Whoosh! Issue 44 - May 2000


By Kathleen McPhillips and Majella Franzman
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
3929 words

Introduction (01-06)
Religions in Xena: Warrior Princess (07-20)
Xena: Disenchanted Hero (21-26)

Xena: Warrior Princess: Re-Imagining The Religious Cosmos

...and please don't let them screw up Season Six too badly.  Amen.

XENA has incorporated religious tales/themes since Season One, as in this scene from ALTERED STATES.


[01] We would like to suggest that a re- imagination of the religious cosmos is present in Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) and that it functions as popular narrative by articulating postmodern [Note 01] conditions of religiosity. XWP constructs and reflects a spiritually post-traditionalist pluralistic cosmos much like the globalized versions of the world we currently consume via media technologies.

[02] At a broad level, XWP appeals to numerous cultural desires and perspectives characteristic of various postmodern fantasies. This includes the elipsing of time and history; the celebration of subversive gendered subjectivities; the notion of a post modern self constructed across multiple and oftentimes contradictory histories and values; and, the representation of not just feminine but feminist heroes. The production of cultural analysis around the show and the person of Xena have gripped the feminist imagination [Note 02], among other imaginations, and asks us to consider the ways in which XWP represents a challenge to perceived notions of femininity. In other words, is XWP a serious challenge to the gender order or a subversive celebration of it?

[03] Looking at XWP through the lens of religion can be very informative. First, unlike other popular TV shows, XWP consistently addresses questions of religion and spirituality [Note 03], utilizing the genre of historical fantasy, which is itself characterized by tackling questions of culture and religion [Note 04].

[04] Second, if post-modernity is constituted in part as a post-traditional society where a thorough critique of institutionalized traditional religions is possible [Note 05], then we can read XWP as a site where such a critique is evident. This is also made possible by the representation of the ancient world as 'other' to the modern world, and hence a safe site from which to engage in religious analysis.

[05] Thirdly, it could be argued that together with the use of historical fantasy and 'othering' of the ancient world, a strong desire for a re-enchanted self and world, beyond the disenchantment of an over-rationalized modern world is at play.

[06] From the very beginning, XWP found an easy footing in matters religious, since it is an offshoot of the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (HTLJ), which is centered around a man born of both mortal and immortal parentage. XWP centers around Xena, who appeared first as an evil warrior in HTLJ, then underwent a major conversion to the forces of good. Like Hercules, Xena confronts danger and evil in mortals and immortals alike. She is the ultimate female action hero [Note 06], with ambiguous titles such as 'warrior', connoting the ultimate male, and 'princess', the ultimate female [Note 07]. Unlike Hercules, she is not entirely free of the forces of darkness; she is constantly battling, and then seemingly accepting and working with, her darker side. This dichotomy raises questions not only about gender differences, but also about how the series manages the concept of a woman warrior who rejects maternity as the primary locus of feminine identity.

Religions in Xena: Warrior Princess [Note 08]

[07] As one would expect, XWP is populated by an abundance of gods and goddesses--Greek, Roman, Egyptian, among others--who are presented in the traditional manner as super-powerful, super-emotioned humans. As Nusi Dekker remarks of the goddesses in XWP, "To Xena and Gabrielle, the goddesses seem to be nothing more than people like themselves, albeit with a few supernatural powers." [Note 09] The gods squabble among themselves and form alliances with humans, often using humans for their own ends in the process. What is perhaps not expected is the use in some episodes of Christianity as a template for the presentation of religious themes in relation to these gods and goddesses. [Note 10]

[08] In the episode entitled FORGIVEN (60/314), for example, which centers on the theft and retrieval of an urn from a temple of Apollo, the final scene is very familiar to anyone who has participated in the Catholic Church's Ritual of Reconciliation. The scene is positive, until we note that Xena refuses to be part of the ritual. While we may at first be inclined to be sorry that Xena cannot let her inner demons be reconciled to the force of good, as represented by Apollo, the Greek sun god, we come to realize that her reconciliation with the darker forces is not so simply achieved. Xena's refusal to participate in this thinly disguised Catholic ritual denotes her ongoing problematic relationship with organized religion.

[09] A second, more subtle, example involves the key Christian themes of the conception of a child of God by a human woman and the death and resurrection of a Savior figure. While such themes are also to be found in ancient religions, there is no doubt that we are meant to see these events as broadly Christian. The twist here, though, is that both the divinely conceived child and her father, the One God Dahak, are monsters [THE DELIVERER (50/304); A FAMILY AFFAIR (71/403)], [Note 11]. This plot is a none-too-well disguised steal from the Alien film series, in which the dying/rising Savior figure, Ripley, is also the recipient of a virginal conception that comes to fruition in a monster. It could be argued that the mimetic qualities of soap opera are at the forefront of intentionality in these particular episodes.

[10] While it might seem that Christianity is represented in a positive manner, world religions in general do not fare well in a number of episodes. There is a quite distinct and open tendency in critical approach to the world religions in ancient and more modern guise [Note 12], reflecting the contradictory nature of the representation of organized religions.

You obviously don't understand the concept of 'Three Card Monty'

Some criticised A TALE OF TWO MUSES for stereotyping.

[11] Some of this criticism is done in a lighthearted or tongue-in-cheek manner, such as Autolycus's lampooning of the Southern Baptist preacher stereotype in A TALE OF TWO MUSES (74/416). A more sustained criticism can be identified in PARADISE FOUND (81/413) where the Hindu yogic tradition is portrayed as excessively passive. It can also be found in the fight which ensues in BETWEEN THE LINES (83/415) when Xena and Gabrielle interrupt a sati ritual where a woman is about to be burned alive after the cremation of her deceased husband [Note 13]. Their reaction clearly demonstrates a reference to western feminist ideals.

[12] While a question mark must remain over the religion of Dahak, the 'One God', which may or may not be a demonized version of Judaism or Christianity, there is no question about the denigration of Islam presented in the episode entitled CRUSADER (76/408). In this episode, we are presented with the woman warrior Najara, who listens to Jinn (heavenly spirit guides) and carries out a campaign to bring people 'into the Light' by either converting them or killing them to 'free' their souls. Najara is nothing less than a poorly disguised portrayal of a militant Islamic fundamentalist. Although R.J. Stewart, the executive producer of XWP, claims that he based Najara on Joan of Arc [Note 14], it is clear that Islam is the target. Even the title, CRUSADER, seems to imply this.

[13] Other episodes evidence a distinctly feminist approach, indicating not only a re-imagination of religious history as feminist, but also a statement that institutionalized religions are hopelessly patriarchal. A prime example occurs in THE DEBT (52-53/306- 307), in which Lao Ma, not her husband Lao Tzu, is portrayed as the author of the Tao Te Ching [Note 15]. There is also a trend to present positive eclectic spirituality comprising alternative means of spiritual power. Hence, in their encounter with Hinduism, Xena and Gabrielle fight oppressive institutionalized forms such as sati, but are given and make positive use of the gift of the power of mehndi. [Note 16]

[14] Western feminism is currently experiencing a resurgence of pre-Christian traditions centering around Goddess figures. The practice of Goddess worship, as well as various traditions of shamanism, spiritualism, witchcraft, and so on, have characterized women's spiritual practices since earliest times. Examples of this general interest in alternative neo-pagan spiritualities and rituals can be found in XWP in the use of the tarot in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) and in the portrayal of Xena as a practitioner of shamanism in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402).

[15] As one might expect, the general presentation of alternative spiritualities is rather simple. Both Xena and her nemesis Alti are figures of enormous power. Yet the figure of the shaman is traditionally one of ambiguity. While shamans may have immense power, they are also people generally beset by weakness, often those who have been sickly as children, or those possessed earlier in life by spirits that cause sickness. Those who have previously suffered illness or fits or states of dislocation because of the spirits are often only cured when they agree to be the mediums for the spirits in shamanic activity. Thus, in presenting Xena in the strong, positive role of shaman, there is little engagement with the usual processes of shamanism.

[16] The criticism of world religions has not gone unnoticed. While we might have expected a swift response from representatives of Islam to CRUSADER, it was with some surprise that those of us in Australia heard of objections from representatives of Hinduism in the U.S.A. to the episode THE WAY (84/416) which features the Hindu avatar Krishna. While it may have seemed initially that objections had been raised regarding the portrayal of Krishna per se, it appears from comments by Steve Sears, a former co-executive producer of XWP, that the objections were related to a perception by these Hindu groups that XWP is a "lesbian show". As Sears writes,

Anyways, these groups have been protesting Renaissance Pictures for using Krishna as a character in this "lesbian" show. That the character leads are "lesbian" misassociates Krishna with sexual deviants. [Note 17]

[17] It is not only religious traditions which come under negative criticism in the series; there is also a strong tendency to denigrate the experience of the simple or na´ve believer, as exemplified in the character of Gabrielle. The portrayal of Gabrielle as a gullible seeker of existential truth who is ready to give her trust and belief to charlatans masquerading as enlightened spiritual guides has become all too familiar. In counterpoint to the na´ve Gabrielle is the skeptical, cynical, ever-suspicious Xena, who is forced to call upon the power of her dark side time and again to rescue Gabrielle from the consequences of her naivete.

[18] The dark redemptive force in Xena is the basis of her shamanistic powers learnt from the evil Alti; as shaman, she crosses to the world of the dead to rescue Gabrielle (ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE) [Note 18]. In its most absolute form, the dark side of Xena completely takes over in PARADISE FOUND, where only as the total absence of good can she save Gabrielle from being turned to stone as the goodness is leached from the girl by yet another dubious spiritual guide.

Boy George lookalike?

Deities from different religions have visited XENA, such as Krishna in THE WAY.

[19] There is however, ambiguity concerning Xena's spiritual state. While Alti is an early and evil spiritual guide for Xena, there are at least two examples of positive spiritual guides: Lao Ma, who teaches her a way in which she must void herself of anger and will; and Krishna, who teaches her to accept her place in life as the way of the warrior, in a manner highly reminiscent of Krishna's teaching to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita [THE WAY]. [Note 19]

[20] XWP participates in the soap opera tradition by reflecting current popular trends, e.g., towards denigration of institutionalized religions and uncritical acceptance of newer forms of religion. This is clearly filtered through the writers' and/or directors' feminist viewpoints regarding religion and religious beliefs. Thus, traditional and institutional religions are presented mostly in caricature, as in the case with the presentation of Islam only under its extreme militant and zealous aspect. Newer forms of religion or spirituality are generally presented in highly positive, uncritical, or na´ve ways.

Xena: Disenchanted Hero

[21] One can easily see oneself in Xena when she appears as the tragic figure of modernity, where she can never believe in anything outside of a rationalized self and universe. Xena is a hero on the basis that she accepts the disenchantment of self and world, which is itself a condition of modernity. In this disenchanted realm, she is never happy or fulfilled, but is constantly atoning for her past sins and seeking some kind of redemption. Xena has disavowed her life as a brutal warrior bent on hate and destruction and has submitted to the rigors of self- reflection, atonement for past sins, and reconnecting to herself and others through acts of love, sacrifice, and care [Note 20]. In many ways, Xena is already in post-salvation mode in her first appearance, and is ready for the rigorous work of the self that late modernity requires of its citizens.

[22] It could be argued that, as a hero, Xena embodies quite traditional qualities such as selflessness, commitment to justice, and disregard for self in her concern for others. On the other hand, Xena is quite unlike other modern women heroes, particularly female saints, in that she is a leader of men who wins in battle and seems curiously disconnected from her heart and emotion, much like traditional representations of male warriors.

[23] Xena joins a select band of female heroes, such as Joan of Arc and Boadicea, who took up arms and fought like men [Note 21]. The popularity of XWP with girls and women is based partly on the representation of a woman hero who is courageous and resistive of traditional feminine roles and whose physical practices are premised on strength and power. Interestingly, Xena appears to be less popular among boys and men [Note 22].

[24] It could be argued that Xena is playing out some of the anxieties of modern life. She represents the archetypal disenchanted subject. Happiness is not her lot; she is the representation par excellence of the tragic figure of modernity. A refugee from the assault on belief and faith that characterizes late modernity, she cannot believe in anything outside of her own abilities. She wanders from place to place, dislocated and ruined by her conversion to an ethical life that disavows brutality and hate (the basis of her pre-series being). In this, we can read the symbolic ordering of modernity as progress on the one hand, and immense loss on the other. Gabrielle, on the other hand (in Enlightenment mode) represents idealism, hope, and innocence. As the narrator of Xena's adventures, Gabrielle's role is to tell the story of modernity and its struggle to find meaning.

[25] In recent episodes, it is Gabrielle who is drawn to the transcendental spiritual realms from which Xena often ends up rescuing her. In doing so, Xena reasserts the dominance of non-belief as a mode of self, critiquing New Age beliefs by association. At the same time, Xena has access to enormous spiritual power [as demonstrated in her retreat to the world of the dead in ADVENTURES OF THE SIN TRADE], particularly when Gabrielle requires help. This seems to indicate some of the pressures affecting scientific rationalist discourse in late modernity, particularly with respect to the kinds of alternative rationality that New Age spirituality provides.

[26] Is XWP a serious challenge to the gender order, or a subversive celebration of it? While there are trangressive elements within it, such transgression must also be located in respect to the medium through which the transgression reaches us (popular television) and the other discourses at play, including the production of pleasure through soap operas, notions of the carnival, and camp playfulness. Taken together, it suggests that any radical refiguring of subjectivity must be constantly weighed against the impact of other agendas. Meanwhile, for reasons that are not quite clear, XWP continues to enchant TV audiences and remains an important source of analysis for understanding the relationship between religion, spirituality, and popular culture.


Note 01:
Author Marion Williams ("Xena's Feminine Mystique" in Zadok Perspectives 63, Autumn 1999, Hawthorn Victoria, pp. 10-14) argues that XWP is postmodern in the sense that "It is constructed in 'postmodern' filmic format, where postmodern means an aesthetic which emphasises the fragmentary nature of images, the appropriation of images from previously created images and their resistance to a single local unity or subject position. In Xena, we not only see fragmented representations of Greek and Roman mythology, but also a mismatched combination of cultural dress, language and history."
Return to article

Note 02:
Of course, other imaginations have also been gripped by XWP, including gay and lesbian and popular culture sites. There are over 1000 internet sites devoted to XWP. The vast majority of these sites are listed on the Xena Online Resources.
Return to article

Note 03:
Series IV [fourth season] shown in 1999 on Australian TV was devoted almost entirely to an exploration of spiritual and religious themes.
Return to article

Note 04:
This is also clearly borne out in the large number of articles published in Whoosh that deals with religion and spirituality. Indeed, a recent entire issue of Whoosh was devoted to myth and religion. See Whoosh 34, July 1999.
Return to article

Note 05:
This is the argument suggested by Anthony Giddens, 1991 Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Polity Press: Cambridge.
Return to article

Note 06:
Rachel Gordon, "How Subversive is XWP? A Brief Examination of the Post-rift Gabrielle", Whoosh 21, June 1998, #1.
Return to article

Note 07:
Karen Pusateri, "'Xena: Warrior Princess': An Analytical Review", Whoosh 1, September 1996, #15. As Pusateri remarks,

"Her ability to carry both these titles is made easier by the show's postmodern mismatched representations of time, language, culture, history, and physics".
Return to article

Note 08:
We will not be exploring the idea of the cult of Xena. For information on that topic, see S. Jane Greening, "Ya Gotta have Faith: Xena Worship", Whoosh 31, April 1999.
Return to article

Note 09:
Nusi Dekker, "Depictions of Goddesses in Xena: Warrior Princess", Whoosh 31, April 1999, #41..
Return to article

Note 10:
See some related discussions in Virginia Carper, "Christian Iconography in the Bitter Suite", Whoosh 31, April 1999; Catherine O'Grady, "Blessed are the Greek: Christian Symbolism in Xena: Warrior Princess", Whoosh 31, April 1999 (http://whoosh.org/issue31/ogrady2.html); and somewhat more generally, Carolyn Bremer, "Anachronism Be D*mned: A XWP Historiography Part V: Biblical References in Xena: Warrior Princess", Whoosh 31, April 1999, (http://whoosh.org/issue31/bremer7.html).
Return to article

Note 11:
The theme of redemption in XWP is taken up by Samira al Thores, "The Myth of the Redeemer in Xena: Warrior Princess", Whoosh 31, April 1999 (http://whoosh.org/issue31/stupid1.html). See also Dana Hlusko, "Christian Theology in the Bitter Suite", Whoosh 31, April 1999 (http://whoosh.org/issue31/hlusko1.html).
Return to article

Note 12:
Some religions-such as the Hinduism which Xena and Gabrielle meet on their journeys in India-are clearly not out of place in the ancient world. But one should not expect to find a barely disguised Islam, which arises some five or six centuries after the time (generally speaking) in which Xena is operating. Given the latitude that the series takes with historical figures and historical settings, this is not surprising. The difficulty with the lack of historical accuracy or even that characters are in possible/probable historical sequence or time zones is the subject of endless debate. Rhonda Nelson ("The Female Hero, Duality of Gender, and Postmodern Feminism in Xena: Warrior Princess", Whoosh 13, Oct. 97, #6, http://whoosh.org/issue13/nelson.html) has coined the term YAXI for "Yet Another Xena Inconsistency". Typical of the debate are the following from Whoosh: Michael Martinez, "Xena in the Eyes of the Historian", Whoosh 22, July 1998 (http://whoosh.org/issue22/martin1.html); Nicolas Carr, "Julius Caesar in Xena: Warrior Princess and in History", Whoosh 22, July 1998 (http://whoosh.org/issue22/carr1.html); Virginia Carper, "Xena Tapestry: The Woof and Weave of Myth and History", Whoosh 7, April 1997 (http://whoosh.org/issue7/carper2.html).
Return to article

Note 13:
While DEVI (82/414), the next episode, is said to be the beginning of the India episodes, we consider that PARADISE FOUND (81/413) is really the introduction to these.
Return to article

Note 14:
Return to article

Note 15:
Such a feminist perspective is in keeping with the series in general and much of the writing about the character of Xena that sees her as a powerful feminist icon. For other Whoosh articles on feminist aspects of the series, see

Suzanne Sheldon, "Xena: Feminist Icon", Whoosh 9, June 1997 (http://whoosh.org/issue9/sheldon.html);

Rhonda Nelson, "The Female Hero, Duality of Gender, and Postmodern Feminism in Xena: Warrior Princess", Whoosh 13, October 1997 (http://whoosh.org/issue13/nelson.html);

Melissa Meister, "Xena: Warrior Princess through the Lenses of Feminism", Whoosh 10, July 1997 (http://whoosh.org/issue10/meister2.html); and

Atara Stein, "Xena: Warrior Princess, the Lesbian Gaze, and the Construction of the Feminist Heroine", Whoosh 24, September 1998 (http://whoosh.org/issue24/stein1.html).

Meister sums up eloquently: "Through the lenses of post- structuralism, liberal feminism, psychoanalysis, carnival theory, and cyborg theory, the show comes off in an extraordinary feminist light" (#27).
Return to article

Note 16:
There is no Hindu belief in a magical power of menhdi. It is henna that is applied by women for decoration, especially for weddings. It is quite popular in Western fashion circles at the moment to paint mehndi on the hands or feet.
Return to article

Note 17:
See Sears' message and more information about the controversy surrounding THE WAY on http://www.whoosh.org/epguide/way.html. While an analysis of the events involving the objection and the subsequent pulling of the episode and its reinstatement is beyond our scope here, suffice it to say that the objections are surprising for anyone who knows Gaudiya Vaishnava groups in which it is not uncommon to find gay men in love with the deity of Krishna.
Return to article

Note 18:
See "Shamanism in Adventures in the Sin Trade: We can fly, we can fly, we can fly", Whoosh 32, May 1999, (http://whoosh.org/issue32/leitgeb1.html).
Return to article

Note 19:
See Dana Hlusko, "The Way: A Spiritual Epiphany for Xena", Whoosh 32, May 1999 (http://whoosh.org/issue32/hlusko2.html), in which Hlusko deals with Krishna's influence over Xena.
Return to article

Note 20:
There is potential here to read this subject articulation in a post-colonial setting. The notion that we are defined by brutal and oppressive histories that we can barely talk about-indeed that often remain hidden and silent-combined with the need to make reparation for past sins and reconciliation are very contemporary issues in post-colonial cultures.
Return to article

Note 21:
It would be interesting to do a comparative analysis of Joan of Arc and Xena and specifically to consider the role that madness plays in how such women are accepted in public discourse.
Return to article

Note 22:
This point is largely anecdotal, but it would be interesting to see gendered responses to the show. The Katz Webpage which provides a breakdown of the Nielsen demographics for Xena episodes (http://www.katz-media.com/tvprog/v15n10/chart6.gif) is too general to make reasonable conclusions.
Return to article


Kathleen McPhillips Kathleen McPhillips
Kathleen McPhillips teaches in the Humanities Dept, University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury, Australia. She is a dedicated Xena watcher and Whoosh! surfer and thinks about things religious constantly. She would welcome any contributions to religious themes in XWP.
Favorite episode: IF THE SHOE FITS
Favorite line: Xena: "You know what, Prince? You seem like a real nice fella, so I'm gonna make this nice and simple for ya. I don't need you, or a fairy godsmother, or anyone else to give me a happy ending. That's something that I'll get -- or I won't get -- all my own self." IF THE SHOE FITS
First episode seen: THE FURIES
Least favorite episode: WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP

Majella Franzman Majella Franzman
Majella Franzmann has been teaching comparative religion at a small rural university in Australia since 1994. Although most of her research is in the area of ancient Gnosticism and non-canonical views of Jesus, she has a keen interest also in religion and popular culture, with recent conference papers/articles on Princess Di as goddess, and roadside memorials. She also has a new book out entitled *Women and Religion* with Oxford University Press.
Favorite episode: THE DEBT II
Favorite line: Xena's war cry
First episode seen: DESTINY
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS

Return to Top Return to Index