The Warrior Princess Goes To College
Xena is very popular at cons this year, and I don't just mean the ones put on by Creation Entertainment. I'm talking about the Modern Language Association and the Popular Culture Association's annual conferences. Xena, Warrior Princess is hot in academia...almost as hot as Star Trek, which has been the subject of several book-length works of scholarship. The bulk of research seems to be focused on gender and sexuality, but the postmodern sensibility of the show also seems to be a big issue.
Xena even has its own "scholarly journal" of sorts: Whoosh!, the online publication of the Institute for Xena Studies (IAXS). While the journal and the Institute are less professorial than they sound, both attract academics as well as freelance writers. Research and publication are requirements for joining IAXS, so even casual fans must become writers if they want to participate.
Most Xena scholars of course started out as fans, and are loath to separate the personas. There has been much controversy in Star Trek fandom over scholarship: critics often claim to be outsiders in order to characterize the series and its followers, but most of them are closet fans. While several academics say they're drawn to Xena's self-conscious rewriting of classical mythology with a feminist twist, most of them started paying attention because of the show's humor and action.
"My daughter introduced me," says Atara Stein, an Associate Professor of English at Cal State Fullerton whose area of professional expertise is nineteenth century literature. Stein watched one episode and was hooked: "Xena's utterly gorgeous, and I liked seeing a TV show where a woman kicks butt...and, of course, the lesbian subtext between Xena and Gabrielle." That implication is so much a part of the show's following that viewers who follow it call themselves "subtext fans." The majority of academic study of Xena seems focused at present how the warrior princess's gender and sexuality are constructed, and what impact that might have on television audiences.
Stein is giving a paper at the Popular Culture Association's conference in Florida in April called "Xena: Warrior Princess, the Lesbian Gaze, and the Construction of a Feminist Heroine."
That subtext is also a point of interest for Nick Chapman, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. His paper "'Lost in Space': Sexuality in Star Trek: The Next Generation" was presented at Console-ing Passions, a feminist-oriented film and popular culture conference associated with the scholarly journal Camera Obscura. He hopes to give a paper on Xena at the same conference next year.
"When I first saw Xena I responded to it powerfully as both a fan and a scholar, seeing in it a rich text for both facets of my life," Chapman recalls. He particularly enjoys the show's celebration of melodrama, and its seeming consciousness of its own artificiality. "[Xena]'s willingness to indulge in bathos at times," such as Gabrielle's staunch moral positions, Xena's tearful remorse, their affection for each other, is "refreshingly anti-cynical," in Chapman's view. "I think passion and conviction have become difficult to sustain in contemporary American society. It is a victory of sorts for Xena to have it both ways: to wink at us and to have jokes with us about its textual character, and to sustain a level of belief in the emotional and social positions it presents."
Chapman, whose doctoral field is 20th Century American cultural history, has been working as a popular culture scholar for so long that he tends to think as a fan and academic simultaneously. "Thus, when I am at a film I often shift between responding to it viscerally, as a member of the audience caught up in the text, and intellectually, considering the artistic choices being made by the filmmakers, and so on."
Stein admits that her fannish appreciation for a show may contradict her critical judgement of it. "I think the best way for me to situate myself as a fan and a critic is in Keats' term 'Negative Capability,' which refers to being in a state of 'uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' It also, I think, refers to the ability to hold opposing ideas at the same time," she notes.
"My favorite example of this is that I adore Terminator 2, yet ideologically, I find it both goofy and politically dangerous, and I certainly don't advocate violence as a way of solving problems. With Xena, however, my fannish appreciation and my critical judgment coincides. I think she's a wonderful feminist heroine, and the show's message is fairly consistently feminist despite the massive historical revisionism they have to do to accomplish this."
The author of a forthcoming book on Romanticism and popular culture, Stein tries to blur the line between canonical literature and popular culture. "Shakespeare and Dickens were the pop culture of their day," she points out. "My fandom is obvious to my students with the Kate Mulgrew, Patrick Stewart, and Lucy Lawless pictures in my office, but I don't see any real conflict between being a fan and a critic - after all, I specialized in the Romantic period because I love the literature and identify with it, not for any practical or objective reason."
None of the scholars I interviewed had a background in classical studies - "nor, I suspect, do most of the people associated with the production of Xena," says Chapman, who believes that people who are reasonably well-read in Western literature would have enough background to appreciate appearances by Homer and Aeschylus. "More relevant to studies of Xena would be a background in contemporary cultural studies, and feminist cultural theory," he adds.
Debbie Cassetta, Adjunct Professor of American History at New York's Polytechnic University, brings her dissertation research about the role of the media in perpetuating the controversy surrounding the Kennedy assassination to Xena. She just completed a chapter for Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor: Warrior Stars of Xena, 'Into the Mix: Xena Nights, Subtext, and Misconceptions,' a book edited by Jennifer Hale.
Her chapter on "Xena Night" in the bar Meow Mix in New York City focuses on the media portrayal of Xena fans. As with the characterization of Trekkies as costume-wearing geeks who can't live in the real world - hence the attention to the Whitewater juror wearing a TNG uniform - the Xena coverage has focused on marginalizing the show's following. "They come in with preconceived notions on what they think fans are going to be like," Cassetta complains. "They look for gender outlaws, and they find professionals wearing three-piece suits. E.T. was amazed that there are so many men involved. They were trying to find someone to be their example: 'Does anyone here dress up?'"
Cassetta is disturbed by the media's search for "the one crazy person" whom Entertainment Tonight could use to classify (and ridicule) all fans. "You don't find Xena fans out there wearing leather and carrying swords onto the subway - they don't allow swords on the subway," she laughs. "But the reporters came in and were asking how we felt about Lucy getting married - they thought we were a bunch of crazy lesbians who were going to be so upset! They characterized [Meow Mix] as a gay bar, even though the people they interviewed were all straight."
Cassetta keeps the FAQ for Whoosh! now, but she initially kept her fandom in the closet. "I was outed!" she exclaims. "I did an interview with a Canadian paper, The Hamilton Spectator, and the article ended up on the desk of the president of my university." She thinks Xena provides fans with more parallels to their own lives than they might readily admit. "A lot of the people who watch the show are warrior princesses in their own lives - they fought the fight. The old double standard is alive and well," she points out.
The founder of Sword and Staff, a charitable group that raises money for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Cassetta suggests that the media emphasis on lesbianism on Xena is a form of exploitation, not a celebration of the fact that "this show has taken a marginalized segment of our population and put them at the center." She points out that the Xena/Gabrielle relationship is a marketing gimmick much like the Maddie/David relationship on Moonlighting, but the difference is that, in this case, it can't be taken too far if the producers want to keep Bible Belt viewers. "Lesbian chic is good press, but in trying to portray the subtextual relationship - or, as in Ellen, the main text - it can get exploited to the point of minimizing it."
Stein believes that the producers of Xena "are probably trying to appeal to a queer audience," but at the same time, she doesn't think they would take it far enough to alienate a mainstream audience. "The two-parter 'The Debt' suggests to me that there's a strong implication that while Xena may [sleep with] men, her emotionally and spiritually significant relationships are with women." Still, Stein doesn't expect any consistently feminist ideology from the series. "Ultimately, it's a live-action cartoon, and if a subtext will bring in and keep fans, they'll do it, but if it alienates fans, they'll tone it down," she notes.
Chapman has used Xena in the classroom to talk about gender issues on television. He recommends as a source for research not just Constance Penley and Henry Jenkins' work on Star Trek fans, but Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, a book about romance novel readers "which helps us to understand that these sorts of relationships between fans and texts are not confined to the worlds of science fiction/fantasy or of television." Typing, he warns, is dangerous: "Some of the work that has been done on fans has resorted to, or been read as resorting to, a kind of psychologizing of the fans that was offensive to some fans, and fed non-fans' view of these fan-cultures as in certain ways pathological" - precisely the sort of problem Cassetta is addressing in her research.
Melissa Meister, a senior undergraduate at the University of Arizona who set up a web page on Xena and gender as part of a class project, is a terrific example of the impact Xena has on both academics and young women. She wrote an article for a feminist theory class on Xena through the lenses of feminism which has been accepted at the national Popular Culture Association conference in Florida next year.
"Xena is ripe with women's studies topics, and I love the classics," Meister says, though what grabbed her interest initially was the campy humor of the series. Her honors thesis is on women and technology, but she has studied Greek mythology and thinks the television show is important to classical studies in three ways. "First of all, it is drumming up an interest in classical myths with the audience; secondly, it has started an interest in strong female characters in the classics, such as Medea. Thirdly, it is interesting to study the ways in which Xena reworks classical myths, often putting Xena in the traditional heroic roles - for example, in the episode 'Ulysses,' it is Xena who is the heroine, helping Ulysses find his way back to Ithaca. Basically, the creators of Xena have managed to reintroduce a woman into the hero cycle."
Another student inspired by Xena is Anita Firebaugh, Whoosh!'s main spoiler writer, an M.A. liberal studies student at Hollins College in Virginia who is writing a biography of Mary Johnston, a Virginia writer who had the number one best-selling book in the year 1900. Firebaugh, who has studied the classics, is interested in the chakram and its sources. "I like the play on religions and myths in the series, and the lack of seriousness about those topics." She is not a subtext fan - "I don't strongly adhere to the lesbian thing - I can see it and understand it, but prefer to think of them as very close friends."
Whether Xena holds lasting interest for academics probably depends on how successful it remains, in addition to which direction the producers decide to take the series. The current "darker" storylines have provided grist for analysis, but have not been so popular with fans. Hercules does not seem to attract the same academic attention, perhaps since it does not hold the same appeal for gender scholars (male buddy pairs like Hercules and Iolaus are far more common, as are male superheroes). So long as the warrior princess remains at the top of syndicated ratings, that phenomenon alone will probably hold the attention of media scholars.