I’m currently half way through a rewatch of Xena:Warrior Princess. The last time I watched the show was in my teens and I perhaps wasn’t quite aware then as I am now of the Bechdel test (or indeed the Furiosa test). However, after years of Twitter and far too much loitering on Medium, I can now recognize just how ground-breaking Xena was (and is).
Let’s start with the obvious? Does it pass the Bechdel test? The Bechdel test passes if there is more than one woman in a show/film who talk to each other about something other than men. Well the very first words that Gabrielle and Xena (our two main characters) share are…
Gabrielle: That thing you did with the hoop, that was amazing! Where did you get that? Did you make it yourself? And that kick you do! You’ve got to teach me that —
This sets the tone for how the rest of the show progresses with Xena and Gabrielle travelling the land chatting about everything from soulmates to frying pans. It also sets the tone for Xena being generally bad-ass but that’s pretty much a given. And in her being so badass it definitely passes the “sexy lamp” test (i.e. could this character be replaced by a sexy lamp and it not change the plot in any way?).
This is all very well, but these tests are low bench marks, so the fact that a show passes isn’t enough to make the bold claim about it being the most feminist show ever. What else do I have?
Let’s start with the obvious — Xena and Gabrielle. The main characters of the show that grow from strangers to soulmates. They fall out, they fight and then they return to each other. They navigate their friendship and its ups and downs in a way representative of real life (albeit with more evil Gods). It is relatable, the growing closeness as you get to know someone, the irritations and the trials and tribulations.
But it isn’t just Xena and Gabrielle who are friends. Xena has many female friends (and enemies) throughout the show and naturally knows every strong woman in history from Cleopatra to Boudicca. She is a good friend, willing to go out of her way to help someone and she treats them with respect, not expecting anything from them or speaking negatively about them. Xena knows her own worth and doesn’t compare herself to others.
Gabrielle also strikes up friendships, becoming a sister Amazon and maintaining relationships with them despite her extensive travels around Greece. Partly through her innate curiosity and partly through her belief that everyone can be good, Gabrielle often forms attachments to troubled women and tries to redeem them as Xena was redeemed.
Xena and Gabrielle’s friendship (even if they were also in a relationship, depending on your thinking!) is one of the best portrayals of female friendship on television (even given its fantastical leanings). It spans everything from betrayal to sacrifice and also contains its fair share of mundanity.
Nuanced portrayals of women
I’ve picked a few recurring characters to mention…
Xena: Probably the most developed character (the show is about her after all). As the show progresses her back story becomes a little clearer but she is essentially someone who used to be vulnerable, became strong to survive and is now learning to balance the two.
Gabrielle: She starts off as a naive young woman who by following in Xena’s footsteps starts to learn about the world. Ultimately, she chooses not to follow the path Xena is on and go her own way through life guided by what she believes in.
Callisto: The closest thing Xena has to a nemesis, she is a character designed to represent what Xena could have been if she hadn’t chosen the path of good. Callisto is fixated with Xena and in their various dealings (no spoilers but she comes back from death at least twice…) they have to work together, put aside their differences and understand why they dislike each other.
Aphrodite: The goddess of love. Initially introduced as a fairly “frothy” character, she develops through her interactions with Xena and Gabrielle, becoming one of their closest friends. She is a unique character in her own right, slightly jaded, lover of pink, immortal and soft at heart.
These few examples show what breadth Xena has as a show. Female characters, even if initially cast as a particular “type” are often not what they seem and have nuanced personalities and motivations. There are also a wide range of different sorts of women, from warriors to bards, to princesses and inn keeps.
Nuanced portrayals of men
Female characters are not developed at the expense of men being typecast as the nice guy or the evil guy. Men too are nuanced and portray a wide range of ways to “be a man”.
Joxer: The classic “comic” character who seems initially to exist to be annoying. However, over time he is shown to have the heart of a lion and qualities not tied to his ability to fight (which is non-existent). It is powerful for Joxer to admit to himself that his best qualities might not be those that society thinks men should have. His growing acceptance of this over the course of the series is supported by the other characters and they provide a safe emotional environment for him to come to these realisations.
Autolycus: The classic thief with a heart of gold, he initially hides a lot of his softer side under a more brittle front. It is only as he learns to trust Xena and Gabrielle that he starts to let them in more. He balances the immorality of being a thief, his skills at being a good fighter and his kindness as a friend.
Hercules: He is the one who put Xena onto the path of redemption, using his years of wisdom to identify a damaged, scared woman that could do so much more with her life. Hercules is an interesting character as he is at his core a “rescuer”, someone who will rush in to help someone even before he knows if they need help or not! However, he is ultimately respectful of an individual’s abilities and has been one of Xena’s biggest emotional supporters.
Ares: Ah Ares, from lover, to adversary, to friend? Of all the men in Xena, he probably goes on the longest emotional journey and this is mainly triggered by Xena. She acts as an inspiration to him, someone who is equal parts infuriating and inspiring. Ares is a god, someone who can walk over anyone and anything (and often does) but he respects Xena for more than just her physical strength and it is through his understanding of her that he ultimately understands himself.
These few examples illustrate the other side of being a feminist show, that men are different too. They have different motivations, strengths and weaknesses and Xena is a show that accepts this at its heart. When a man appears on screen, you won’t know how their story will play out because their character will be layered and nuanced.
Storylines not centred around men
This one is probably a bit obvious as the show is called Xena. But, the fact remains that Xena retains her own agency, it is her story, not how she reacts to what men are up to. She steers what happens and importantly she can control what happens to her. Although a lot of times she does this through pure strength, Gabrielle also does it in her own way so it is not just a case of a character beating others into submission. Gabrielle also retains her own agency, choosing when to marry, where to go and ultimately what path she wants her own life to take.
Xena has had a wide range of strong men in her life — Caesar, Ares, Borias who have all done things to her. But, she realises that it is her own reactions to the situations that shaped who she became, she was not a passive participant. She had choices and she made the wrong ones. She uses this knowledge to not make the same mistakes again and never to lose power over her own life.
Of course Xena isn’t perfect. Other forms of diversity are poor and there are still lapses of feminism. But I would encourage everyone to overlook this and the dodgy CGI and give it a watch. If every week, a show from the 90s could show at least two nuanced female characters making their own way through life, then why the hell don’t we have this now? We deserve it.
(and don’t mention the reboot)