The 1990’s saw the television program Xena: Warrior Princess (‘XWP’) become a popular mainstream vehicle for feminism. Set in an ancient, fictional meta-world of religious and spiritual plurality, Xena introduced the concept of the independent and strong female heroine, whose supernaturality provided purchase from which to launch modern feminism from an inaccessible and insular concept to a widely appealing and positive doctrine. ‘XWP’ was integral to the contemporary generation’s developing perceptions of gender as fluid, not binary (Gauntlett, 2002). Xena was one amongst a range of courageous women popular for their physical, emotional and spiritual strength as role models for adolescents (Gonick, 2006, p. 10), alongside other characters such as Buffy Summers of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or the Halliwell sisters of ‘Charmed’, that are all but extinct in current popular culture (Busch, 2006). Xena’s effectiveness as a feminist role-model would not have been possible without her supernatural qualities and those of the meta-world she inhabited. This paper will discuss ‘XWP’s value from a media theory perspective, before focussing on its approach to feminism and gender representation, and the importance of supernaturality as a tool to engage audiences. It will also discuss the show’s approach to religious plurality as a device for mass-appeal.
Popular culture has a responsibility to audiences to provide positive role models, however this is disturbingly rarely provided. From the beginning of the series, XWP situated itself to be an agent of social change. Noted media theorist Albert Bandura provides an explanation as to why mainstream media is so effective in influencing social behaviour in his model for Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. It states that people are generally unwilling to adopt new practices until they can see the benefits of them, which is why entertainment media is so important in facilitating social diffusion through implanting ideas to adopters. These effects can also be entirely socially mediated; they can be experienced by people who have never even been exposed to the media however they are influenced by its effects on the original audience, or ‘early adopters’ who have been exposed (Bandura, 2001).
There is much debate over Xena’s feminism. Some theorists argue that her origins belie her feminist message. Her character was introduced in the series “Hercules, the legendary journeys” as a cruel, ruthless and immoral warlord, however while being romanced by Hercules, a man, he convinces her to use her power for good, not evil. Thus began the spinoff show “Xena: Warrior Princess”, and while Hercules does feature in it as a love interest and morally positive influence, he is not individually credited with her reformation as he is in “Hercules”. The significance of her origin is debatable when discussing her contribution to media as a feminist role model, however modern feminists generally agree that a more positive feminist message would have been to have Xena either reformed through her own devices, or influenced by another woman (D’Erasmo, 1995; Magoulick, 2007, p. 730). Morreale (1998) credits Xena as the first lead woman in a television series as the archetypal hero on a quest. She is a strong feminine woman with masculine qualities, and the show appeals typically to men with action-based adventure, as well as women, with fantasy and spiritual themes. However, Morreale argues, while Xena is outwardly feminist, stories are told in a traditionally patriarchal fashion. It is this ambiguity that made ‘XWP’ so popular across so many demographics, and at its height it was among the top ten syndicated television series worldwide; indeed its very name is ambiguous. “Warrior” implies a strong, powerful and masculine person, whereas “Princess” softens its inference, defining Xena as feminine and even to an extent vulnerable (compared to if she was called a “Queen”, for example).
Her attire is practical and functional; leather installed with metal breast plates, however the bottom half is split and short, and her cleavage is emphasised, presenting her as an object of strength and utility but also as one of desire. Xena’s choice of weaponry is also gendered; her primary weapons are her sword, symbolic of the male sex, and her chakram, a hollow, round disc symbolic of the female. While she uses her sword more regularly, her chakram requires more skill to master, is more powerful and often the tool that ultimately ends the battle; it is also her signature weapon and later in the series is imbued with the power of the gods (Nelson, 1997, para. 16).
The portrayal of men in ‘XWP’ frames it as a feminist program. There is no male that Xena cannot defeat in battle, though some come close, such as Ares, God of War. Furthermore, her enemies are almost always male and immoral, however her primary, recurring enemy who becomes her most formidable match in battle is a woman, Callisto. Ares is also a recurring character, and was usually bested by Xena in battle due to his weakness of being in love with her. The only male regularly recurring character is Joxer, who provides the comic relief, and is consistently seen to be a blundering idiot, pathetic and ineffectual, especially when viewed beside Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle. Xena also does not exhibit what Morreale calls “Appendage Syndrome”, where the “Warrior Queen” figure is seen as connected to her nearest masculine figure (Morreale, 1998, p. 2). Xena’s father left when she was young, her brother is deceased, and she had to give up her son at birth to his father’s family. Though she learned some fighting skills from her brother, her most powerful battle skills are learned from other women, some of which were good and others villains.
Xena’s subversion of traditional feminine representations is especially apparent when her character is required to adopt disguises. Often, she must ‘disguise’ herself as a normal woman (to get past guards, for instance). When she does this, she wears much more feminine clothing with soft yet bright colours, usually dresses. She also changes the way she walks, from bold, confident strides to slower, less deliberate steps, softens her facial expression from her trademark glare, and affects her voice to be breathy and more high pitched from her normal, deep tone. In this guise she presents a parody of women and femininity as she sees it; she laughs more generously at men’s jokes and tolerates their sexist leers more than she would as ‘normal’ Xena. When she fights, she reverts to her normal self and uses devices of her feminine affectations to taunt her opponents, such as punching them and then covering her mouth in feigned, wide-eyed shock and saying, in her ‘feminine’ voice: “Oops!” This shows that the character is self aware of her personal subversion, and proud of it, and also critical and derisive of men’s weakness to it. She sees ‘traditional’ women as complacent and weak, and always expresses her relief at the end of the ruse to be back to her usual strong self.
Approaches to gender in ‘XWP’ are very much ahead of their time, and concepts addressed by it have rarely been attempted in subsequent mainstream entertainment almost fifteen years later. Xena’s ambiguity allowed ‘XWP’ to mainstream the concept of gender as positioned on a spectrum; a concept explored by de Beauvoir (1953), as opposed to a masculine/feminine dichotomy, and it also challenged other gender perceptions. The recurring character of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, for instance, had a very liberal, ‘masculine’ approach to sex (Marks & Farley, 2005, p. 184), and was seen with multiple sexual partners throughout the series, without the need to form emotional attachment to them, and discarding them at her whim. A season two episode titled “Here she comes… Miss Amphipolis” included a transsexual character Alex, as a male-born participant in a female beauty pageant. When Xena realises Alex’s secret, she acknowledges that they are both ‘acting’ as ‘women’, and she says, without shock, hesitation or personal struggle, that he had every right to participate as the other women, saying “May the best person win” (emphasis added). This sensitive, positive treatment of transsexual people has not been seen in any mainstream entertainment program since. Furthermore, Alex was heterosexual, expressing attraction to Xena, further challenging the erroneous heterosexist stereotype of transsexual men as automatically homosexual as well (Gerhardstein & Anderson, 2010, p. 362).
The plot device of the pageant also was further example of Xena’s approach to femininity as a performance and her disdain for those that conform to it. She calls the contestants “underdressed (and) overdeveloped bimbos”, while Gabrielle calls pageants “a feeble excuse for men to exploit and degrade women”, to which the male organiser responds “Since when do we need an excuse?” As the episode progresses and Xena assumes her disguise she begins to sympathise with the female contestants as they all have important reasons for being there, however they still conform to feminine values of using their beauty instead of other faculties, as well as community based values (instead of traditionally male individualistic nature) (Winstead & Griffin, 2002, p. 489), for example one is there to get money for her poor family, another is there to protect her village from impending war. Despite the developing sympathy, however, Xena’s disdain at having to ‘act’ feminine is clear when she rapidly changes her facial expression from blowing kisses to rolling her eyes, or from battering her eyelids to sneering.
The episode (and indeed most of the series) also presented men only as one-dimensional, lecherous and weak, perceiving themselves as ‘owners’ of the women they sponsor in the pageant and completely preoccupied with competing with the other men using ‘their’ women as pawns. Incidentally, the beginning of that episode is one of the more humorous yet overt messages of female power in ‘XWP’; it opens with a gang of men leering and chasing the beauty contestants on a beach, who are then saved by Xena and Gabrielle throwing clams at them, in a display of characteristically unsubtle symbolism.
Another feminist message of ‘XWP’ was in the strength of Xena’s relationship to Gabrielle. Their relationship began with a young, naïve and audacious Gabrielle idolising Xena from the stories she’d heard about her, and following Xena to satisfy her lust for adventure. Xena initially resists however eventually allows Gabrielle to accompany her on her travels. Gabrielle serves to ground Xena and act as her moral conscience, keeping her on the path of goodness, and reminding her of the strength and value of her reformation (Pattee, 2000, para. 9). In turn, Xena is integral to Gabrielle’s personal development, teaching her survival skills including combat and weaponry. Their deep connection, love, admiration and mutual respect for each other presents an extremely positive role-model for girls and relationships, and it consistently presents the two women as influencing and encouraging each other’s personal and spiritual growth as individuals and partners. Male romantic interests for either of the women rarely last more than one episode; however their underlying friendship is only ever temporarily threatened, and is the one constant and most significant source of strength for both women throughout the series.
Xena is often haunted by her past and is sometimes tempted from her path of goodness, by what Carl Jung would label her ‘male shadow’. According to Jung, normative masculine and feminine concepts are archetypal images within our collective unconscious (Carr, 2002, p. 478). In addition to this, there is a gendered concept of the shadow that influences people to act outside their gender’s stereotype; the ‘male shadow’ is feelings of aggression, conflict and domination, and the ‘female shadow’ is feelings of social conformity and restriction to society’s gender norms (Jung, 1954). These shadows are inherently dark in nature (thus the term ‘shadow’) and provide an antithesis to our primary gender identity, and it is from this conflict that more a complex sense of gender identity arises. Both are closely linked with feelings of guilt, which Xena is constantly plagued by. It is the influence of the male shadow that provides her compelling inner conflict and the struggle to transcend her instinctual drive to allow it to rule her. The shadow concepts are not exclusively destructive; it is the regulation of their influence with the person’s existing gender qualities that present complex protagonists and undermine the binary perception of gender (Calvert, Kondla, Ertel, & Meisel, 2001, p. 34), reinforcing the spectrum approach.
The true nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship has remained the subject of fierce debate long after the program ceased airing. It was widely believed that the two were lesbians, and while they were regularly psychically intimate such as holding hands or putting their arms around each other’s waist, they only kissed romantically around three times; an insignificant number across 134 episodes involving about as many heterosexual kisses. The writers of ‘XWP’ took advantage of the audience’s curiosity, frequently alluding to a romantic relationship between the women, and it was not until it had stopped airing that the producers and actors admitted that they were lesbians, with the creator Rob Tapert (who also wrote, directed and produced the show) clearly saying that he wished he could have included clearly homosexual characters and relationships in the show however he could not lest it alienate audiences (Minkowitz, 1996, p. 3).
Some argue that the women being lesbians detracts from the show’s feminist message. They argue that it presents a stronger argument for feminism if the women possess a strong connection yet are still heterosexual, as this is more contradictory to people’s expectations of gender representation (Stein, 1998). It is too convenient, they argue, to present two women independent from men as lesbians instead of two independent heterosexual women, who place friendship before romance the way men traditionally do. Independent heterosexual women are threatening to men, they argue, whereas an attractive lesbian couple who still flirt with and engage sexually with men are objects of hyper-sexual male fantasy. The ambiguous sexuality also cemented ‘XWP’ as a cult show to a lesbian audience, and is widely heralded as the original and most normalising depiction of lesbians in mainstream media (Pattee, 2000, para. 16).
Discussion of ‘XWP’s feminist gender representation is integral to exploring its supernatural themes, as it was arguably their main function to act as an effective vehicle for modern feminism. ‘XWP’ would not have been so successful in mainstreaming feminism were it not steeped in spirituality. The supernatural themes of ‘XWP’ are what made its feminism so widely accessible to such a vast audience. By giving Xena supernatural strength and powers from the pantheon of the gods, as well as endowing her most powerful enemies with supernatural qualities to match her (such as Callisto becoming a goddess), she was removed enough from normal yet strong independent women to be a non-threatening yet still feminist icon. Modern Feminism has a lot of critics, and is often denounced as being exclusionary, misandrist and the field of ‘angry lesbians’ and women who do not respect men (Minnick, 1998). Xena presented an ‘other’ who remained relatable and venerable despite her extremely progressive feminist ideals which would have been dismissed in any purely female character, by both male and female audience. Her supernaturality acted as a vehicle and gave her licence to be more aggressively feminist than other, human, popular culture icons of the time and arguably since.
The significance of spirituality is also an important part of ‘XWP’. The show involved classical ancient Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, as well as Hindu, Judaic, and Christian theology, and Taoism, which were all allowed within the same time period due to the writers’ lack of regard to chronological or geographical accuracy (Jones, 2000, p. 404). Xena’s personal spirituality was also quite fluid and she never aligned to a specific one, however she and Gabrielle were often called on to protect spiritual leaders, especially Eli, modelled on the Judeo-Christian Jesus, and she most frequently battled or was assisted by ancient Greek Gods (Fillingum, 2009). She never aligns to a specific spiritual path, nor expresses a need or desire to, however Gabrielle, who is presented as more in touch with her personal spirituality, chooses (after various failed attempts) to follow Eli, in his religion of peace and non-violence. Ultimately though she is compelled to rationalise a return to violence in order to save Xena’s life, and while she remains a ‘follower’ of Eli, her divergence from his path reinforces the strength of her and Xena’s relationship, as well as the concept of an individual and fluid approach to spirituality. This widely inclusive approach also maintained ‘XWP’s mass-market appeal to a spiritually diverse audience. Gabrielle also is significantly influenced by the spiritual rituals of the Amazons when she becomes an Amazonian Princess, and, briefly, a Queen (Durham, 2001, p. 204).
Never before, or since ‘XWP’ has a television program with a supernatural heroine been so popular while maintaining Feminist ideals. Other supernatural heroines such as Buffy Summers of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or the Halliwell sisters of ‘Charmed’, though generally feminist (albeit in a diluted form), have not had the same success across such a wide audience as ‘XWP’ (Minkowitz, 1996, p. 74). Other popular television series without supernatural themes have had actively feminine protagonists, such as ‘Maude’ or ‘The Golden Girls’, however their audiences were predominantly female and the leading characters lacked the ‘masculine’ qualities that were allowed in Xena due to her supernaturality. Another factor of ‘XWP’s popularity was the time it was produced; it began to air while television was still the most popular form of media-based entertainment in the home (Havick, 2000). It has since been replaced by the internet and as audiences turn away from the increasingly hegemonic nature of free-to-air programming, they are spoiled for choice when they can consume entertainment of their choice from anywhere in the world instead of just what television network executives choose to broadcast (Hoover, 2006).
Xena: Warrior Princess was a significant cornerstone in mainstreaming Modern Feminism thanks to its supernaturality. Contrary to what one would expect, its transcendental spirituality was integral to the accessibility of its progressively feminist doctrine, and its perfect timing of the series ending just before the Internet’s revolution of how people consume media cemented Xena’s unrivalled position as the most popular supernatural, feminist heroine that ever was and arguably ever will be on television. The show’s creators fulfilled their moral responsibility to audiences by encouraging and inciting change using tools explained by Bandura’s Social Cognitive theory. The complex Jungian approach to gender archetypes normalise gender as positioned within a wide spectrum; a relatively isolated phenomenon in the history of mainstream media both prior to and after the conclusion of ‘XWP’ in 2001. There has been a disappointing regression to the binary masculine/feminine dichotomy in current mainstream media, which is arguably congruent to the decrease of supernaturally themed programs. By limiting textual contexts to realistic realms, writers are depriving themselves of plot devices that serve as unique conduits of culturally radical doctrine, not only to the detriment of their own success in an increasingly competitive media environment, but also to the detriment of audiences and wider society which relies on media to facilitate social progress and development.