XenaTV’s Ultimate Warrior Princess

In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero, She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage will change the world.
—Xena : Warrior Princess, opening credits

Who knew that a campy, syndicated TV show would start a revolution in the mid-1990s and transform TV heroines into tough action figures? Xena, in her trademark breastplate and leather skirt, proved that a woman could be sexy and strong on screen, as well as smart and complex. Best of all, she could kick ancient ass and beat some serious evil with well-choreographed stunts and an arsenal of fierce weapons. The character of Xena took on all the traits of the archetypal male hero, save for the radical individualism that leads men to act as lone agents of change. Instead, she stayed directly in touch with her community of female friends, proving that a hero can draw additional strength from her emotional bonds.

A still from “Ties That Bind” female friends often aid Xena in her heroic feats.

Xena: Warrior Princess aired for six seasons and outrated most other syndicated shows at the time. The warlord-turned-warrior princess’s popularity among viewers demonstrated the audience appeal of female action heroes and paved the way for other TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias. Though the show ended in 2001, the characters live on with fans in cultish devotion via websites, blogs and conventions. Xena remains synonymous with a fearless, capable woman who thrives in traditionally male roles.

 This Hero’s a Her

Xena: Warrior Princess debuted in September 1995 as a spin-off of another popular syndicated show, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. Like Xena, Hercules is set in a loose mythological past, just before the dawn of Christianity. On Hercules, Xena served as the hero’s nemesis, a vicious, bloodthirsty warlord responsible for the destruction of many villages and countless deaths. In short, she’s hardly a candidate for the heroine-of-the-month club. The character was so well-received by Hercules viewers that producers decided she should have her own show.

In order to make the new series work, Xena experiences a spiritual rebirth from outlaw killer to warrior princess in the storyline. This transformation makes her newfound heroism even more dramatic as her past often returns to haunt her. Many of the villains she confronts are the result of this former warlord’s misdeeds, giving Xena’s battles more depth than the normal one-dimensional battle of good versus evil.

Xena was made all the more compelling by the actress chosen to portray her. New Zealander Lucy Lawless was no damsel in distress: Tall, fit, with a commanding presence and piercing blue eyes, Lawless was every inch the action star.

 Fight Like a Girl

Steer clear! Xena throws her favorite weapon, the chakram.

For Xena’s fighting style, the show’s executive producers, Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and R.J. Stewart, turned to Asian martial arts films for inspiration, especially Hong Kong’s stylish The Bride With White Hair (1993). Not simply relying on brute strength, though she has plenty to spare, Xena regularly runs up walls, back-flips onto her horse and defies gravity in leaps and bounds to defeat her opponents. Six stunt doubles were required per show to execute all the athletic stunts, including specialists in fighting, riding and acrobatics.

Xena’s primary weapon is her trademark chakram, a metal ring that she tosses with perfect aim. The device can cut straight through an enemy, then ricochet off walls and rocks and trees to find its way flawlessly back into her grasp.

 A Loose Timeline

Though the show’s primary source material is Greek mythology, Xena storylines traverse historical eras and freely mix elements of fantasy with ancient history. The chronology is loose, to say the least, as characters include Amazons, Olympian gods, Julius Caesar, Lao Tzu, Boudica and Beowulf, just to mention a few.

Though the geography and chronology of the Xenaverse is ambiguous, the shooting location was not: The show was shot entirely in New Zealand. In fact, when the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited New Zealand, she remarked, “One of my role models, Xena the Warrior Princess, comes from here.”

 Are They or Aren’t They?

Xena and Gabrielle: Close, but how close?

The most discussed and controversial element of the series is the nature of the relationship between Xena and her best gal pal, Gabrielle, played by actress René O’Connor. Audiences quickly picked up on a subtext of a growing love between the women, and the show developed a cult following among lesbians–gay bars across the United States featured Xena theme nights. Though the storyline never stated outright that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers, over the years the subtext of romantic love between the two characters became more overt. When questioned, the producers and cast would usually respond with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” boilerplate and state that they welcomed all of Xena’s fans. While not nearly as radical as Buffy the Vampire Slayer in terms of portraying lesbian romance, Xena made it clear that Gabrielle is more than just a best friend.

After six seasons, Xena: Warrior Princess ended its run in 2001. The successful show was felled not by poor ratings but economic realities and the changing landscape of television. Though one of the top-rated syndicated dramas, the show’s budget exceeded more than a million dollars per episode, which made it cost-prohibitive to continue. Also, larger networks were acquiring many independent television stations, resulting in fewer outlets for first-run syndication.

Many fans were disappointed with the series’ end. The storyline wrapped with Xena sacrificing her life to atone for a past crime. The heroine puts down her sword and allows herself to be perforated by arrows. For fans, it was no way for a warrior princess to die. Instead, they hold tight to the notion that Xena will soon reemerge, reborn on the silver screen as a feature film. Whether or not she reprises her role as legendary ass-kicker, one thing is certain: Xena cleared the way for a whole host of empowered women on TV.

:: Toby Book

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