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The female hero, duality of gender, and postmodern feminism in Xena: Warrior Princess

By Rhonda Nelson

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A 5’10" warrior princess dressed in a leather miniskirt, boots, and bronze breast plate, wearing her "chakram" [Note 1] and sword, with her trusted friend Gabrielle at her side, defeats mortals, gods, and goddesses for the good of mankind, and takes prisoner a cult following among television watchers across the world. Her name is Xena [Note 2] and she is largely based on the "evil warrior princesses" portrayed by Hong Kong cult film star Lin Ching Hsia. It can be called, at best, a humorous, campy take on fantasy-adventure shows, and, at its worst, the same. The fans of Xena refer to themselves as "Xenites" or "Hardcore Nutballs".

[02] The first major conventions occurred in Burbank (01/97), Sacramento (05/97), Detroit (08/97), and Minneapolis (8/97); others are scheduled for the rest of the year for New York City (09/97), Valley Forge (10/97), San Francisco (10/97), and San Diego (11/97). The cult popularity of an adventure/superhero is not unusual except in that Xena has far exceeded the popularity of its originator, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The show has borrowed from Hercules an audience of boys and men and added to it the young girls, mothers, and professional women, which are rarely included in any fantasy show audience, especially to this extreme.

[03] Robert Tapert, executive producer of the show, says Xena’s most faithful viewers are women and men ages 18 to 34 [Note 3]. This is a far different audience than most fantasy shows attract. Xena’s ratings are consistently on the rise, including the late night airings and the seasonal reruns. To demonstrate Xena’s popularity in current pop culture, one need only to go to the Internet, where Xena has hundreds of web pages, and several news groups and mailing lists that discuss and analyze her actions and relationships in detail. This is all in addition to the International Association of Xena Studies (IAXS), which produces an on-line journal entitled Whoosh!, which celebrates an academic interest in Xena. [Note 4]

[04] In the following analysis of Xena: Warrior Princess, we will compare Xena to past female super heroes on television; discuss the implied duality of gender [Note 5] ; examine how this postmodern female action hero fits in with current feminist and post- feminist philosophies (especially given the large amount of female audience Xena is accumulating); and compare Xena to past strong, independent women in television programs, especially those of second wave feminism of the 1970’s.

[05] Since television is such an integral part of our lives, we often fail to notice its influence. The constant stream of social images it feeds us affects our psyche. A feminist fan of Xena could easily come to the realization that Xena, although a great show for fantasy and the promotion of a strong, take-no-prisoners woman, could go further to promote the feminist perspective. Given that American television broadcasting is predominantly controlled by men and has a history of such, television has always had difficulty in portraying a feminist perspective. It is a paradox to analyze a female action hero as a feminist in such an atmosphere as the above, which is where the paradoxical nature of post-feminism rears its head.

Postmodern Aspects

[06] Postmodernist writing, television, and film emphasize (1) the appropriation of images from previously created images, (2) the fragmentary nature of these images, and (3) their opposition to a single logic or subject. With this in mind, it is easy to see that Xena exemplifies a postmodern format in the use of "YAXI’s" (Yet Another Xena Inconsistency). Regarding the time period, in one episode, there is the mention of Sophocles (496-406 BC), then later there is talk of heroes of the Trojan War (c.1184 BC) but Hercules, Xena’s contemporary, is known to have died about 80 years before the start of the Trojan War. Gabrielle, Xena’s sidekick, competed against Homer (700 BC) and Euripides (480 to 406 BC) in a bard contest [ATHENS CITY ACADEMY OF PERFORMING BARDS (#13)]. Hippocrates (c.460-370 BC) and Galen (c. 129 AD) made an appearance on an episode [IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (#24)], and Goliath was the subject of GIANT KILLER (#27), an episode where he was killed by David (1000-961 BC). Xena was present at the fall of Troy and was a friend of Helen [BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (#12)]. Xena was also close to Julius Caesar, as well [DESTINY (#36)].

[07] Regarding style and culture, there are also many YAXIs. Greek-myths-meets-feudalism-meets-90’s-slang- and-feminist-rights would be a quick description of the culture of Xena’s times. From fighting for the rights and protection of the Amazon women against an evil goddess [A NECESSARY EVIL (#38)], to putting a man in his place when he crosses her boundaries in a bar [WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (#30)], Xena is the woman triumphant over all obstacles set before her. Even death does not conquer her, as her soul has inhabited other bodies until she can rectify the situation. There are references to gods and goddesses of myth, Balkan women singing Bulgarian lyrics, fighting wars in Corinth, in Arcadia, Greece against Centaurs, tomatoes and steel swords in Ancient Greece, American accents, Kiwi accents, Beverly Hills accents, British accents, etc. Xena’s fighting skills are also anachronistic as agility and weaponry skills are combined with acrobatics, martial arts, and pressure-point training, and screaming YIYIYIYIs [Note 6].

Xena and Sidekick, Gabrielle

[08] In our current society, women’s relationships with women always come after their relationship with their man. This "traditional" activity is challenged in Xena: Warrior Princess. Gabrielle and Xena have saved each other’s lives several times and Xena’s character is developing as her friendship with Gabrielle matures into a deep, passionate friendship. Perhaps in a return to classic romantic friendships [Note 7], the women refuse to leave each other for men and work on "issues" in their relationship. This relationship requests that the audience question their love and what it means.

[09] Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship has opened a large debate among Xena fans. Bring in the fictional X-chip, an integrated circuit engineered at the "Center for Science in the Prurient Interest", which operates in Straight-mode or Lesbian-mode, allowing Xena fans of either sexual persuasion to see Xena exactly the way they wish [Note 8]. There is a large lesbian following and many feel it is great to have the possibilities of a positive, emotional relationship portrayed between Xena and Gabrielle. There are definite sapphic double entendres in the subtext of this show.

[10] This implication does not seem to be a concern to the producers. Liz Friedman, an openly lesbian producer of Xena, says, "There are few substantive portrayals of women’s friendships on TV...the story shows Xena and Gabrielle as two very close friends who love each other, whether or not there’s a degree of sexual intimacy" [Note 9]. Lucy Lawless discussing her fanatical following of lesbians and also female convicts says, "I don’t mind. If I please women as well as men, that’s great. I’d be delighted to be a sex symbol for both sides!" [Note 10] The display of a kiss between Xena and Gabrielle set mailing lists ablaze. Whether or not they are lovers, it is the display of a close female bond that really makes this action hero popular. Gabrielle has a disarming and genuine innocence, and helps Xena to see the good and light in all things. She and Xena have become the best of friends in the highest and finest sense of that phrase. Their relationship is reflective of any two people that genuinely care and love each other, whether or not they are lovers.

Superhero and Action Hero

[11] Xena’s character, played by Lucy Lawless, is perhaps the most physically demanding female role on current television. As she acrobats through the air, wielding sword and aiming chakram and crossbow, she demonstrates strength, power, and agility, envied by men as well as women. There is no doubt of her ability as a warrior, vindicated in the moments of battle and displaying her action hero presence. She is a little girl’s fantasy of a survivor: "ultra traumatized, six-foot tall, nine-year-old, hard and strong and fast and uncaring. She can still climb trees, she can ride around on her horse all the time and never go home. She can love her girlfriend, then dump her, then love her again." [Note 11].

[12] Whereas the Bionic Woman smiled too much [Note 12], Xena rarely smiles, especially at men. Her tenderness is shown rarely and even then, she uses phrases like "I couldn’t hate you". Over the past year, her character has begun to soften, showing a little more of a reflective, perhaps "feminine" side, especially in her interaction with Gabrielle.

[13] Xena’s character, reminiscent of many past models of female hero types on television and comic books, including Wonder Woman, Modesty Blaise, and Hothead Paisan [Note 13], also displays a close resemblance to that of the Hindu warrior goddess, Durga [Note 14]. Known for her strength and power, Durga fought demons, battling for good over evil. Durga was presented by the gods with weapons including a discus, similar to Xena’s chakram.

[14] Xena has consciously chosen goodness over her evil side and struggles with it daily, in her awareness of her ability to exploit and intimidate others, bonding with her audience as she shows this humanity. She is not unreachable, she is not a goddess, and she is not a superhuman. She is, in the end, just like us, only stronger, consciously trying to rid the world of evil, and able to wear those outfits and look amazing.

[15] Aeon Flux, an animated female superhero from MTV’s Liquid Sky, although showing a strong female character, does not show the personal reflection and conviction that Xena does. Also, in Aeon Flux’ case, she always dies, removing the strength from the "strong woman". Xena, on the other hand, inhabits a prelapsarian world, fighting in thigh-high boots, winning nearly every battle and, most importantly, fighting fair and not killing women and children [Note 15], as part of her life-changing transition to right her past wrongs.

[16] Reflecting all of the above, one of Xena’s most noticeable characteristics as superhero is her positive display of duality of gender. This duality is shown in her relationships (having male lovers while in deeply emotional relationship with Gabrielle), in her display of warriorhood (wielding the sword as a phallic symbol, using her signature chakram symbolizing the female sex), and all the while accentuating her female form, not hiding it. Men are attracted to her and terrified of her. She is part harem girl and part warrior [Note 16]; part male and part female; and, part princess and part warrior. This duality expressed, in gender studies, is referred to as androgyny and has a whole history of the ways different cultures have placed mixed gender/androgynous peoples in places of respect.

[17] In current culture, however, the ramifications of mixed gender is hardly popular, unless you are a Calvin Klein model. This ability to carry the strengths of both genders is empowering for Xena’s viewership. Xena, as a model for 90’s women (a physically and mentally strong, reflective woman), one must note her appearance in a fantasy, postmodern, Ancient Greek setting. How strange that popular culture appears when we have to return to Ancient Greece to express the strength of the duality of feminine/masculine qualities in a human and the presence of a independent-thinking strong female. One wonders why is it so difficult to believe or have television portray the existence of such a woman living in modern society.

[18] Xena definitely overturns the stereotypical view of women as submissive and passive: as she often is forced to use the evil she’s trying to overcome (killing, fighting, destroying) to crush the enemy. If the goal of heroines in films, is to overcome obstacles to create, nurture, heal, or empower [Note 17], showing reliance on technique, brains and intuition rather than muscle, then Xena may be a beginning place to start on television. While masculine displays of tension (i.e. war) are more visually stimulating than a battle of the wits, from a feminist standpoint [Note 18], Xena relies too heavily on the use of physical strength as the bottom line.

Comparison to Past Television Female Characters in Feminist and Post-Feminist Setting

[19] Why would a feminist be concerned with the manner in which a woman is portrayed as strong? Why should Xena not be stronger than all men combined if she cares to be, especially in a fantasy show, which is created for enjoyment and entertainment? From my personal point of view, that would be great, but it is disappointing that options other than violence are not pursued. Instead, the strong woman is expected to kill to end evil, just as mankind has done throughout history. This is certainly not a facet of the feminist philosophy. Of course, seeing that television programming has not yet portrayed feminist philosophies of the 70’s correctly, one can safely doubt that a television show based in fantasy would hit the nail on the head in these post feminist 90’s. It is important to note that "popular TV reflects a desire or fantasy level solution to pressing social problems or misrepresents common social problems" [Note 19].

[20] Furthur, I say, Furthur [Note 20]. This is where a post-feminist [Note 21] discussion could come in, but we will save that for later.

[21] One of the big questions, put simply, is whether Xena is really a strong woman character or is this just a role written as a man and for the sake of marketing, they made it a woman?

[22] Robert Tapert, executive producer, questioned "is she a hero for women or a hero and sex symbol for men?" [Note 22] Granted, the show has more to offer than simply Xena’s sex appeal; however, there is enough of her skin showing in each show to question the motivation in garnering an audience.

[23] In keeping with the fantasy genre, there is rarely any threat of rape towards Xena and Gabrielle. During all of their fighting and battling, one would expect this concern to be a larger topic of discussion, considering the treatment women receive in war-torn countries. If Xena has ever mentioned a fear of rape, it was missed by her fans.

[24] "Xena has the truly superhuman power of utter sexual unselfconsciousness, a gift for dominance with no memory of submissions. She’s a stone hero." [Note 23] In showing this stone hero element, she is displaying typical male behavior regarding domination and sexual conquest, without need for emotions. As she does not need men, other than sexually, she parallels the way men in society have commonly treated women. This "stone hero", we see in more recent shows, is beginning to melt more, as she forms her relationship with Gabrielle.

[25] Focusing on what needs of women are met in Xena: Warrior Princess, there is obvious need for independence. Women’s needs to be independent has often been blocked by society and by the belief that their needs come second, after men. For example, their relationships with women always come after their relationship with their man. There is an obvious focus outside of the domestic sphere, in that Xena does not cook, does not care for a child, she is not married, she does not have a monogamous relationship, and her focus could be considered her "work". "Traditional" obstructions are constantly challenged in Xena: Warrior Princess.

[26] As mentioned above, the media does not have a very good history of portraying women accurately as feminists. Television’s depiction of women in the feminist 70’s largely disavowed the ability of a woman to have a family and a career, and creating images of working women as gray-suited clones in offices with no social life. In response, Betty Friedan and other feminists declared feminism was not working; the media pounced on the discontent, reporting this discontent as "post feminism".

[27] A brief description of feminist television philosophy should start with the movement of the 70’s where television began to portray the single woman in her own show [Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)] and strong, working women [Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981); Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)]. The television shows focused on the workplace, not the larger issues of dealing with the patriarchy. Individual achievement and success was largely focused on over the screen as women overcame their oppression of idiotic bosses, rather than overcoming the patriarchy [Note 24]. Television showed women "making it in a man’s world", and avoided the challenges of feminism to private life, sexuality, and the family. It can therefore be said that feminism in the television media differed radically than the meaning of feminism with the women’s movement.

[28] Television has been uncomfortable with portrayal of the feminist role; Murphy Brown’s (1988-) feminist character is written in a post-feminist fashion, exaggerating her competence and suggesting that these characteristics are funny in a woman. Feminism, as a dynamic, constantly changing ideology with many aspects including the personal, the political, and the philosophical, is a call to action. It is not simply a belief system. Without action, feminism is merely empty rhetoric which cancels itself out, something that been proven over the last 20 years of paradoxical discourse.

[29] There is a big politic behind feminism and post-feminism and largely the argument is the "the war isn’t over yet!" vs. "I’m sick of complaining about the patriarchy!" In analyzing Xena, an entertaining, humorous, postmodern fantasy show, it seems almost irrelevant to ask it to be concerned with feminism, post-feminism, or to compare it to dramas or sitcoms. A big issue in post-feminism is the focus on the home again, rather than the workplace, neither of which are really addressed in Xena: Warrior Princess.

[30] However, information can be gleaned from the comparison of past shows’ portrayal of women characters in "feminist" settings, starting with television of the 70’s as discussed earlier: "No woman television character has exhibited the confidence and strength of the male heroes of archetype and fantasy or if she did, she was a one-episode fluke, and her anomalous presence could reassure viewers that next week all the regular women characters would be back, nervous and self- questioning as ever" [Note 25].

[31] This is certainly different in Xena: Warrior Princess. She rarely appears self-questioning, and only then about issues of morality and humanity, not of her own abilities. Xena: Warrior Princess appears to have been influenced by feminism, in that her autonomy is focused on her independence and her freedom. She is not concerned with domesticity, her goals of ridding the world of evil parallel well feminism’s idea of changing the world. Xena: Warrior Princess’ post-feminist influence may be in overcoming the need to be bound by the ideas of feminism to break out and be oneself, without any dogmas tying a person down. This is reflective in Xena’s close relationship with Gabrielle and her duality of gender. However, if Xena can hold on to her masculine qualities while becoming more nurturing, that may be a ticket to a more balanced show of feminism; that may be the challenge that Friedman and her team are ready to meet.


Note 1: [32] Chakram. A circular metal disk with a razor sharp edge; able to slice through steel as well as flesh. Return to article

Note 2: [33] Brief History of Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena was born in the town of Amphipolis. Her village was under the threat of a warlord invasion. She and her younger brother, Lyceus, planned to fight them in battle. Her older brother, Toris, wanted the villagers to flee for safety. Xena and Lyceus fought back to back, along with the villagers who remained to fight. Lyceus was killed by the warlord, Cortese, and Xena vowed vengeance. To be sure that this would never happen to her village again, she attacked the villages that surrounded Amphipolis. She lost her soul to vengeance and went astray [DEATH MASK (#23)].

[34] Xena became the head of the mightiest army the world had ever known. Xena, the Warrior Princess, was born. She was feared by many and brought torment to her mother’s heart. Xena had become like the warlord, Cortese, whom had she vowed to destroy if he ever crossed her path again. But in the end, her army betrayed her and followed Darphus in his mutiny. She was forced to walk the gauntlet, but she survived, so she was free to go [THE GAUNTLET (#H12)]. Her heart was helped onto the right path by Hercules [UNCHAINED HEART (#H13)]. Xena decided to give up her warrior ways. She buried her armor, chakram and sword. A small village was being threatened by Draco’s army and she began to find her way by protecting them.

[35] In this town, Poteidaia, she met Gabrielle. Gabrielle was impressed by Xena’s bravery and wanted to go with her (SINS OF THE PAST, #01). Gabrielle felt that she was destined for more and wanted to become a warrior. Her persistence finally got Xena to accept her. Xena’s friendship with Gabrielle began, their adventures began, their journey for "the greater good" began, and they were going to take that journey together. Xena would learn from Gabrielle and Gabrielle would learn from Xena. From that they would grow. They would set out to protect the innocent from the wrath of warlords and evil of the gods. They became family to each other and to this day, they stand for "the greater good." ( Return to article

Note 3: [36] Minkowitz, Donna. "Xena: She’s big, tall, strong— and popular". Ms. magazine. Vol 7. No. 1. July/August 1996. Page 74. Return to article

Note 4: [37] IAXS was established in May 1996 by fans of the show who wanted to have a forum for discussion and a repository for research into the many aspects of Xena: Warrior Princess. In September 1996, Whoosh! was unveiled as the monthly journal of the association which published articles written by IAXS members. IAXS currently has over 500 members world-wide and the Whoosh! website on average is visited by 20,000 users per month who get in about over 600,000 hits. Since its inception, Whoosh!is estimated to have had over 500,000 visitors and over 7.5 million hits. Return to article

Note 5: [38] Disclaimer: The words "masculine" and "feminine" are used in this paper as defined by our popular culture and in no way represent my personal belief of what actions and thoughts constitute what masculinity and femininity can be or should be. The focus of this paper is Xena’s portrayal on television, through the philosophies of feminism. Return to article

Note 6: [39] A Xenite’s imitation of Xena’s war cry. This deafening sound is so intense, it often startles and frightens Xena’s opponents. Xenites speculate that this ululation is Xena’s instinctual attempt to evoke her dark side and change her fear into strength as she does battle. Return to article

Note 7: [40] Romantic friendships, or passionate friendships between two women, were cultivated and revered in centuries past and the practice culminated in the 1800’s. Women would hold hands and only after the mid-1800’s, when women were discovered to have a "sexuality", did this relationship become socially discouraged. See Lillian Faderman Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (William Morrow and Company, 1981). Return to article

Note 8: [41] See "X-chip." Return to article

Note 9: [42] Stockwell, Anne. "Flirting With Xena". Advocate, The. 08-20-96 No. 713/714, p 81. Return to article

Note 10: [43] "Lesbians Love Xena." Esquire. April 1997. Return to article

Note 11: [44] Erasmo, Stacey D. "Xenaphilia". Village Voice. v40n52/Dec 26, 1995, p 47. Return to article

Note 12: [45] Minkowitz, Donna. "Xena: She’s big, tall, strong— and popular". Ms. magazine. Vol 7. No. 1. July/August 1996. Page 74. Return to article

Note 13: [46] Hothead is an unapologetic, self-referential dyke angry at all of straight society, with a tendency toward castration of most men she meets, with her cat providing conscience. Return to article

Note 14: [47] Sinha, Barbara. "Durga: Warrior Goddess of India". SageWoman. 9-30-95 N.31, p 40. Return to article

Note 15: [48] Xena’s Code. By its earliest definition from the episode, THE GAUNTLET (#H12), Xena’s code was one of a true warrior. It was violent and resulted in many deaths. However, soldiers who lived by her code, vowed never to kill women and children. Xenites speculate that as she "traverses the timelines" with Gabrielle, Xena is in the process of re-defining her code to right the wrongs of her past. Return to article

Note 16: [49] Pusateri, Karen. "Xena: Warrior Princess: An Analytical Review" Whoosh! Online Edition, issue one: September 1995. Return to article

Note 17: [50] Seger, Linda. When Women Call the Shots, p 166. Chapter 17 Women As Heroes Henry Holt & Co: NY, 1996. Return to article

Note 18: [51] Feminist Television Theory defined - 1. use of a post-structuralist theory, making clear limited use of structuralist thinking while recognizing its social construction; and, 2. involves specific examination of TV programs and audiences. Brown, Mary Ellen. Television and Women’s Culture. London Sage Publications. 1991. Return to article

Note 19: [52] Press, Andrea. "Work, Family, and Social Class in Television Images of Women: Prime Time Television and the Construction of Post feminism". Women and Language. v16n2/9-30-93, p 7. Return to article

Note 20: [53] Referential spelling to the Magic Bus of the Merry Pranksters in Electric Koolaid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Return to article

Note 21: [54] Post-feminism is a term feminists have used to describe how our culture has adapted some of the feminist ideas of the women’s liberation movement, specifically those of women and work, but then retaining a highly traditional idea of women’s position in the family. Return to article

Note 22: [55] Minkowitz, Donna. "Xena: She’s big, tall, strong— and popular". Ms. magazine. Vol 7. No. 1. July/August 1996. Page 74. Return to article

Note 23: [56] Erasmo, Stacey D. "Xenaphilia". Village Voice. v40n52/Dec 26, 1995, p 47. Return to article

Note 24: [57] Press, Andrea. "Work, Family, and Social Class in Television Images of Women: Prime Time Television and the Construction of Post feminism". Women and Language. v16n2/9-30-93, p 7. Return to article

Note 25: [55] Minkowitz, Donna. "Xena: She’s big, tall, strong— and popular". Ms. magazine. Vol 7. No. 1. July/August 1996. Page 74. Return to article


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