The Feedback Loop: Fantasy Themes of How Online Fans Changed the Direction of the Television Show

CONTENTS

 
L80

On the path of Gabrielle's Staff I establish the dominant fantasy theme action of collecting "Xenastuff" as a central activity in the Xenaverse fandom culture. My analysis of this activity led to the conclusion that collecting was motivated by a desire to get as close to the show and its actors as possible. In this node I probe this motivation more deeply, examining the fantasy themes that arise from the central position that the show and its producers occupy in fandom culture: for in their desire to get closer to the show, the Hardcore Nutballs (HCNBs) may have found among some of the members of The Powers that Be (TPTB) an answering desire for feedback from and contact with fans.

 
L80a

In itself that is not unusual, except that the wild card in this deck may be the Internet. The Internet facilitates the speed at which news can spread in the form of dramatized fantasy themes. It creates a potential for one-to-one contact with members of TPTB far better than conventional postal mail. Indeed, one of the most recurrent and mythologized fantasy themes in the Xenaverse is the story of how a small online community of Hardcore Nutball fans changed the direction of a television program in some risky, divergent, and non-mainstream directions. If this story is true, the Xenaverse fandom culture may have demonstrated that it had a power over a television program in ways that Star Trek fandom never did, the power to influence storylines of the show.

 
L81

The fantasy themes I will be examining in this node make up the fantasy type of a feedback loop between the fans and TPTB. Several fantasy themes support this fantasy type, and they are often invoked in shorthand or in passing reference, as in "we all know how this happened..." or "I wrote a letter to Tyldus saying..." or "when TPTB acknowledged that they put the subtext in because of the Internet fans..." These fantasy themes are common knowledge in the Xenaverse, and provide evidence that they have chained out and become ingrained into fandom culture, and beyond that, they have become a heroic myth, a story of empowerment, a cause to cheer, as in "All right! WE did this."

 
L82

The fantasy themes which support the feedback loop highlight access to TPTB in unprecedented fashion. They focus closely on the actors' and TPTB's perceptions of Internet fans in popular media. They discuss the victory of the Pro-Subtext camp in influencing the direction of the plotlines of the show. And perhaps most importantly, they dissolve the distinctions between fans and TPTB by forming friendships that bridge the gap.

 
L83

Fantasy themes of access to TPTB appear so frequently as to be taken for granted. I myself had inadvertent contact with Avicus (Robert Field, the lead film editor for "Xena") within a month of my first logging on to the Xenaverse. I had posted a remark about a pop culture phrase parodied in an episode of the show. Avicus responded with a simple correction about where the phrase had actually originated. At the time I thought, "Avicus, Avicus, where have I heard that name before?" I jumped onto the Whoosh! web site and dug around until I found an interview that put the online "handle" and the name together. Others online have told me similar stories of their ease of access to TPTB. Whether one contact here or there constitutes real access is another story. But the fantasy theme of access is a strong one.

 
L84

Another time that I had the eerie feeling I was in an echo chamber followed an incident which could be purely coincidental. I had posted a note out to a listserv discussion group about some similarities between the Xena and Gabrielle bathing scene in "A Day in the Life" and the bathing scene in Spartacus. I quoted the dialogue from the latter scene, an erotic subtextual moment where two male bathers discuss whether they like oysters or snails. Another Xenite responded to my post with a longer section of the script, putting the scene in context. This was on a Wednesday. On the following Saturday, a Xenite posted a long report from a science fiction and fantasy convention in Michigan which was attended by Bruce Campbell, the actor who plays Autolycus the King of Thieves in "Xena." Buried deep in her report was a section of dialogue from Campbell at the convention. He went off into a humorous discussion of bathing on "Xena," and whether they liked oysters or snails as in Spartacus. This silly coincidence could mean nothing, as TPTB have used many allusions to Spartacus in the past. For instance, the "I'm Spartacus!" scene was transplanted directly into the "Xena" episode "The Black Wolf," as rebellious prisoners all claimed to be the rebel leader, "Black Wolf." But the coincidence also raises a flag for consideration of potential unseen panoptic observation, which can easily take place in the open forums of the Xenaverse. TPTB could be lurking online as well as participating. In interviews and at conventions, actors such as Renee O'Connor and Robert Trebor (Salmonius) have explicitly said as much. On the talk show "Vibe," Renee O'Connor also admitted some familiarity with fan fiction. However, in relation to fan fiction, TPTB have taken a firm position that the show's writers do not read fan fiction, for legal reasons, to avoid any accusations of stealing people's story ideas. The nature of panoptic observation is its invisibility. There is no way I could document such panoptic observation, unless I were to get access to TPTB and earn their trust and candor. However, as Foucault shows, the disciplinary, normalizing power of the observing gaze is not in the actual observations, but rather, in the potential for observation. Xenites know TPTB are watching them. They just don't know to what degree they are being watched.

 
L85

The Feedback Loop During Lawless's Accident

Perhaps the most dramatic example of access to TPTB occurs in the stories dramatized out of Lucy Lawless's accident with a horse while filming a skit for Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show." This incident eventually led to a detailed history and chronology, written by Diane Silver for the Xena Media Review, of the emotional trauma both the actor and the fans went through following the accident. It also led to Lucy Lawless, bored in her hospital bed, logging on to a chat room anonymously under the name "Hercules." Once in the chat room, when disparaging comments were made about Hercules, she jokingly typed comments in his defense and found herself kicked out of the chat room by Ephany, another chatter who of course did not know whom she was kicking out. Lawless heard the name "Ephany" in a convention autograph line and exclaimed, "You! You kicked me off!" This led to Ephany writing the now classic Whoosh! article, "I'm Guilty! Confessions of the Woman Who Threw Lucy Lawless Out of the Infamous Chat." As Ephany describes in her article, Lawless was not offended by the action, and good-humoredly joked about it with fans.

 

 

L86

Several incidents related to the accident illustrate the connection between TPTB and the HCNBs. First, according to Silver's history, about 40-50 fans were on hand in Burbank to watch Lawless's skit with the horse for "The Tonight Show." When the horse went down under her, the fans were horrified, not knowing the extent of her injuries (she suffered a fractured pelvis). That is where Silver's story begins dramatizing the fantasy themes which have been chained out throughout the Xenaverse. She goes on:

Even without telling that one story [of Lawless's recovery], there are a host of others to tell: the story of fans who suddenly found their safe fantasy world confronted with reality, glimpses of what was happening behind the scenes, an illustration of the power of the Internet and the changes it is creating in society, and a look at media power and mistakes.

 

 

 

 

L87

Silver quotes the reaction of Robbie, who was strongly affected by the accident:

"After seeing the horse fall and knowing that Lucy was not getting up, I got a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach," Robbie said. "I didn't eat for three days. That night, by the time I got back to my hotel, I couldn't sleep...I had trouble sleeping for a couple of weeks. Every time I closed my eyes I could see Lucy on the horse, ride down the driveway, stop, turn the horse, smile that beautiful smile of hers, wave and then turn the horse some more and urge it back up the driveway. As the horse turned, it slipped and down she went."

The fantasy themes indicated here are of fans' perceptions of Lawless as beautiful and heroic, contrasted with her in great pain. The emotional reaction was strong enough to disrupt Robbie's life. Meanwhile, on the Internet, another drama was unfolding. According to Silver's report, a well known and liked online personality, "Roo," was in a car accident and went into a coma. The news of both accidents hit the nets at the same time. Silver quotes JulieCal2:

"...Roo was my very first and closest Xenite friend on the net. Her last email to me was only an hour or two before her accident. To learn that Roo had suffered severe head injuries and was comatose crushed me to the core. The bulletins on the NetForum about both Lucy and Roo were running neck and neck. Will I ever forget that dreadful day? Never!"

 

 

L88

The most startling aspect of the story was yet to happen. Fans present for the Burbank taping had arranged over the Internet to meet at the Acapulco Restaurant near NBC several hours later. According to Silver, at Lucy Lawless's insistence Executive Producer (and Lawless's husband) Rob Tapert, Co-Executive Producer R.J. Stewart, and other staff members came to the Acapulco Restaurant and stayed for about 20 minutes, talking with fans and relieving their anxiety by giving them previously unknown details of the extent of Lawless's injuries. Later fans posted this information out to others on the Internet, and (according to Silver, due to poor mainstream media coverage of the event,) the Internet became the best source for information about the accident. A flame war was threatened against Leno with lightening speed in response to what some fans thought were cavalier remarks about Lawless's injury. With the continued presence of Renaissance Pictures staff on fan-run, public listservs, feeding information to fans in defiance of an MCA/Universal gag order on official statements, the flame war was averted. Later, when Lawless was well enough to post a thank you note to fans online, she included good wishes for "Roo," who was also pulling out of her coma.

 
L89

In all the high drama of the accident, the strength of the feedback loop fantasy type was forged through all the stories flying over the nets that included HCNBs and TPTB as one big concerned family, all on the same side, blurring the boundaries between them. Part of that was expressed in admiration and love for the character fantasy theme of Lucy Lawless, whose forthright engagement and interest in her fans could not help but charm them. And part was expressed as growing empowerment, as the fans repeated and dramatized stories of their access to TPTB.

 
L90

TPTB's Perceptions of Internet Fans in Popular Media

Lawless's comments in the media have always been favorable toward the Internet fans, who return the affection. When a Yahoo Internet Life interviewer in May 1997 asked her if she goes online to talk to fans, she told the story again about getting kicked out of the chat room, and said when she does go online it is through official channels. She said she did appreciate her Internet fans while she was recovering from the accident, affirming that the fandom community around Xena sustains her in some way:

"During that time there was an outpouring of kind wishes from fans that came in: get-well notes from around the world, many via the Internet. I got heaps. And I have to say, they really did cheer me up in some pretty dark moments in the night. It was the first time I got a sense of the community out there. Now I carry it with me. If I go on some talk show I can breathe a bit easier; I don't have a panic attack because I have a sense of who the people are out there, that they are people I know."

 

 

 

L91

With this statement Lawless reiterates themes of community and transience that many feel in the Xenaverse culture. Co-Producer Steven Sears (known online as "Tyldus") in a Whoosh! article where he interviewed himself, affirmed that the friends he has made in the Xenaverse are people with whom he still maintains contact, despite having to withdraw from active participation in the online discussions:

"Being on the internet and associating with the fans is not in my job description. I did it because I made a lot of friends and, hey, I like the fans. Those friends I have made still keep in touch."

 

L92

Subtexters Celebrate Victory for the Feedback Loop

The greatest proof of the power of the feedback loop is rehearsed and repeated in the ending of the online "Subtext" debate. "Subtext" itself is one of the most dominant fantasy types in the Xenaverse. Invoking the word "subtext" brings with it a list of fantasy themes built out of extensive online study of moments in the show which seemed to convey a deeper, perhaps sexual, relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. The Subtext debate had rolled over the Internet in the days before I came online, but signs of it still remained on web sites displaying icons like the one above. Two prominent web sites, "A FAQ for Subtext Fans and the Loyal Opposition" and DAx's "Museum of Subtext," demonstrate both the force of the debate and how it was eventually settled by TPTB. (FAQ stands for "Frequently Asked Questions")

 

 

 

L93

Both sites go through and detail possible "subtext moments," and the Subtext FAQ also provides information to Xenaverse newcomers so they don't start up old debates all over again. Xenaverse veterans can tell them, "Read the Subtext FAQ." The FAQ itself includes "The Homophobic Hit Parade," a collection of Xenaverse social norms to help heterosexuals in the Xenaverse learn not to post potentially insensitive remarks directed toward lesbians and inadvertently start a flame war. The "Homophobic Hit Parade" is a collection of insensitive remarks heard so often that people have tired of having to bring such offenders into line with the prevailing lesbian-friendly norms of the Xenaverse. "The Homophobic Hit Parade's" presence also indicates that the lesbian-friendly ethos of the Xenaverse was not an automatic thing, but that it was fought for in numerous heated online debates. Yet the "Are they-Aren't they" debates came to an end, and the force that caused that ending also left an opening for a story of victory for the marginalized lesbian following of "Xena." It was a story of how the feedback loop changed the direction of a television program in risky, nonmainstream directions.

L94

TPTB ended the debate by openly admitting in the mainstream popular media that they put the subtext into the show on purpose, specifically for the lesbian and lesbian-friendly fans. By that time the mainstream media had discovered the lesbian fans as well, so TPTB literally could not get through an interview without a question being posed to them about the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. Previous to these admissions, TPTB's public relations position had been to say that Xena and Gabrielle were just good friends, and to wonder why there couldn't be two female heros who weren't helpless and dependent on men without the implication that they were sexually involved. This early position, revealed in several media reports, was "we neither confirm nor deny." In several different interviews Executive Producer Rob Tapert indicated that there would be problems with MCA/Universal or with advertisers if Xena and Gabrielle's relationship were made explicitly lesbian. However TPTB and especially Lucy Lawless have always appeared very "Pro-Gay" in the mainstream media, and fans were impressed that they did not deny the relationship flat out.

 
L95

A significant shift occurred in the public relations positioning of TPTB in interviews, and I cannot place an exact date when that occurred, except that it had happened by the time I came into the Xenaverse. Perhaps it also coincided with the airing of "The Quest" and "A Day in the Life," although two other episodes also deliberately tweaked the subtexters in ways that could not be denied. One episode was what openly gay producer Liz Friedman called a "little lesbian vampire show" for Halloween, called "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (shown above and on video clip). In the other episode, "Altared States," she told The Advocate,

"One episode starts with the camera looking at some bushes [with Xena and Gabrielle's clothing strewn on them]," Friedman explains. "We hear Gabrielle asking, 'How was that?' Xena answers, 'Very nice!' Gabrielle says, 'Really? I wasn't sure," and Xena replies, 'No, no, you're doing great.' Then we see them, And they're fishing--naked! ...They're such a perfect little butch-femme couple," Friedman concludes, laughing. "What they do between episodes, I don't know."

 

 

 

L96

While Friedman may be one of the most open members of "Xenastaff," the Subtext FAQ points out that this shift in rhetoric which essentially ended the subtext debate came from all levels of TPTB. Point 2 of the FAQ makes the sequence of the events clear:

"(2) Do the producers/writers put subtext into the show on purpose or is it just a fantasy of the fans?

Executive Producer Rob Tapert, Producer Liz Friedman and Lucy Lawless (Xena) have all said in interviews that they purposely put subtext into the show. However, they also say that the two characters were not originally written as lovers, but were written to be heterosexuals who were as close as sisters."

 

 

L97

The refrain repeated so frequently that it had to be a deliberate public relations positioning went something like this: "We did not originally plan for there to be a lesbian subtext between Xena and Gabrielle, but after we found out about the strong lesbian following for the show (based primarily on the Internet), we started playing around with the subtext on purpose." Several examples of this rhetorical positioning will suffice:

Liz Friedman in The Advocate:

"We never wrote Xena to be a lesbian, she admits. "But it's not our show, its the audience's show. If the fans want to read Xena that way, great." Friedman and company have welcomed Xena's lesbian fans, even writing sapphic double entendres into scripts.

Lucy Lawless on AOL Chat:

39. Pomond: All right, Lucy. I wanted to ask you a question ...

40. Pomond: As I'm sure you're aware, "Xena ..." has a huge following in the lesbian community. How has this attraction affected the show, and do you and the show's producers try to address it within the story?

42. LucyLawls: not really

43. LucyLawls: when it was brought to our attention we thought it was an amusing parallel and had a bit of fun with it, but the show is not about sexuality and it relies on great stories with heart, it is about friendship and love

45. Lucy Lawless: we leave it to the audience to make what they want of it

46. LucyLawless: it is their show

Mr. Showbiz Interview with Lucy Lawless:

MR. SHOWBIZ -- A lot of people like to speculate on the true nature of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. Does the fact that people like to read things into the show have an effect on your performance?

LUCY LAWLESS -- Ah! You mean do we play up to it? What are you asking here? We do have fun with that aspect, but I never want to shove it down people's throats because it can also be alienating and we don't want to do that to any sector of our audience. But we don't want to alienate our lesbian following. We love 'em all! We love 'em all equally, whether they're on the edge or not.

Liz Friedman in a radio program "One in Ten":

"I think probably about the middle of last season where it sort of started to become clear through buzz on the Internet and stuff that Oh OK, people are reading it this way; that's interesting. We always thought it was great because it means that there are people who have a real passionate interest in your show. I know certainly that as a representationally starved queer, as I think we all are, when you see somebody who you feel is paying some attention to you and is even willing to leave something open to that kind of interpretation, you have a more positive response to it."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L98

The point I want to emphasize here is the sequence of events which is implied in most of the above accounts of the role of subtext in the show. According to Xenastaff the events follow this chronology:

1. TPTB innocently made a show about a strong friendship between two women. The show was originally intended for a fairly broad audience just a bit older than the audience for "Hercules."

2. A predominantly lesbian Internet cult following appeared around the show, an older and more marginalized, niche audience than the show had been originally marketed toward. Given TPTB's connections with the Internet audience from the earliest days (see Diane Silver's History of the Xenaverse Part 1), TPTB were no doubt aware of this unusual demographic from the beginning.

3. The mainstream media discovered this avid Internet following and started questioning TPTB about it.

4. TPTB shifted their public relations positioning from "neither confirming nor denying" to admitting to "playing up" to the subtext for the benefit of the predominantly lesbian Internet fans. However they still emphasize the ambiguity, which is also deliberate, saying essentially that "what Xena and Gabrielle do on the bedrolls at night is their own business." While playing up to the marginalized niche audience, then, TPTB still want their show to be all things to all people, as Lawless said above, "we leave it to the audience to make what they want of it"

 

 

 

 

L99

Whether this sequence of events is in fact accurate is still open for debate. Many veteran Xenites still claim that the subtext was present from the very first episode. Only insiders at Renaissance Pictures know whether that is true or not. This issue is unimportant to the fantasy themes that were eventually chained out into the rhetoric of the Xenaverse, however. HCNBs, who very closely follow everything TPTB do and say, attach a great deal of authority to public statements such as those quoted above. They have also shaped the above sequence of events into a heroic story of how the power of the Internet audience influenced the television program. In this story, the "buzz on the Internet" led to TPTB writing deliberate lesbian subtext into the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. No one in the Xenaverse has a memory of something like this happening before. It certainly did not happen with Star Trek fandom, at least not openly. Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek producers were fairly uncomfortable with the women fan writers and artists who saw a homoerotic relationship between Kirk and Spock.

 

 

 

 

L100

For Xenites, the fact that TPTB acknowledged and appreciated their predominantly lesbian and lesbian-friendly Internet fans privately through electronic access over the Internet and publicly in the mainstream media was empowering. But even more so, the fantasy theme drama of how the Internet audience influenced the plotline of the show itself was a triumphant tale of the victory of a marginalized, often discriminated-against, niche audience against their invisibility in the mainstream media. This story became legendary in the Xenaverse, and the legend became one of the strongest supporting pillars for the fantasy type of the feedback loop between HCNBs and TPTB. Here are just two samples of the online rhetoric which has come to take the story of the victory for subtext for granted:

 
L101a

Date: Tues, 21 Apr 1998 07:32:54 -0500
From: "Michelle Werlich" <mwerlich@scc.net>
Subject: [chakram] Subtext, not only a marketing ploy

I am writing in response to a post I deleted before realizing I wanted to add a few words. This post stated that the subtext was mostly a "marketing ploy."

I believe the subtext was developed in part to appeal to more viewing segments, but that commercial interests were not the sole motivation.

Perhaps I'm naive, but I can't help but think that the Xena:WP production team made a conscious decision to be generous to the show's lesbian fans after receiving heartfelt notes and missives. That TPTB (which include Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor) deliberately add a subtexty feel out of kindness and a generosity of spirit. I first got this impression from a People magazine interview with Renee O'Connor. The interview was quite revealing and seemed genuine. Apparently TPTB received many, many appreciative notes from lesbians. (These kinds of notes have got to be inspiring). Lesbians wrote in droves, each woman personally inspired to take up a pen. They told how they were reminded of their own lives and that this was the first television show that they could relate to. I came away from that article with the impression that the production team was moved to make the relationship between the Xena and Gabrielle characters "closer and more intimate," after receiving this kind of (thankful) feedback.

 
L101b

Date: Mon, 20 Apr 1998 18:50:47 EDT
From: MRBacim <MRBacim@aol.com>
Subject: Re: [chakram] <<FINS..FEMMES..GEMS>>

In a message dated 20/04/98 21:55:22 GMT, you write:

<< l'm not a subtext fan, and l could see them as just great friends throughout the entire episode...so it is "sub",(not there actually) to me anyway. l don't see why you people say they're gay. l see them as good friends-nothing more. Why don't you say this about Herc & ioalus? l don't mean to offend anyone, l'm just curious. >>

Well, I'll have a go. (Although without you giving a clearer definition I don't know whether I qualify as one of 'you people' or not).

Firstly, TPTB have acknowledged on many occasions that they deliberately include subtext in the shows i.e. generally subtle indications of a romantic and sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. (And in some of this season's comedies, not so subtle!). They make no such claim re:HTLJ.

Secondly, there are numerous conversations between X+G over the three seasons when they imply and more often directly express love for one another. No doubt Hercules and Iolaus love each other as well, but they don't express it verbally. Similarly, they don't hug, touch, kiss, and caress each other - at least when anyone's watching - nor do they sleep in each other's arms. You can argue that this is the result of conditioning, and that female friends are socialized to greater physical displays of affection, but I think that's a little simplistic. I'm unaware of any other show in which female leads are continuously this affectionate towards each other.

Thirdly, there have been an increasing number of scenes in the show (and even whole episodes) which IMHO it is a real stretch to explain as being evidence of mere friendship - Gabrielle's reaction to Xena's death in 'The Quest' looks to me much more like the response of a lover than a friend; most of the one- on-one conversations in 'One Against An Army' are of an emotional tone that (even for melodrama) is difficult for me to perceive as congruent with platonic friendship; the 'rift' saga is explicitly seen to include elements of jealousy ('Forget-me-not') and so on. I'm unaware of any scenes in HTLJ that have that kind of intensity, although the show does a good job of showing that Hercules and Iolaus are indeed, devoted to each other, and would die for each other. But their conversations are usually (humorous) macho posturing, with no tender sentiments expressed to each other.

Fourthly, what about that kiss? Yeah, I know lots of people kiss each other without being in love. But look at that scene again. Does it really look like a friendly peck? Does that music sound sisterly or dreamily romantic? And when Xena says 'Gabrielle, I'll always be here,' what kind of feelings does it sound like she's expressing? Know any similar scenes in HTLJ? The only comparable scene in XWP that I can think of is when Xena laments the death of Marcus in 'Mortal Beloved' - and he was her lover.

I believe that there are, in fact, fans who do see possible sexual overtones in HTLJ, even though they arguably have less material to work with (given 1 above). But so what? The point is that both shows can be seen as positive expressions of same-sex relationships, with or without sexual overtones. I don't think TPTB are ever going to be more explicit about X+G than they already have been this far (although some of the above-mentioned scenes from this season are more explicit than I would have imagined). But as I said - for me it's become unworkable to look at the episodes I've mentioned above (and any other, for that matter) without being quite sure that what I'm intended to see is the portrayal of a lesbian relationship.

And FWIW I'm not gay - I just like to see TV showing credible and entertaining images of people who are in love with each other, while examining some of the complexities of human relationships. And I think XWP does that better than any other TV with which I'm currently familiar. Hey, call me the romantic type. I can live with it.

Regards,
Mike

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"Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you."
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L101

It is also important to note that because of the unprecedented access to TPTB, at least with the Renaissance Pictures PTB in particular, the line between the HCNBs and TPTB has blurred significantly. Friendships have formed from both directions, and those friendships, although one-to-one for the people involved, become emblematic for the Xenaverse fandom culture at large. This means that whenever one Xenite makes contact with one of TPTB and reports on it to the Xenaverse at large, all Xenites listening and sharing in the fantasy theme of access come to identify with that one Xenite. Contact for one equals contact for all. Victory for one equals victory for all. Experiences and knowledge are shared freely in the Xenaverse so that all may feel the vicarious link. And in the case of the fantasy theme story of the victory for subtext, it is not cast as a victory for the HCNBs over TPTB. Rather, it is cast as a victory for the HCNBs with TPTB over the Mainstream and its tendency to relegate lesbian stories to invisibility, or worse, to examples of immorality. Even the judgement, sometimes expressed by TPTB, that "Xena" is to some extent a "family" show, and for that reason cannot have openly lesbian characters, walks a line between expressing a crass advertising demographic reality and being somewhat insulting to the HCNBs. The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is based on deep, profound love and bonding through life or death situations, the fans reason. How could modeling love and faithfulness not be a good example for children? Only by casting the love between Xena and Gabrielle as immoral can the show be construed as unacceptable "family" viewing. Violence is far more unacceptable for children to watch than a loving lesbian couple, according to most online fans. And "Xena" crosses the line with violence far more often than it does with subtext. Fans defend the violence as an aspect of the show's "edginess," but it is a particular kind of fan who appreciates the message of heroism and resistance behind the violence as opposed to being horrified at the depiction of it. Still, one has to wonder if TPTB isn't playing to two audiences simultaneously: one, a feminist-influenced audience that cheers as women take roles other than that of helpless victims; and the other, an audience that consumes violence for its own sake and supports an entire segment of the entertainment industry.

 
L102

There has been one further adjustment in the Renaissance Pictures' public relations position in regard to Season 3 and subtext that also bears examining here. While TPTB admitted to putting subtext into the plots in Season 2, with the beginning of Season 3 (although the subtle subtext is still there) they now say in interviews that they are "past all that." The line seems to be, "We noticed fans liked subtext, so we played with it for a while, just for fun, and now we have gone on to other things, like exploring the depth of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship at a more profound level, beyond mere sexual innuendo." This is very interesting rhetorical positioning, as the examples below show:


US Magazine, October, 1997

INTERVIEW: LUCY LAWLESS (excerpt) The importance of being Xena, Warrior Princess by Al Weisel

...Q: Any feelings about the show's lesbian following?

Lawless: At first it was a surprise to hear that people were throwing a loopy slant on it just because two women were traveling around together with no visible means of male support. We kind of laughed and played along with it. That was a long time ago, and since, we've moved on. I think the characters transcend labeling, just like gay people don't want to be identified solely by their sexuality. They contribute so many things to society that to limit it to their sexuality is unimaginative.


NZ Woman's Weekly 6 October 1997 - Interview with Lucy Lawless by Robin Eggar

"The fans seized on the lesbian theme because we were two females travelling alone through the world with no apparent male company," says Lucy. "What they do around the camp fire after hours is open to conjecture, which we refuse to confirm or deny. For a while we thought it was very funny and played along with it but I never wanted to shove it down peoples' throats. We like pushing the boundaries a little. This is a love story between two people. What they do in their own time is none of our business. Now I think the show has transcended all that."

 
L103

While this fantasy theme of "transcending subtext" primarily comes from public statements by Lucy Lawless, versions of it appear in other contexts and quotes from TPTB. Lawless is just more direct and forthright in her approach, a characteristic that makes her real life personality a focal point for admiration online as well. Renee O'Connor's public statements about the subtext, for instance, while sensitive to her fans, have not been as bold. But what does it mean to "transcend subtext?" Is it a euphemism for TPTB retreating from their embrace of subtext in the past, by appealing to elite viewer's sophistication with an attitude of "been there, done that?" The volatility of the issue itself leads to many layers of meaning which could be attached to the simple statement that in Season 3 the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle has "transcended subtext," has become "too profound for subtext." Fans online have had difficulty making meaning from the challenging storylines of Season 3, especially the "Rift Arc" where the friendship between Xena and Gabrielle was tested by deep betrayal on many levels. But let's look more closely at Lawless's rhetoric above, as parts of it do speak a kind of shorthand to a specific group of fans.

 
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Lawless says, "I think the characters transcend labeling, just like gay people don't want to be identified solely by their sexuality. They contribute so many things to society that to limit it to their sexuality is unimaginative." Her rhetoric is aimed at a sophisticated audience, one which is not necessarily the average audience for US magazine or mainstream "Xena" viewers. This statement could be interpreted as the language of the youth-oriented, Gen-X-influenced Queer movement's rebellion against labels. These are people who discuss Queer Theory, who want to dispense with rigid identities, who want to playfully "fuck with all the categories" and create points of disruption in gender roles, the folks who made "to queer" a verb for "transcending labeling." Gay, straight, bi, male, female, polymorphous and perverse are all categories to be seen as a form of "drag," an imitation of a role that is socially constructed (Butler).

 

 

 

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On the other hand, many gays and lesbians just want "to live normal lives" and not be overly-politicized. They also balk at labeling. These are people who sometimes are closeted, by choice or necessity, who view the outer edges of the various gay political movements as "too radical." They sometimes disparage the more flamboyant members of the gay community who are photographed in Gay Pride Parades by the media. They believe the outrageous drag queens or the topless "Dykes on Bikes" make it easy for the straight culture to reject all gays as flakes and perverts. For instance, at the more politically-oriented marches on Washington (as opposed to the celebratory Gay Pride Parades), groups of gay business owners in suits arrange meetings with legislators, and "normal-looking" gay families with children try to convince straight society that gays are not so different.

 
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From the old guard perspective of the "Gay Liberation Movement" of the last 29 years, this desire to look like straight, middle class society is often interpreted as "internalized homophobia," a fear of the negative stigma of the labels "gay" or "lesbian" or "queer." Films celebrating the history of the Movement credit the uprising of the drag queens against a police raid on Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, as the genesis of the movement. The movement emphasized pride in the gay culture in all its varieties, and tolerance, symbolized in the movement's rainbow flag.

 
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Interestingly, the non-politicized or more conservative gays hold the same argumentative position as the more cutting edge "Queers," on the issue of labeling, at least. Both positions stand in opposition to the Gay Pride Movement that began in Stonewall, which was built on an identification with labels for the sake of political strength, pride, and unity, in what became a form of "identity politics."

 
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Lawless may be unconscious of this rhetorical positioning, although she is known online as a savvy and very well-read person. Nonetheless, she has hit on a strong rhetorical angle with this stance because she is able to align herself with the Gay/Lesbian/Queer cause on multiple levels while at the same time making it clear that TPTB are backing away from the subtext in Season 3. A good bit of subtext remained, but nothing as ground-breaking as "the kiss" or nude bathing which occurred in that season. Given Lawless's past forthrightness, there is no reason to doubt her sincerity. This is not mere rhetorical positioning, for her at least. Which is not to say she is joining any political movements. In her now-classic Ms. Magazine cover story and in statements afterward she made it clear that she is too independent to be a movement-joiner. She also expressed discomfort with the feminist label. She may have wanted to be in Sydney, Australia for the 1998 Gay Mardi Gras to greet a contingent of 122 marching Xenas, but I doubt she'd be joining a Queer movement either.

 

 

 

 

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Aside from Lawless's personal ethos, this rhetorical stance has become a banner taken up by TPTB during Season 3. It is a difficult position with which to argue. Of course gays don't want to be known only by labels. Of course they want to be known as human beings. But people online do not want the sexual side of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle to be dismissed because of it. Deeper motivations have to be examined. Are TPTB backing away from subtext for purely noble goals, as they claim, or are there homophobic forces from MCA/Universal pressuring them? Backing away from subtext would surely please the homophobic marketing forces that have created mainstream media norms. From that perspective, one could argue that TPTB were appropriating the rhetoric of the Queer movement in order to justify what may in effect really be homophobic appeasement.

 
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As cynically ironic as my above statement is, the fact remains that the Renaissance Pictures staff and actors are some of the best friends the gay audience has had simply because they produce a show that breaks ground in its depiction of a strong friendship between two women. They have "pushed on the boundaries" of safe television, risked ratings for a marginal, niche audience, and then further risked ratings by potentially alienating that marginal, niche audience. They walk a line in the rhetorical positioning of their "product," the television program, by lurking at the margins, avoiding the antagonism of the radical right, flirting quietly with mainstream marketing forces by providing a certain amount of "eye candy," throwing a few bones to the "representational starved" lesbian and lesbian-friendly audience, while at the same time asserting their independence and need to follow their own visions for the show. The sometimes conflicting fantasy themes represented in their rhetoric reveal the difficulties of serving many masters.

 

 

 

 

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To summarize: we have looked at the fantasy themes of access to TPTB. These are themes created by TPTB's public statements about that access in the mainstream media, as well as their attitudes toward their sometimes-obsessed and marginalized Internet fans. We can see how the drama of the victory for the Subtexters highlighted this access and became a pillar of support for the fantasy type of the feedback loop, along with the high drama of Lucy Lawless's accident and the aftermath. On the icon of Xena's Breastplate, I look closely at the sometimes blurred boundaries between TPTB and the HCNBs, exploring what that means for constructions of authority and power in the Xenaverse. The icon of Gabrielle's Staff takes you to "Collecting Themes: Primary Activities in Xenaverse Fandom Culture." Continuing on the path of Xena's Sword takes you into the shifting perspective of "Community," where TPTB are to some extent deposed from their central position. As always, the round Chakram takes you back to the Navigational Map.

 
 

 

 

The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace


Copyright © 1998-2016 Christine Boese, All Rights Reserved
Unless otherwise noted, all photos, sounds, and video clips are the property
of MCA/Universal Studios, and appear here for fair educational use only.



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