Why, exactly, I love Xena.

October 5, 2008

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!)


Xena: too much fun to analyze!

September 29, 2008

I’ve been out of it the last few days and watching Xena in the desperate hope that it’ll give me something to blog about, but even though it’s always a huge amount of fun, it rarely provides me good content for a critique.

So, just in order to write something, here’s a post about how much fun Xena has been recently!

First there was “Warrior…Priestess…Tramp” in which Lucy Lawless plays three characters: Xena; Meg, who runs a “tavern”; and Leah, a Hestian preistess, which is like a Vestal Virgin but Xena-ified. I love the episodes where Lawless plays several characters (there were a couple featuring Xena, Meg, and a princess named Diana a while back) since it always looks like she’s having so much fun. For an action hero, she really good at slapstick comedy; it’s great when she has less-serious characters to play with.

Actually, it feels a little like we’ve been taking a break since the highly painful (and totally serious) episodes about Gabrielle’s loss of blood innocence. A few episodes ago, we had Joxer’s actor playing two roles– Joxer and his successful assassin brother. It was another great romp, featuring a return of the King of Thieves (a hilarious character!) and Gina Torres (Zoe in Firefly/Serenity) as Cleopatra. (Yup, they cast an actual black woman as Cleopatra! I was pleased! Her assorted staff was pretty whitewashed, but she was perfect.) Also, many fantastic jokes at Joxer’s expense– my favourite kind!

Joxer: I’ve seen evil and I’ve changed my ways.

Jett (Joxer’s evil twin): Bro, if you saw evil, you’d have to change your PANTS.

Xena: Joxer, you can barely kill TIME.

So anyway, first we have two Joxers, then three Xenas– clearly it’s time for four Gabrielles!

And in “The Quill is Mightier,” that’s what we get! Well, sort of. Aphrodite charms Gabrielle’s scroll so that everything she writes come true, and you have the expected (and not-so-expected) consequences of that causing a great ruckus for the rest of the episode. Gabrielle started by writing Xena out of the story, “on a fishing trip,” so she could fight off five barbarians on her own, in a fantastic over-the-top sequence that culminates in her saving Joxer by doing eight back-flips over to him, then repelling the barbarian’s descending sword with her rock-hard abs. No, really– it goes flying into the air. (Joxer asks: “Are you wearing something under that?”) Joxer, of course, drives Gabrielle crazy, so why is he there? Simple: the scroll is frustratingly literal, and she began her story with “Gabrielle awoke with a jerk.”

Now, this is more of our one Gabrielle than we usually see, and it’s a great relief to see that she’s very much herself (there’s something fun about the Xena-free episodes, since every problem starts needing absurdly complex solutions.) But where are the other three Gabrielles?

They’re Joxer’s fault. He asks mortalized-Aphrodite (long story) about “his friend” who’s in love with a girl, and she brushes him off with the standard answer of “poetry, then presents.” So he writes her a limerick! On her magic scroll! About “love’s eyes seeing three times–what rhymes with ‘Aphrodite’?”

And lo, three naked, dancing Gabrielles appear behind him! I actually really enjoyed them– they made the most ridiculous faces and noises, and the dancing was more like spasmatic wriggling than an actual sexy dance, so that it was more of parody of objectification than actual objectification. They get hustled off “to the caves!” like everyone else that Gabrielle needs to get out of the way, but they add a delightful hint of the truly absurd to the slapstick running-around that ends the show.

Well, that’s not quite where it ends– after everybody’s run off, Xena returns from her fishing trip with an entire cart full of exotic sea life, which she uses to fight off an army as Gabrielle records her every action in order to break the spell. Xena uses an eel eating its tail as a chakram, pierces a soldier’s helmet with a swordfish, and blinds a man by throwing an octopus on his face. And all returns to normal.

Man, no wonder Xena always makes me happy.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)

Lesbians in science fiction: give me more!

September 22, 2008

Earlier, while talking about the possibility of a relationship between Talia and Ivanova in Babylon 5, I commented,

I tend to err on the side of lesbians. Otherwise there aren’t enough.

In other words, when there is subtext that makes a lesbian relationship plausible, even if it’s never stated by the text, I will take that wiggle room and assume that the relationship is there. I’ve talked before about how this holds true for Xena, but I find that I do it a lot. Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were pretty much official, in my mind, and after Talia spent the night in Ivanova’s room (and her bed), I believed in them as well. All it takes is a close relationship between two women, and I’ll take the chance to slip myself in.

What’s odd is that there are so few close friendship between two women for me to read into in the first place. I mean, even in the stuff with huge casts– Harry Potter? Hermione and Ginny speak, on occassion, but that’s it. Lord of the Rings? It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. Can you believe that? Nine hours and it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test! I tried looking at my bookcase to find more examples, and even though I’ve got a lot of kick-ass women, they’re all in relationships with men; the few that are single (even if temporarily) are always surrounded by male friends. It’s no wonder that I started settling for imaginary lesbians years ago.

Even my very favourite sci fi author, Lois McMaster Bujold, who has included every other letter in the acronym, has managed to forget the L. I was surprised to realize this, since she had a recurring hermaphrodite character (ah, the future!) as well as an entire novel from the viewpoint of a gay man. But nope, no lesbians!

In fact, the only lesbians I have on my bookshelf are Rosethorn and Lark (bisexual, but together) and Daja (totally out!!) from Tamora Pierce’s books. They’re awesome (!!!), but written for young teens, and while I still enjoy them, they’re an afternoon’s light read and not really up to the task of being my Only Lesbians.

Ooh, also: Trouble and Her Friends. It’s and OLD cyberpunk book that I stumbled upon in my Gender and Cyberculture class, and it’s all about this group of hackers who banded together because they were gay (an impulse I totally get). I don’t want to spoil it, but it doesn’t end with with death for our main lesbian couple, unlike a lot of lesbian love stories (see: Battlestar Galactica. Well, actually, don’t; I don’t like that show much at all.)

Originally, I wanted to talk about how I always play as a boy in Harvest Moon, so that I can give myself a feminine name and marry the girls, and just pretend to be a butch lesbian, but instead I’m going to leave this as a desperate attempt to think of excellent female characters who loved other excellent female characters. If you can think of any, whether they’re Officially gay or not, please let me know! I finally have some gay friends now, but it gets a little lonely sometimes, in the world of science fiction.

Xena, “Debt,” Lao Ma, and feminine virtues.

September 19, 2008

I just finished a two-episode storyline from season 3, in which Xena travels to “the Empire of Chin” in order to repay a debt to an “old friend.” It’s a beautifully-done storyline showing Xena in her rougher days, and what started her on her journey to her new self. But as much as I adored Xena’s “old friend” Lao Ma, I was left wondering what it meant that her Taoist values just happened to coincide with a lot of “virtues” that silence women.

Some explanation: Lao Ma is supremely kick-ass; she’s physics-defying Jiao Long levels of kick-ass. She can throw people across the room with a gesture. She explodes vases with her mind. She can fly! KICK. ASS.

She achieves these feats through a zen-like transcendence of the Matrix worldly realm.

Lao Ma: The entire world is driven by a will – blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world, you need to stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating.
Xena: How do I do that?
Lao Ma: Heaven endures, and the Earth lasts a long time, because they do not live for themselves. Therefore, she who would live a long time, should live for others, serve others.

She then goes on to say that you cannot achieve this by serving those you love– it is easy to serve them, since you hope it will make them love you more; it is like a good business investment. Instead you must serve those whom you hate. Under Lao Ma’s guidance, Xena serves Lao’s rival, the man who had recently hunted her for sport (well, as revenge for her kidnapping his son…it’s a delightfully complicated story). Short version: Lao Ma wants to form an alliance between her house, her rival’s house, and Xena’s former partner-in-crime (important because of his huge army and his quest to conquer Chin), and she makes Xena integral to the alliance. Her hope is that Xena will learn to put aside her hatred, her desires, her very will, and that the whole Empire will live in peace.

Instead, Xena murders the head of the rival’s house, and nearly kills his son (who is also Lao Ma’s son). The little boy becomes a tyrant, ruling in fear and ultimately executing Lao Ma. (This is why Xena’s back there– Lao Ma’s dying request was to tell Xena that “the green dragon [her son] has grown too large,” and Xena sets off to kill him.)

I’m making a muddle of this, and you really ought to watch the episodes yourself, if you haven’t already. Here’s the thing: the source of Lao Ma’s awe-inspiring power is her ability to completely negate her self. She keeps her husband– a cruel tyrant– in a coma, ruling in his stead because “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. What matters is that good is done.” She says it is her gift to him– he was a terrible ruler, but by ruling in his name, she ensures he will be known for having a great kingdom. She is also writing down her wisdom, also in her husband’s name, because, again, she is beyond such petty desires as “recognition.” Her husband is Lao Tzu.

Yes, that Lao Tzu. The founder of Taoism.

In other words, here we have a supremely intelligent, powerful woman who is the brain behind a great philosophy, but she refuses to own her own experience, to even make it possible for people to credit her. And I found myself wondering, is it because she’s such an awesome Taoist, or because she’s such an awesome Obliging Oriental Wife?

Because not taking credit for one’s rightful work is a female thing to do; self-sacrifice is practically expected of women; pacifism is distinctly feminized in a lot of political discourse…and it’s still enforced in society today, with the always-looming spectre of being a “shrew” or a “nag” or a “bitch” or just “selfish” keeping a lot of women in line. I mean, it works on me, too– I get a nice, soft, friendly voice when I talk on the phone, I buffer all my criticisms with a compliment before and after, I phrase my suggestions as questions. More than once, I’ve declined to insist upon credit, being happy just that the work was being done well. It’s a habit I’m fighting, but it’s a habit I have to fight.

What complicates this observation is, of course, the fact that all this non-aggression and selflessness is also a very Taoist way to behave. I’m not aware of Taoism being particularly gendered in terms of requiring these traits from its followers– after all, in every universe but Xena’s, it was created by a man. And they’re all principles I agree with. So I can’t say “this perpetuates the idea that women are less important than men, by demanding that they sacrifice their own desires for the ‘greater good’ of mankind!” Because I think, really, it’s trying to get across the idea that hatred is counter-productive, and that all people must learn to serve others before themselves.

Ultimately, I do think Lao Ma’s just a really excellent Taoist, nothing nefarious going on. It’s clear that she intends her teachings to be universal human values, and that they are to be respected. This one line really clinches it for me– Lao Ma repeats it twice, and it’s the line that gives Xena the power to finally break free at the end, and avoid her execution.

Lao Ma: To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the way.

I’d say that’s Taoist, all the way.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)

Xena, “The Deliverer” and “Gabrielle’s Hope,” and the loss of innocence.

September 10, 2008

Gabrielle’s innocence has been a key part of Xena throughout seasons 1 and 2. Gabrielle doesn’t kill people. Gabrielle tries to prevent other people from killing people. Gabrielle seeks good and justice for all people and in all situations. And, I think, Gabrielle’s innocence keeps Xena on the straight-and-narrow even as Xena does kill people, by checking Xena’s violent impulses at times and always pushing for nonviolent solutions. It’s a yin-yang situation, and it was pretty firmly entrenched by the time I got to season 3, disc 2.

And then, in “The Deliverer” Gabrielle committed murder.

It was a surprisingly powerful moment, really well-done, and I was nearly in tears. And I’m still impressed by it. First, because the show handled the shift from light-hearted to deathly-serious without being cheesy about it (well, cheesier than normal, anyway). And second, because the change was permanent.

I actually spent most of the rest of the show waiting for time to be undone, somehow, to restore the status quo, like it did the last time Gabrielle shed blood (in a “Wonderful Life” episode where Xena wishes she was never born– she takes back the wish, and undoes the timeline in which Gabrielle suffers.) I expected Gabrielle’s innocence to be like Dr. House’s misanthropy, or Mr. Monk’s OCD– without it, the show falls apart, and so the stories will always work to restore the status quo within a few episodes. House will never find happiness, and Monk will never find normalcy. But Gabrielle committed murder.

To a certain extent, I almost feel like it shouldn’t “count” as murder– a large group of people manipulated her and her situation until it was necessary for her to survive. But her innocence was gone regardless, so I suppose it stands.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed analogous to rape, rather than murder. Outsiders forcing a loss of innocence, the blood, the shock, the lingering impact…the guilt, that she shouldn’t have gone with them alone, Xena’s guilt, that she should have protected Gabrielle better…the fact that the act impregnated Gabrielle only made the parallel that much stronger.

Gabrielle’s reaction to her hell-baby was also interesting. She knew it could only be the child of Dehak– the god of ultimate evil– because, well, she hadn’t slept with any human men lately, and, oh yeah, it only needed to gestate for a day. And yet she insisted that the child was her daughter, and was not evil. It makes sense, in light of her loss of innocence– an attempt to reaffirm her control over her own life, and to find some positive outcome from the terrible ordeal.

And yet, I’ve always had trouble sympathizing with innocent Gabrielle. She’s never annoyed me, but sometimes her moralizing seemed overly simplistic. And here as well, my first reaction to the pregnancy was, “They’d better figure out how to abort right away so they don’t have to kill something that looks like a baby.” Once she was born, and looked human enough, I was willing to sympathize with Gabrielle’s sentiment that the while was half-human, and therefore had the potential for good– but it was only a few minutes before the toddler killed one of her keepers, and I was back on the side of infanticide.

And I really, really cannot condone Gabrielle’s decision to send the girl off in a basket, and pretend to Xena that she was dead. I think if anyone could’ve raised her to be good against her nature, Gabrielle could have– but it’s not a task to leave to complete strangers who won’t even know of the danger. I think this is going to be a decision that will come back to haunt her, when the girl returns as a woman and a force to be reckoned with.

But even though I cannot agree with her reasoning, ever since that moment when her innocence was taken from her, I have sympathized with her emotions, to the point where I would say, it was good for Gabrielle’s piece of mind, and helped her recover from the shock and attempt to reclaim herself, so it couldn’t have been all bad.

And besides, Xena can kick the kid’s ass later.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)

Xena, “The Dirty Half Dozen”, and angry feminists.

August 28, 2008

Xena added four former partners-in-crime to her team (so that they totaled a half-dozen) for this season 3 episode: three men and one woman who could be called an angry feminist.

It’s not uncommon for shows to have an episode with a “feminist,” though usually these episodes enrage me, because they tend to completely miss the point of feminism, and the “happy ending” is that the feminist no longer hates men.

This episode was…okay. Glaphyra, the “feminist,” does miss the point of feminism, hating men more than
fighting for equality. And she does “reform” by the end of the episode. But it works.

For one thing, it’s not that she learns that men are wonderful and she shouldn’t be mistrustful– all she learns is that a bit of kindness and forgiveness is warranted for all people. She stops capturing men and selling them into brutal slavery as a punishment for the evils of their sex– but she’s not a patriarchy cheerleader.

For another, she’s learning her lesson from two other women who are fighting the same fight. Xena has to tell her that despite appearances, Gabrielle is the stronger one– it’s Gabrielle’s goodness that has changed Xena and caused her to reform. “Don’t make such a big deal about the patriarchy” is a hard lesson to swallow, but it’s easier when it comes from two women who spend a lot of time kicking men’s asses and saving women from the ill effects of patriarchy.

Plus, it’s heavily implied that Glaphyra has suffered pretty atrociously at men’s hands in the past, and so her anger is not irrational. It’s merely disruptive to her own peace of mind. Glaphyra isn’t who she is “just because”– she suffered, and Evil Xena brought her from her suffering and taught her to fight, and she used those skills for revenge because she couldn’t think of any other way to go. It’s not her fault– even Xena didn’t think another way was possible at the time.

Letting Glaphyra be a fully-realized person, instead of a strawfeminist, and letting the lesson be “don’t let hatred rule your life,” rather than, “the patriarchy is awesome,” went a long way towards making this episode palatable to me. There’s a small part of me that thinks it was written to reassure men who thought Xena was a little too self-reliant, but even so, feminism isn’t about hating all men for the terrible things the patriarchy encourages them to do. It’s about…well, a lot of things, but one of them is allowing women to live their lives unapologetically. Which is what Glaphyra does at the end– sure, she goes off with a man, but not because she was wrong to mistrust men– because this one has earned her trust.

Plus, unlike in every other ensemble of one-shot sidekicks, the woman wasn’t the first to die! Nor was the man with the black dreadlocks! It was the old white guy who died first! And yeah, this still left another white guy to live on happily, but I had gotten used to predicting, based on gender and ethnicity, who would die first– and I’m usually right.

All in all, a happy ending.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)

More Xena; also, thoughts on pregnant heroes

August 9, 2008

I stumbled across this 2005 article about Xena and it’s definitely worth a look: What We Owe Xena.

I’ve also been reading a few articles about Fable 2, in which it will finally be possible to play a female character, and in which “the woman you impregnate might be yourself” (according to Mighty Ponygirl.)

So, it started me thinking to see the following in the talk about Xena:

Yet while she pushed the limits of how much like a male hero a heroine could be, Xena was the first and probably is still the only action heroine who was also a mother — not counting warrior moms who fought only to protect their young, like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2.” She was, safe to say, the only one who gave birth and breast-fed onscreen.

I haven’t made it nearly this far in the show yet, but I can’t wait to see how it’s done. It’s always bothered me the way that adventure shows, movies, and games have acted like motherhood is completely incompatible with heroism.

Harvest Moon 3 (a farming game for the Gameboy Color from my childhood) gave you the choice of a male or female character, with the other gender as your partner and eventual spouse, but if you chose the female, your game would end as soon as the two of you got married. If you chose the male, you could get married and have a child, and keep playing for years, but somehow this was impossible for the female. Now, there may have been technical limitations for the game– it was really old– but as far as I know the later incarnations have the same problems, even though the male and female characters each have their own games.

This also makes me think of the Pirates of the Caribbean, where, at the very end (spoilers?), we see Elizabeth in a boring dress, waiting for Will with their son. The way they’re dressed, and the way they behave, they look like they’ve been sitting around in town the whole ten years! Elizabeth was a pirate king for goodness’ sake!

And her adventure just has to end because she gets pregnant? (And seriously, why does she have to get pregnant after the very first time she has sex? It’s possible, but kind of unlikely.)

It seems to me that there’s a pattern, wherein female stories end with marriage and children, but male stories can continue on even with those elements.

I suppose it’s an old fairy-tale narrative– girl has adventures, grows up, and gets married, The End; then, at the start of the next story, the mother dies tragically. After marriage, the stories stop. Certainly by the time there’s a child, the stories stop. We’ve been doing this for a long time, but it only gets more annoying.

Look, children aren’t the end of stories! They are beginnings. And they certainly don’t nail a woman’s (bare) feet to the (kitchen) floor for the rest of her life. Yes, pregnancy can be an awkward condition, and yes, children require care, but it doesn’t kill the mother any more than it kills the father.

In Harvest Moon: why not show the character getting larger over the appropriate number of seasons, give us the little cutscene we always get about the baby being born, and then hand the kid over to the father. He can stay in the house repeating the same three pre-scripted observation that the wives in HM always do. If that’s too “unmotherly” you can make it so the baby needs to be “fed” twice a day or some such (have her turn her back to us and breastfeed, or just get a bottle) and let the female character get on with her life– a life which now includes, but is not defined by, a child.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: there’s nothing wrong with dressing up to meet your husband for the first time. If you absolutely have to have her show up with his kid, start by showing them on her ship, returning from a successful journey, hurrying to look “presentable” before Will gets back. It could easily be a funny, lively, sweet scene– have them still cleaning up spots of blood or hiding tattoos or removing tell-tale jewelry up until the last second– and it would let us get to know the son better. More importantly, it would tell us what Elizabeth’s been doing for the last ten years! Motherhood is important but it doesn’t actually consume all of a woman’s time.

A female hero’s story doesn’t end when she gets married– the person doesn’t end when she gets married– and even though this is something that our current story-tellers are still unable to grasp, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Xena has already gotten it right and proven them all wrong.

I can’t wait to see.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)