So I have once again been binge-watching Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) on Netflix. Now I understand why I binge-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS); it is a fairly aesthetically complete show, the writers quickly came to write with a consistent voice (Joss Whedon’s), and they were always, always true to the characters (no mysterious evil babies, unless you count Dawn Summers, as many people do). The villains are compelling and the power relations between Slayer, Scoobies, victims and other non-Scoobies get worked out in interesting ways; this last probably is held together by the high-school-as-horror framework that is the series’ origin story.
In comparison, XWP ranged wildly from overblown operatic tragedy to high camp, often from one episode to the next. The writers wrote narrative arcs that fans twenty years later are still lamenting. And there was not just one mysterious and/or evil baby; there were TWO. And do not EVEN get me started on the final two episodes; although they were aesthically very pretty, and Renee O’Connor handled her katana fight scenes with tremendous aplomb, the story-runners basically broke every rule in the book, betrayed the fans, and put a stink on something so many of us loved. I have taken to my self-styled deconstructionist friend, Jenna Tucker’s way of handling this and I write those two episodes out of the canon. Kaput.
Also, although the Hong Kong style of fighting was always very high quality, sometimes the production value was a bit cut rate or cheesy (think of the Evil Egg Men in “Prometheus”). So here is me with my master’s degrees and my interest in High Quality Popular Culture. Why do I keep going back to this show as a thirsty woman back to sparkling fountain?
And what went through my mind as I wrote that question is one key to the answer. My internal image was the cartoon man crawling through a desert; I had to consciously choose to replace the man with a woman to represent myself in the metaphor more accurately. XWP went off the air in 2001. Fourteen years later, the vast majority of TV shows and films still don’t pass the Bechdel Test, which is that a show must:
- Have at least two women in it
- Who talk to each other
- About something besides a man.
(This is, one would think, NOT A HARD TEST TO PASS. And as other critics have noted it isn’t even the best test to see if a movie could be feminist, as a true feminist agenda has intersections with other groups striving for equality—race, class, LGBTQ, and disability are all groups who are institutionally under- or unrepresented in popular culture.)
So one simple answer is that XWP is still one of the best shows out there for showing strong women interested in a variety of things besides men—their work, their values, their artistic and redemptive goals, who catches the fish and who cooks it, and whether we ever owe the gods our allegiance. Male screenwriters would be surprised to find out what women ACTUALLY talk about, and that the large proportion of our thought really isn’t about them even if we are straight (and these two characters are arguably bisexual if you read the text and the subtext together). It is rare to see female friendship portrayed so richly (even if the two characters sometimes have epic fights, in part due to writerly manipulation To Heighten The Conflict).
Another reason might simply be the aesthetic appeal of seeing the beautiful and athletic Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor, and Hudson Leick doing this elaborate acrobatic fighting with the bad guys. And most writers enjoy seeing a writer as the maker of narrative within narrative, which Renee O’Connor’s Gabrielle the bard offers us, in both serious and humorous ways.
But what I think is more important is something I found in James Hillman’s book: The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. In a preface made of epigraphs, he quotes Vladimir Nabokov, who says, “Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that passed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.” (From Speak, Memory)
I like this idea of a watermark on the soul, an image that resonates when it meets like images in the world. Hillman claims that the “acorn” of a person’s “genius” (in the Roman sense) often shows itself early in childhood. So I think back to the earliest period of insomnia I can remember, around three, when I would lie in bed and retell myself stories like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, generally recast with myself as the princess with the sword and the horse, racing off to save the kidnapped prince. Sounds like a just woman warrior watermark to me.
And the fact that I have studied martial arts off and on for two decades and been a poet for more than three decades, have studied voice, and teach writing: So Xena is the big, tough woman warrior I always wanted to be and Gabrielle is the short blonde bard I have become. I begin to think I watch the show to help me figure out how to integrate these images/roles within myself.
Also, it makes me laugh.
James Hillman. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York: Random