side dishes of their subtext thoughts.


Callisto and Xena

[05] Callisto was the first to start the slippery slope down the hill from pure traditional subtext. Her love/hate relationship with Xena was apparent from the very start [CALLISTO (22/122)] and only became more obvious as the series progressed. Some argued that this relationship revolved, at least in part, around unresolved sexual tension between the two characters. This, in itself, was a challenge to traditional subtext. Could Xena and Gabrielle be truly perfect for each other if one of them harbored a deep sexual desire for someone else? Or does it matter if the desire is never acted upon? Callisto challenged the romantic assumptions of some lesbian subtexters, but since she was also a woman, subtext beliefs largely adapted to include her.


Ares and Xena


Mom!  Geez!

Xena and Ares are... interrupted... in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE.

[06] THE FURIES (47/301) cast another stone (actually more of a boulder) at traditional lesbian subtext beliefs. There were already fans who enjoyed the advances Ares had made to Xena in previous episodes in an effort to sway Xena to his cause. This was hardly considered subtext, and indeed all possible romantic male/female relationships were assumed to be maintext at the time. However, in the early third season episode THE FURIES, it was revealed that Ares might also be Xena's father. For subtexters, the ripple made by this change was particularly felt. The show had never been completely clear about whether Ares was soliciting sex in addition to his desire for power. When the producers refused to confirm or deny that Ares was Xena's father, it became highly unlikely that a relationship (possibly involving incest) would ever be confirmed or denied either.

[07] This pattern of refusing to confirm or deny a romantic relationship sounded awfully familiar to subtexters, and all of a sudden heterosexual fans of Ares and Xena wanted to join subtext discussions. A rift formed between those subtexters who were willing to discuss Ares in addition to traditional subtext, and those who were not. Since then, splinter subtext groups have only grown more common.

[08] Most recently, Ares' desire for a mortal child, combined with Xena's desire to protect her own newborn, has led fans on a romp of seduction and subterfuge in GOD FEARING CHILD (102/512), ETERNAL BONDS (103/513), and AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SEIGE (104/514). They have stopped just sort of consummating a union without addressing the incest issue at all.


Lao Ma, M'Lila, and Xena

[09] Xena is portrayed as having had an aggressive nature in her early days, and her maintext affairs indicated to some that she may have had an overactive sexual appetite as well. Balancing this aggressive sexual nature are two other subtext pairings - Lao Ma and M'Lila. M'Lila's story was told during the second season of Xena in DESTINY (36/212). Lao Ma appeared in the third season two-part episode THE DEBT (52-52/306-307). Both women are portrayed as mentors to Xena. Their stories are surrounded by visual magic, overtures of peace, and heartfelt attempts by both women to turn Xena from her dark path towards good. Xena's longterm reverence for the women and her obvious emotional reaction to remembering them combined with subtextual looks and lines between the characters during the flashbacks themselves led some subtexters to believe more was going on than was shown during the actual episodes.


Joxer and Gabrielle


Not tonight.  In fact, not ever.

Gabrielle puts the kibosh on Joxer's advances in MARRIED WITH FISHSTICKS.

[10] When Joxer came on the scene, he caused a great deal of consternation among some subtexters, who thought him to be a direct threat to the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. A new cadre of Xenites had formed which endorsed a romantic relationship between Joxer and Gabrielle. It quickly became clear that a relationship between Joxer and Gabrielle would cost the producers most of their lesbian fans. Since they were a loud and reasonably large portion of the Xena audience, a pattern emerged where Joxer's obvious love for Gabrielle remained unresolved. Some romantics in favor of a relationship between Joxer and Gabrielle argue that the producers have been forced by their lesbian fans into the same pattern of neither confirming nor denying a romantic relationship that began with Xena and Gabrielle. A few even believe that a policy of responsible non-monogamy might make it possible for Joxer, Gabrielle, and Xena to become a sort of extended family.

[11] Traditional subtexters continue to argue that Joxer and Gabrielle could be maintext if the producers wanted, and so that pairing will never be subtextual. The Gabrielle and Joxer Romantics, as they prefer to be called, feel their view has been further bolstered during the fifth season of Xena. Perhaps because of the influence of former Hercules writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Joxer finally professed his love to Gabrielle in CHAKRAM (95/502). Gabrielle's surface refusal to entertain his wishes for them in ETERNAL BONDS (103/513) was phrased in a way that could be seen as less than absolute.


Najara and Gabrielle

[12] After the relationship between Joxer and Gabrielle developed its pattern of non-resolution, subtexters had to agree that Gabrielle had developed into a very desirable person over the course of the series. It did not take long before this revelation was thoroughly exploited in the fourth-season episode, CRUSADER (76/408). Najara was presented as a worthy opponent to Xena, and her clear desire to make Gabrielle her companion was only barely subtextual to begin with. Najara's appearances in the series thus far have provided Gabrielle with another subtext pairing while at the same time enforced the strength of Gabrielle's relationship with Xena.


And What's Up with Alti?

[13] Alti, the shamaness villain, has made overtures of a mixed violent and sexual nature to both Xena and Gabrielle. Though her character seemed merely evil rather than subtextual at first, things changed greatly in the fifth season episode, THEM BONES, THEM BONES (95/505). Alti's desire to dominate Xena is somehow reminiscent of Callisto, but she also seems interested in cruelly using Gabrielle for bait. Perhaps "using" is an interesting word to employ, because Alti demonstrates the same sort of unchecked aggression that made Xena's dark days so sexually charged.


Ares and Strife

[14] While events on Xena provided most of the impetus for change among alternative subtexters, Hercules has provided a couple of revelations also. One such notable event concerns the relationship between Ares and his godly sidekick Strife. In particular, some Xenites who ordinarily avoid Hercules were drawn to two episodes which featured Callisto, JUDGMENT DAY (H52/315) and ARMAGEDDON NOW I (H72/413). In both episodes (as well as several other episodes of Hercules), Strife was portrayed as a submissive pillow-biter to Ares' dominant leather-covered persona. When Strife died in ARMAGEDDON NOW I, Ares' grief definitely seemed above-the-board. Subtexters found in this relationship the first instance of a male/male bond that could be considered subtextual.


The Widow Twankey and Hercules

[15] The Widow Twankey also became a subtextual character on Hercules. While Twankey is a female character, she is played by a man. Since she is played by Michael Hurst (who also plays Iolaus), the viewer can not help but make comparisons between the two characters. In fact, many of the Widow Twankey's humorous lines have hinted that "she" may actually be a transvestite. As with other types of subtext, the true gender of the character is never really confirmed or denied. Since many male transexuals call themselves "she" while in drag and expect others to do the same, this is no final indication in and of itself. So when the Widow Twankey flirts with Hercules as she unfailingly does, the alternative subtexter may see a shadow of Iolaus doing the flirting.


Joxer and Ares

[16] Fan fiction authors have been pairing Joxer and Ares pretty much since Joxer was introduced as a character. However, few if any subtexters expected the series would ever support the pairing. Imagine the surprise of Joxer/Ares alternative fan fiction writers when the fifth season episode DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422) gave them a sly way to support their ideas. In that episode, Xena's future incarnation, Harry, is played by Ted Raimi. Joxer's future incarnation, Annie, is played by Lucy Lawless. When the two actors effectively switched their roles, traditional subtexters, and fans of Joxer and Gabrielle, found themselves in disagreement about how the episode impacted them.

[17] However, the one group that most definitely was pleased was the Joxer and Ares authors. Not only do Harry and Ares duel and exchange subtexty lines, but Annie also comments on her attraction to Ares. If Annie is Joxer's future self, what does that say about the Joxer of ancient Greece? What happens if we ever return to the DEJA VU timeline? We must watch and wait.


Humor's Role in Subtext

[18] A few very important contributions to alternative subtext have nothing to do with pairing two characters together. The best example of this phenomenon is the role humor has taken in regards to subtext. Many lines can be given to the characters in a moment of madcap hilarity that would be considered too risky in the middle of a dramatic conversation. Some examples include Joxer's "Is that a hickey?" in BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); Gabrielle's "She wants me to fist a fish?" in FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318); and the debate between Gabrielle and Xena at the end of THE PLAY'S THE THING (85/417) about whether Minya said "thesbian" or something else.

[19] Some alternative subtexters, usually while in good spirits, hypothesize that perhaps these madcap lines could be taken literally. If this were true, the many jokes in the series about fishes and fishing would have a very different meaning. Xena's relationship to Argo might be more than meets the eye. A whole host of characters might be guilty of incest, fetishism, and bestiality. While such discussion is often difficult to take seriously, it does open the mind to alternative concepts and can actually lead somewhere.


BDSM's role in subtext


Yes, mistress?

Autolycus gets a little more bonded than he bargained for in THE QUEST.

[20] BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism), briefly, is the exchange of pain and power that provides psycho-sexual gratification for people who may, or may not, include actual sex in their BDSM play. Several characters within Xena can be seen as including BDSM facets to their demeanor or personality. Dominant personalities include Xena, Ares, Caesar, Alti, and sometimes Callisto. Submissive personalities include Strife, Autolycus, and sometimes Gabrielle. Often characters with dominant or submissive personalities wear clothing that is easily interpreted by those knowledgeable about BDSM fashion. Sometimes props in the show have special BDSM connotations, like Xena's whip and her breast dagger, various devises periodically used for torture and imprisonment, the inventive chains and locks associated with Autolycus, and even the dreaded crucifix.


Fan Fiction's Role in Subtext

[21] Fan fiction cannot, and does not, create subtext in and of itself. Subtext is determined by the way people interpret the show's episodes, not by the way they interpret stories written by third parties. However, fan fiction can plant seeds in the minds of viewers, some of which are subtextual in nature. When the fans apply these ideas to the show (sometimes in retrospect), they may revise their opinions on some facets of subtext. In a few cases, fan fiction stories have indicated pairings between the show's characters that became more plausible after new episodes air. This was true of Xena and Gabrielle, and it has been true for alternative subtexters for several other couples as well. Fan fiction readers can peek into a number of possible subtext futures by reading fan fiction, and sometimes the writer's predictions come true, though never in the graphic manner of alternative fan fiction.


The Round Subtext Thing

[22] The final notable concept for alternative subtext is Xena's chakram. As a yonic symbol [note 01], Xena's weapon can easily be seen as an allegory for female power. Yet, it can also be seen as a symbol of the romantic bond between Xena and Gabrielle. The chakram has been graphically paired with the female symbol [BETWEEN THE LINES (83/415)], the ouroboros [note 02] [ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402)], and the yin/yang [note 03] [CHAKRAM (92/502)]. In each case, the mythological meanings of the symbols reinforce the concept that the two women have complimentary personalities that are destined to be together throughout all time.

[23] Since the episodes in question are also highly subtextual, alternative subtexters have come to see the chakram as a symbol of subtext. The only other character who has learned to use the chakram, Callisto, is another big subtext figure. When she uses the chakram to defeat Xena, the chakram breaks. However, only after Xena and Gabrielle are brought back to life, the chakram gets a second chance at existence as well.


Some Thoughts on the Future

[24] It is difficult to predict where Xena will go next for alternative subtexters. One thing is for certain, though: as long as Xenites with inventive imaginations exist, and as long as the show throws out new dialogue and imagery to interpret, alternative subtext will continue to evolve. New concepts will be born, and new pairings will be embraced.

[25] One way for non-subtexters and traditional subtexters to react to this fact is to dismiss alternative subtexters as sex-obsessed fanatics. However, before we cover alternative subtexters with a blanket statement, we should think back to my buffet table analogy at the beginning of this essay. My experience with alternative subtexters has taught me that most of them are more interested in a snack or a small meal at the buffet table of alternative subtext and have no interest in gorging themselves indiscriminately by embracing all alternative subtext ideas.

[26] Perhaps a more appropriate response is to recognize that Xenites are bound to bring their own fantasies, memories, and inclinations with them during their viewing experience. This may be especially true when we discuss romantic and sexual relationships. So the differences between alternative subtexters, traditional subtexters, and non-subtexters are probably the natural result of our widely varying human natures.

[27] I like to envision a future when subtext is never dismissed as a black and white matter tediously argued by lesbians and homophobes. I dream of a world where a rainbow spectrum of views can be expressed by subtexters of all sorts without fear of condemnation or retribution. Hopefully, in some small way, this essay will help make that future possible.


Notes

Note 01:
[28] The origin or primal source of all being, it signifies the female sexual organ, particularly the vulva, which in turn symbolizes the mystery of the cosmos. This symbol, by itself or conjoined with the ling, is venerated by the Shaktas (the worshippers of Shakti). Literally "womb, origin, source".
Encyclopedia Mythica
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Note 02:
[29] Ouroboros ("the tail-devourer") is the symbolization of concepts such as completion, perfection and totality, the endless round of existence, etc. It is usually represented as a worm or serpent with its tail in its mouth.
Encyclopedia Mythica
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Note 03:
[30] According to traditional Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are the two primal cosmic principles of the universe. Yin (Mandarin for moon) is the passive principle. Yang (Mandarin for sun) is the active principle. According to legend, the Chinese emperor Fu Hsi claimed that the best state for everything in the universe is a state of harmony represented by a balance of yin and yang.
The Skeptic's Dictionary
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Biography

Stacey Capps Stacey Capps
Stacey Capps is a bisexual redhead from Denver, Colorado. She is a full-time employee at a telecommunications giant and a senior at the University of Denver. In her spare time, Stacey posts her Xena-related thoughts to alt.tv.xena- subtext.misc. She urges interested readers to contribute an article on their alternative subtext beliefs to the web site she created for the purpose, the Subtextopedia (http://subtext.simplenet.com).
Favorite episode: IDES OF MARCH (89/421)
Favorite line: Callisto: "I missed you, Xena". Xena: "You never wrote". RETURN OF CALLISTO (03/103)
First episode seen: DREAMWORKER (03/103)
Least favorite episode: MARRIED WITH FISHSTICKS (105/515)

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