Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I have joined for the fifth year with some other amazing bloggers to celebrate women under the auspicious blogging series titled: Fiction’s Fearless Females! For the next few weeks, three other bloggers and I will share who they believe is a fictional woman to be admired, and I will share each entry of the series on this blog. First up is Michael from My Comic Relief– whose blog is must-reading for his brilliant views on comics, Doctor Who, social justice, Spider-Man and of course this iconic warrior!
By Michael Miller of My Comic Relief
It’s Tuesday, March 8th – International Women’s Day 2023! Once again I’ve teamed with other bloggers – Kalie of Just Dread-full, Nancy of Graphic Novelty2, and Jeff of The Imperial Talker – to celebrate some of our favorite female characters in all of fiction. In a wave of ‘90s nostalgia I decided to write about Xena this year. How has it taken me five years of doing this series to get to Xena?!!? Xena: Warrior Princess ran for 134 episodes over six seasons from 1995 through 2001. Starring Lucy Lawless as Xena and Renee O’Connor as her best friend Gabrielle, the show took hold of pop culture in a way few things have in my lifetime. It left a lasting impression, too. As I told everyone who I was writing about this year I kept getting the best responses. “Ahh! I loved that show!” “She was my hero!” “I loved Xena!” “I watched her show all the time!” With Xena: Warrior Princess premiering when I was in seventh grade, Xena wasn’t just an iconic character for me; she was also archetypal. In many ways, Xena formed my understanding of a “fearless female hero.” She was my first fully fleshed out example. She wasn’t part of an ensemble cast. She wasn’t guest starring in another male hero’s show. Xena rode alone (well, with Gabrielle of course!) and there was nothing she couldn’t do.
So I invite you, dear reader, to wander down this road of memories with me as I celebrate one of the most iconic and important heroes I’ve ever met. (And if you wanna let out your best rendition of Xena’s famous warrior yell as we go, feel free! I won’t tell anyone ;D. I’ve been doing it again for weeks now, too.)
Traditionally when I write these pieces, I do a deep dive rewatching the entire run of a character or a show to dialogue with the entirety of the character(s) I’m spotlighting. But this is different. As I began rewatching Xena I had so many thoughts and so many feelings and just allllllllllllllllllllllll the memories that trying to develop a thread woven through her entire 134 episodes didn’t flow. Instead I want to explore the feelings which came back as I watched, reconnecting with the impression Xena left on middle school-aged me as I do a close reading of a few moments from Xena: Warrior Princess’ first season which speak to why she is such a fearless character.
And who knows?! Maybe all those other ideas, memories, and feelings will turn into future pieces and Xena will become a regular theme on this site! Only time will tell I suppose.
Before I sat down to write this piece, I hadn’t seen an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess in over twenty years. But as soon as I began the first episode it felt like I never stopped. You know those friends who you can go years without seeing and instantly fall back into rhythm with them when you see each other? It turns out Xena is that sort of show for me! As soon as I heard the opening notes from the gaida (the Bulgarian bagpipe) as the theme song began I found myself reciting the narration! (Yes, it really is a gaida – I did the research) It all came back to me!
In a time of ancient gods,
a land in turmoil cried out for a hero.
She was Xena
A mighty princess forged in the heat of battle.
Her courage will change the world.
As I found myself reciting the above words flawlessly after over twenty years, I noted something I never noticed before (or at least I don’t remember noticing it) – the tense of the words. It’s all in past tense – “a land in turmoil cried out for a hero,” “a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle,” even framing it as “a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings” speaks to the past – until we get to the end. “Her courage will change the world.” How much predicting of the future Joseph LoDuca (who composed the Xena theme song and wrote the lyrics) planned to do here is anyone’s guess. But he was right! Xena’s courage did change the world!
She wasn’t the first female hero to headline a TV series. She follows in the footsteps of greats like Irish McCalla in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, and Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman. But Lucy Lawless was groundbreaking in her own right in Xena: Warrior Princess. The show inspired countless people. It still has legions of devoted fans (as a little poking around online will show). And so many future heroes – kickass warrior women in particular – can credit part of their origin to Xena. Plus, it was a spinoff show which far outshone its predecessor in both fan adoration and cultural scope/influence (Xena was first introduced as a villain then love interest on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). And the sapphic nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship – best friends with the flirtatious hint of something more which fans often speculated about – helped pave the way for the beautifully realized relationships we see today, like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on HBO Max’s Harley Quinn. In an interview with Page Six Renee O’Connor said Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was “baby steps” towards larger change, “I think that the opportunity to be forthright is more evident in all media now. I just think it would definitely be embraced wholeheartedly. I’m grateful that people aren’t looking backward. They just move forward. People have to break ground, and if that’s what ‘Xena’ was, at the time … yeah, it came at the right moment.”
As a kid I was always intrigued by how – though Xena was a spinoff from Hercules – Xena always seemed tougher. Like, if my back was against the wall and I had one favor I could call in, I’d want Xena standing beside me over Hercules. Sure, he’s a demigod and has incredible strength and gauntlets forged by Hephaestus and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But Xena is Xena. It always felt like she could stare down an entire army with those steely blue eyes and one arched eyebrow. Anyone foolish enough to try and fight her anyway was going to live to regret it…if they lived at all.
Her character always seemed comfortable standing among gods, too. While Hercules was obviously plucked from the myths of Ancient Greece, Xena was created by writer John Schulian and writer-director-producer Robert Tapert. As a kid I devoured mythology. For Christmas in 1994, Mom and Dad got me D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, a hardcover illustrated tour through Greek mythology. I read that thing again and again and again. The following year they got me D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants as well and books on Celtic mythology soon followed. I could tell you those stories forwards and backwards (which…I guess it’s not really surprising I grew up to study and teach religious studies). Xena was so strong, so bold, so commanding, so much larger than life that it always felt like she belonged among the goddesses, gods, monsters, and historical figures she crossed paths with. She could certainly more than hold her own. Her story captured my heart in the same way those well-read books of myths did, too.
Sure, the show could be campy. That’s part of why I loved it! The overly acrobatic fight scenes. The gale-force whooshing sounds of swords. The murmuring of crowds with a few distinct phrases clearly called out to let the viewer know what they thought. That thing she’d do where she’d run in a circle – in midair – keeping herself aloft by kicking her adversaries in the chest. The fact that her chakram (oh! my! gosh! her chakram!!!!!) followed the same physics as Captain America’s shield. And of course there was that one time she literally juggled a baby while fighting King Gregor’s men to protect the child from being killed because of a misread prophecy. The thing with Xena was, even in all the camp, she was an absolute badass!
The idea that she was always the most lethal person in a room, capable of felling dozens of trained killers by herself always felt authentic. Her threat and skill, her ferocity and power never felt filtered through or lessened by the camp (which wasn’t the case for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). Again and again we hear how Xena lead one of the largest armies the world had ever known, sweeping over the land and conquering all in her path. We see how the mere mention of her name – let alone starring into her piercing eyes – is enough to make any warlord or arms dealer falter. The fact that she unfailingly radiated that aura while juggling a baby when fighting or having acrobatic duals on elevated balancing beams three times in the first ten episodes just shows how much of a badass she was.
Xena’s arc on Hercules saw her debut as his adversary, the warrior princess with the aforementioned army, before leaving that life behind, inspired by Hercules’ model (“The Warrior Princess” S1E9, “The Gauntlet” S1E12, and “Unchained Heart” S1E13). So when Xena: Warrior Princess begins, Xena has abandoned her warlord ways and is beginning her own quest for redemption.
The theme song reflects this, too! In my research to figure out what sort of instrument opens the theme song, I also learned – in addition to the spoken English narration – there is Bulgarian chanting happening over the music! If you’d like to see they lyrics in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet, here you go:
Жената язди самотна / Zhenata yazdi samotna
Нейното минало срази я / Neinoto minalo srazi ya
Срещу войските от тъмен свят / Sreshtu voiskite ot tumen sviyat
Воюва за добро тя/ Vouva za dobro tya
Рогови звънове идват / Rogovi zvanove idvat
Напрейте път на война / Napreyte pat na voyina!
Тъпани бият в ритъм / Tapani biyat va ritam
Принцесата е пак тука / Princesata ye pak tuka!
And if you’re curious what the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir is saying, its English translation is:
The woman rides alone,
(Her) past nearly crushed her,
Meeting the armies of the dark world,
Battling in the name of good.
The sound of horns is coming,
Make way for the battle,
Drums beat at (the) rhythm,
(The) Princess is here.
Incidentally, learning this really feels like coming full circle for me. In 2007 I was flying to England for two weeks to visit a friend doing her student teaching in Bognor Regis. In the Detroit Airport, waiting for the red eye flight to London, I met Yana – a Bulgarian girl about my age who was also travelling alone. We chatted for a few hours at our gate and moved seats to sit together for our eight hour flight. Yana was a nervous flier so she asked me to stay awake with her, not falling asleep unless she did first. We talked and laughed and told stories all night long. At one point she showed me the Bulgarian romance novel she was reading and asked me to try and pronounce the words. It…did not go well XD. I didn’t even recognize the alphabet! But I tried until Yana just read to me. We lasted as long as we could but ultimately fell asleep, arms wrapped around each other, somehow contorted so the plane seats didn’t make it uncomfortable. We slept together until the sun gently woke us by poking through the window. It was one of the most unique nights of my life. And NOW I’ve finally learned some Bulgarian! Back to Xena…
So much of the first season sees people cowering when they realize it’s Xena the Warrior Princess standing in their midst. Townspeople fear her. Travelers flee from her on the road. And the warlords, rulers, and arms dealers she meets in her travels regard her as a worthy peer, dangerous threat, or both. But it’s her reputation as one of the leaders of the “armies of the dark world” which breeds these reactions, a reputation she is trying to change. “The woman rides alone / (Her) past nearly crushed her” though now she is opposing those “armies of the dark world / Battling in the name of good.” What I love about those lyrics (which I just learned! ahhh! learning is so fun!) is how they speak to the weight of her past. She’s trying to be better now, to devote her life to helping people, but the shadow she cast is not an easy one to get out from under. Yet she is dedicated to trying all the same.
When we talk about fearless characters, that’s a pretty tall order. Her greatest enemy is her past and, despite all the evil she’s done and death she’s reigned down on the innocent and warlike alike, she believes she can change. Xena believes she can be better! Xena believes she can become the best version of herself! That sort of character complexity was something we didn’t see on Xena’s sister show Hercules and I think it’s one of the reasons Xena: Warrior Princess gained such a larger fan following then and now. In addition to showing incredible courage, this act is also one of the pieces of her character which make Xena so inspiring to so many people.
Most, if not all of us, have parts which are burdened with shame, parts which are burdened with guilt, parts which are burdened with regret, and even polarized parts at war with other parts within us. Xena looks at all of that within herself and believes she can grow, heal, change, and transcend. She believes in the best version of herself and then she lives it into existence. How can that not resonate with us?!!? That journey inward – to touch those parts burdened with shame, guilt, and regret and then begin to heal them in a way which allows transformation – is scary. In being willing to attempt this journey and then succeeding in her transformation Xena models a remarkable courage. We’re drawn to this part of her character, I think. Most, if not all of us, seek similar courage in our own lives. Xena inspires us because she has this courage and she inspires us to believe we can touch it within ourselves as well.
When Xena attempts to free the Princess Jana (Nicola Cliff) from her kidnapper Mezentius (Stephen Tozer), a ruthless arms dealer, she encounters Marcus (Bobby Hosea), an old ally and lover from her warlord days. Alone in one of Mezentius’ weapons stores, Marcus challenges Xena. He knows she’s changed and what she’s trying to do…and he tells her how he tried to leave this life once, too. You can see the pain and torment on his face, conjured by the memories of what led him to leave and the guilt over what led him back.
Xena – “Come with me now. How many of us are left from the old days? Most of them are dead. Marcus, I don’t want to stand by your grave.”
Marcus – “You’re not better than me, Xena.”
Xena – “You’re right.”
Marcus – “What makes you think I want to?”
Xena – “What made you think you wanted to? Marcus, it is so simple. You do one thing – one good thing – for no other reason than you know it’s right. That’s the first step.”
Xena doesn’t just believe in her own potential to transform, she sees it in others as well. In Marcus, she sees someone like herself, someone who needs a path to follow to become who they want to be. And Xena offers him one. What a beautiful model, too! If we are seeking similar courage in our own lives, if we want to be better, to be different, to transform in some way, that’s all it takes. One thing. One act. One step. Then it grows from there.
When I think of Xena’s fearlessness, there are obvious moments of courage. We see her running into battle regardless of the odds to protect those who need protecting, standing face-to-face with the roughest and most brutal of men traversing Ancient Greece and not even blinking, and of then we see her intimidating those very men! But to my mind, the moment of courage which stands equal to her faith in her ability to find redemption and rise above the sins of her past to be transformed, is her friendship with Gabrielle.
I’m not going to explore the sapphic nature of their relationship beyond what I said above. It’s beautiful and it’s important and it was groundbreaking in so many ways, but to explore and celebrate all that in a way worthy of it, I’d need to look at the entirety of the show. It is, perhaps, the story for another piece. What I mean by the courage Xena demonstrates in her friendship with Gabrielle here is how she lets her in in the first place.
While on the road to redemption, Xena is coming from a dark place. She is the Warrior Princess. She road at the head of a fearsome army. She conquered and killed in a way few could, a way which leads Ares (Kevin Smith), the God of War, to attempt to woe her back. He offers her the largest army the world has ever seen, encouraging her to bring justice by conquest and offering her the chance to rule the Earth as his Warrior Queen. The people she ran with were rarely nice, many were overtly evil, and a great many of them are now dead. It’s safe to assume Xena doesn’t have the best track record with loving, caring, mutually symbiotic relationships where you are seen, heard, and accepted just as you are, and you in turn see, hear, and accept the other in the same way. Where would she even have had the chance to practice such a relationship in her adult life so far?
It’s clear she doesn’t want Gabrielle to travel with her either, despite Gabrielle pleading with Xena to take her with her after Xena saves Gabrielle’s village from the warlord Draco (Jay Laga’aia). Gabrielle wants nothing to do with the boring life of a farming village or being married off to a man she doesn’t love. Xena refuses, leaving the village without Gabrielle. However, Gabrielle follows Xena and keeps at it. By episode’s end, Xena’s agrees to let Gabrielle travel with her.
Gabrielle grows from sidekick and tagalong to best friend and trusted confidant. And yes, Gabrielle has a lot to do with it. She isn’t one to take “no” for an answer to begin with and she chats tirelessly (as someone who does the same, I get it – I always want to know more! share with me all your thoughts and feelings! I love hearing it!). Gabrielle’s growth over the first season is remarkable on its own. But Xena lets her in. That’s 100% Xena’s choice and Xena’s doing. No matter how much we may wish it were otherwise sometimes, we can’t control other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. So Gabrielle does her part but Xena meets her there. Xena has the courage to let her walls down, to open up, to trust. Gabrielle is willing to receive that, to be a loving steward of what Xena shares with her (slowly at first), just as Xena does for Gabrielle. It’s so beautiful!
It takes courage, too. Nothing has the potential to hurt us quite like the people we love the most. So the more people we let into our lives and into our hearts, the greater the chance we have to be hurt and the larger the degree of hurt they can cause. Every loving relationship is a risk. Not everyone is willing or even able to open themselves to that sort of connection (and that’s fine – there’s no judgment here – everyone’s on their own journey and comes to it in their own time). Fresh on her road to redemption, which is incredibly courageous in its own right, Xena finds the courage to open herself to Gabrielle and begin building what will be the most important relationship of her life
Xena’s courage did change the world. We see it in the lasting effect her character and this show has had on pop culture and on the hearts and minds of those who love her. Xena’s courage also has the power to change our world now, if we can touch it in our own lives. If we are willing to believe the best in ourselves is possible, if we are willing to open ourselves up to the life-defining love of friendships like what Xena and Gabrielle share – knowing they may bring pain at times but that the pain is worth it and we can grow and move through it together – we, too, can be transformed as Xena was. We are transformed in our hearts which then transforms our world. I love you, dear reader, and I believe you have the courage to bring such beautiful change to your own life whenever you may need it, just as I believe I have the power to do so in my own life – just like Xena taught me.
Happy International Women’s Day! Be sure to check back here through the month of March – as well as following Kalie’s, Nancy’s, and Jeff’s sites – to see which character everyone else chose to celebrate this year. Thank you, too, for taking this little journey down Memory Lane with me. If you’re curious, I am still taking my time and savoring my rewatch of Xena: Warrior Princess and I am loving each episode as much now as I did when I watched them in middle school. When it comes to heroic archetypes in my life, I’m lucky to have Xena among them.
Header pic from Screen Rant