Whoosh! Issue 50 - November 2000

NO, ROB, SUBTEXT DID NOT RUIN XENA
By Valerie Foster
50th Issue Project
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
2970 words



Season Four Retrospective (01-05)
Fifth Season Debacle (06-09)
Lundrigan vs. Tapert (10-17)
Save Xena! (18-19)
Letter to the Editor (20-21)
What Does the Future Hold? (22-24)
Notes
Articles
Biography



No, Rob, Subtext Did Not Ruin Xena




Season Four Retrospective



Uh, Gabwielle... by deeth are thduck in your hair...

A brief comfort scene from ENDGAME.


[1] In October of 1999, Whoosh! published an article in its special Subtext Issue that I had written. The article, "Yes, Lucy, There Is Still A Subtext On Xena," explored the subtext of the fourth season and postulated that the comical subtext that had attracted viewers during the second season had been evolved into a more serious and intense characterization of an unacknowledged lesbian relationship.

[2] The article itself was a wonderful undertaking for me. It "forced" me to perch myself in front of my Sony Trinitron, popcorn in hand, and view each episode of that glorious season again [Note 01]. I was struck afresh by just how much innuendo the writers, the directors, and even Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor had bestowed upon us.

[3] The fourth season of Xena: Warrior Princess was my favorite by far. Although the earlier seasons were enjoyable, the fourth season as a whole solidified the Xena and Gabrielle relationship as a symbiotic connection. Nearly every episode dealt with some aspect or level of the complexity of their union. Even the comedies presented proof of their emotional bond; witness their domestic bickering in IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412) and in IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404) [Note 02].

[4] I found elements of subtext/lesbian innuendo in nineteen of the twenty-two episodes of the fourth season, more than in any of the previous seasons. Furthermore, Season Four was the only season of the entire series where not a single redshirt made an appearance.

[5] All was well in the world.


Fifth Season Debacle



Move an inch closer and you'll see what an Amazon Princess can do, buster!

Who can forget the Season Five episode MARRIED WITH FISH STICKS? Who would like to forget but can't?


[6] At the time my article was published in WHOOSH, the fifth season was upon the horizon, and I was feeling cautiously optimistic about the direction the show was going to take. I was cautious for numerous reasons. Lawless' pregnancy was bound to create script challenges. Liz Friedman and Steven Sears, the two most subtext-friendly members of the Xenastaff, had departed for other projects. R. J. Stewart, another alleged "ally" of subtext, had taken over the helm on CLEOPATRA 2525. Finally, rumors regarding the power given to new Xena writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were cause for concern.

[7] I was optimistic because FALLEN ANGEL (91/501), a visually beautiful, emotionally intense, and cleverly executed episode, had aired only a week before. Significantly, Xena and Gabrielle appeared to be continuing their journey as soul mates and life partners. This was clearly accentuated by both "Demon Xena" in her line, "Gabrielle, the love we have, it's stronger than heaven or hell. It transcends good or evil. It's an end in itself. Gabrielle, our souls are destined to be together", and by Gabrielle's simple line to Xena at the end of the episode, "We're going to be together, for eternity". I took comfort in the fact that the subtext on the series appeared to have been made a permanent part of the show's landscape.

[8] Sadly, that comfort lasted only five weeks. After THEM BONES, THEM BONES (95/505), something went terribly wrong. At first I thought that only my circle of pro-subtext friends noticed, but the problems were drawing the attention of even those who did not support the idea of subtext. Someone involved with Xena: Warrior Princess decided to kill the relationship.

[9] When Whoosh! editor Kym Taborn approached past writers about writing for the commemorative 50th issue, I felt the urge to address the one thing about Xena: Warrior Princess that has brought me both great joy and tremendous sorrow over the past twelve months: the roller coaster ride known as "The Relationship".


Lundrigan Vs. Tapert

[10] Jeff Lundrigan, who writes Xena: Warrior Princess episode commentaries for scifi.ign.com, a Sci-fi website, recently analyzed an interview that Robert Tapert, the show's Executive Producer, gave to the Xena Official Magazine, which may shed some light on why the relationship took such a terrible turn in the fifth season. In the article, Lundrigan clarified some of the misconstrued conclusions that Tapert had apparently reached as to the declining ratings of the show. Tapert's words suggested that he believed the presence of subtext ruined the ratings; Lundrigan blamed the decline on the absence of subtext.

[11] Lundrigan broke down Tapert's views into five prevailing challenges. The first one, which Lundrigan entitled, "Where Would You Go?" challenged Tapert's notion that acknowledging a sexual relationship would somehow cause permanent writers' block. Lundrigan's response, "Um, excuse me here? Challenge! How about they save a few villages? Face down some angry gods? Right wrongs, fight evil? You know, all that stuff?" It is my personal impression that Tapert believed that Xena: Warrior Princess would lose its edge with viewers the way that the popular 1980s series Moonlighting (1985- 1989) lost its edge after the producers decided to allow David and Maddie to consummate their relationship.

[12] This could be a legitimate concern if Xena and Gabrielle were allowed to explore that excitedly cosmic sexual tension cultivated by the characters played by Cybill Shepard and Bruce Willis on Moonlighting. It is not an exaggeration to say that the chemistry between Lawless and O'Connor in past seasons was at least equally powerful to that displayed by Willis and Shepherd 15 years ago. Perhaps the two women's chemistry is part of the problem. Perhaps if they were allowed to "boink", as Willis' character so poignantly called it, television sets across the globe would ignite.

[13] Lundrigan's second challenge, entitled "What Are You Afraid Of?" dismissed Tapert's assertion that "Xena has certainly had an endless string of male lovers", as a clever dodge. He went on to remind Tapert of Xena's interactions with the women in her life, notably M'Lila, Lao Ma, Cyane, and, of course, Gabrielle. I would add that these women were far more influential and substantial in Xena's life than were her romps under the bearskin with Borias, or the single time that she and Hercules got it on. It is worth noting that Xena's last legitimate love interest (Ares aside) was Ulysses in Season Two, and that her last sexual partner (if one does not include the notion that Gabrielle holds the honor) was Marcus in MORTAL BELOVED (16/116) from Season One.

[14] Lundrigan's last three challenges went directly to what I believe to be the heart of the problem with Xena: consistency. In a challenge entitled "Soul Mates?" he noted that, contrary to Tapert's assertion that Season Four in its entirety established Xena and Gabrielle as soul mates, those two words and the idea behind them were only mentioned twice: in BETWEEN THE LINES (83/415), then not again until the season finale, DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422). Lundrigan suggested that the latter episode was "largely played for laughs," and added, "Isn't it possible that if the ratings 'dripped along', it was because the audience was getting tired of waiting for it to go somewhere?" That, in short, was what made FALLEN ANGEL (91/501) so beautiful and Season Five so tragic. When Xena and Gabrielle ventured off to China and wherever else, Joxer became Gabrielle's sidekick, Gabrielle became Xena's employee, Xena often ventured off alone (when she was not fawning over Ares), and many of the fans felt a deep sense of betrayal to the two strong women characters they had grown to love.

[15] In Lundrigan's next challenge, entitled "The Specter of DeGeneres", he responded to the fact that Tapert actually suggested that outing Xena a la Ellen (TV 1994-1998) would kill the show in the same manner that Ellen met its demise. Lundrigan, throwing out names like Will & Grace (1998-present), Willow and Tara on Buffy (1997-present), and some 22 other gay characters currently on American television shows, easily refuted that claim.

[16] Lundrigan's last challenge was entitled "Make Up Your Mind". Tapert said that after A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), "Our executives put a great deal of pressure on us to stop [the lesbian innuendo], to not go down that road because it could only lead to ruin". Lundrigan countered, "Is the idea that Xena and Gabrielle are a romantic couple bad for ratings? I'd simply ask, how could anyone possibly know? The idea has never been kept going for more than an episode or two in a row [DESTINY (36/212), THE QUEST (37/213)] without being contradicted [ULYSSES (42/319), A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222)]-or at the very least, completely ignored [A NECESSARY EVIL (38/214), FOR HIM THE BELLS TOLL (40/216), THE EXECUTION (41/217)]-for several more following. If the audience's drifting away can be blamed on anything regarding subtext, blame it on the show's own inconsistency towards it".

[17] Xena: Warrior Princess suffered the worst ratings in the nearly subtext-less fifth season. Therefore, it would be fitting to conclude that Jeff Lundrigan's aforementioned assessment as to why was correct. Furthermore, it is worth noting that elsewhere in the Official Xena Magazine interview, Tapert stated the following; "LYRE, LYRE, HEARTS ON FIREČ was a tremendous disaster in terms of ratings and in terms of fan interest. That surprised me a lot. I actually liked GOD FEARING CHILD, ETERNAL BONDS AND AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE, but the fans didn't rate them particularly well". Well, HELLO? Why do you suppose that was? Could it have been because three of the four episodes mentioned dealt with the nauseating premise of Xena and her chief oppressor, Ares, together? Could it have been because there was no continuing exploration of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship in any of those episodes? Could it have been the ever present Joxer? Think about it.


Save Xena!

[18] In early spring, fan fiction writer CN Winters created a website appropriately titled "Save Xena". The purpose of the site was to allow fans to correspond regarding their concerns about the direction of the show in the fifth season. In her own introductory letter, which can be found at http://savexena.tripod.com/page.htm, Winters demonstrated a wholehearted concurrence with Lundrigan's assertions. She highlighted and briefly defined four points of contention-consistency in characters, the relationship, the role of Joxer, and consistency in plots-with the direction of the show in the fifth season. Regarding the relationship, she said, "Xena and Gabrielle once put us in the frame of mind as best friends or lovers (depending on your point of view), but this year, they seem more like business partners. Many scenes between the two have Xena ordering Gabrielle to do something, while Xena has been baring her soul to everyone except Gabrielle". Winters was possibly thinking of the hideously unfunny PUNCH LINES (101/511), in which a very pregnant Xena expressed her insecurities about pending motherhood to Joxer, while her supposed soul mate was off on a ridiculous errand. Winters continued, "We'd like to see the Xena who promised Gabrielle [in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313)] that even in death she wouldn't leave her. Gabrielle is willing to give her life for Eve. Do you realize that we have never once heard Xena say 'Thank you'?"

[19] Of the over 200 contributing letters written on the site, the return of the relationship was the most often stated plea from the fans. Virtually every letter mentioned it. Even the fans who proudly professed their anti-subtext stance in their letters wanted their "loving best friends" Xena and Gabrielle back. Many of the letters addressed the sabotage of Xena and Gabrielle's characterizations. Most found Xena's Meg-like mugging despicable, while Gabrielle's transformation into a remorseless mini-Xena was an outright insult to her character. In my letter to the site, I did not write the standard passionate plea of "Give us our Xena and Gabrielle back!" found in most of the letters. Instead, I reminded anyone with any position of power within the Xenastaff ranks who might happen to take time to read the letters that, contrary to what former Xena director Josh Becker would like to believe, the great majority of Xena: Warrior Princess fans are not 14- year-old boys. Most of the fans are adult, many of them women, both lesbian and straight, who watch the show for the powerful women the characters represent and the special friendship they share. Xena is not a kids' show.


Letter To The Editor

[20] I wrote my contributing letter to Save Xena on April 8, 2000. The following month, on May 25, 2000, after viewing MOTHERHOOD (112/522), I did something I had never done before in my life: I wrote a letter to the producers of a television series. This letter, which I faxed to Robert Tapert, Barry Diller, CEO of USA Networks, and Robert Fleming, Group President at Universal Studios, said in part:

"I am another concerned viewer who would like to share some information with you. In brief, the number one criticism of the show as expressed in the letters on the Save Xena site, on mailing lists and on the Net Forum: the absence of the Xena/Gabrielle relationship. Regardless of how fans view it (subtext or not), most fans want the hint of a friendship/ relationship bond returned to the series.

"There is a great deal of speculation floating around the "Xenaverse" as to why the relationship has been damaged. Some blame the damage on Orci and Kurtzman, others on Tapert and RJ Stewart's absence from management, others on fears or homophobia on the part of Studio USA and Universal, and others believe Lucy Lawless wants to break away from the perception of lesbianism that she feels may affect her post-Xena career. "Of course, if the latter is the case, she may want to pay close attention to what portraying lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transsexual characters have done for the careers of Hillary Swank, Whoopi Goldberg, Sharon Stone, Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Tilly, Russell Crowe, Angelina Jolie, Rupert Everett, Gina Gershon, Chloe Sevigny, etc. A more legitimate concern on her part should be that she [would] not want to end up like Lynda Carter, relegated to doing contact lens commercials. "Finally, you might be interested in the most attention-grabbing speculation: Lucy Lawless had some type of fallout with Renee O'Connor and has reduced herself to unprofessionally treating O'Connor as if she suffers from leprosy. "Just some FYI for you to ponder".

[21] Rereading the letter several months later, it is blatantly obvious how bitter I was at the time. Justified or not, I put much of the burden of the failure of Season Five on Lawless herself. In so many of the episodes of that season, she seemed to have abandoned the groundbreaking character that she cultivated and portrayed almost perfectly in previous seasons. I never received a reply to my letter. I can only imagine that at the time I sent the letter, those three men were being inundated with correspondence from disgruntled fans of the show.


What Does The Future Hold?



Gabrielle, Xena, and Eve in a later incarnation.

Could CLEO be a future version of XENA?


[22] I have since read that many individuals involved with the show, including both Lawless and O'Connor, have acknowledged that the relationship is central to its success. Recent interviews of these same individuals published in CHAKRAM, the official fan magazine, have suggested that they have acknowledged the failings of Season Five and want to take steps to correct them. Furthermore, celebrity comments in other publications and the producers' decision to hire Melissa Good, the fan fiction world's most well known, voluminous (and "alternative") scribe to write two episodes would suggest that the problem has been recognized and steps have been taken to eradicate it.

[23] Overall, my role as a fan of Xena: Warrior Princess has been a wonderful and empowering experience. I have met some wonderful people, established potentially lifelong friendships, become engrossed with the brave world of fan fiction, experienced conventions, and have even had my picture taken with several cast members. I can say with complete confidence that the one thing that binds most of us fans together is the sheer love we have for those wonderful characters of Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Poteidaia, and the joy that viewing the love they have for each other brings to us.

[24] The sixth, and likely final, season is on the horizon. Sadly, I will be watching with more caution than optimism, but always with the unyielding hope that I will be pleasantly surprised.


Notes

Note 01:
But for the exception of the mundane KEY TO THE KINGDOM (78/410).
Return to article

Note 02:
IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404) was an appropriately clever title from a subtext point of view.
Return to article


Articles

Valerie Foster, "Yes, Lucy, There Is Still A Subtext On Xena, Whoosh! #37 (October 1999)



Biography

Valerie Foster Valerie Foster
In addition to what has been said in my previous bio, I am an outdoor lover who enjoys taking my dog on long walks, riding my Sea-Doo and tending to my yard and roses. Since authoring my first contributing article, one major change has occurred in my life as a Xena fan. In January, I began writing fan fiction. Writing under my fanfic moniker C. J. Wells, my award-winning series, entitled "The Embrace/Freedom Conqueror Series", can be found at LynKa's Xena Page, XenaEyes Fan Fiction site and at Governal's Annals of the Conqueror Annex.
Favorite episode: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313); CRUSADER (76/408); IDES OF MARCH (89/421)
Favorite line: "Demon Gabrielle" to "Demon Callisto": "You know what I think? You wanted them to die so you'd have a reason to be a bitch." FALLEN ANGEL (91/501)
First episode seen: LOST MARINER-in rerun (45/221)
Least favorite episode: Much of the fifth season after THEM BONES, THEM BONES (95/505)

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