Bringing Out the Warrior Princess

 
 

Viewers never had to look
too hard to find the lesbian subtext in Xena: Warrior Princess, but that’s
still what it was: subtext. And while lesbian fans in the 1990s might not have
had any choice but to settle for that, would things be different if the show
were being made — or remade — today? When I attended the Xena convention in Burbank, Calif.,
at the end of January, I asked the show’s creators, producers, writers and
stars if the world is ready for an openly lesbian relationship between Xena and
Gabrielle.

"To me it was
main text," said Renee O’Connor, who played Gabrielle, in an exclusive
interview with AfterEllen.com. "And even if it was subtext, it was very
clear that we were together. They are so in love with each other, they love
each other so dearly; there’s no way you can say that’s not true. Anyone can
see that from watching the show."

I asked her if she
thought that relationship could be openly acknowledged if the series were being
made today. "I don’t know," O’Connor answered. "Maybe there’s a
little bit more hint of acceptance today. Maybe, maybe not. You can only put it
up and see what would happen. I guess we could do anything, just get it out
there and see how it affects people."

In a lot of ways, Xena flew under the radar during the ’90s. Viewers who didn’t perceive (or didn’t like) the lesbian subtext could see it simply as a story about heroic friends righting wrongs and battling villians. If the show were being produced in today’s post–L Word television landscape, it’s hard to believe that audiences would be quite as oblivious.

But O’Connor doesn’t think that a more overt presentation of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship would have changed the moral heart of the series. That’s because she sees those two things — the love between Xena and Gabrielle and the series’ focus on the fight against evil — as inextricably combined. 

“If we were just starting Xena right now, I know what the relationship of the two characters is,” O’Connor said. “So even though we wouldn’t blatantly talk about all the issues involved, because I don’t think that’s what the show is about, it’s still about defeating oppressors and wanting to do the right thing for the world. And that comes down to these people and how they love each other.”

Renee O’Connor and Lucy Lawless at this year’s Xena convention

Lucy Lawless, who played
Xena, isn’t sure how acknowledging a romantic relationship between the two
women would affect the show’s reception if it were being made today, but it
could have changed the way audiences perceived it in the past.

"There might have
been more general discussion about whether the characters were lesbian or not
out in the mainstream," Lawless said. "In the 1990s, when this was
all new, people like Ellen [DeGeneres] and k.d. lang and all these people who
are out were blazing a trail. And you might hope that it’d be done long ago.
But in a lot of the world, it’s still incredibly painful to come out, even
today."

Then she laughed. "But
let’s have a go. Let’s do it. Why don’t we make a Xena movie? Just tell a
bloody good story and let the fires and torpedoes be damned."

A Xena movie doesn’t seem
any more likely today than it did a year ago, but I asked Lawless if she
thought the sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle might be brought
more into the forefront if a movie were made.

"I think that’s a
good question for Rob," she said, referring to Rob Tapert, the series’ co-creator and her husband. "I know he’s been thinking about this for a
long time, mulling it over in the back of his mind. He’s got a great feeling of
where the world’s at and what he can make that’s progressive and gutsy and
still have it be financially successful."

Backstage at the
convention, Tapert considered the possibility of a more openly queer Xena and
Gabrielle. "It’s a tricky question," he said, "because if Xena were being made today, well, there’s
two different Xenas. There is the one
[in which] people could read between the lines, and that played to one
audience.

"Then there’s one
that played to kids, or that played to 9–17-year-olds. And they didn’t
understand the subtext, nor did they get it. So like the finest of Disney
films, that plays to all audiences; that was a balance we tried to find. Making
it today, I don’t know what would happen."

He called series
co-creator, producer and writer R.J. Stewart over to ask his opinion. "Could
there be more commitment to the subtext?" Stewart said. "Well, I
think if it was a cable show, absolutely. But if it was the same kind of
broader market, I think you have to be more inclusive. But yes, absolutely, I
think that a cable version of it could work that way."

What if a film were made
today, based on the series? That would be a different proposition, Stewart said.
"When you make a movie you always try to stay pretty close to the original
in feeling." Then he laughed. "Now, if you could just get Oxygen to
order some episodes …"

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