Fantasy Types and Genres in Alternative Fan Fiction

CONTENTS

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On the path of Gabrielle's Staff I look at the fantasy themes associated with the social and cultural activity of reading and writing alternative fan fiction. The path of Xena's Sword explores the fantasy themes that run through the stories themselves, introducing new fantasy theme characters and settings to include the imaginative landscape created by the Xenaverse bards in close collaboration with their readers. In this node I want to examine fantasy theme actions that establish fantasy types that become known as story genres in the Xenaverse. I should also add that in this section I am indebted to an article on "The Xena Fan Fic Experience" written by Lunacy for the Xena Media Review, as well as to the generous help Lunacy has given in several of our private electronic conversations. Lunacy is without a doubt THE fan fiction expert in the Xenaverse. I know of no one who keeps a more rigorous schedule of reading and reviewing Xenaverse fan fiction than Lunacy.

 

 

 

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While some story genres in the Xenaverse echo story genres found in Star Trek fan fiction, there are some unique features in Xenaverse fan fiction that bear noting here. Camille Bacon-Smith lists common Star Trek story genres as "Mary Sue stories" (a young ingénue saves the day), "Lay-stories" (Kirk, Spock with a woman), "Hurt/Comfort stories," "Relationship [-focused]" (nonsexual), and "K/S stories" (Kirk and Spock romantically/sexually involved) (53). Bacon-Smith finds that the women fanwriters she studied in her ethnography had many different reasons for focusing on the primarily male members of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. One was that the focus allowed them to sidestep gender inequality and having to write about "typical" women's work such as housecleaning and such. Another is that there was a strong social backlash against "Mary Sue stories" in the Trek fan fiction community, a genre which grew to include nearly any story that included a resourceful female character as protagonist. The most obvious reason for the male-focus is that the crew of the Enterprise was predominantly male.

 

 

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The Xenaverse, with its two heroic female protagonists, turns the activity of writing fan fiction to focus on women. These two women are still exempt from stereotypical "women's work" because they are on the road. If Xena and Gabrielle were to stop and settle down, "women's work" issues would likely rise to the surface, although the sexist division of labor does not seem to be as crucial an issue for lesbians in the 1990s as it was for the heterosexual women writing fan fiction in hard copy at the time of Bacon-Smith's data gathering (the study was published in 1992). Even with the gender reversal of two female protagonists, because of the soulmate-level lifebond that is often assumed between Xena and Gabrielle, a bias still exists against the bards who in effect put themselves into the story in the form of a third character, similar to the prejudice against "Mary Sue stories." The primary couple has to remain Xena and Gabrielle, and figuring in the "Lunacy Factor" (which many readers subscribe to as well), Xena and Gabrielle had better not be split up by any kind of third party interloper, whether a lover or not. Additional characters can be Amazons, people from Xena's dark past--good or bad, gods or goddesses, peasants in need, etc. If any of these people represent a challenge to the primacy of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship, the challenge should serve in the end to make their relationship stronger. That in effect rules out many of Bacon-Smith's categories for fan fiction as applied to the Xenaverse except for one, "Hurt/Comfort stories."

 

 

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Hurt/Comfort Stories

These stories represent a strong fantasy type for fan fiction in the Xenaverse. The pattern also exists in the fantasy themes generated by the television program, the most recent example a "Xena:WP" standard formula episode "One Against an Army," where Gabrielle is injured by a poison arrow, and instead of getting her medical attention, Xena had to serve the greater good by fighting off the entire Persian army. Many Xenites online commented that they loved the episode after all the ups and downs of the "Rift" in Season 3 because it felt like a fan fiction story, with the extreme circumstances of "hurt/comfort" bringing the strength of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle to the forefront. There are many "hurt/comfort stories in the Xenaverse, and it is such a solidly accepted fantasy type that most of the fan fiction indexes include a category for "hurt/comfort."

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The Xenaverse also supports a number of new and innovative story genres that have become well-known fantasy types in the Xenaverse. These are "First Time stories," "Uber-Xena stories," and "Warlord/Slave stories." I should also note that there are a fair amount of parodies and skits in the Xenaverse which are quite good and show Xenites' ability not to take themselves and their obsession too seriously. However for my purposes here I will focus specifically on fantasy types created from general patterns of story genres and plotlines (action fantasy themes).

 
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First Time Stories

Some of the most popular stories in the alternative fan fiction universe are "First Time" stories, stories that in some ways mirror lesbian perceptions of romance that grows out of close friendship, as well as the intense restraint and inner conflict that accompanies "coming out," effectively a double whammy for emotional intensity. Xena thinks she's too much a jaded, burned out warlord for the sweet and innocent Gabrielle, and Gabrielle thinks Xena doesn't see her as the woman she has become. This puts the would-be lovers at cross-purposes, echoing the subtextual restraint and sexual tension shown on the TV program. Although at times overemphasizing the dark and light sides of the two characters, fan fiction authors know how to drag out a good thing, as do TPTB. When the intense longing and denial come to a head in fan fiction, the stories generate an almost addictive catharsis. Lunacy offers the following description for "First Time" stories at her web site:

First time stories are a mainstay of alternative Xena fan fiction. These types of stories are simply ones in which Xena and Gabrielle make love for the first time. Some first time stories have Gabrielle as a virgin but virginity in itself does not necessarily define the category. In the early days of alt. fiction first time stories did usually involve virginity because the character of Gabrielle in the TV series was assumed to be a virgin. Recently, however, what they in fact tend to revolve around is Gabrielle's first time with a woman - specifically with the Warrior Princess. First time stories tend to be very romantic and passionate - often explicit as well.

 
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Uber-Xena Stories

This particular fantasy type in Xenaverse fan fiction is quite innovative and more than a little bit difficult to explain, although its effect on the Xenaverse and possibly beyond is tremendous. TPTB put the trend in motion with an innocuous little clip episode meant to give the actors a week off by creating an excuse for the characters to "remember" their past adventures, which were then illustrated by recycling video clips from past episodes. Given Renaissance Pictures's quirky aesthetic, even what are supposed to be boring clip episodes have some kind of an unusual set up. In the second season, "The Xena Scrolls" was particularly unique. Instead of opening in ancient Greece, this episode begins in 1940's Macedonia in the middle of World War II. In an overt "Indiana Jones" parody, two archaeologists discover the "Xena Scrolls," supposedly written by the bard Gabrielle. The storyline itself is formulaic and unimportant, but the characters give it a wry twist. "Indiana Jones" is one very butch, gun-toting, cigar smoking Renee O'Connor, who usually plays the more femme Gabrielle. As Janice Covington, O'Connor is joined at the dig by an ultra-femme, bookish Southern belle, Melinda Pappas (Lucy Lawless), who can translate ancient syntax. By the end of the story the two discover that they are drawn to the Xena Scrolls because they are descendants of Xena and Gabrielle. As it turns out they are also drawn to become partners. And with that development alternative fan fiction writers had two more characters to write about. Uber-Xena fan fiction was born.

 

 

 

 

 

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The actual phrase "Uber-Xena" was coined by Kym Masera Taborn in mid-June of 1997. Already a few of what would eventually be called "Uber" stories were appearing online, but Taborn gave the fantasy type a name which stuck. Della Street's story-headings explain Uber-Xena stories as "Descendants of Xena and Gabrielle meet in different timelines and interact in familiar ways." At first all Uber-Xena stories were what are now called "Janice and Mel" WWII timeline stories, with Bat Morda's novella-length "Is There a Doctor on the Dig?" and "Search for Amphipolis" receiving wide-spread online acclaim, helping to strongly establish the Uber genre, a genre which we will see below offers the greatest potential for the development of an archetype that may well have an influence beyond the borders of the Xenaverse.

 

 

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Before long, writers began branching out, placing new descendants of Xena and Gabrielle all over the timeline, often with complex, novel-length offerings. In Della Street's "Towards the Sunset," the unreformed outlaw Jess Chambers (Xena) meets the feisty schoolmarm Mattie Brunson (Gabrielle) in the American Old West. In Elaine Sutherland's "Women in Prison," a tongue-in-cheek parody of 1950's moralistically homophobic, lesbian novels, the Xena-character is a sadistic prison warden who finds she can't abuse the Gabrielle-character inmate. In one of the most powerful psychological thrillers in the Xenaverse, Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza's modern day "Surfacing" casts Xena as a deep cover government assassin trying to break away from the CIA, while the Gabrielle-character is a lawyer who steals her heart and helps her make the break. Bardwynna's "Xena by Gaslight" series places Xena- and Gabrielle-characters in Sherlock Holmes's London. There are some futuristic, sci-fi Uber-Xenas, although they are more unevenly written than the ones grounded in well-known settings. Wishes, one of the strongest non-sexual writers in the Xenaverse, has a hauntingly dystopian, futuristic Uber story, "Battle," with the Gabrielle-character as a nurses' aid in what is supposedly a hospital for the criminally insane. When she is given a new patient in the violent wing (Xena), she begins to question the nature of the "experiments" going on in other parts of the hospital.

 

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Interestingly, with the exception of the relatively large number of Janice and Mel stories, very few Uber-Xena stories allow the Xena and Gabrielle characters to switch roles, for Xena to be the femme and Gabrielle to be the butch. Many of them cast the two characters more androgynously, such as in LN James's "Chicago 5 a.m.," where the Xena-character is a hardened private investigator, but the Gabrielle-character is a new FBI agent who also has several black belts in the martial arts.

 

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Warlord/Slave Stories

One other fantasy type in Xenaverse fan fiction bears noting here because, although it is chaining out slowly, it rather fearlessly explores some potentially disconcerting aspects of the psychology of the Xenaverse culture. These are the stories that play directly toward the lesbian/queer, sex-positive or sex-radical, bondage and discipline-sadomasochism audience (BDSM). These stories walk a difficult line, playing into the dark appeal of the evil warlord Xena had been before Hercules turned her on the path of goodness. Yet the readers of these stories (and not all evil warlord stories are BDSM, but they all provide clues to the appeal of the dark Xena) do not seem to be the stereotypical aficionados of master/slave relationships, what Lucy Lawless calls the doctors and lawyers who write to her wanting to be spanked. The whole BDSM issue in the Xenaverse begs for closer examination. Much of the Xenaverse embodies a different kind of feminism, one that celebrates political incorrectness in the way that a sharp-tongued Shakespearean jester becomes a truth-teller of the play. The BDSM sector of the Xenaverse is not any different.

 
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I would be remiss if I conveniently overlooked the dominatrix suggestiveness of Xena's costume and demeanor, even as a reformed and upstanding person on the heroic path of truth and justice. But queer, sex positive/sex radicals are supposedly coming to BDSM from outside of the dominant patriarchy, or if that is impossible (it has to be), attempting to "fuck with the categories" and subvert from within. What they do with power inequalities can make many liberal feminists squirm, but just as the reclaiming of the once politically incorrect "butch/femme" role playing (with the queer emphasis on playing) drew attention to things many feminists would just as soon not look at, BDSM unflinchingly exposes the erotic side of control, power, vulnerability, and pain, undercurrents that feed day-to-day, more vanilla attractions as well.

 

 

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What is the attraction of the unreformed warlord Xena? Fan fiction writers are marvelously inventive in finding ways for her to appear, a blow to the head or emotional break leading to amnesia or dementia ("Truth or Dare," Word Warrior, "Anger is My Shield," Jamie Boughen), accidentally drinking the waters of Lethe ("Well of Sighs," Ella Quince), wearing the powerful ring of Eos ("Miles to Go," M Parnell), needing to go undercover to take over an army ("Warlord Daze," Katrina), spinning an alternative universe where Xena is Conqueror of the Known World from "Armageddon Now," an episode of "Hercules" ("Resistance," Della Street), and so on.

 




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The first season of "Xena" provided precedence for such fantasy themes with "Ties That Bind," where Xena reverts to her dark ways until Gabrielle shocks her out of it by breaking a pitchfork across her back. Ares, God of War, is always trying to get Xena to come back to him so they can rule the world together, and on the show this is represented as a powerful temptation for Xena. When Xena's son is killed in the third season in "Bitter Suite," Xena finally makes the terrible break and sets out to kill Gabrielle, until they both fall into the musical land of Illusia and work out their differences. In flashbacks in "The Debt I & II" we also see how very dark the mass murderer Xena was, ruled by desire, appreciating the satisfaction of "a good kill." "Armageddon Now II" gave a glimpse of a Xena with the evil empire-building potential of a Hitler, making it clear exactly how intoxicating an offer Ares was making. Xena was not giving up the life of a two-bit warlord. She could've been a contender.

 
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The unreformed Xena in fan fiction embodies raw power, both physical and personal. She has unpredictable cruelty, intense polymorphous passion, the ability to seduce anyone, worldly knowledge of all things ("I have many skills" is a Xena trademark line), cunning battle strategy, the guile of a trickster, charisma to inspire soldiers to die for her, proud statuesque beauty, and piercing pale blue eyes (in fan fiction, EVERYONE mentions the eyes). She is control. She is wildness. She is unlike any female hero or anti-hero archetype in recent memory, with the exception perhaps of Athena, or a few goddesses going back to ancient Sumeria and India. This Xena is not a nice person. She has no friends. She is truly frightening. She is intoxicating. She uses her body as a weapon in every sense of the word. She is hard, emotionless, yet ruled by desire, the desire for power.

 
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That's the set up, at least. Xena's dark past gives her character an amazing complexity, whether reformed or not. In some sense, given this unbridled past, it is too easy to represent the reformed Xena like the Klingon Lt. Worf on "Star Trek," drinking prune juice because the effort to keep a rein on his wild and warlike nature has made him constipated. No wonder fan fiction writers delight in turning evil Xena loose. Who wants to see their hero drinking prune juice?

 
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But no fan fiction writer keeps evil Xena completely evil. Somewhere within all that badness beats a true heart, and while everyone in the known world may curse her name, Gabrielle is the one person who sees it, believes in it, breaks through to it. And that is the tension point which fuels the fire of the fan fiction Xenaverse, from BDSM to sweet vanilla romance, through themes of love in the face of impossible odds, redemption, and reconciliation with a Jungian shadow. Even set in a pessimistically Schopenhauerian landscape, even framed in a simple morality play of good peasants versus evil warlords, the Xenaverse goes beyond dualities. People relate to Xena's coming to grips with her past as an ongoing struggle. Several have posted personal stories of their own battles with their dark pasts as drug users, street people, high school dropouts, rape survivors. They are people who have lived in the margins beyond dualities. Anything less than the same struggle from Xena would be an insult to them.

 
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Some people eroticize power. Others eroticize vulnerability. Some can alternate between the two. Some find the ability to eroticize power and submission to be a white, middle class luxury. Some don't like to bring power into the equation, as if pretending it isn't there could make it go away. With the intoxicating attraction of evil Xena, the issue is brought to a head, with Xenites holding a position at the points of disruption between many different conflicting philosophies, in a place of great tension, yet also a place of great energy.

 
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Xena as Archetype

As I close out this node of analysis, I want to leave space for a personal fugue, because humanists don't like to leave all the predictions to scientists. So here I combine my academic voice with a hopeful voice of feminist prophecy, to suggest possibilities that are partial, incomplete, and, some would say, quite silly. When I suggest with audacity that Xena can be an archetype, I'm not calling for a totalizing form to dominate other forms. I'm suggesting that there are too many totalizing forms out there, forms that don't leave room for new patterns, especially new patterns that empower disenfranchised groups. When Donna Haraway made room for a new mythos of a resistant feminist cyborg, it was for a hybrid, to remain partial and incomplete, not wholly self and not wholly other. When Helene Cixoux called for women to write, it was not for women to create another closed system like the one that had denied them entrance. So if I say these patterns in Xena can form an archetype, I mean three archetypes: the darkly troubled Xena, the light and idealistic Gabrielle, and a third archetype, the relationship between them, always dynamically shifting, yet bonded together. And I say it could happen because I believe in practice it already is happening.

 
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We start by bringing these three fantasy types together. A potentially innovative body of literature is being developed in the Xenaverse, a body of literature which may have the ability to pull loose from its moorings in cyberspace and create something larger, a space for future "Uber" stories out in "real life," about women who are also heroes. I know of a number of people in the Xenaverse who are working on this very project, published fiction writers and screenwriters. This greater archetype that may come out of the evolution of Xenaverse fan fiction and the television program "Xena: Warrior Princess" (which gave it the inspiration) has a potential for empowering women, especially lesbians, in a way that political movements cannot, through the rhetorical power of mythos, of story. It is said that there are no new stories under the sun, that they are all variations of one another. That may be the case, but the stories coming out of the Xenaverse are ones that have not been heard for some time, and they are finding an audience hungry for them. Think of it. An archetype, not of a lone male hero's linear journey into the shadow and back, but of two women in relationship, alternating light and dark, on a spiraling quest to find themselves and each other, to find, then lose, then find again, as the circular journey spirals on.

"Gabrielle was processing all the information. Sibyl could see her thoughts wiggling all over her animated face. "What interest would the gods have in Xena and I as a couple?"

Sibyl smiled as she led the way down the stairway, toying with her bracelets as she walked. She is a woman of power, you are a weaver of legends. As a pair, you can shape things to come. The lesser gods are not the only ones concerned with the two of you. Gaea knows of your value to women who are yet to live."

"Cerebus's Challenge" Puckster

 

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The icon of Gabrielle's Staff goes to a discussion of how alternative fan fiction links readers and writers as co-authors. The icon of Xena's Sword takes you to an analysis of fantasy themes and clichés in fan fiction stories. Continuing on the path of Xena's Breastplate goes into "Xenites Talk Back," a space given over to Xenites' responses to this dissertation. The Chakram icon returns you to the Navigational Map.

 
 

 


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace


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