Whoosh! Issue 63 - December 2001

AN OASIS IN A CULTURAL DESERT
PART TWO: THE CREATIVE CONTEXT

By Alison Ashworth
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
2860 words


Introduction (01-02)
What is Subtext? (03-12)
Why Bother? (13-19)
Notes
Bibliography
Articles
Biography



AN OASIS IN A CULTURAL DESERT
PART TWO: THE CREATIVE CONTEXT



Introduction

Geez, going from one irritating blonde to another!
Xena first appeared on HERCULES.

[01] The character of Xena first appeared in a three-episode story that concluded the first season of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. By the time the third installment was being filmed, where Xena was due to be killed off, series creator Rob Tapert "knew there was a 50% chance that it might go to a series." Xena consequently survived[Note 01].

[02] Xena is produced by Renaissance Pictures (also responsible for Evil Dead and most recently The Gift), and is distributed in the USA by Studios USA Domestic Television. Although popular with a loyal fan base, in October 2000 it was announced that the sixth season would be the last. The reason, according to Executive Producer Rob Tapert, was that "all of us on the show feel it will be time to move on to new creative challenges at end of this season"[Note 02].



What is Subtext?

I love you like a daughter, Gabrielle!  My daughter of course, not that horrid hellspawn of yours.
Subtext can be a lot like art itself -- we know it when we see it.

[03] If we are to argue successfully that Xena is a lesbian romance, we must engage with the meaning of the word 'subtext', although we have already acknowledged the implications of its use. Subtext in Xena has been defined as "a subtle, underlying theme", "not something that is stated outright, but is identified by hints and clues". Further, it can be used as a synonym for "lesbian innuendo", and can be "a scene, an action, a word, a line, a touch, a look, a tone of voice or an entire episode that implies or shows that Xena and Gabrielle are lovers"[Note 03]. Xena, of course, has attracted considerable interest from lesbian viewers for this very reason. The nature of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle has undergone considerable scrutiny and many viewers have concluded that they are a lesbian couple on this basis.

[04] The subtext, it seems, has been a largely conscious creation of the show's producers, and has thrived in response to audience demands. As Steven Capsuto has argued, "shows about same-sex buddy duos have always inspired queer jokes and gay subtextual readings"[Note 04]. Also, as Sherrie A. Inness comments, "displays of toughness are ... closely linked in our society to being a lesbian"[Note 05]. It is therefore easy to imagine why lesbians became interested in Xena, but, unusually, this interest was welcomed by the show's production staff, as Renee O'Connor (Gabrielle) explains:

It was unintentional to begin with ... but the more lesbians started watching, and the more feedback we received from them, our characters started to develop a little more intimately. We have to keep it a family show, but the subtext is there[Note 06].

[05] Kathleen E. Bennett also perceives a creative relationship between the show and its fans, which, in this extract, is confirmed by one of Xena's producers:

Many of the people who work on the show (producers, writers, and actors) definitely seem to enjoy this ambiguity, and explicitly acknowledge the role of audience response as a co-creator of the "meaning" of the show. Openly lesbian producer Liz Friedman told national gay newsmagazine, The Advocate, "We never wrote Xena to be a lesbian ... But it's not our show, it's the audience's show. If the fans want to read Xena that way, great"[Note 07].

[06] Commenting on the 'are they or aren't they' debate, Friedman says that she does not "have any interest in saying they are heterosexuals. That's just b*llsh*t, and no fun, either"[Note 08]. The subtext, she says, is "one of the best parts of the job, getting to throw in references that I know the fans who are interested in that will pick up on, but don't necessarily flash any irrevocable red lights"[Note 09].

[07] Creator and co-producer, Rob Tapert, however, in an interview with Ms. magazine in 1996, explains that there were certain pressures exerted on the production staff from the studio anxious to avoid any outright acknowledgement of the characters' sexuality:

Tapert proudly tells me that the show "has become a favorite with gay women" and that some lesbian bars have special Xena viewing nights ... "Early on, the studio came down on me, because they wanted to make sure no one perceived Xena and Gabrielle as lesbians," the producer says[Note 10].

[08] In August 2000, Tapert elaborated on the situation in the official Xena magazine:

The people I deal with at the studio have an expression which they call the "Ellen effect" ... You get a curiosity, and then after that, you see people turn off the show in droves ... We had a famous episode a long time ago, The Quest, which was our highest-rated episode, and after that we started to go downhill, and then there was A Day in the Life, which was the girls in the hot tub together playing hide the soap. After that, our executives put a great deal of pressure on us to stop, to not go down that road because it could only lead to ruin[Note 11].

[09] Although this pressure must have had some impact, the show's producers have continued to cater for their lesbian fans with episodes from the final season, for example, being written by Internet Xena fan-fiction writer, Melissa Good.

[10] If gay people learn to recognize themselves on screen by the decoding of subcultural signals, then it could be argued that Xena actively courts gay viewers via its use of camp and its utilization of genres traditionally associated with gay representation. Gill argues that "camp grew out of the gay world's understandable desire to subvert straight culture and make it ridiculous"[Note 12], and a dictionary definition of the term's informal use is illuminating in the context of this discussion:

1. effeminate; affected in mannerisms, dress, etc. 2. Homosexual. 3. Consciously artificial, exaggerated, vulgar, or mannered; self-parodying, esp. when in dubious taste.

[11] Further, one of the definitions of the term 'camp it up' is "to flaunt one's homosexuality"[Note 13] while Smelik observes that irony, parody, artificiality, and performance are some of the defining characteristics of camp in relation to film[Note 14]. Used as a tool of resistance to heterosexual culture predominantly by gay men, camp has become a widely recognized signifier of the 'queer' in modern society. Camp in Xena can be recognized in story lines, dialogue, and appearance. For example, the transsexual who wins the 'Miss Known World' beauty contest in HERE SHE COMES ... MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211), Gabrielle's reference to 'fisting a fish' in FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318), and Autolycus impersonating an Amazon in THE QUEST (37/213) whilst retaining his hairy chest and moustache are all examples of camp. Furthermore, it can also be evident in the choice of certain genres.

[12] Xena features a wide variety of genres including comedy, drama, war, mystery, fantasy and adventure, and occasionally sets its narrative in other time periods: a war time archaeological dig in THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210), an alternate timeline in REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202), or modern day North America in DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422). However, the show also occasionally acknowledges its gay following with its utilization of genres traditionally associated with gay visibility. The vampire story GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204), for example, features Gabrielle being turned into a 'bacchae' by heavily lesbian coded vampires; THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) is arranged as a musical fantasy; and TIED UP AND LOCKED DOWN (75/407) is set in a Devil's Island-type women's prison.



Why Bother?

Hey, at least I'm not naked!
Studio executives specifically instructed that the alternate 'God of Love' character not be portrayed as gay. Directors insctructed otherwise.

[13] If we can conclude that even as late as 1997 realistic representations of gay relationships remained rare and controversial, and that television executives believed controversy cost money, then, in the context of this discussion, we must consider the possible motivations the producers of Xena had to court lesbian viewers openly, and the mechanisms by which they did this. Given the discussion above, we may conclude that the financial implications for producers in acknowledging lesbian desire within the mainstream are prohibitive. However, I would like to argue that it is, in fact, an effective modern marketing strategy, for the following reasons.

[14] Firstly, there has been a growing recognition over the last few years that gay men and lesbians have above average disposable incomes. This makes them a viable, if niche, market. In support of this argument, Danae Clark references research by the Advocate in the late 1970s and OUT/LOOK in 1990 showing that, in respect of the former, 70% of male readers in the 20-40 age group had incomes "well above the national median" and, in respect of the latter, that the average lesbian household income was approximately $58,000[Note 15].

[15] Secondly, George Comstock observes that "most programs must have elements that appeal strongly to several distinctive segments of the public and at least are acceptable to fair-sized proportions of most"[Note 16]. Although neglected in the past, gay people, due to their purchasing power, are therefore now a desirable group to include in a program's potential audience.

[16] Thirdly, Clark's analysis of 'gay window shopping' in relation to advertising explains how the gay market can be most effectively targeted:

Advertisers are increasingly striving to create a dual marketing approach that will "speak to the homosexual consumer in a way that the straight consumer will not notice" ... gays and lesbians can read into an ad certain subtextual elements that correspond to experiences with or representations of gay/lesbian subculture. If heterosexual consumers do not notice these subtexts or subcultural codes, then advertisers are able to reach the homosexual market along with the heterosexual market without ever revealing their aim[Note 17].

[17] The above observations lead to a conclusion that profit-seeking producers, broadcasters, and advertisers have recognized that lesbian viewers are also consumers. Furthermore, they represent a market segment that has hitherto been under exploited but has considerable spending power. Finally, that they can reach this niche market without upsetting or alienating the most profitable market segment: heterosexual viewers.

[18] The final part of the puzzle is uncovered if we take account of the distribution channels made available by the Internet. As an invisible, diverse, and geographically dispersed market, lesbians have historically been an impossible consumer group to target. However, now that Internet shopping giving access to consumer products all over the world is well established, the lesbian market has now become both exploitable and cheap to reach. If we consider that Xena is broadcast in 115 countries, we can see that, although small as a proportion of the population as a whole, potentially global access to lesbian consumers represents an attractive market for merchandising[Note 18].

[19] In conclusion, we must acknowledge that there are, ultimately, many forces at work that have allowed or encouraged Xena to be a lesbian text, while at the same time many more forces which have inhibited any overt acknowledgement of its true nature. However, I would argue that, whether conscious or not, these forces have all conspired to create a mainstream lesbian text. We must ultimately acknowledge, however, that Xena and Gabrielle are fictional characters who do not have a sexual orientation outside the imagination of viewers, and therefore the whole issue 'does not really matter'. However, as Xena fan Anna Doolan passionately argues, the nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship is "an issue bigger than two characters":

For you, it might just be a matter of Xena and Gabrielle. For me, it is about the whole question of queer representation in television. That is why I get so upset when people tell me it does not matter whether Xena and Gabrielle are romantically in love with each other. It matters so much more to me than just Xena and Gabrielle. It would be a television show finally recognizing that queer people exist and that we are worth their risks, time, and effort. It would be a television show recognizing I exist, and finally listening to me, telling me that I matter[Note 19].

Conclusion in the Feb 2002 issue of Whoosh, issue number 65.



Notes

Note 01:
Robert Tapert, quoted in Joe Nazzaro, "Hercules & Xena: Introducing Two Television Legends", Starburst Special 27, April 1996, p.26.
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Note 02:
Robert Tapert, quoted in "Xena Comes to an End"
http://www.studiosusa.com/xena
[no longer active]
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Note 03:
Kathleen E. Bennett, Xena: Warrior Princess: Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response
http://www.infogoddess/xena
[no longer active]
Return to article

Note 04:
Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000), p.194.
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Note 05:
Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p.23.
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Note 06:
Renee O'Connor, quoted in Subtextopedia: Your Guide to Xena Subtext
http://subtext.simplenet.com/xena&gab.html
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Note 07:
Liz Friedman, quoted in Kathleen E. Bennett, Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response
http://www.infogoddess/xena
[no longer active]

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Note 08:
Ibid., quoted in alt.tv.xena: Subtext FAQ
http://www.xenite.org/faqs/subtext.htm
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Note 09:
Ibid.
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Note 10:
Robert Tapert, quoted in alt.tv.xena: Subtext FAQ
http://www.xenite.org/faqs/subtext.htm
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Note 11:
Ibid. quoted in Xena: Warrior Princess: The Official Magazine, issue 10, August 2000, p.16.
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Note 12:
A. A. Gill, 'A Night at the Camp Site', The Sunday Times: Culture, 20 July 1997, p.27.
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Note 13:
Hanks, Collins Dictionary, p.227.
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Note 14:
Anneke Smelik, 'Gay and Lesbian Criticism', in Hill and Church Gibson, eds., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.142.
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Note 15:
Danae Clark, 'Commodity Lesbianism', in Abelove, Barale and Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), p.187, 189.
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Note 16:
Comstock, Television in America, p.52.
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Note 17:
Clark, 'Commodity Lesbianism', p.188.
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Note 18:
Ibid.
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Note 19:
Anna Doolan, 'Are Xena & Gabrielle Together? An Issue Bigger Than Two Characters', Whoosh #53 (02/01)
http://www.whoosh.org/issue53/dooland1.html
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Bibliography

Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993)

Robert C Allen, ed., Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed (London: Routledge, 1992).

alt.tv.xena: Subtext FAQ
http://www.xenite.org/faqs/subtext.htm

Australian Xena Information Page
http://ausxip.com

Kathleen E. Bennett, Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response
http://www.infogoddess/xena/
[no longer active]

Paul Burston and Colin Richardson, eds., A Queer Romance: Lesbians, Gay Men and Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000).

Danae Clark, 'Commodity Lesbianism', in Abelove, Barale and Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), pp.186-201.

George Comstock, Television in America, The Sage Commtext Series, 1, 2nd edn (London: Sage, 1991).

Robin Eggar, 'Is it a Bird?', The Sunday Times: Style, 27 July 1997, p.8.

Jib Fowles, Why Viewers Watch: A Reappraisal of Television's Effects, rev edn (London: Sage, 1992).

A A Gill, 'A Night at the Camp Site', The Sunday Times: Culture, 20 July 1997, p.27.

________ 'A Teeny Pain in the Neck', The Sunday Times: Culture, 24 January 1999, p.30.

Sara Gwenllian Jones, 'Starring Lucy Lawless?', Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, April 2000, pp. 9-22.

Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge, eds., The Good, the Bad and the Gorgeous (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1994).

Patrick Hanks, Collins Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edn (London: Collins, 1986)

John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Patricia Holland, The Television Handbook (London: Routledge, 1997).

Stuart Hood, ed., Behind the Screens: The Structure of British Television in the Nineties (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1994).

Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

Shameem Kabir, Daughters of Desire: Lesbian Representations in Film (London: Cassell, 1998).

J Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (London: Davis-Poynter, 1974).

Joe Nazzaro, 'Hercules & Xena: Introducing Two Television Legends', Starburst Special 27, April 1996, pp.22-27.

Queery
http:\\www.queery.com

Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Nick Setchfield, 'Kick-Ass Angels', Cult TV, vol. 2, no. 3, March 1998, pp.28-33.

Anneke Smelik, 'Gay and Lesbian Criticism', in Hill and Church Gibson, eds., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.135-147.

John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, 2nd edn (Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall / Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997).

Subtextopedia: Your Guide to Xena Subtext
http://subtext.simplenet.com/xena&gab.html

John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Macmillan, 1983).

Upbeat Entertainment News Online
http:\\www.2upbeatmag.com/TUBE-FILE

Whoosh: Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies
http://whoosh.org

Tamsin Wilton, Lesbian Studies: Setting an Agenda (London: Routledge, 1995)

Xena - Warrior Princess
http://studiosusa.com/xena
[no loger active]

Xena: Warrior Princess: The Official Magazine, issue 10, August 2000.

Xena Warrior Lesbian
http://geocities.com/TelevisionCity/4580



Articles

Allison Ashworth. An Oasis In A Cultural Desert Part One: Introduction and the Cultural Desert. Whoosh #62 (November 2001)
http://whoosh.org/issue62/ashworth1.html



Biography

Alison Ashworth Alison Ashworth

I am a 37-year-old Health & Safety Inspector from Luton, Bedfordshhire, UK and I wrote this as my dissertation for my MA in Popular Culture.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE; ONE AGAINST AN ARMY
Favorite line: Callisto: "Love, love, love, love. Oh, it unites, you're right" RETURN OF CALLISTO
First episode seen: Don't remember
Least favorite episode: LYRE, LYRE, HEARTS ON FIRE




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