Whoosh! Issue 60 - September 2001

By Anonymous
Group Therapy Project
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
4755 words

Author's notes:

This response is based on my viewing of Xena seasons one through four, and season six. I stopped watching in mid-season five, losing interest, and giving up. Tapert's Missy Good plan worked: I came back because of it.

Introduction (01-04)
Breaking it Down Through the Seasons (05-09)
Xena's Redemption = Ending the Cycle of Violence (10- 13)
Gabrielle's Raison D'Etre = Find Inner Peace, Share It (14-15)
The Love Story (16-17)
Auteur Theory vs. "The Death of the Author" (18-25)
The Series Finale, The Final Image (26-28)
What was Omitted? (29-32)
Contradictions (33-35)
Story Execution (36-38)
Conclusion (39-46)



"I get a little embarrassed when I get complimented. Then again, I get p*ss*d when I get ignored. I get real when I get critiqued."
-- Tyldus, Xenaverse Mailing List (1996)

[01] There is no universal definition of art or artist. What art does is produce meaning by its artificial organization of its parts, guided by some central idea or theme. A work of art is meant to be neither wholly accepted nor wholly dismissed unless it is meant to provoke no more than a visceral reaction. Neither art nor the people it intends to reach function in such a simplistic way. Art needs to be disassembled completely to understand its relevance. Parts are often more liked than others while others parts are liked much less. Personally, I cannot say whether I accept or dismiss an entire work completely, I can only be truthful about its parts.

[02] We assume that the artist creates something not just for financial benefit but for aesthetic value. This aesthetic value can be measured differently within different schools of criticism (reader-response, formalist, ancient, contemporary, et al.). Being the diverse bunch that we are, there is a diverse response to Xena. Not only do we bring our own values and experiences to the text, we employ different methods of analyses in our responses. The various approaches to deconstructing the text of Xena and how the members of its audience have elected to examine Xena is an essay in its own right. I do not dwell on that here although examining the audience is as worthy, if not more so, as examining the show. Real-life people are always more interesting. While I do not discuss methods of critique, I do discuss the role of the audience since art is, or can be, a transactional experience between artist and audience/reader.

[03] But first I am going to make an attempt to distill the show by discussing the story itself, the structure and execution of the story, its main themes, the images/visuals that compose the story, the creators, and the audience. I also want to address not only what the story focused on but also on what the story omitted. The things that an image or a story excludes are as meaningful as the things it includes.

[04] Let us first acknowledge the three different stories being told:

(1) Xena seeks a redemption, that she refuses to allow herself, by continuously trying to make up, by helping the defenseless in the best interest of justice, for the horrific misdeeds she committed in her warlord days.

(2) Gabrielle leaves her home a bard wanting to become a warrior, but hoping she can improve the social and political welfare of the world with her ideas of peace-making tactics and diplomacy.

(3) Xena and Gabrielle meet, fall in love, and are going to be soulmates in several lives.

Breaking It Down Through The Seasons

"...Greatness isn't about fighting. It's the battles you choose and the people you protect."

[05] In spite of all its flaws, Xena is nevertheless better television than most. It broke ground in its genre and how it depicted female heroes. It gave us a love story. It gave us a tragic hero. It gave us a coming of age story.
While everyone knows the camera adds ten pounds, most people aren't 
aware it subtracts ten inches in height
Xena's journey of redemption began from Day One with SINS OF THE PAST.

[06] However, the series often introduced new moral and political issues that were never fairly addressed. Yet, seasons one and two set up the thematic overtones and were a series of smaller tales. The Greater Good was introduced and violence as a last resort was emphasized. Misunderstandings between warring factions were solved by way of reason, not by bloodshed alone.

[07] After that, attempts were made to tell something more epic and serialized. The show tried to become serious, bringing up serious issues, but never seriously addressing them. In season three, Xena was always right about the outcomes of the conflicts she was presented with, although it was ethically and logically wrong to kill a child just because of her, i.e. Hope's, biological make-up. According to the text, the child was pure evil by birth notwithstanding having also been a child of Gabrielle. Gabrielle became a vessel, a mere anatomical convenience to the story.

[08] In season four, the characters became caricatures of themselves. Pacifism was a mere idealism and impracticality as depicted by the story and by the artist. Season five was a stroke of studio politics and devoid of heart. Season six focused on the love story between the main characters.

[09] The finale meant to conclude what the series started. But if the title character, Xena, has to die, her death should be executed in a respectable manner, one that respects the themes of the series, one that respects the smaller plot of the story of the finale, and one that respects what Xena represents culturally and politically.

Xena's Redemption = Ending the Cycle of Violence

"I think if you had a little more character stuff, and a little less action, you might live through the competition."

[10] Xena tries to achieve redemption. She triumphs but by what means? Does the text of the show redefine redemption in a last minute attempt to shock us? Was Tapert so overly concerned with moving his audience that he felt compelled to enter an entirely different dimension of moral laws only as a means to disconcert us?
What happens to unsold merchandise
Xena makes a brief attempt to give up her warrior ways by burying her armour in SINS OF THE PAST.

[11] Tapert says that Xena has come full circle. Is this so? If the artist, the creator tells me this, I should believe him, right? In the finale, Xena ends up burying her armor, just as she did when the story first begins in SINS OF THE PAST. Her actions seem the same but her motivations are different: in SINS OF THE PAST she wants to give up and wants to die even. In FRIEND IN NEED she *needs* to die because the bylaws of the plot call for it.

[12] In FRIEND IN NEED, Xena stays dead. Not because she wants to, but because she has to. It is not her choice. She has to stay dead because the 40,000 souls need to be avenged. As if this was not already more than enough to swallow, a character, Akemi, we do not care about tells Xena she has been redeemed. The story falls apart. It begins to unravel at lightning speed and the Xenaverse almost seems to implode on itself. After six years of trying to achieve redemption, it leaves me ponderous and confused, making faces at the TV screen and saying, with dizzying disbelief, "SAY WHAT?"

[13] If Xena had said "screw it, I can do more alive than I can being dead", would she have been unredeemed? Or would she just try to seek even more redemption, adding that to the redemption she was already seeking, because those 40,000 souls were not avenged? How does that make any logical or moral sense? Imagine if Akemi had sought out Xena six years ago. Instead of trying to right her wrongs over the course of several years, Xena would have met the Japanese soul-eating monster and she would have been redeemed instantaneously. In the finale, we are, ultimately, told that Xena achieves redemption but we see that it happens without merit, and therefore without conviction.

Gabrielle's Raison D'Etre = Find Inner Peace, Share It

"The true secret of life-- is to find peace in yourself-- and to share it with the world."

[14] Gabrielle now becomes Xena's living legacy. Gabrielle, the idealist bard who wanted to become a warrior like Xena in SINS OF THE PAST, finally becomes a warrior like Xena. Apparently, she achieved her objective as well. She wanted to see the world and like most of us, she wanted to change it. However, through all of her trials and tribulations, she lost that part of herself which set her apart from Xena: her perspective and outlook on life.

[15] As a military leader, Xena was more experienced than Gabrielle in matters of diplomacy. A successful leader cannot operate by slaughtering alone. Additionally, while it is unreasonable to think that you can reason with street thugs, it is not unreasonable to think that there are also certain, possibly antagonistic, situations that call for non-violence and civil dialogue. In other words, what the story omitted was the employment of reason and peace-making strategy over the use of violence and war. This was done earlier in the series while still staying true to the fantasy action-adventure genre. This was especially shown in the second season episode, THE PRICE. Yet later, an entire season was devoted to demonstrating the weaknesses of pacifism, only addressing and underscoring how unsuccessful it can be.

The Love Story

Xena: I find that the strongest trees in the forest stand alone.
Gabrielle: You don't have to be strong all the time, Xena. It's good for the soul to be soft.

[16] The love story of Xena and Gabrielle end with one partner surviving the death of her beloved. Xena's death, or why she had to stay dead, was neither believable nor logical, thereby making the end to this lovers' story hard to accept. It ends senselessly.

[17] Moreover, the fact that this lovers' story between two women ended in such an ungraceful and illogical way on television, a medium that underrepresents or misrepresents marginalized groups (such as, ethnic minorities, females, gays, people with disabilities, etc.), is what makes it so difficult for me personally to accept. It is saddening, disheartening, and hurtful.

Auteur Theory vs. "The Death of the Author"

Gabrielle sees through Xena's attempt at 'Guess Which Hand I am Holding A Good Ending for the Show'
Gabrielle. She has short hair, you know?
audience: The audience has been defined four ways: (1) as a mass, (2) passively, (3) actively, and (4) economically. (1) As a mass, the audience is understood as a collection of individuals whose primary connection is to the media, not to each other by way of friendship, family, or work ties. (2) The passive sense, rather close to the mass sense, indicates that people simply soak up whatever the medium offers them. In strong versions of this view, the media are seen as all-powerful over the audience. (3) The active sense indicates that people make up their own minds about what the media present them with, often generating their own interpretations of the media text. In strong versions, the audience is seen as able to bend the media text to its own outlooks and concerns. (4) The economic definition sees the audience simply as consumers, people whose attention the media "delivers" over to advertisers so that corporations can make their sales pitches.
-- Questioning the Media, 159-169

[18] Do characters really belong solely to their creators? Legally they do. However, I am not talking about copyright, but literary right. Should the audience give the creators carte blanche to do whatever they want? If so, where lies the responsibility to be fair to the culture that the work exists in? I do not subscribe to the thought that characters belong solely to their creators. The world of narrative and the world of art is far more complicated than this. By exposing and sharing characters with an audience, the creators are asking us to participate in the subjective process of evaluation and interpretation.

[19] A TV series with an open field of comments and responses shared between audience and creator is best described as transactional art[Note 01]. But the transaction does not only take place outside of the text, the transaction takes place within the text. The rules of the fictional universe maintain more than just order, they set up a communication protocol or common language between audience and creator. Moreover, when a presumably representative member of the audience becomes a producer instead of just a consumer, the lines between audience and creator are no longer clear. Two scripts written by Melissa Good, a well-known fan to her community for her renditions of Xena and Gabrielle in fan fiction, come glaringly to mind.

[20] Some elements were intentionally integrated into the series only after the show's creators read what fans were saying about it on the Internet. E.g.: Subtext. While that might seem like just a business decision adhering to the laws of supply and demand, producer and consumer here are not so clearly defined, especially with fan fiction authors like Melissa Good providing fans with other outlets of a respectable Xena/Gabrielle story.

[21] Yet, this does not imply that the original creators need to always be receptive to audience comments, or that the audience should be given carte blanche to decide what is best. It simply means that the characters do not exclusively belong to its creators.

[22] When characters transcend one author's story, becoming part of a culture, can the creators really continue to be the sole authority of such a work? While auteur theory suggests that the author/director is the final stamp of authority on a work, other theorists are not so quick to adhere to what seems like a one-dimensional view.

[23] In 1977, Roland Barthes wrote an essay entitled "The Death of the Author" which affected contemporary ways of viewing authorship, and he made many enemies, no doubt. In his text, he outlined his ideas about the role of the author in constructing the meaning of a text.

"[T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings [...] in such a way as never to rest on any one of them."
-- Barthes, 146.

[24] For Barthes, the author's original intention is no longer on equal footing with that of the reader's evaluation. That is to say the job of interpretation is the responsibility of the reader. Barthes also points out that even his view on the creator-audience relationship is not new. Before print and copyright, there was no such thing as the "author", only the storyteller. Respect and adulation for this person was given based on skill, on the way the story was told, and not the story itself, which is entirely responsible for its own excellence. Another influential theorist worthy of mention here is Michel Foucalt for his essay "What is an Author?" (1978). Foucalt argues that the 'author' is not a person but a concept which can only be grasped in terms of social, political, and historical circumstances.

[25] Essentially, there was a shared experience of shaping the characters, however unequal that sharing was and however commercially motivated it was. The active audience helped to shape the characters with its varying degrees of interpretation. The original creator did not live in a hut for six years shut off from the rest of world. To say that the active audience did not have a part here is inaccurate.

The Series Finale, The Final Image

"Troubled is a polite word for what I am."
Rejected for an addition to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion
Gabrielle makes a disturbing discovery.

[26] A silly show that should not be taken seriously should not have an ending with an image of a tragic hero dangling naked and headless. This offends me, not because of the storyline arcs, themes, or narrative structure, but because a strong woman ends up brutally murdered with the camera cutting her up during a pan. Although Xena was never a saint herself and committed such horrible acts, this final image, especially after struggling to make up for her misdeeds, is not forgivable. Xena could have died a warrior and with honor but this gruesome display is far from going out dignified.

[27] In addition, by being the final image, it almost outweighs all other visuals that came before it. While Tapert says it is this image of Xena that motivates Gabrielle to press on in the final moments of the series, I doubt that Gabrielle needed such a disturbing stimulus to begin with. We have seen these two women go at great lengths for each other before, even in the infancy of the series. This last image of the corporeal Xena was over the top, unnecessary, and is a cheap shock-value stratagem.

[28] Moreover, for anyone who has played the card about there being other such violent occurrences in the course of Xena, well that is obvious. Fan displeasure about those instances was, at times, quite vocal.

What Was Omitted?

negotiation: In communications and analysis, this means that different understandings of reality are haggled over between different sets of people. The intended message of a TV situation comedy might be to encourage people to laugh at prejudice and bigotry as outmoded and foolish, as in the TV classics (All in the Family) with Archie Bunker (US) or its British original (Till Death Do Us Part) with Alf Garnett. In fact, many audience members in both countries took these series as giving the green light to their own bigotry. They negotiated its officially intended meaning, in this case drastically.
-- Questioning the Media, 159-169

[29] Let us try to understand what themes were lost to the flamboyance and to the special effects.

[30] I once described Xena: Warrior Princess as such:

"There are few women in the heroic role outside of motherhood, such as that played by Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor in the popular syndicated series, Xena: Warrior Princess. The show revolves around two female leads who are strong, independent, and rational beings. The show is an action-adventure program, a genre usually allotted to men only. However, this show has challenged the common male hierarchy prevalent in television fiction because the female lead character is both physically and emotionally strong."

[31] Yet, it escapes me when exactly Xena made the transition from vengeance-stricken, primal, no code-of-honor, warlord to intelligent leader with military expertise who conquered half of Ancient Greece. The Powers That Be chose not focus on this transition. They omitted this part of the story and what I would like to know is why?

[32] So many flashback scenes and episodes were devoted to the negatives of Xena's life. Not much of a compliment, if you ask me.


reception theory: This is a position that holds that the audience is active, bringing its own values and experiences to viewing television or reading.
- Questioning the Media, 159-169

[33] Politics influenced how some scenes were photographed. In the finale, we get a liplock that is not even a real kiss. It is okay to entertain us by cutting off heads left and right, but it is not okay to have the main characters kiss out of a sincere desire to do so, or for the kiss to be equally reciprocated by both parties lest that it come off, perhaps to the Moral Majority, as a political campaign pandering to the pink vote.

Close to the heart of our cultural and political system is the pattern of roles associated with sexual identity: our conceptions of masculinity and femininity, of the "normal" and "natural" attributes and responsibilities of men and women. And, as with other pillars of our moral order, these definitions of what is normal and natural serve to support the existing social power hierarchy. The maintenance of the "normal" gender role system requires that children be socialized -- and adults retained -- within a set of images and expectations which limit and channel their conceptions of what is possible and proper for women. The gender system is supported by the mass media treatment of sexual minorities. Mostly, they are ignored or denied--symbolically annihilated; when they do appear they do so in order to play a supportive role for the natural order and are thus narrowly and negatively stereotyped.
-- "Out of the Mainstream: Sexual Minorities and the Mass Media" in Gender, Race, and Class in the Media, 63

[34] While this is true, Xena did push the envelope: the relationship, although never explicit, between the main leads was at the forefront of the series and, oftentimes, the romantic nature of the relationship was overtly suggested to the audience.

[35] As far as positive visuals are concerned, The Powers That Be delivered. There are some profoundly beautiful frames of Xena and Gabrielle. There are too many to list here and some that warrant comprehensive discussion. Those frames in themselves are a masterpiece. However, the story itself is abysmal and one that contradicts a philosophy set up in the beginning of the series, and one that contradicts my own.

Story Execution

Playing through a piece of film or television fiction in 10-minute segments and asking the questions 'What happens next?' really does help students of all ages to focus upon the *functions* of characters, and to see them as *actants, * pushing the plot along and making possible different narrative strategies, rather than as 'real' people, who we love or hate, or with whom we identify.
-- Teaching the Media
I came all the way to Japa and all I got was some lousy pot
Gabrielle doesn't take the last minutes of the finale well either.

[36] I sat nervously watching the finale, wondering how the final scene would play out. I do not read spoilers beforehand and I went off-line for several weeks so that I would not be spoiled for the finale. Although Xena dying was a possibility that could not be completely ruled out, as the finale went on the probability of Xena staying dead was virtually zero. Many scenes were spent on Gabrielle fighting to bring Xena back to life. There was nothing in any of the preceding scenes to indicate that what was about to happen next would. Suddenly, in the last few minutes of the series, a new rule of the plot is introduced: Xena has to stay dead because the souls need to be avenged. Where did that come from?

Finally, prediction exercises demonstrate both the _range and the limitations_ of most media plots, and the ways in which each successive scene narrows down the possibilities further. A key question to raise here is 'What cannot happen?' In [The Rockford Files] ... it is fairly clear that Jim Rockford cannot be killed, fail to solve the case, or act dishonourably. He is also unlikely to either to settle down and get married or to renounce women entirely. Indeed, he can do nothing which will radically alter his Circumstances.


We apparently gain our primary pleasure from these series not from discovering *what* will happen next, but from discovering *how* their pre- ordained conclusions will be reached.

-- Excerpt from Teaching the Media (Chapter: Narrative)

[37] I am left wondering whether the ending to Xena was carefully thought out, considering that it did not make any thematic sense. While some artists can create rules and then break them cleverly at the end, it should not be done at the expense of the main, or one of the main, character(s) of the series:

It is crucial that the main character should be active, that his action/character give rise to the main question, and that his action determines the answer to it. Countless screenplays fail because the main character is passive or uninvolved at these critical moments.
-- The Elements of Screenwriting, Chris Kazan, Columbia University

[38] Although Rob Tapert is good with the story ideas and cinematography, the actual execution of the story was rather poor.


Gabrielle: Well, if you shot ten arrows at me, how many do you think I'd miss?
Xena: Only one.
Gabrielle: That could be a problem, huh?

[39] I disagreed with how various themes were presented and it left me not dissatisfied nor satisfied, but thoughtful and wondering about what could have been. Yet, we cannot attribute nor ascribe Xena to be any more than what it was. The show was never meant to be taken seriously until it got good ratings. It broke ground on TV based solely on the fact that there were two strong female leads with a strong relationship and devotion for one another. For that, I am thankful.

[40] Should Tapert have factored the social, cultural, and political relevance of what the main characters have come to represent, recognizing that they have transcended his sole intent, in how he determined the ending? It only seems responsible to do so.

[41] The Powers That Be had the opportunity to give underrepresented people an ending that was in accordance with the show's positive themes set up in the beginning of the series. Perhaps if we did not have the need to crave such representations, the ending would not have been such a blow to us.

[42] In the end, Xena has "redeemed" herself by satisfying the rules of vengeance. Gabrielle has forsaken her beliefs and ideals and has *fully* conformed to a lifestyle/profession that conflicts with her own values. I cannot accept that.

[43] Xena was a martyr. Her death evoked my sympathy, which is precisely what Tapert wanted. Had she not died, she would have gone on living a life with her beloved partner and friend that would bring her joy.

[44] I want to believe that Xena did not end this way. I do not want that to be my last image. I will pretend that the finale ended on the water tower. I do not want to believe that the world is abysmal and meaningless and in spite of all our attempts to build, repair, dream, and love, we would still lose. I do not believe in futilitarianism and this is the message I get from the finale and, therefore, from the series.

[45] Xena was a show wrought with problematic story structure, plot holes, and thematic contradictions. The title character embarks on kamikaze mission. She achieves redemption by rule of the plot, not by merit: she did not end the cycle of violence through love.

[46] When all is said and done Xena: Warrior Princess will remain a cultural icon. I can analyze until kingdom come and dissect until I am tired. But I will always hold the series and its unforgettable characters dear. Hail to the bards in the binary sphere and long live the XenaVerse.


Note 01:
Diane Silver, Whoosh History Archive Project: A Cyber History Of The Online Xena Community
Return to article


Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author" in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana/Collins, 1989.

Dines, Gail, and Jean M. Humez (eds.). Gender, Race and Class in Media. California: Sage, 1995.

Downing, John, and Ali Mohammadi & Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi (eds.). Questioning the Media. California: Sage Publications, 1995.

Kazan, Chris. The Elements of Screenwriting. Film Division, Columbia University, 1989.

Masterman, Len. Teaching the Media. London: Comedia Press, 1988.


girl amazon Anonymous

Anonymous lives in Queens, NYC. Known as Sathenas on the Xenaverse mailing list, Anon's career in the Xenaverse began in 1996 when Lucy Lawless' horse had a mishap on The Tonight Show. By day, she does graphic design and programming for the web site of a local television station. She also volunteers for the research and press departments at Amnesty International. By night, she loves to read science or fantasy fiction. Anon's interests include literature, media literacy, computer science, creative writing, history and politics, and sexy librarians. An advocate of cultural, intellectual, ethnic, and sexual diversity and equality, Anonymous is a full-time activist and tries to implement positive change wherever she can. She plans to study human and civil rights law and hopes to one day serve public office. She is also the proud mother of an African Gray and Quaker Parakeet.
Favorite line: Callisto: "I like to experience life in all of its agonizing glory." RETURN OF CALLISTO
First episode seen: CALLISTO
Least favorite episode: FALLEN ANGEL

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