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Why Xena's Lesbian Love Matters

Xena: Warrior Princess was a flawed, but crucial role model for many lesbian fans in the 1990s.
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Xena: Warrior Princess is getting a reboot. Along with the many battles against mythical gods and the absurd outfits, fans can expect to see a long-held suspicion finally come to fruition: Xena will be openly romantically interested in women, the show's screenwriter wrote recently in a Tumblr Q&A. Of course, there was quite a bit of lesbian subtext written into the original show that aired in the 1990s. But now, Xena and her sidekick/love interest Gabrielle's sexualities will show up in the main plot.

The original Xena: Warrior Princess, which premiered in 1995, predates television shows that featured prominent lesbian characters—The L Word and South of Nowhere, for example. For context, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996, about a year after Xena began running in syndication. The act was not struck down until 2013—more than a decade after the show ended in 2001. Meanwhile, ordinary American households were just starting to get Internet access as Xena aired. These trends mean that Xena served as a locus of community, discovery, and self-acceptance for her lesbian fans online, none of which were easy to find in mainstream American culture. That's a pretty powerful role for a show that "critics in the popular press often describe ... as 'schlock' TV," as American media researcher Elyce Rae Helford reports in her book, Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television.

Xena served as a locus of community, discovery, and self-acceptance for her lesbian fans online.

In 2001, a team of psychologists from Texas recruited 19 lesbian-identified Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans who had posted on online message boards to fill out a survey about their thoughts on lesbian representation on TV. (Buffy had two openly lesbian characters, Willow and Tara.) Fans had great things to say about the shows' influence on their lives, which jibes with previous research on how important popular media can be for identity formation.

"It was a big stepping-stone to my coming to terms with my sexuality," one Xena fan in the 19–24 age group wrote.

"I wanted desperately to know that I wasn't alone! I looked to W/T [Willow/Tara] and X/G [Xena/Gabrielle] for guidance," wrote another fan, this one in the 13- to 15-year-old age range.

Twelve of the 19 fans reported they had no contact with other lesbians at the time they watched Xena and Buffy. The remaining survey respondents had only one or two lesbian friends either in their geographic area or over the Internet.

Not everybody found Xena entirely revolutionary or empowering, of course. She wore really short skirts; her armor emphasized her breasts; Playboy reviewed her positively. Some viewers were disappointed that the Xena and Gabrielle characters were never openly queer, like Willow and Tara. As gender studies professor Alexander Doty argues in his book, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, "subtext only" queer romances, such as Xena and Gabrielle's, allow "straight culture to use queerness for pleasure and profit in mass culture without admitting to it."

So Xena: Warrior Princesss wasn't a perfect emblem for the drive for LGBT acceptance in American culture. Yet, for some, even the show's flawed depiction of same-sex romance was profoundly helpful. "As queer people, we are by definition loathsome creatures (we're constantly told) we don't deserve any love," one 41- to 50-year-old fan wrote in response to the 2001 survey. "Seeing Gabrielle's unconditional love for Xena week after week ... overturns this entire Negative Order so many of us find ourselves in. X&G represent hope."