For queer girls growing up in the '90s, Xena and Gabrielle were life rafts for intimating what a lesbian relationship could look like. The reboot promises to do much more. That's good, right?
I should be excited by the news that NBC has ordered the pilot of a Xena reboot—and I am. I can’t think of a series that has had a greater impact on my young life. When I was 8, my best friend and I, like many other kids our age, liked to role-play, and we especially loved acting out Xena: Warrior Princess. Unfortunately my friend called Xena first, leaving me with Gabrielle, which disappointed me, until I began to fully appreciate Gabrielle for her intelligence, her cute crop top, and after some time, even her fighting skills—though her little stick was no match for Xena’s sword, backflips, and dramatic charges into battle.
And I should be even more thrilled by the fact that Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the executive producer of Xena, said the title character’s relationship with Gabrielle will be more clearly defined. He wrote on Tumblr, “There is no reason to bring back Xena if it is not there for the purpose of fully exploring a relationship that could only be shown subtextually in the 1990s.” The fact that Xena’s attraction to and romantic relationships with women can be explicitly portrayed on television speaks volumes about how we have evolved in our attitudes about LGB (and occasionally T) representation.
But I admit I am feeling a bit of ambivalence about their sexuality being above board. I’ll explain.
When the series first aired, I didn’t have many bisexual or lesbian role models—pop culture’s closet was sealed pretty tight. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had LGBT characters, but my mother’s strong distaste for the show—she didn’t like vampires or blonde-bombshell protagonists—wore on me and hampered my interest, and kept me from watching it.
And besides, I had Xena, who represented the kind of woman I wanted to be. She was intelligent, and had a past she wasn’t proud of, unlike many younger, spunky heroines who hadn’t lived long enough to have regrets. She was bold and complex, with an iron will, but would reveal her vulnerable side, especially when she was around Gabrielle. My friends and I fantasized about powerful women in our games, but rarely did we see the likes of Xena and Gabrielle on the big and small screens. Xena really could do anything—including having a girlfriend. I might have been only 8, but this detail became increasingly important to me.
On the surface, one could appreciate Gabrielle and Xena’s relationship as a friendship—the women had that, too. But the show also provided a model for what a relationship between two women could look like. They strengthened each other. They encouraged and supported one another, and rarely did they undermine each other. They could be apart and thrive—but together they were a force.
Early on in the series, we see Xena’s love for Gabrielle put to the test, when she almost loses her. As Gabrielle is on the brink of death, Xena’s face betrays her panic and desperation—I realized then she couldn’t imagine life without her partner in it. And when she provides mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Gabrielle, who appears lifeless, the faces of the people watching Xena are all twisted up in the painful empathy of watching someone losing a spouse—that’s how I interpreted it at the time, at least. (We now know Gabrielle didn’t die.) Friendship is powerful, but the gravity of the scene indicated to me that there existed something more intimate between them, and this was the moment I was given permission as a viewer to see them as more than close friends.
That was important for many of us who were only just beginning to understand our feelings in a world that didn’t have a template for us. I had a sense of what my future was supposed to look like, but it was hard to imagine it in comparison with some of my friends who would later identify as heterosexual. I was attracted to both girls and boys—although my attraction to girls was something I tried to ignore—and now identify as bisexual. But growing up, I needed to see what that might look like, even if it meant searching for it coded in the subtext of my favorite TV show.
I would later watch TV series, geared more for an adult audience, that more explicitly depicted out-lesbian and bisexual characters engaged in romantic and sexual relationships (e.g., The L Word, among other breakthrough series), I found myself returning to Xena not long after I came out to my friends. Xena was like a security blanket.
I won’t pretend that homophobia has evaporated—bullying is still a scourge in schools, especially for LGBT kids—but “gay” and “bi” as insults seem to have lost the power they had 20 years earlier. If a coded queer woman like Xena could enable me to see a place for my sexuality as a kid, I can only imagine what seeing an “out” Xena, with a fully realized romantic life, will be like for LGBT kids reckoning with their sexuality.
But the reason for my ambivalence is this: I worry there is a downside to letting go of something that essentially “belonged” to lesbian and bisexual women—there were few people besides us who recognized or were willing to recognize the subtle touches and looks Xena and Gabrielle exchanged. By making things transparent, it is now for all viewers to consume. Xena was mine, I watched it alone—in part because I am an only child and my parents weren’t interested in fantasy shows—but also because I liked having it to myself. I liked talking about it with other friends who were seeing what I saw, feeling what I felt. I don’t know how I would feel about watching it in mixed company.
And as I’ve talked with other LGBT people, they’ve expressed a concern that straight and cisgender people are appropriating the culture without fully trying to understand our lives and experiences—some of us feel exploited by those who aren’t LGBT, that our issues are the cause celebre. And there are too many instances of straight people who are disrespectful when they enter queer spaces, ogling, intimidating, in general claiming ownership, whether they mean to or not: A heterosexual man recently boasted to me that he hung out lounge for queer women to watch a pudding wrestling match during LGBT Pride Month. Thanks for your support, bro.
But despite all of this, despite my ambivalence and even my affectionate possessiveness of the beloved series, I recognize that the benefits of recasting Xena and Gabrielle as undeniably queer far out outweigh any downsides. It is important for young people who are just barely beginning to understand their attractions and desires and what that means for their future. Xena was one of the first steps toward overcoming my repression and suppression of my feelings about girls. Cultural permission is often underestimated but it is very powerful, especially when you live in a rural area where same-sex attraction isn’t discussed and you have only met one female same-sex couple in your entire life.
It is no less radical now than it was over two decades ago to more clearly define Xena’s sexuality, and watch the main female characters on TV be attracted to and love other women—it will resonate not only with both bisexual and gay girls but young women in general. I can’t wait to see a new generation of girls fall in love with Xena as I did, and imagine a whole new set of possibilities for their lives.
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