Xena’s Double-Edged Sword: Sapphic Love & the Judaeo-Christian tradition – Ivar Kvistad

Do I really have hands like a sailor?
– Gabrielle to Xena in ‘Paradise Found,’ XWP

In one episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, ‘The Cradle of Hope,’ Pandora tells Xena that her box is ‘the most important thing in [her] life.’  While seemingly innocent, the remark lends itself to interpretation: for fans, tantalised by the Sapphic subtext of the series, the remark is a pun – framed by knowing looks between Xena, Gabrielle and Pandora.[1]  It is also a remark that draws attention to the discourses of feminine sexuality that the Xena series consistently represents and affirms, only to subvert and camp up.  Pandora’s Box, the cradle of hope, becomes readable in symbolic terms as a representation of female genitalia, the monstrous feminine, and the dangerously ambivalent but sometimes ‘savoury’ power of the feminine.  In the classical and western literary tradition, Pandora’s Box contains the miseries of the world as well as the salvation or cure for the very miseries that it inculcates and releases.[2]  The narrative of XWP thus draws upon misogynising and romanticising traditions that both demonise and idealise the feminine, yet it simultaneously distances itself from these very traditions through the politicising and libidinal effects of camp. 

Motifs throughout the Xena series, such as the one to Pandora’s Box, invite speculation regarding the ideological orientation of the series.  Sometimes interpreted as ‘feminist camp,’ sometimes denounced as a neo-right-wing fantasia, Xena: Warrior Princess is open to a number of contrary readings.[3]  The Xenaverse – the name, invented by fans, for the world constructed by the series – is a complex universe; it is comprised of people, places and events that shift across different historical moments and locations, imaginative spaces and parallel universes, as well as across a number of political positions.  Indeed, because of the complexities of the Xenaverse, most interpretative claims for Xena’s progressiveness or conservatism require qualification.  But there are two striking ambivalences within the Xenaverse: firstly, its seemingly liberal representations of feminine sexuality, particularly Sapphic love; and secondly, its seemingly neo-conservative representations of Christianity as the rightful ontology that displaces that of its professed Other, that of the decadent ‘pagan’ world.  But, are the politics of Xena’s mobilisation of these discourses so simple? 

Sapphic Love: and Sexual Politics

Institutional and iconic narratives are often those of heroes.  For example, the Homeric narratives of Odysseus and Achilles are mainstays of the literary canon, and the figure of the hero has been consistently reformed in various ways across the trajectories of medieval, Romantic, and Victorian literature as well as the modern and postmodern novel.  Heroic narratives also appear in other, non-literary, modes of narrative production; for example, discourses of the modern nation typically foreground heroic figures in their respective mythologies, representing them in urban legends, songs, folk narratives, newspapers and other mediums of popular narrative production.  Other non-literary heroic narratives foreground the fantastic powers of their protagonists; representative here are the comic book superhero figures of the Marvel and DC production houses, which emerged in the early twentieth century in the United States.  Certainly, heroic narratives, from those of classical antiquity to the modern novel to the comic book are pervasive; they saturate western culture and have much ‘pulling power’ in terms of their influence and consumption. 

The range of heroic narratives in modernity is enormous and their inter-relationship is complex.  While their differences may be more important than their similarities, they arguably have one thing in common: their complicity with the ideologies of the cultures that produce them.  The heroic narratives of classical mythology, for example, appear to service masculinist and arguably phallocentric ideologies.[4]  In terms of their agenda to (re)affirm a masculine project of selfhood, heroic mythologies can be subject to the accusation of perpetuating conservative ideologies.  However, given the range, volume and complexity of modern heroic narratives, as well as the dynamics of reception that shape – and sometimes reshape – their ostensible ‘meaning,’ an interpretation of the politics of heroic narratives is ridden with difficulties.  Despite these difficulties, an understanding of the cultural significance of the hero narratives of the modern mass media requires careful attention to not only the politics that they advocate, but to the complex processes of reception and meaning making. 

More particularly, in an increasingly globalised world, analysis of narratives with a mass audience requires acknowledgement and careful reflection upon the possibilities of modern forms of cultural imperialism.  The texts of the modern mass media in particular are open to this type of questioning, precisely because they are conveyed through powerful media and publishing networks who have as their ostensible center the United States.  Although this project may be in danger of over-reading or misreading the texts of modern heroism in the mass media, or being too po-faced or ‘politically correct’ by reading serious politics into texts that are ostensibly ‘unserious,’ the questions of the ideological projects of these narratives are important ones to ask if their cultural significance is to be fully appreciated.  This is, however, a hazardous undertaking; the answers to these questions are complex, and it is a project that is not supported by the apparent marginalisation of the politics of the superhero narrative in certain commentaries on the genre.[5] 

NBC Universal’s series Xena: Warrior Princess (henceforth XWP) screened from 1995-2001.  It presented the adventures of Xena, a female warrior, haunted by the past evils that she had committed.  In atonement for these evils, Xena’s aim is to redeem herself for her murderous past by fighting tyranny and oppression, and by saving the lives of innocent people.  During her adventures, she meets Gabrielle, who becomes her close friend, confidante and traveling companion.  The series XWP thus reworks elements of a diverse range of hero narratives, such as the serial adventures of the classical questing hero, the mysterious but painful history of the Romantic Byronic hero, and the codes of mateship that sometimes inform the American Western.  More specifically, through the figure of its heroine, Xena, the series interjects upon masculine heroic paradigms the figure of the female hero, placing it into high relief.  In doing so, XWP echoes and reorients earlier representations of the female TV heroine as represented in Sheena, Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman, as well as more contemporary representations of the female hero from Asian martial arts cinema.[6]  

XWP, however, is not only notable for its displacement of masculine heroic narrative traditions but for its representations of a female hero who is not necessarily heterosexual.  XWP consistently raises the question of the Sapphic orientation of its protagonists, Xena and Gabrielle, through representations of their intense feelings and passions for each other.  They are same-sex buddies who live and adventure together; and they are only ever disrupted by intermittent, passing ‘friendships’ with others, both men and women.  Like the protagonists’ relationships with other women, XWP represents the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle in ways that are tantalising, sexually ambiguous and suggestive.  There are, for example, several depictions of Xena and Gabrielle lying together in bed, talking to each other (for example, ‘A Friend in Need’).   

In fact, the Sapphic subtext occurs throughout the life of the six seasons of XWP.  From its first episode, XWP is open to a subtextual reading.  In ‘Sins of the Past,’ Gabrielle is besotted by Xena who has defended Gabrielle’s village from marauders.  She insists on following Xena; Gabrielle says, ‘I’m not the little girl my parents wanted me to be.  You wouldn’t understand.’  To this Xena responds, as if knowingly, ‘It’s not easy proving you’re a different person.’[7]  While this is a reproduction of standard bonding narratives between buddies – it also occurs around a ‘camp’ fire – the scene is also resonant with the experience of those who are ‘sexually different,’ a point acknowledged by all subtexters or interpretative communities.  XWP may represent Xena’s quest as one of moral absolution for past evils, but it is also a quest that reads as one of liberation from persecution and misunderstanding for the sexual outsider.  If superheroes are typically outsiders, Xena as a modification of the twentieth century pulp fiction comic book superhero,[8] is more specifically a sexual outsider and the Xenaverse explores the repressed, homoerotic dynamics of that narrative paradigm. 

The primal scene of Xena and Gabrielle’s bonding in the first episode, in fact, inaugurates the series subsequent representations of the love that they share.  What follows in many following episodes are representations of Xena and Gabrielle not only being willing to die for each other (for example, ‘the Reckoning’) but episodes in which they are explicit about their love for each other (for example, ‘The Debt’).  They profess their love for each other in a number of situations and in a variety of ways.  For example, in ‘Fins, Femmes and gems,’ after Xena rescues Gabrielle from drowning and performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Gabrielle tells Xena that when she pulled her out of the water, she looked into Xena’s eyes and realised that ‘there can only be one person in my life.’  Astute subtexters also note that Gabrielle appears to have recovered consciousness just before their mouths meet, a point that would seem consonant with Gabrielle’s awareness of Xena taking her out of the water. 

In the episode ‘Many Happy Returns,’ Gabrielle becomes excited at the prospect of seeing a famous poet perform.  This poet is Madame Sappho, a narrative choice on behalf of the writers and production team that is entirely appropriate to XWP’s Sapphic oeuvre.  For Gabrielle’s birthday, Xena gives Gabrielle a poem based on a famous ancient fragment of Sappho’s poetry. It reads:

There’s a moment when I look at you

And no speech is left in me.
My tongue breaks, then fire races under my skin

And I tremble and grow pale

For I am dying of such love.

Overwhelmed by the poem’s beauty and feelings of affection, Xena and Gabrielle embrace.  The episode uses the poetry of Sappho to underlie Xena and Gabrielle’s ostensible ‘Sapphic’ love for each other.  It is, in fact, a representative example of the many representations and suggestions of Sapphic love that are scattered throughout the narratives of the Xenaverse. 

Further adding to the Sapphic subtext of XWP is the characterisation of Xena and Gabrielle.  The main protagonists of XWP are based on female figures that are also, significantly, dykons (lesbian icons) of the popular imagination.  The series constructs Xena according to the popular idea of an Amazon warrior; she is athletic, physically powerful, aggressive and skilled in martial arts.  Gabrielle, her sidekick, is akin to the legendary Madame Sappho: she is a highly skilled writer, poet and story-teller.  Gabrielle consistently records and recounts stories in a way that puts others to shame: including the canonical playwright Euripides.  The characterisation of Xena and Gabrielle, thus, appears to have a curious alignment to two classical figures that have been definitive to modern discourses and stereotypes of the lesbian subject. 

Structurally, the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is also predisposed to allude to the idea of a lesbian relationship.  Batman & Robin, Starsky & Hutch, Captain Kurt & Mister Spock: as is well known in the field of Cultural Studies, underlying these unlikely couplings is a homo-erotic dynamic that the official narrative represses, but that can be and is uncovered and celebrated in other readings, most notably, fan ‘slash’ fiction.[9] 

There is something both camp and gay about these unlikely couplings, just as there is something camp and gay about men in lycra tights who live double lives.  It is likely that it was precisely these studies on slash literature and fan cultures that informed the XWP series: one of the producers and writers, Liz Friedman, studied slash fiction for her English honours thesis before writing for XWP.  One episode of Xena, ‘Send in the Clones,’ written by Friedman, is about fans and subtexters.  In it, scientists summon fans to a modern laboratory that has cloned Xena and Gabrielle through hair samples.  To awaken the clones’ dormant memories, fans show the clones video clips from the episodes of XWP.  In an explicit self referencing to its own reception, ‘Send in the Clones’ represents a full spectrum of Xenites (a generic name for fans of XWP): horny adolescent boys; voyeurs; nerdy subtexters, innocent maintexters and lesbians.  It also features conversations between fans about Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, a love that literally does not speak its name but that is implied throughout their conversations, as it is throughout the Xenaverse.  Further, the episode ends with Xena and Gabrielle clinking champagne glasses: the episode thus cites a famous slash image of Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock clinking champagne glasses.[10] 

Subtexters, such as those represented in ‘Send in the Clones,’ are astute observers of the Xenite community.  Xenites present incisive analyses, and offer awe-inspiring attention to detail; like other fan cultures, they offer what Henry Jenkins describes as exceptional readings.[11]  Debuting at the time of the internet boom, 1995, XWP has many online interpretative communities – from maintexters to subtexters to slashers.  The majority of these communities take up the hints of Sapphic love littered throughout the series, as an excursion on a search engine such as AltaVista or Google will demonstrate.[12]  Like other interpretative communities of cult television programs, some of these online communities are still active even though the production of the series has ceased. 

In retrospect, it is safe to say that XWP was deliberately and strategically open to different interpretative positions.  XWP’s understated yet unmistakable representations of Sapphic love were partly in acquiescence to the ostensibly homophobic market of a global mass-media network.  The producers were concerned with not offending its straight market and with keeping Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship ambiguous out of regard for the ‘large following of children who view them as absolute role models.’[13]  But the inclusion of a Sapphic subtext was also partly to titillate XWP’s subtexting communities: a titillation that was also arguably the primary reason for its cult following and success.  XWP’s Sapphic subtext suggests that the series was, in a circumscribed and strategic way, trying to be inclusive of conflicting parties: it consistently refuses a final closure of its protagonist’s sexuality as straight and yet it consistently suggests that it may be ‘alternative.’  In effect the producers tried to ‘have it both ways’: like Xena’s sexuality, their politics were complex and ambiguous.  From the most sympathetic perspective, the politics of XWP were progressive and liberal, affirming and celebrating lesbian sexuality, albeit in a subtextual way.  But from a more cynical and critical perspectives, the show finally bought into a form of conservative, moral cowardice and a shallow acquiescence to market forces in an effort to please everyone and not alienate anyone.  Thus, according to the executive producer, Robert Tapert, ‘If we were to say, ‘Yes there is subtext,’ or ‘No there isn’t,’ it might alienate people, and that just seems unfair.’[14] 

A criticism from the Gay and Lesbian press is that XWP did not sufficiently ‘out’ the character Xena.[15]  While this rationale may have certain merits from the perspectives of certain Gay lobby groups, it is also ambivalent.  It is arguably structurally comparable to the problematic politics of outing more generally, which relies on an essentialist logic of sexual identity that may reiterate and reproduce the very discourses that it might more usefully displace or rework.  It subscribes to, for example, naïve universalisations of the categories of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ that fail to acknowledge their social constructedness.  In this regard, the representation in XWP of Xena’s sexuality reads as more queer than gay, more about a performative interlocution or intervention of heterosexist and essentialising constructions of feminine sexuality than an affirmation of a conventional typography.[16]  XWP, through its shifting representations of ostensibly heterosexual and homosexual relationships, seemingly resists a final essentialisation of Xena and Gabrielle’s sexual identity or orientation, and instead emphasises playfulness, pointing towards performative models of subjectivity. 

Despite its playfulness, XWP retains its subtextual representations of Sapphic love until the end of the final season.  While the narratives of XWP never resort to cunnilingus or penetrative lesbian sex, it represents, at different moments, passionate embraces between women as well as breast touching, kissing and buttocks holding.  The fact that the final two-part episode ‘A Friend in Need’ flashbacks to the passionate relationship between Xena and her Japanese ‘girlfriend’ Akemi in a way that is suggestive of it being a sexual relationship, is itself suggestive of XWP’s final climactic and arguably epiphanic affirmation of Sapphic love.  This episode constructs the love between Xena and Akemi, like that of Xena and Gabrielle, as Sapphic.  When Gabrielle reads Akemi’s old love poem to Xena, Gabrielle remarks that Akemi must have loved Xena very much; in response, Xena confesses that Akemi broke her heart.  Similarly, when Xena teaches Gabrielle a special neck pinch that stops blood circulation, Xena’s signature lethal move, Xena affirms that if she only had thirty second to live, she would want them looking into Gabrielle’s eyes.  As Gabrielle practices the lethal pinch on Xena, and while Xena is close to the prospect of death – and arguably experiencing in symbolic terms a ‘little death’ (orgasm) – Xena affirms ‘Always remember: I love you.’  

In the final episode, Xena is murdered and beheaded in battle and Gabrielle ceremonially cremates her body.  This episode, more than any other, has split the Xenite community.  Many fans were disappointed with this ending: some gay commentators argued that it affirmed the suffering and death that is frequently or even tediously represented as the lot of homosexuals.[17]  The argument is that Xena’s brutal death affirms that fatal punishment is the logical outcome of those who are sexually transgressive in a heterosexist and homophobic society, and the narrative of XWP fails to displace or challenge this narrative paradigm.  However, the final narrative also reads as a symbolic affirmation of both Xena’s Sapphic identity as well as her heroic characterisation.  The episode’s closing shot of Gabrielle holding Xena’s ashes is a final affirmation of their enduring love for each other, a love that was intense, significant to the show and ostensibly lesbian.  Further, the episode’s representation of Xena’s death finalises Xena’s heroic characterisation: Xena is dead so that she can save the souls of 40,000 people whom she inadvertently killed out of respect for Akemi. 

Curiously, it was after viewing the final episode of XWP that Lucy Lawless ‘realised’ her character Xena to be a lesbian.  On the American talk-show Late Night with Conan O’Brien, promoting the finale of the series, Lawless admitted that after viewing the final episode, Xena’s sexual orientation became clear to her.  She felt that the final story outed the character, ‘dissolving any doubt.’[18]  But it would be a naïve act of interpretative closure to affirm or essentialise the lesbian identity of Xena-the-character or of the series XWP solely on Lawless’ comments.  This would buy into a type of textual determinism: the idea that a text somehow determines its own meaning.  Rather, and this is especially the case with a text from popular culture such as XWP, the meanings of the narrative are subject to the ways in which the narrative is received, framed, interpreted and mobilised.

XWP’s historical reception is pivotal to the project of elucidating what might be termed its final meaning, or a final closure of its sexual politics.  For a text that has from the start been in dialogue with the discourses of Sapphic sexuality, it is unsurprising that XWP is so open to this interpretative closure.  The contextual reception of XWP’s narrative is such that it would be difficult to dissuade or dissociate it from the discourses of lesbian and gay sexual liberation and/or queerness.  That is, XWP’s reception takes place at a particular historical moment; its representations of and allusions to Sapphic love necessarily are in dialogue with a world that has, since the 1960s, seen the rise to prominence of the gay liberation movement.  These discourses have been such a dominant part of XWP’s cultural reception that they are ever-present in the contest to interpret and read the text: when they are not being affirmed they nonetheless feature significantly in the conversation.  The phenomenon of the Sapphic interpretative responses to XWP then, and what reads as its vindication in the final episode, is testimony to the visibility of these liberal emancipatory discourses and political movements. 

The Judaeo-Christian Tradition: and American Ideology

XWP, however, is a complex text, and it is not only its sexual politics that are double-edged and problematic.  Another arguably politically charged discourse informing the Xenaverse is the meta-narrative of western origins that both frames and informs its setting in the classical world.  Historically, the classics have been used to authenticate the idea of western identity.  The classics have a symbolic position in the western imagination that is typically constructed as foundational; indeed it is often complicit with definitions of civilisation and the western subject.  The narrative of Ur-Greece remains deeply entrenched and naturalised, sometimes as if it were immune from complicity with ideological discourses.  In this context it is important to acknowledge the role of both popular culture and scholarship in constructing ‘the ancient past.’  More specifically, as noted by a number of critics in their diverse ways – such as Martin Bernal, feminist classicists such as Nancy Rabinowitz and Barbara McManus and certain postmodern and other commentators – there are ideologies encoded in representations of antiquity.[19]  XWP is no different. 

XWP use of ancient history reflects the most dominant, contemporary meta-narratives of antiquity in the West: the pivotal role of the classical worlds of Greece and Rome, as well as the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  While XWP makes narrative excursions into imperial China, Classical India, Medieval Japan and Scandinavia, it consistently privileges the ontologies of the Classical and Judaeo-Christian worlds.  XWP also represents the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the logical and necessary response to a corrupt ‘pagan’ world, reiterating an evolutionary trajectory that is entrenched in the western cultural imagination.  The representations that affirm the Judaeo-Christian tradition are scattered throughout the final three seasons and become omnipresent in the final season, which represents the demise of the pagan world and the death or twilight of the Olympian gods. 

In the episode ‘God fearing child,’ the fates reveal that Zeus’ rule is coming to an end.  Fulfilling the prophecy, Hercules impales Zeus.  This is at precisely the moment that Xena gives birth to her daughter Eve.[20]  This is suggestive of the emerging hegemony of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  From this point onwards, the Olympian gods realise that they must destroy Eve in order to save their own lives; they persecute Xena, Gabrielle and Eve, knowing that Eve will be instrumental to their downfall (particularly in ‘Eternal Bonds’).  Also, from this point onwards, the series includes increasing representations of a religion that is recognisably Christian (the religion of Eli), and of Christian mythological figures, notably archangels such as Michael and demons such as Mephistopheles and Lucifer.  In these depictions, XWP constructs the emergence of a ‘new age’ of god-like figures, the ostensibly mythological figures of the Christian tradition.  The series thus constructs the twilight of the pagan gods in a way that is an affirmation of an ontological, spiritual and religious, paradigm shift. 

What is to be made of XWP’s representation of the inevitable, necessary and rightful place of Christianity?  At the risk of overstating an argument and ignoring the complexity of XWP’s receiving context, XWP’s affirmation of the Judeao-Christian tradition is arguably ideological in a comparable or contingent way to Hollywood representations of biblical narratives.  In his essay ‘Egyptian Rites’ (1983), Edward Said foregrounds the specifically conservative American ideologies that inform Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments.  The narrative, he argues, constructs an identification between the American national ego and the ‘emphatically American’ WASP Charlton Heston in the guise of an Old Testament prophet.[21]  Thus, by extension, the Hebrews of the text come to signify Americans, and the ‘promised land’ is conveniently emptied of its inhabitants.[22]  For Said, the bottom line of The Ten Commandments is:

acknowledge Israel and all will be well, and no amount of sources or claims to historical accuracy can dispel this informing ideology.  The film is thus complicit with an American passion for origins, historical myths by which we explain ourselves with reference to a past that dignifies and makes sense of us.  But the fact that Moses is played by the emphatically American Charlton Heston herds the Bible into line with an American national ego whose source is no less than God.[23]

While XWP may not be as overtly ideological or historically earnest as a film like The Ten Commandments, and is also cast with interpretative possibilities for irony, it is nonetheless contingent with the discourses that vindicate or champion the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  XWP may not be pro-Israel or pro-Zionist, but the Xenaverse affirms the Judaeo-Christian tradition in a way that is arguably self-serving to, and affirmatory of, the Christian West generally, and Christian America in particular.  Following the structural logic of the series’ representation of epochal succession, the Judaeo-Christian tradition becomes the rightful successor and antidote to the pagan world in a way that is convenient to the discourses that inform western Christianity and that construct it as the superior religious and moral paradigm amongst its competitors.  Further, the intermittent representations in XWP of ‘doing good’ and learning lessons are reminiscent of conservative American Christian values.  Circumscribing particular episodes of XWP, and often ending them, are moralising discourses: several episodes of XWP end with a lesson, as if the narrative serves as a pedagogical vehicle to inculcate particular values.  For example, in the climax of ‘The Bitter Suite’ when Xena confesses to have lied to Gabrielle, Xena beseeches Gabrielle to turn the other check: ‘Forgive those who’d harm you, do good for those who hate, forgive if not forget.’  As well as championing the power of forgiveness for spiritual salvation, XWP also emphasises the importance of faith.  The climactic moment in the episode ‘A Family Affair’ is when Xena realises that she ‘could’ve had faith’ in Gabrielle’s survival after her crucifixion; the episode thus mirrors and is indebted to the Christian doctrines that emphasise the importance of having faith in god.  In its periodic recourse to a form of moralising, XWP becomes more like The Waltons or Touched by an Angel than a classical, tragic epiphany or a quest narrative with a Sapphic subtext; XWP becomes less about subversion and more about a socialisation of its viewers into conservative and culturally entrenched Christian values. 

Central to XWP’s affinity with the discourses of Christian morality is the symbolic role of the character Hercules as the moral teacher of Xena.  In ‘The Gauntlet,’ an episode from the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys that doubled as the pilot episode for XWP, Hercules has a pedagogical role for Xena.  In this episode, Hercules disciplines the ruthless warrior Xena, forcing her to renounce her evil, savage ways; he goads Xena to an epiphany in which she renounces her violent life and seeks moral salvation through good deeds.  The fact that Hercules speaks to Xena from a specifically Christian paradigm of redemption foregrounds the foundational role of American Christian values that seem to inform both the XWP and Hercules series. 

Hercules’ role as the moral mentor of Xena is continuous with his characterisation as an ideal American subject: he is not only masculine, and heroic, but also identifiably American and Christian.  The producers of Hercules cast Kevin Sorbo because he has, in the words of Robert Weisbrot, ‘all-American good looks,’[24] a point that is continuous with the producer’s intention for the series to showcase an ‘all-American new John Wayne.’[25]  If its producers intended Hercules to be a variation of the Western transposed onto antiquity, they succeeded: Sorbo’s Hercules is cleanly shaven and square jawed, resembling an over-muscled pastoral American settler more than the Hercules of antiquity.  As is often if not inevitably the case when it comes to representing antiquity, the contemporary is imposed on antiquity in a way that reflects particular interests and ideologies.  Thus, upon a fantasy of classical antiquity, Hercules’ interjects the narrative paradigms of the Western; this allows for a mock-authentication of the American subject that reiterates the European and colonial traditions to which this identity is dependant. 

XWP’s implicit validation of Christianity in its final two seasons reads, in part, as a validation of Christian America and the dominance of this discursive, moral and religious tradition.  However, as is the nature of a text as complex and voluminous as XWP, this validation of Christianity is also subject to nuance, irony and qualification.  In the closing episode of season five, ‘Motherhood,’ the followers of the Christ-like mystic Eli ask Xena and Gabrielle questions about their leader.  Eli is now long dead, appropriately martyred to the cause, even though his religious and spiritual legacy continues.  Eli’s followers ask Xena if Eli breathed fire, a representation that mocks their naïveté.  Eli’s followers then reveal that, according to their received teachings, ‘Eli said we should always wear oven mittens’ and that it was important to ‘love everyone – unless they were funny looking, in which case you should beat them with baguettes.’  The point is that, after representing a monolithic paradigm shift into Christianity, the Xenaverse is not only affirming this tradition, it is also ostensibly critical of it, foregrounding the possibilities of embellishment as well as the capacity for interpretative foolishness amongst its followers.  Thus, while XWP affirms the paradigm shift into Christianity, it also undercuts it by pointing toward the dangers to which fundamentalist approaches may fall victim. 

Conclusion: Postmodernity & the double edge of pluralism

To read XWP in particular political ways is to enact interpretative closures; due to the complexity of the text and its playful and camp interludes, these closures are always open to contestation.  Needing consideration are the possibilities for irony and dissent, particularly in a narrative – loosely of a type of superhero – in which playfulness is an integral part of its performance and its sometimes over-determined representations.  The Xenaverse is composed by pastiche and corrupted further by irony, and thus is, to an extent, unstable and unreliable.  Its instability is represented by its shifts in time and space and by its shifts from very specific cultural historical contexts.  The heterogeneity of the Xenaverse is arguably a radically pluralist affirmation of a political liberalism and a reflection of a globalised world.  In this regard, Xena is arguably comparable to comic superhero narratives and other narratives of popular culture, which are also complex in terms of their sheer volume, narrative complexity and ideological possibilities. 

In this context, it is perhaps significant that although the Xenaverse may affirm the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the evolutionary heir to pagan Greece – and by extension affirm the Christian West over its Others – it depicts Xena’s death within the medieval mythological world of Japan.  While the series offers a structural allegiance to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the final episode XWP does not explicitly affirm the ontology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but removes itself from this ideological and potentially over-determined narrative backdrop.  Shifting its final narrative into the scene of Japan, XWP affirms the idea of its position in a world made of competing discourses, world views, culturally inscribed traditions, mythologies and metaphysics.  By doing so, it affirms that, like its own interpretative communities, these discourses compete with each other for dominance.   

However, XWP’s non-committal positions – to sexual politics, to space, time and history – may be, finally, so liberal that it is conservative.  That is, XWP may be liberal in the pejorative sense of the term, as defined for example by socialists and Marxists: liberal as unrigorous, sentimental, and depoliticised.[26]  At risk here is the feigning of a liberal acceptance of cultural and sexual difference to occlude a disciplinary agenda defined according to conservative sensibilities: the idea, for example, that XWP cannot represent, affirm or champion Sapphic love as its maintext because this would be ‘bad for the children.’  But, as its subtexters demonstrate, XWP is also a narrative that invites and is open to interventions, to interpretations that can shift its ostensible or overt ‘meanings’ and, in doing so, politicise that which would feign to be innocent. 

Works Cited

Angie B., ‘Xena and Gabrielle: Lesbian Icons,’ 2003, http://www.afterellen.com/TV/xena.html, 1 March 2005. 

Bennett, Kathleen E., ‘Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response,’ 1997, http://www.infogoddess.com/xena/noframes.html, 21 April 2004;

Bernal, Martin, Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, London: Free Association, 1987.

Cicioni, Mirna, ‘Male Pair-Bonds and Female Desire in Fan Slash Writing,’ in Cheryl Harris &Alison Alexander (eds.), Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1998, 153-77.

Clio, ‘Xena Gallery,’ 2003, http://www.fandom.tv/xena/xenagallery/CLONES/37.jpg, 2nd April 2005. 

Fingeroth, Danny, Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society, New York: Continuum, 2004.   

Gordon, Steve, ‘37 Reasons why Xena and Gabrielle are… you know…,’ 2001, http://www.allscifi.com/Board.asp?BoardID=61, 26 April 2003;

Innes, Sherrie A., ‘A Tough Girl for a New Century,’ Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, 160-81. 

Jenkins, Henry, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture, New York: Routledge, 1992.   

Kohl, Philip; Fawcett, Clare (eds.), Nationalism, politics and the practice of archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

McManus, Barbara F., Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics, New York: Twayne, 1997. 

Morreale, Joanne, ‘Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp,’ Journal of Popular Culture, 32: 2 (1998), 79-86.

Morris, Meaghan, ‘The Truth is Out There…’ Cultural Studies, 11:3 (1997), 367-75

Nazzaro, Joe, ‘Adventures In the Fantasy Trade,’ Official Xena Magazine, September 2000, 19. 

Panofsky, Dora; Panofsky, Erwin, Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991. 

Penley, Constance, ‘Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture,’ in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson & Paula Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies, New York and London: Routledge, 1992, 479-500. 

Penley, Constance, Nasa/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America, London: Verso, 1997. 

Powers, Meredith A., The Heroine in Western Literature: the Archetype and her Re-emergence in Modern Prose, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991.   

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin; Richlin, Amy (eds), Feminist theory and the Classics, New York: Routledge, 1993.

Said, Edward W., ‘Egyptian Rites’ (1983) in Frayling, Christopher (ed.), The Face of Tutankhamun, London: Faber & Faber, 1992, 276-85. 

Silverman, Robin, ‘What Xena Giveth, Xena Taketh Away,’ Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 8: 5 (2001), 32. 

Taborn, Kym Masera, ‘Whoosh!’ 1995, http://www.whoosh.org/, 1 March 2005;

Theodorous & Electra (eds.), ‘Amphipolous Village,’ 1998, http://www.xena.com/, 26 April 2003. 

Weisbrot, Robert, The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, New York: Doubleday, 1998.   

Whitelam, Keith W., The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, London: Routledge, 1996. 

Williams, Raymond, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London: Fontana, 1983. 

Xena Warrior Lesbian, ‘Lesbian Subtext in Xena: Season One,’ c2001, http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/4580/frame.html, 21 April 2004. 

Zizek, Slavoj, The Fragile Absolute or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, London: Verso, 2000.


[1] Xena Warrior Lesbian, ‘Lesbian Subtext in Xena: Season One,’ c2001, http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/4580/frame.html, 21 April 2004. 

[2] Dora Panofsky & Erwin Panofsky, Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991). 

[3] Joanne Morreale, ‘Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp,’ Journal of Popular Culture, 32: 2 (1998), 79-86; Sherrie A. Innes, ‘A Tough Girl for a New Century,’ Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 160-81. 

[4] Meredith A. Powers, The Heroine in Western Literature: the Archetype and her Re-emergence in Modern Prose (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991), 2-5. 

[5]I am reminded here of Meaghan Morris’ point, when she says ‘There’s something po-faced about arguing with a fictional character; I feel like Dan Quayle reproving Murphy Brown.’ See ‘The Truth is Out There…’ Cultural Studies, 11:3 (1997), 370.  On the complexities, see, for example, Danny Fingeroth in Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society (New York: Continuum, 2004). 

[6] Robert Weisbrot, The Official Guide to the Xenaverse (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 149-56. 

[7] These subtextual readings are from the most compelling online resource: Xena Warrior Lesbian, ‘Lesbian Subtext in Xena,’ cited above.  

[8] Robert Weisbrot describes the series as a ‘superhero odyssey;’ Official Guide, 1.  Significantly, the narratives of XWP have taken the form of a comic book as well as of a pulp, mass-market novel; see Weisbrot, 157. 

[9] Slash fiction commentaries include Mirna Cicioni, ‘Male Pair-Bonds and Female Desire in Fan Slash Writing,’ in Cheryl Harris &Alison Alexander (eds.), Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity (Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1998), 153-77; Constance Penley, ‘Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture,’ in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson & Paula Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 479-500. 

[10] For example, as reproduced in Constance Penley, Nasa/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America (London: Verso, 1997), plate 6.  Compare with the screenshot from Clio, ‘Xena Gallery,’ 2003, http://www.fandom.tv/xena/xenagallery/CLONES/37.jpg, 2nd April 2005. 

[11] Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992), 162-77. 

[12] Representative sites include: Kathleen E. Bennett, ‘Xena: Warrior Princess, Desire Between Women, and Interpretive Response,’ 1997, http://www.infogoddess.com/xena/noframes.html, 21 April 2004; Steve Gordon, ‘37 Reasons why Xena and Gabrielle are… you know…,’ 2001, http://www.allscifi.com/Board.asp?BoardID=61, 26 April 2003; Kym Masera Taborn (ed.), ‘Whoosh!’ 1995, http://www.whoosh.org/, 1 March 2005; Theodorous & Electra (eds.), ‘Amphipolous Village,’ 1998, http://www.xena.com/, 26 April 2003. 

[13] See Robin Silverman, ‘What Xena Giveth, Xena Taketh Away,’ Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 8: 5 (2001), 32. 

[14] See Joe Nazzaro, ‘Adventures In the Fantasy Trade,’ Official Xena Magazine, September 2000, 19. 

[15] Robin Silverman, ‘What Xena Giveth,’ Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 32. 

[16] See, in particular Morreale’s reading of performitivity in the episode ‘Here comes Miss Amphipolous;’ ‘Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp,’ Journal of Popular Culture, 83-5. 

[17] Silverman, ‘What Xena Giveth,’ 32. 

[18] Angie B., ‘Xena and Gabrielle: Lesbian Icons,’ 2003, http://www.afterellen.com/TV/xena.html, 1 March 2005. 

[19] Martin Bernal, Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation (London: Free Association), 1987; Philip Kohl & Clare Fawcett (eds.), Nationalism, politics and the practice of archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Barbara F. McManus, Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics (New York: Twayne, 1997); Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz & Amy Richlin (eds), Feminist theory and the Classics (New York: Routledge, 1993); and Keith W. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (London: Routledge, 1996). 

[20] Significantly, the father of Eve is Xena’s arch nemesis, Callisto, a warrior woman who has since become a god.  There is arguably a subtext of IVF in a lesbian family in this understated narrative strand.  This reading is further supported when the heavily pregnant Xena sings the Eurythmics’ song ‘Sister’s Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ in the episode ‘Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire.’ 

[21] Edward W. Said, ‘Egyptian Rites’ (1983) in Christopher Frayling (ed.), The Face of Tutankhamun (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), 281. 

[22] Edward W. Said, ‘Egyptian Rites,’ 281. 

[23] Edward W. Said, ‘Egyptian Rites,’ 280-1. 

[24] Weisbrot, 3. 

[25] Wesbrot, 5. 

[26] See Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1983), 181. 

Author Biography

Ivar Kvistad teaches Literary Studies at Deakin University, where he completed his PhD in 2004. His research interests are in modern representations of antiquity, especially in relation to postcolonial and feminist politics. Email: kvistad@deakin.edu.au