In June 2001, Lucy Lawless, star of the cult hit Xena: Warrior Princess, validated legions of the series’ dedicated lesbian and bisexual fans when she publicly outed her character on Late Night With Conan O’Brien while promoting the two-hour finale after a successful six year run.
Lawless told O’Brien that it was watching this episode that made her alter ego’s sexual orientation finally clear to her:
“Actually, you know, there was always an element of doubt in my mind, it was … it didn’t matter to the way I played the role. So if the audience chose to see it or not … but I saw it [the finale] for the first time last night and I went home and said to my husband [Xena Executive Producer Rob Tapert], “you’ve outed my character. I just … I can’t believe I’m saying this. I didn’t run this by anybody, but I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind anymore.”
The character of Xena first appeared in 1995 as an evil warlord in a three episode arc of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The tough warrior woman turned fighter for the greater good was popular enough to garner her own spin-off series.
By the late 1990s, Xena was the world’s most widely syndicated television program, seen in more than 115 countries, and the inspiration for scores of new female action heroes in TV and film.
Set in ancient Greece, the show featured a flawed superhero with fantastic martial arts-like skills and a dangerous dark side; in short, she was beautiful, sexy and deadly. Her sidekick Gabrielle (played by Reneé O’Connor) escaped a boring fiancé and village life to tag along with the warrior princess, and their relationship became the backbone of the show.
The show became a tale of two independent women who traveled the ancient world without the assistance of men, but with plenty of humor, camp, and great sword-fights. Gabrielle’s youth, innocence, and penchant for chatting made her a perfect foil to the more stoic Xena; along the way, Gabrielle grew into quite a fighter herself.
Xena and Gabrielle rescued the weak, righted the wrongs perpetrated by the Greek gods, interacted with historical and mythological figures, and often risked their own lives for the welfare of others–all without boyfriends tagging along. The duo also commonly interacted with the Amazons of lore, a society of women often associated with mythic lesbian history.
But something else soon appeared to distinguish Xena from the rest of the pack for lesbian and bisexual women. The writers, producers and actors began intentionally introducing sexual innuendo and dialog that lesbian audiences could read as desire between women, while the rest of the show’s viewing public wouldn’t necessarily notice a thing, such as this exchange in the second episode of Season 3:
Joxer (looking at Xena’s neck): “Is that a hickey?”
Gabrielle and Xena both turn away with guilty looks.
These hints at a romantic or sexual relationship between the two characters became known as “subtext.”
Lesbian producer Liz Friedman was often interviewed in the gay press as the show’s popularity soared, and quite openly acknowledged the show’s lesbian subtext, as she did in 1996 on One in Ten:
“That’s one of the best parts of the job, getting to throw in references that I know the fans who are interested in that will pick up on, but don’t necessarily flash any irrevocable red lights. We opened up a show with the two of them fishing naked, and we’re about to have a Halloween episode that will certainly have some nice moments for our queer fans, a little lesbian vampire show.”
Lawless played with the mainstream press as well. When asked in a 1997 Playboy interview about Xena’s fantasy vacation, she quipped, “a biennial sailing trip to Lesbos.” Comments like these from people associated with the show kept the “are they or aren’t they” debate going throughout the lifetime of the series.
During the second season, the internet saw an explosion of web sites which detailed the subtextual dialog, looks and action in each episode. The 13th episode in Season 2, (“The Quest”) featured Xena leaning in to kiss Gabrielle from a dreamlike state, only to cut to Gabrielle kissing Autolycus, a male friend whose body Xena was inhabiting at the time.