The enduring appeal of Xena

{Let me preface this by saying I hate adding images to these posts because WordPress always makes the formatting funky. Apologies for the weirdness.}

For the last few months I’ve been working my way through the Xena series, mostly skipping the first and sixth seasons but delving in deep to the superior second through fifth seasons. And it’s blowing my mind how many women there are in these stories! And none of them are defined by their relationship to men. Men are friends, allies, rarely lovers, and in one case, husband (one episode where Garielle marries Perdicus only to have Callisto murder him). They are “gods, warlords, and kings” but they don’t rule the destinies of the women in the series. This is unprecedented and, to my knowledge, has never been repeated in popular film or television.

One need only look at the other popular “girl power” series of the ’90s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In stark contrast to Xena, Buffy rarely goes a single episode without a love interest. Her friends are also constantly linking up with lovers. They aren’t necessarily defined by those relationships, but the show’s creators obviously saw those relationships as essential to the series’ effectiveness. When they aren’t talking about slaying, they’re talking about their relationships. Xena’s creators had no such bias. And they seem to be the only creators in popular media who believed that.

Xena-Warrior-Princess-xena-warrior-princess-16076576-1024-768

Xena
While almost anyone will tell you that Xena is defined by her relationship to Gabrielle, I think her primary relationship is to her path. As “Evil Xena” she saw over a reign of terror that lasted ten years. She was driven by her lust for power. While at first just a petty warlord after her brother was killed in a territorial dispute, her encounter with Julius Caesar changed everything. She was enraptured by him and he returned the favor by betraying her, breaking her legs, and crucifying her. When her (female) rescuer M’Lila was killed by Caesar’s men, Evil Xena was born. And she wanted power. After ten bloody years wreaking havoc from Greece to “Chin” to Norway, she was turned by Hercules. She starts her series by trying to come to terms with the damage she’s done. The rest of the series is about redemption. She is a warrior, but pledged to fight for good and to make amends. But it is never enough. She is haunted by her past and feels she cannot be forgiven for the mistakes she made. Gabrielle saves her soul and is her guiding light and constant reminder of goodness, but when Xena’s past comes calling, she often leaves Gabrielle behind to go deal with the consequences.

I could go on. I adore Xena. I identify with that feeling of having done wrong, trying to do right, and coming up short. She is a flawed hero, much more compelling than the tripe served up in summer blockbusters. Onward!

Gabrielle, the Battling Bard

Gabrielle, the Battling Bard

Gabrielle
While Xena is all action and mind, Gabrielle is heart and spirit. It is her influence that keeps the two in an almost constant dialogue about the role of violence. This is also unprecedented in an action genre. What movie or TV show questions whether violence rules the world and whether destiny must only be shaped by warriors? Who tells stories where the sidekick commits to “the path of love” (non-violent resistance as personified by the Jesus figure Eli)? Gabrielle eventually embraces her path as a warrior but she is lit by a deep spiritual love that Xena doesn’t have. She doesn’t have Xena’s past so she’s less burdened. As the sidekick, her character is defined by her relationship to Xena, but it’s totally different from the standard role of “virgin, girlfriend, mother, whore” that’s standard fare in contemporary storytelling.

Callisto

Callisto

Callisto
A recurring character and everyone’s favorite villain, Callisto is Xena’s constant reminder of her past. Evil Xena killed Callisto’s family and burned her village to the ground. Callisto then embarked on a mission of revenge. She has an army of male warriors but she explicitly turns down both male companionship and alcohol—certainly not something you see at the movies. (Callisto is as complex a character as Xena is—she’s ruled by a thirst for vengeance but when she finally triumphs she discovers all her hatred has left her “just empty.” By then she’s immortal, so she endures the living hell of hating her existence.)

Alti

Alti

Alti
This recurring character still gives me the creeps, no matter how many times I see the series. She is a shaman, completely amoral, interested only in the pursuit of power. Evil Xena falls under her spell because Alti promises to make her “Destroyer of Nations.” Instead she practically destroys Xena’s soul. She wants spiritual power more than physical domination but she’ll take anything she gets. She has no male companions.

Ephiny

Ephiny

Ephiny
One of everyone’s favorite recurring characters. Ephiny is an Amazon and, unlike most of the other recurring female characters in the series, takes a husband. But I’m not sure if he even shows up or if they just talk about him. If he does show up, it’s only in one episode and he’s completely tangential to the plot. Ephiny has a son but her identity is first and foremost as an Amazon, not a mother or wife.

Aphrodite

Aphrodite

Aphrodite
Unlike the Hercules series (Xena was a spin-off that ended up being more popular than its parent), the Olympian gods don’t show up much in Xena. Ares and Aphrodite are the most commonly appearing characters. Aphrodite loves to be worshipped by hot men but her primary relationship in the series is with Gabrielle, whose life she saves during one of Xena’s big showdowns with the rest of the Olympians.

Amazons
In an early episode, Gabrielle is given “the right of caste” by an Amazon queen, and so is considered an Amazon leader wherever she goes. Xena is not considered an Amazon but is always welcome to fight at their side. Amazons are recurring characters in the series, possibly because they prep for battle by dancing in skimpy costumes. (A friend once told me the scriptwriters would put in these scenes with notes saying, “This will drive viewers wild!” They were trying to appeal to men and lesbians, not something a typical Hollywood demographic mix). There are tons of Amazons in the series, none of whom have relationships with men. Amarice, Variya, Cyane (I love love love her), Otere, Velasca, Melosa, Chilapa, Marga, Gwyn-Teir, Mawu-Ka, and Yakut are just a few.

Livia

Livia

Eve/Livia
Xena’s daughter and Callisto’s reincarnated soul. Her birth heralds the death of the Olympian gods, so she’s under constant attack. While she’s still an infant, Xena makes a deal with Octavian (who she made emperor of Rome) to take Eve while she and Gabrielle fake her and their deaths. Unexpectedly, Ares steps in at the last minute to try to stop Xena from killing herself (he’s “got a thing” for her). She defies him and takes the poison which counterfeits her death. And then Ares ruins everyone’s plans by taking Xena and Gabrielle’s bodies to an ice cave and burying them there. It takes 25 years for them to come back to life, which allowed the scriptwriters to bypass all that messy childrearing stuff and focus on adult relationships among Xena, Eve, and Gabrielle. But since Xena never came for Eve, Octavian raised her as Livia, a Roman warrior, to protect her from the Greek gods. She turns into a monster, combining Callisto and Xena’s worst traits. While she says she will marry Octavian, she’s really working with Ares (who doesn’t realize she’s Eve) to take over the empire. Xena and Gabrielle eventually turn her back to the light side of the Force (oops, wrong saga) and she renounces violence for Eli’s “path of love.” Aside from her flings with Octavian and Ares for the sake of gaining power, she has no relationships with men.

Boadiccea

Boadiccea

Boadiccea
Based on the historical Boudica, Boadiccea is a British fighter who leads the rebellion against the Romans. The historical Boudica took up the fight after her husband was killed, but Boadiccea’s only relationship with men in the show is as the leader of their army.

Cleopatra

Cleopatra

Cleopatra
Ruler of Egpyt and friend to Xena. She shows up a couple times in the series and Xena impersonates her to Mark Antony after Cleopatra is assassinated. Cleopatra is very sexual but it’s clear she will not subjugate her empire to the Romans or anyone else. She has a brief fling with Autolycus, “King of Thieves.”

Cyrene

Cyrene

Cyrene
She is Xena’s mother, so you’d expect her to have a relationship with a man, but no, she killed Xena’s father herself when he threatened them with violence. She runs a tavern in Xena’s hometown of Amphipolos but has no romantic relationships.

Hope

Hope

Hope
Gabrielle’s daughter, the product of a rape by Dahak, an evil spirit. Hope proves to be a killer as an infant and is the cause of much friction between Xena and Gabrielle. She kills Solon, Xena’s son, just as the two are getting to know each other (Xena left him with the Centaurs as an infant—long story) and before Xena has a chance to tell him she’s his mother. Hope has a fling with Ares to create a bizarre-o spawn that kills everyone in its path but both Hope and her offspring are strangely driven by love for their mothers. Hope continually talks about manifesting her father’s reign on Earth but she also wants to understand how Gabrielle could have abandoned her. So in a way she’s a servant of a male figure but since he only ever appears as a column of fire, her primary relationship is with Gabrielle.

Lao Ma

Lao Ma

Lao Ma
If you wanted to understand the appeal of Xena without watching the entire series, you could just watch the two episodes of “The Debt” to get what all the fuss is about. It is set during the Evil Xena phase, when she’s based in Chin. Lao Ma saves Xena from a rival leader and heals not just Xena’s broken legs but Xena’s evil spirit. Lao Ma is married and committing her wisdom to a book which she writes in her husband’s name. He is dying but she uses her power to keep him on the brink of lifeanddeath in order to keep the peace. His name? Lao Tsu. So passages from Taoism inform the whole story. Xena and Lao Ma are powerfully drawn to each other and Xena submits to her teachings, first to try to gain martial powers but then because she loves Lao Ma and how her heart is changing. As she explains to Gabrielle, it’s at that point that she had the choice to turn her back on violence and rule with Lao Ma peacefully, but when she’s pushed she reverts to form. Lao Ma is very powerful and tries to be a loving mother to her son Ming T’ien, but is rebuffed. She uses it as a reminder to rid herself of desire and focus only on The Way. She is beautifully played by Jacqueline Kim and I luuuurve her.

Naima

Naima

Naima
Xena and Gabrielle travel to India to see the sights and almost immediately come upon a suttee. Xena saves the woman, Naima, from the flames and they go into hiding. Naima reveals to Xena that Alti is seeking to destroy Xena in a future incarnation. Naima shows Xena and Gabrielle how to use the spiritual power of mehndi to defeat Alti. So in one episode you get this amazingly powerful Indian woman, Xena and Gabrielle invoking both physical and spiritual prowess, and Alti using her powers to cripple everyone in sight. No men need apply.

There are many more characters in the Xena universe of course, but this is intended to be an exploration of a dominant theme in the series. By keeping so much emphasis on women’s relationships with each other, the writers created a universe where people talk about things besides sex. This is revolutionary. Think about your favorite TV shows and movies and see to what extent romantic relationships limit the themes that can be explored.

Of course, many people feel that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers, and it’s left somewhat ambiguous in the series in order to appeal to lesbian audiences, but they always speak to each other in terms of friendship. They regularly express their love and respect to each other but they are about other things as well.

And I guess I do have to say something about Xena’s relationship with Ares (played brilliantly by Kevin Smith), since it could be argued that he’s a recurring romantic figure. It’s true that Xena’s drawn to him, but she’s very clear that he’s bad for her. He never gets the best of her in bed or on the battlefield. Inevitably, she rejects him in favor of Gabrielle and her chosen path of redemption.

Perhaps most importantly, none of these female characters is portrayed as missing something. They are not lonely. They don’t pine for men. They are fully realized, fulfilled, actualized human beings living rich lives in the company of friends, sisters, comrades, and family.

When the cast and crew speculate on the enduring appeal of Xena, they all say “strong female characters.” That’s certainly the case, as I’ve been blathering about here. What I think is also interesting is how by focusing on strong female characters and keeping romance to the fringes, the creators could explore epic, mythic, and homespun themes of loyalty, spirituality, redemption, honor, violence, and other forms of love besides romance. I would love to see contemporary writers pick up where Xena left off.

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