When Xena: Warrior Princess debuted in 1995, a spin-off from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, I doubt anyone in the industry expected a five-year-run. More importantly, I doubt they expected it to influence TV as much as it did. Both shows tapped into something audiences didn’t know they wanted to see until they saw it: irreverent, exciting, sort of campy fun. And once they’d seen it on syndication on USA, or wherever they managed to catch the fairly obscure shows, audiences were prepared to prove they’d watch it on broadcast prime time, too.
This is a great example of an untapped demographic. For years, they’d been offering us oranges or apples when it came to women on TV, and we’d been wearily choosing one or the other, not finding either very filling. Xena was a nice entree with a chocolate dessert, and the demographics guys sat back in their spinny office chairs, muttering, “But we have reams of data proving you like your women lighter and less filling. Are you doing this just to make our jobs harder?”
That’s not to say Xena is the perfect female character (which is a subjective choice, anyway). But she broke barriers and stereotypes, and without her successful run in the no-man’s land of “straight to syndication”, I seriously doubt you ever would have seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reformatted as the drama creator Joss Whedon originally intended. (The original Buffy film was a comedic satire, and a once-off – to make the studio back Buffy as a serious drama, I do believe the success of Xena was required.)
At the center of Xena was… well, Xena, a former rape-and-pillage type of warrior , once bent on glory, power and riches. She’s reformed now, and using her considerable abilities to serve good. But serving good doesn’t always mean being nice: Xena, like a number of male heroes in TV’s past, is willing to commit heinous acts to defend righteousness, no matter the cost to her soul. She can also kick the asses of any thirty men you throw at her, sometimes bare-handed. Yeah, it’s a bit over-the-top, but that’s part of the charm. And even though her traveling hero lifestyle doesn’t present a lot of opportunity for relationships, she has some romantic and sexual encounters on her own terms, never putting them ahead of her quest.
But it wasn’t just Xena, just as it wasn’t just Buffy: the ensemble, and even the guest characters on Xena tended to be more capable than their counterparts on broadcast shows. Whenever Xena went to save a village from a warlord, the women of the village also fought, as untrained but sensible and courageous individuals. You know – like it happens in real life. The show did allow for the occasional simpering fool or scheming vixen, but those roles fell to male characters at least as often. Most importantly, within the context of the show, the characters never felt as if they’d been forced into a mold. They were the way they were because that’s how some people are – not because the producers have severe issues with women and are using the script as a passive aggressive tool to burn off their frustration.
Xena’s sidekick, Gabrielle, changed dramatically over the course of the series, starting as a bumbling, boy crazy girl who worshipped Xena, and maturing into a capable fighter who related to Xena on an adult level. Interestingly, a lot of people – myself included – never really liked Gabrielle, even after she grew up. Some of us found her too self-important, others felt she’d betrayed Xena at a couple of points and they’d never trust her again. But the script never tried to direct us to like Gabrielle: her mistakes were presented as mistakes, and her flaws were just there, as they are in real people in real life. For that matter, there was plenty of room not to like Xena, and still enjoy the show.
That’s the trick – giving us room to respond to the characters as we see fit, and not necessarily what the producers were hoping for. That’s how real life works – put the same attitude on film, and people believe in your characters.
After Xena had successfully kicked ass against a mythological backdrop for a couple of years, Fox studios was prepared to try out Joss Whedon’s original, more serious vision of a valley girl destined to save the world from vampires. Like Xena, Buffy’s backdrop was a world of mythology and her powers were over-the-top. More importantly, all of the characters appeared to fit into neat little stereotypical pigeonholes at first, but as we got to know them, we came to understand why they limited themselves, and how they could break out of their own self-perpetuating roles, if they so chose. And isn’t that what adolescence is all about? Finding your own way, or letting other people shove you into a neatly labelled box? (I have a lot more to say on this, but I think I’ll save it for a full Buffy article).
I’m re-watching Xena on DVD currently, to make sure my memory is intact. I’m currently on Season 2. Just wanted to document that in case it turns out something went horribly wrong in later seasons, and I just haven’t seen it yet.