Piercing blue eyes. Leather bustier with scary brass bits on. Knee-high boots. A fringe to die for. Assorted weaponry: sword, javelin, discuss....Heavy Californian accent. An elfin girlie side-kick who's alternately helpless and extremely violent, but who's still virgin enough to approach unicorns. The heroine of Xena: Warrior Princess manages at once to be sex symbol, dyke dream date and feminist icon. She's part cartoon character, part mother figure, part mythological figure and part surfer.
Busty Lucy 'Xena' Lawless and ingenue pal Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) burst on-screen in 1995, in an eponymous episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. But Xena: Warrior Princess seems less an offshoot of Herc and a more direct descendant of Seventies telly Amazon princess, Diana Prince, otherwise known as Wonder Woman. Lucky for us Lawless has got nicer legs than Lynda Carter, and fills out the front of her Xena costume far better than Carter ever did that blue satin.
The sudden explosion of historical yet hysterical shows with 'modern' mokes and 'ancient' production design Xena, Hercules may well be in direct response to the explosion of the other kind of science fiction, the Babylon 5s and the Star Trek Voyager 9s. Print science fiction boasts if anything more swashbuckling Dungeons & Dragons-style fairy tales set in ye older times than it does cyberpunk or even trad political philosophy thinly veiled in science. Xena: Warrior Princess could be the anachronistic answer to La Femme Nikita.
Whatever its genesis, Xena juxtaposes multiple cultural influences: the world of ancient Greek mythology Xena's often to be seen battling minor gods gone bad, Titans, the odd Cyclops, et cetera contemporary American TV humour, such as it is, and even an Arabic ululation, on which Xena's battle cry is loosely based. The scripts abound with mythic literary references alongside attempts at modern repartee 'I've got a bad feeling about this' so heinous viewers inevitably groan, roll their eyes and ejaculate, 'Someone got paid to write this shit?'.
But we watch because, despite Xena's constant battle with her own dark and nefarious past, the endings are inevitably happy, the guy always gets the girl unless, of course, it's Gabrielle he's after. And watch her we do in droves. Viewer figures for the third series of Xena: Warrior Princess, currently airing on Channel 5 on Saturday evenings, are somewhere between 1.25 to 1.3 million, or just over five per cent of viewers, from 1.15 million (4.7 per cent) for the previous series.
It's not all happy endings Xenaville. The show is unremittingly violent, perhaps unsurprising when you think the executive producer Lawless isn't married to is Sam Raimi, the man who directed The Evil Dead, the ultimate experience in gruelling schlock horror the infamous low budget early Eighties horror flick in which a girl in white nightie wanders out into the woods and gets raped by a tree for her pains.
But Xena is fully kitted out for violent behaviour: in addition to her weaponry, her leather merry widow gives her plenty of legroom. 'It's perfect for fighting,' Lawless said of it in a recent interview. 'There's no other outfit as well designed as this one for high kicks.' You can't really imagine Xena being asked to do anything too unspeakable; Lawless is married to the show's other executive producer, Robert Tapert (who also produces Hercules: The Legendary Journeys).
It's easy to forget if you've only recently begun watching the show that Xena has a past so murky she makes Hitler look like Saint Francis of Assisi. Her own official fan mag describes her in her early days as a 'vicious warlord'. She was introduced in an episode of Hercules in which she attempts to kill Herc for the territory he holds, and while she's about it, seduces Herc's best friend Iolaus in an attempt to drive the men apart.
One of Xena's main scriptwriters, R.J.Stewart, recently told the official Xena fan mag, 'The great thing about Xena was that dark past. I realised right away that there'd never been a hero on television who had such a dark past. Xena was . . . a war criminal. She was a monster.' He wrote the pilot episode, where Xena 'converts' to good, symbolised by burying her weapons. Well, you know what they say about reformed smokers.... 'The biggest monster Xena ever fights is the one inside of her,' adds Stewart.
Perhaps it's her ability to live with her own internal contradicitions that makes Xena so likeable. She manages to appeal simultaneously to straight women, embodying strength, outspokenness and independence; straight men for her rather more obvious charms; and to lesbians. Where Wonder Woman might have had a glancing attraction for lesbians, WW's closest contact was with her partner in crime fighting and main squeeze Steve Trevor; Xena mainly hangs out with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle is Xena's thing, perhaps in every sense of the expression. She's Xena's creature, certainly. She's the one weapon or possession, even without which Xena never appears. And she's Xena's bag, Xena's cup of tea, definitely.
Lovers, or just good friends? You decide. 'Xena and Gabrielle are the best of mates, and whether they have a sexual relationship is kind of their own business,' opined Rob Tapert somewhat piously in issue one of the official Xena mag. But an awful lot of the Xena 'fan fiction' you can read on the internet appears on sites like Sapphic Voices: Lesbian Fiction and Poetry Online.
It's understandable that lesbians would like Xena; she's gorgeous, buff, a snappy dresser, able to defend herself and others, and has an attitude on her that makes The A-Team's Sergeant Bosco 'BA' Baracus look mild-mannered. Lucy Lawless or Ellen de Generes? It's a no-brainer.
Xena's appeal to the straight community as a bona fide sex symbol also does not go ignored online. You can view Xena portraits created by some of her more virulently obsessive fans on a site called, appropriately, Obsession. Much of this is done in a sort of animé style: bluer than blue eyes and a bust more pneumatic than a bicycle tyre.
Xena has become so popular that Lawless can no longer answer all her fan mail herself. 'If I handled it personally, I'd become Xena: The Letter Writer, not Xena: Warrior Princess.' Not unnaturally, the warrior princess has spawned innumerable fanzine-esque websites; unofficial Xena pages such as Amphipolis Village appear to take up half the web (and many look as good, or better than, the official site).
As much as the warrior princess integrates
many and varied influences, Xena's influence has spread far beyond pop
culture, even unto literary and academic circles. Universities attract
students using courses with 'Xena' in the title. And the fan fiction you
can read online is nigh endless, at The
Athenaeum, for example, or Shadowfen.
Not the first instance of a single badly written television program creating
massive waves in Western culture, then, but perhaps the most intriguingly