I’ve been pretty effusive recently, and was all geared up to babble gleefully again about the MUSICAL episode that I just finished (!), but after revisiting this article (which I linked to a while ago) I wanted to see if I could put into words why I loved the show so much.
I think it really comes down to the fact that I don’t have to worry with Xena. Any time I watch something new, there’s this tension in me, this fear that it’s not going to be as good as I want it to be. The more I’m enjoying something, the more worried I get that it’s going to go sour. It doesn’t prevent me from enjoying things (even when they’re flawed), but it does cause me to be constantly analyzing what I’m seeing as I see it, which I enjoy, but which isn’t exactly relaxing.
So, for example, even though I enjoy Babylon 5, and it hasn’t had even a small slip of poor writing, I can’t quite let my guard down with it. I think that’s why I write so much more critically about B5 than about Xena– even though my verdict is basically always positive, I’m still evaluating it as I watch. It’s a little silly, but it’s necessary, because if I encounter something sexist when I’m not prepared for it, it hurts. I take it personally. Living in a patriarchy as lovely as ours, obviously I can’t be that sensitive all the time or I’ll go catatonic. So I learn not to get emotionally invested in things until after they’ve proven they’re not going to insult me (or until they’ve proven that they will, but in small, predictable ways, in which case I’ll leave the walls at the necessary level but at least I won’t have to worry if they’re at the right level.) It means that I can’t completely enjoy something until the second time I’ve seen it; the first time around, I’m still figuring out how nice it’s going to be to me.
With one exception: Xena has earned my complete trust. I can just watch it, no thinking, no wondering if I need to be on guard– just sit back and giggle at the jokes. It’s unbelievably fun, to see something safe and new. Every episode is just a bunch of pleasant surprises, one after the other– and if anything looks iffy, I can just say to myself, “it’ll surely be all right by the end of the episode,” and keep giggling along.
Of course, now the question is, why am I so confident in Xena? Part of it is simply that I’ve already seen three seasons of it by now; individual episodes are new, but the show’s core has already proven itself to me. But more than that, it’s a universe that’s just so full of women of every kind of personality and experience, any negative portrayal is balanced out by dozens of positives. (By negative portrayals, by the way, I don’t mean female villains– I mean female characters that aren’t fully-developed, and rely on sexist stereotypes. Which I’m not sure I’ve seen, actually, but if I did, it would be sufficiently balanced out by all the others.)
An example: in “Debt,” I was a little worried that Lao Ma was being glorified for being an excellent woman, rather than an excellent Daoist, given the ways that her philosophy overlapped with traditional “feminine” values, but ultimately decided that it was a ridiculous notion to think Xena was trying to make any kind of statement about “womanhood” as a universal. We love Xena and Gabrielle and Ephiny and all the others as individuals, and we love Lao Ma as an individual as well. Because they have beloved women who aren’t “perfectly feminine,” they can have one that is without making (or seeming to make) any unfortunate statements along the lines of “a good woman is nonviolent” or “a good woman doesn’t seek credit for her work.” These are traits of Lao Ma, not of Monolithic Femininity.
Another benefit of this surfeit of female characters: we can see many different definitions of femininity and value all of them. This is a distinct point from the one before– the female characters are varied as people, and they’re varied as women. Too often, as part of being a “strong woman,” the “woman” part is under-emphasized (or eliminated) to get across the “strong” part. But as Cathy Young says in the article that prompted all this thought, Xena was “unapologetically strong and unapologetically female.” And so is Gabrielle, in a completely different way. And Callisto. And Aphrodite. And Ephiny. And so on. They are female people, and neither trait is sacrificed to the other- a rare balance.
And even if there is some kind of exaggerated parody character– which Aphrodite very much is, and which several other women are at various points– the whole is balanced. For every woman who goes to an extreme, there are at least two perfectly ordinary women who show that it’s just a matter of that woman being a bit imbalanced. There are men around, in a variety of interesting roles, but that’s something easily found everywhere; Xena offers me a rare glimpse into a universe that, in its fundamentals, looks a lot like my utopia: women are people, and they are women, and nobody makes a big deal out of it.
All in all, it’s just icing on the cake that it’s also a damn good show.
(for more posts on Xena, look here!)