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.