Xena and Gabrielle: Lesbian Icons

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In the sixth and final season, some of the fun subtext and loving scenes appeared with even more frequency. Episode 19 of Season 6 (“Many Happy Returns”) saw Xena commissioning a poem from Sappho as a gift for Gabrielle. At the end of the episode, Gabrielle read these lines to Xena (which were written in real life by the poet from the Isle of Lesbos):

There’s a moment when I look at you

And no speech is left in me.

My tongue breaks, then fire races under my skin

And I tremble,

And grow pale,

For I am dying of such love.

Gabrielle’s perceived betrayal in season three resulted in a vicious attack in which Xena almost killed her. The murderous Xena of old appeared, dragging Gabrielle behind her horse and almost throwing her off a cliff. In the wake of “the rift,” a significant group of women stopped watching, in the middle of emotional online discussions about partner abuse. But the warrior companions endured and wounds healed.

And then came the end, the final episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena and Gabrielle had been through a lot in six years. As media attention gathered on the upcoming finale, fans were elated at Lawless’s statement on the Conan O’Brien Show that this episode “outed my character.” It seemed those who were looking for text rather than subtext in Xena were finally going to find validation.

Instead, the Xena fandom was rocked and shocked when the relationship not only remained subtextual in the finale, but Xena allowed herself to be killed and beheaded, leaving her soulmate to travel the world alone. The ultimate redemption of Xena may have been true to the creator’s idea when the series began, but in the context of lesbians in media, the story was all too familiar and painful. The lesbian always dies, in this case the very gruesome death of a hero, and the eternal partners were separated. Even TV Guide panned the ending, saying that Xena deserved better.

Grieving fans invested in this fictional relationship felt betrayed and scrambled to create alternate endings, in particular latching on to the Episode 18 of Season 6 (“When Fates Collide”), which appeared just weeks before the finale and featured the love story front and center. Xena and Gabrielle rode off on horseback together in the final shot, and many a fan now considers this the real end to the Xena story on television (writer Katherine Fugate has since said that she wrote the story as if the two were lovers).

So what is the ultimate legacy of Xena: Warrior Princess for lesbian and bisexual viewers? The are they/aren’t they debate in the media brought lesbian visibility to a mainstream television show, and these two women who loved and shared their lives together became lesbian icons. Xena and Gabrielle were partners in the true sense of the word. They became role models of strong women who dealt with complex moral problems, fought for social justice, and paved the way for other female action shows and more explicit lesbian relationships on television.

For a majority of lesbian viewers, there was never any doubt about Xena and Gabrielle, or their relationship’s importance to the show. Xena was a long running series centered on a positive portrayal of a same-sex romantic partnership, something that has yet to be duplicated on television. O’Connor summed it up nicely in a February 2001 interview with Upbeat magazine:

“I think Gabrielle is probably searching for her soul mate and that she found it in Xena, actually. Having been through the entire series, she’s probably been searching for the love of her life…which is Xena.”

The show became a lightning rod for fans who responded to a tough chick with a sword and her feisty companion, and the show continues to attract new viewers today in reruns and first runs around the world. Television programmers in 115 countries might not have a clue about the subtext, but Xena‘s wide reach means that viewers in Saudi Arabia or Turkey have been exposed to love between women.

Online, the Xena/Gabrielle coupling lives on through fan fiction, and has spawned a new industry in the publication of original lesbian fiction from writers who began by posting fan fiction on the web. The Xena: Warrior Princess Subtext Virtual Seasons airs new episodes regularly, with a huge following.

As a cult hit and the driving force behind the creation of an enduring fandom, Xena’s audience became more than merely passive viewers, and in the process, cemented Xena’s place in the history of women in television.

Angie B. is the webmaster of the MAMMOTH Index of Xena Fan Sites http://xenawp.org

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