Lucy Lawless isn't a lesbian, but she plays one on TV.
The proof lies not so much in what Xena does on camera, but in what she doesn't do. Quintessentially, Xena: Warrior Princess is a drama of the open secret, the obvious but unspoken truth that Xena is bent, and Gabrielle is her lover; the widely accepted but universally denied fact that if, as Xena's opening voice-over claims, "her courage will change the world," that world will be a better place for Amazons like you and me. In light of this inexplicit story line - what gay and straight Xenaphiles refer to casually as "the subtext" - the opening voice-over's weekly refrain, "ln a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings," begins to sound gendered. It's as if Xena isn't just waging battle in an ancient world but against a specifically man's world.
Yiyiyiyi, I'm Gay
In this way - although a comparison between two more dissimilar television shows could hardly be drawn - Xena Warrior Princess is a kissing cousin to Ellen in its classical period, that is, before its famous coming-out episode. When Ellen DeGeneres told Time magazine "Yep, I'm gay," her "yep" was a careful nod to the fact that, long before she told Time, everyone knew that DeGeneres and her TV alter ego were dykes - only nobody said so, on screen or off. The never-ending lack of "chemistry" between Ellen Morgan and her boyfriends, the constant jokes about Morgan's proclivity toward pants, her jesting distaste for Paige's rampant heterosexuality - this open secret of Morgan's homosexuality was the comic thread that held Ellen together. Likewise, the dramatic thread holding together Xena's rag-tag band of gunnysack costumed, stiffly choreographed, overacting men in tights is the warrior princess's blatant but endlessly deferred perversity.
In a perfect keeping with the don't-ask-don't-tell nineties, Xena's producers have publicly acknowledged homosexuals in their midst; coproducer Liz Friedman's lesbianism, for example, landed coverage for her and her show in Out and Curve magazines. But neither Friedman or her associates have ever outed Xena and Gabrielle. Preferring, in their words, "not to alienate any of our viewers," they allow the subtext to persist, even while Universal promotes, schedules, and sells Xena to advertisers as, in Gabrielle/Renee O'Connor's words, a "family show."
To be fair, Lawless and her merry band haven't exactly shunned their lesbian following. The Kiwi buffster paid homage to her dyke fans at New York's Meow Mix bar by visiting during one of their "Xena Nights," lesbians are welcome at the many "Xenacons" that are now popping up around the country, and Universal hasn't gone after the dozens of World Wide Web sites dedicated to sexually explicit Xena-Gabrielle fiction. It's arguable, moreover, that once the lesbian Xena fetish became notorious - thanks to articles everywhere from the Washington Post to the National Inquirer - Friedman and her crew actually pushed the innuendoes to the very limit of yep-l'm-gay.
SLAY, LADY, SLAY: Xena overpowers Callisto
Halfway through Xena's second season, for example, came "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," the episode in which Gabrielle wanders into an all-female bar (wink-wink), becomes a vampire (apparently Friedman studied that topos in her woments studies classes), and kisses her mistress - oh, wait, that was a bite - on the jugular. Subtext fans were further treated to hickey comments (Gabrielle blushes), antimatrimonial narratives ("I can't marry the king," says the perky blond, "because my heart belongs to another"), heterosexual hemorrhaging ("Let me lay it on the line for you, Ulysses," barks Xena, "you're not my type"), even vicarious buttslapping. (In "The Quest," the series's second most popular episode according to "Rate-a-Xena" Web site, our Amazon deep kisses her sidekick and grabs her ass - in the borrowed body, of course, of the male warrior Autolycus.)
Kill Your Father. Marry Your Mother
The past that Xena's creators have scripted for their heroine only emphasizes the subtext. According to the legend, Xena's father died at the hands of Xena's mother, who killed him because he stumbled home in a drunken rage and tried to murder her precious daughter. Thus bonded to the mother in a struggle against the cruelty of the fathers - and thus, we might add, playing the part of the rebellious son in the classic Oedipal drama - Xena confesses to her mother's tombstone in the episode "Remember Nothing" that the two most valued people in her life are her mother and her feisty little mother replacement. ("The hardest thing," she says, "is losing you and Gabrielle.") As for dad, who returns from the dead in "Ties that Bind" to cause trouble for Xena and her sidekick, he realizes quickly that "as long as the two of you are together, as you should be, there's just no place here for me." Moreover, before Xena gave up her life as a rogue mercenary, met the sweet Gabrielle, and dedicated herself to fighting evil, Xena was lovers with Ares, engaged to one warlord, and allied (in bed and on the battlefield) with another; Xena was, in other words, something of a slut. Thus, the story of Xena's life links men, heterosexuality, and senseless violence - and then opposed them to her new existence of "raised consciousness," of lesbian love, and of struggle against oppression.
But Xena isn't just a radical feminist fantasy about a world where men no longer interfere with women's more primary, morally purer bonds. It's also a soft porn, "girl-girl" fantasy. Hence Lawless's characterts wonder bra and breastplate combination, which Xena's creators opted for over the slicker, black number she wore in Hercules. Hence the show's propensity to get Xena and Gabrielle naked and put them in rivers, bathtubs, and pools together. (In the episode "Altared States," in fact, we see evidence that our nude heroines are bathing each other in a stream to the tune of an extended, X-rated joke between them about "fishing.") Hence the appeal of the show's lesbian innuendo to straight men. (A self-described "bloke," in fact, runs the lovingly-researched Xena: Warrior Lesbian Web site.) Hence Playboy's interest in posing 20 questions to Lucy Lawless in 1997, in which Lawless, even though she and her producers have granted numerous interviews to the gay press, drops the heaviest, most tantalizing hint about Xena's sexual propensities: in response to the editors' question, "What's Xena's vacation fantasy?" the actress responds, "A biennial sailing trip to Lesbos." Did I hear "bi"? Lesbos? What more could Playboy's readers want?
Especially in these post-Ellen days, lesbian TV viewers may expect more clean-cut fare than Xena's cheesy special effects, heavy-handed dialog, and underhanded Sapphic sex appeal. Middle of the roaders may not like science fiction, fantasy, or their quirky, leather-clad fans, even though historians of pervy pop culture will remind us that these "underground" genres have always attracted a strong queer audience. (Previous to porno Xena on the Web, for example, alienated housewives exchanged SM Star Trek fanzines featuring Kirk and Spock getting it on.) But as Girlfriends goes to press, ABC has announced that it's canceling Ellen for at least six weeks and can't promise the show will come back. It may be that the drama of the closet is all we'll get. Already, it's what some prefer.
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