Xena: Making Men Incidental

I warned you guys a Xena article might be next, and here it is.

LadyKate posted in the forum here recently a link to an article she wrote for Salon.com on why Xena really needs to be recognized as an innovation in the portrayal of women in TV. It’s great reading, and it got me thinking about something I’ve been struggling to put into words for a while. You don’t have to like the show, or even think it’s very good (there are certainly things I dislike about it as a matter of personal preference), but it broke some ground that Buffy et al never even set foot on. I think some analysis is merited here.

One of its many great accomplishments was reducing men to the status of props and plot devices. Yep, you read me right. After all, it’s been done to women since the beginning of TV. Equality’s nice and everything, but you don’t get there without fighting fire with fire. And Xena is the only show I know of that’s managed this.

In most shows, if you watch carefully, men are riveted to other men. It’s to other men they listen, with other men they rival, it’s other men who push their buttons, save their bacon, earn their respect or hostility. Women are just props in the scene. When women demand answers or to be listened to, the men regard them much like a pet dog whose barking reminds them they’d better put out some food before dashing off to their important job, where they will listen to, speak to, and take interest in other men all day long. Here, honey, have some Alpo and shut the hell up so I can go be a man at men all day.

By the fifth season, Xena created a world in which the men were far more likely to be incidental than the women. Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, the Amazons, etc., tended to talk around the men to each other. In numerous scenes, they listen blank-faced to some data a man-unit is spouting at them, then without even acknowledging him, turn to each other for opinions and analysis. When at last he demands some sort of inclusion, he might get a glance over the shoulder and an order issued in a tone that suggests the woman expects to be obeyed, but won’t waste her time on him if he ignores her advice.

Xena is the first and only “world” I’ve seen where men were incidental. Buffy’s men generally got the same attention as the women, which is probably the longterm ideal – both genders equal. Sydney Bristow is surrounded by men she takes seriously, even though she is very much her own woman. And all of that’s good stuff… but I feel we really need a couple more shows where men are left spouting, “But, but, but how dare you take me for granted!” to the backside of a woman who’s not even hearing them.

I suspect we’re so inured to seeing women characters (and real live women) treated this way that it doesn’t occur to us to complain. I watched Xena years ago, but it wasn’t until I watched all the DVD’s straight through a few months ago that I realized they’d reversed the “Are you still here?” body language that’s usually reserved for male characters dealing with female.

As an aside, this did not prevent Xena from having some of the most memorable male characters I’ve ever enjoyed on a show. It just meant that even the great male characters had to get in line for attention behind all the other women in a given scene and wait their turn.

Welcome to our world.


  1. says

    Hey BetaCandy!

    Love your Xena articles, but not sure I agree with this one.

    I agree that the show appears female-centered because it was not really an ensemble show like Buffy — Xena and Gabrielle were definitely at the center, and all the rest were supporting characters. But I would say that among the supporting characters, men and women on XENA were quite equal. I’d say the three most important supporting characters were Callisto, Joxer, and Ares — one woman, two men. (Well, Ares is a god, technicaly. But still male. Eli, Borias, Caesar and Brutus were pretty important as well.

    I also didn’t see Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto etc. “talking past” men, or taking men any less seriously than they took women. I think it’s a matter of the importance of the characters and their bonds to each other, not of gender. For instance, Xena and Gab clearly had a special bond that often seemed to exclude everyone else around them — but I would argue that Xena and Ares, for instance, also had a special connection where it was clear that they understood and related to each other on a level that the others around them just didn’t “get.” (A good example of that are the scenes in “Succession” with Xena, Ares and Mavican, where it’s quite clear that Mavican is the incidental character and Xena and Ares are talking and relating right past her.)

    IMO, the revolutionary thing about Xenaverse is not that it made men less important — it’s that gender really didn’t matter.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    My intent was not so much to contrast how Xena treated men with how she treated women: I was contrasting how Xena treated men with how other shows treat men.

    On most shows, even the most useless of men can expect a polite, diplomatic audience from women, and even the most useful woman will have trouble making herself heard by men.

    The women on Xena were too practical to simply invert the stereotype, thereby missing out on any contribution any man might have made. But it was the first and only show I’ve seen where a man had to prove himself useful before he could be taken even semi-seriously.

  3. says

    Interesting point — I guess I don’t watch other shows enough to be struck by that! (Lucky me. *lol*)

    This would make for a really interesting discussion on our board; I hope you don’t mind if you repost the article there, and I hope you’ll come over to participate, as well (I’ve approved your membership).

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