Entry: Making Contact with the Xenaverse Culture


One way to understand the social culture and community of the Xenaverse is through the story of one person's entry and movement in the Xenaverse. This is my story. I didn't come to the Xenaverse through any kind of front door. I wasn't there from the beginning, so somewhere along the way I had to learn histories of past events out of sequence, through tales told and retold so often they became a kind of folklore, with significant events remembered the same way face-to-face community members would remember the tornado of '87, with a personal spin on where they were when it hit, and what they did afterwards.




Because discourse creates the social reality of the Xenaverse through a variety of texts, these texts interweave throughout my own story, since the story is not mine alone, and perspectives on it are diverse and multiple. The Xenaverse is a collectively created virtual landscape. Yet if a person didn't know the Xenaverse was there, it could easily be invisible and almost was to the mainstream public, until the popular media discovered it in the summer and fall of 1997.


I was not immersed in the Xenaverse when Lucy Lawless, the lead actress who plays Xena, fell with a horse on pavement October 8, 1996 while filming a skit for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," an event which rocked the Xenaverse in significant ways. Some time later, in the spring of 1997, I was deep in tunnel-vision, a time in my life when I didn't keep up with mainstream news reports, so I almost missed the embarrassing incident when Lawless popped out of her skimpy costume while singing the national anthem for a Detroit Red Wings hockey game, exposing her left breast on national TV. I was really a Jenny-come-lately. In the beginning, I wasn't too keen on the television show at all.




I had heard rumors drifting around the Internet, back before January 1997. They regarded a show about a strong woman and her friend, hero and sidekick. Some feminists cheered, but Gabrielle's subordinate role and tag-along relationship with Xena did nothing to entice me to watch. I put it on the bottom of a list of something to watch for after alien encounters and prophecies of the apocalypse, as another diversion to pass the time.


Eventually I came across "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" while channel surfing. I found it intensely painful to watch; the acting was just bad, the situations absurd. Aphrodite surfed in and said "That is so not cool, Cupid!" The modern slang sounded ridiculous coming out of people dressed in what were supposed to be ancient costumes. A fight broke out and I thought it looked more stagey than All-Star Wrestling. I turned the channel to something else very quickly.


Still, the rumors floated over the Nets, and one feminist list I was on even had a little debate about whether Xena and Gabrielle were lovers. What was I missing? I forced myself to tune in to "Xena." The dialogue was still terrible. All the heroine did was frown and beat people up. She had a few good one-liners, but it would be a some time before I came to appreciate Lucy Lawless's strikingly pale blue eyes and darkly handsome good looks. Xena doesn't fit the waifish Western runway model's style of beauty either, and that is part of her appeal, frequently mentioned by many in the Xenaverse. Lawless is 5'9" and fills out her costume like a statuesque warrior. Ironically, the mainstream press always comments on how much smaller and less muscular Lawless appears to be in person. In real life she is much more slender than her armored appearance on the show would make it seem.


Her sidekick Gabrielle, played by Renee O'Connor, is actually more muscular than she is, especially with her famous, revealed and "cut" abdominal muscles. O'Connor, a 5'4" reddish-blonde, gives her weight as 120 pounds and recently told the Los Angeles Times,

"I might as well be honest. I mean, I know that my body shape is not the same as a lot of actresses on television who are very thin and model-like, but I'm grateful that I am playing a character who's athletic, who runs around with a warrior princess, so I can do things where I might look bulkier, but I feel strong and healthy."


I had planned to look for the suggestive friendship between Xena and Gabrielle because of the rumors I'd heard on the Internet, but the first episode of Xena I ever watched was a show revolving around token boyfriends for Xena and Gabrielle-- boyfriends who would either die or have to leave suddenly by the end of the program. At the time what I saw looked like the worst kind of heterosexually-focused, leering portrayal of a friendship between two women. In other words, what I saw looked like a lesbian tease to turn on straight men, with the obligatory boyfriends around to reassure the same straight men that Xena and Gabrielle weren't "man-haters." And to some extent, my observation may well have been accurate. But much later I would learn that there was much more to the story, both in the subtext and in the maintext. At the time, I decided to give the rumors I'd heard another chance. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to continue watching.


Eventually I grew to enjoy a kind of mindless escape while watching the program. I think it started on a very bad day. It felt damn good to watch Xena kick some warlord butt. I was so fired up I even started working out again at the gym. I would call this the second stage of my entry into the Xenaverse, one step beyond simple curiosity, what some have characterized as a "guilty pleasure." A guilty pleasure is something you enjoy doing, but you don't want anybody to know you are doing it. One journalist recently removed "Xena" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from the list of "guilty pleasure" shows that include "Walker, Texas Ranger," and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." He claimed something had happened to "Xena" and "Buffy" to make them "hip," so that it was no longer embarrassing to admit to watching them. For "Xena," the answer to the something that happened can be found in the demographics of the Xenaverse. 





While the audience for "Hercules" remains primarily adolescent boys, Xena developed an older audience comprised mostly of women and some men, many of them (but not all) lesbian or bisexual, people with an appreciation for campy humor and the intense relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, both in comedies and what people online call the "angsty" episodes. But I was still embarrassed to admit that I had started taping episodes so I could watch Xena beat someone up whenever I felt beaten down myself. Xena's character, a strong woman with a smart mouth who doesn't take any guff, inspired me to stand up for myself more, and dozens of people have repeated the same feelings to me privately and in public forums. It has become a standard refrain both online and in the mainstream press. At the time I didn't see much happening in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle however. I watched but did not tape two episodes now famous online for the way they deal with the "subtext" in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle: "Callisto," with a notoriously intimate and touching campfire scene, and "The Quest," with the kiss from beyond the grave. (Xena contacts Gabrielle from the underworld after she has died prematurely.) The kiss intrigued me, but it happened so fast I quickly forgot it. I wished I had been taping so I could see it again. After that, I began taping every episode, on Extra Long Play mode, a setting I would later regret because of the poor recording quality.









My next step into the Xenaverse was a big leap, and others online have offered testimonials about the effect of this one particular episode, "A Day in the Life," leading them to the online Xenaverse as well. The number of fan fiction stories spawned from this episode also indicates the its effect. "The Quest" and "A Day in the Life" are the two most often used jumping off points for subtext-focused romantic fan fiction. "A Day in the Life" is a light comedy which chronicles a typical day in Xena and Gabrielle's traveling warrior and bard lifestyle. I was taping the episode and noticed that it was really quite funny and well-done, with the bantering competition between the two characters throughout the episode faintly masking their obvious camaraderie and sexual chemistry. Numerous double entendres seemed to play directly into the suggestion that Xena and Gabrielle were more than friends. For example, a peasant man in a village threatened by a giant develops a crush on Xena. (The studio-produced trailers call it "A crushing giant and a giant crush.") While Xena is fishing, the man asks Gabrielle if Xena would ever think about getting married and settling down. Gabrielle laughs and says, "Oh, she likes what I do" as a fish hits her in the face, interrupting her. Gabrielle puts the fish down, wipes the slime off her face and corrects herself, saying, "I think she likes what she's doing."








The light-hearted jokes teased the audience, bringing them along in the spirit of the game. Then came the now-famous hot tub scene: Xena and Gabrielle bathing together, scrubbing each other's backs. The long scene was shot in one take with a stationary camera, right up to the friendly argument that turned into a screaming and laughing water fight. I was yelling and laughing along with them, all the while frantically phoning my friends, wanting them to turn on the program because I could not believe what I was watching. Never on television had I seen a deep, loving friendship between women represented with such eroticism, not even on "Ellen," which had very little sexual tension even after the "Coming Out" episode on April 30, 1997 (with the exception of the scene with Laura Dern, which did have a certain tension to it).


How can I explain the effect of seeing favorable media representation of a type of experience that has been up until now completely hidden and thus invisible in mainstream television? Courtship between women proceeds from friendships with this kind of romantic tension, and all over the world women recognized themselves in it and felt . . . strong. There! Us! Liz Friedman, an openly gay co-producer of "Xena" in an interview called us "representationally-starved queers," but that doesn't really capture a sense of deprivation from seeing so rarely an image of your life anywhere in the constant bombardment of mainstream media. The much-heralded accomplishment of "Ellen" pales in comparison. That intense, exhilarating feeling is one of the primary reasons for the Xenaverse's existence and energy, to connect with others and celebrate it. The spring of 1997 was a fine time for lesbian pride and solidarity, and waves of it washed over the online Xenaverse, which I was about to enter. Lucy Lawless, in a WPIX (WB) New York City television interview in September of 1997, publicly thanked her lesbian fans for making her show "hip." Even the star of "Hercules," Kevin Sorbo, was quoted as complaining about how "Xena," a "Hercules" spin-off, had eclipsed his show because of the lesbian fans. This remark both angered and puzzled Xenites, who, in an online discussion over the quotation, wanted to know how such a small number of people, if lesbians were a minority within the dominant heterosexual culture, could make a television program into a hit.







With "A Day in the Life," something important did hit the Internet. The show had technically been a hit in syndication for some time already. Internet fans had been avidly watching the subtext from the beginning. However, I would eventually catalog posts from many people who cited the middle of Season 2 as their time of arrival in the online Xenaverse. As I mentioned above, the volume of fan fiction stories increased substantially at this time, as did the number of personal, non-commercial Xena web sites. At the definitive fan fiction link catalog which I began to check regularly, I watched the total number of stories catalogued go from 800 to 1,000 relatively quickly through the rest of the spring and summer. At the "Xena Online Resources" site which attempts to track the total number of Xena Web pages, I watched the number climb from 600 to more than 1,000.



After wearing out my tape of "A Day in the Life" (I swore I would never record on Extra Long Play mode again; people online teased me good naturedly about it, implying that no serious fan would be caught dead taping on ELP), one late night, I decided to hit the Universal Studios "Xena" Web site address posted at the close of the program. I had never gone to a television program's Web site before, although such sites for soap operas and the "X-Files" had become widely known. 


The MCA Universal Pictures Xena Page is not the best portal for entry into the Xenaverse. (I discuss specific features of the commercial site's interface in more detail on the path of Xena's Sword) The site crashed my computer several times because it was such a slow load and took so much memory. Eventually I got the correct amount of memory alloted to my browser, increased the disk cache size, and after a long wait, managed to get the whole page to load.


However disappointing the MCA/Universal Xena Site is, it remains the first point of contact with the Internet Xenaverse for most people. It does have two valuable links, one to the Xena Online Adventure Game (Arcade-style) and one to the Xena NetForum. If for some reason NetForum, the asynchronous, maddeningly slow, Web-based threaded discussion board, does not provide a newbie with initial social contacts in the Xenaverse, it at least gives her or him a hint of the larger culture out there. In my case the official Xena Web Site and especially NetForum drove me away because I had to constantly wait for the screen to refresh in order to read the next message.This could be the result of high traffic, as several Xenite testimonials confirm that this was not always the case. I made no social contacts on NetForum, although I did register and post to it several times. The ethos of NetForum in particular is a subject I will return to on the path of Xena's Sword.


Obviously something happened to give me entry into the online Xenaverse culture. One day while at work, I thought to try again with a faster, ethernet connection. However I could not remember the MCA/Universal Xena web address. Instead I went to a web search engine and turned up hundreds of links for the keyword "Xena," and with that I finally made contact. The noncommercial Xenaverse was a rich and massive online presence that actually seemed to need the "official" web site not at all.


As weeks went by, I returned again and again to the web of bookmarks I was collecting. Some paths became "well-worn" as I made numerous repeat visits, digging deeper into digital archives and other resources that lie beneath the surface greetings from the idiosyncratic web owners. From the hit rate counters the sites displayed, it became clear to me that I was not alone. These sites generated a great deal of repeat traffic. I remember feeling astonished the day I saw that Tom Simpson's "Tom's Xena Page" reached a half million hits. Eight months later, well into formal data-gathering for my research, I barely batted an eye when the count passed one million. Tom's Page is easily the most widely known and respected Xenaverse institution to both insiders and to the mainstream media. I discuss specific features of Tom's Site in more detail on path of Xena's Sword. The story of Tom Simpson goes beyond his popular web site, however. His story is one of many you will hear, of how his life was affected by the television program and the Xenaverse.




The Web gives the online Xenaverse a virtual "center" of sorts, a center diffused through hundreds of links, yet connected through resource catalogs, hot lists, and web rings. The "placeness" of the Web gives Xenites somewhere "to go," but Web surfing can also be a solitary experience. A surfer can't "see" her fellow travelers on the information superhighway. There's no honking and waving on the road. People's voices speak from their highly personal web pages, so there is some sense of connection, yet it is usually a static experience even with some of the dynamically updated content on the major Xena web sites. To find the pulse of the Xenaverse, one has to go to where the conversations are more directly recorded, to where the space between conversational turns narrows, to web-based discussion boards, public and private listservs, America Online or IRC chat rooms, or even in the sometimes clunky interfaces of web-based chat rooms. On the path of Xena's Sword I discuss specific features of these interfaces in more depth. That node discusses specific individual features of the Xenaverse landscape while considering some issues raised by the impact of interactivity on the prevailing ethos of various forms of communication, both electronic and face to face, individual and mass media.


This is just a sampling of the richness of the Xenaverse culture and a few of the significant landmarks that make up the Web spaces of the Xenaverse. I could not begin to give a comprehensive look at all of them, although in my analysis of Fandom Culture, Community, and Fan Fiction, I will examine the rhetoric of many of these sites in more depth. To learn more about specific features of the Xenaverse, take Xena's Sword icon below, to go to "Initiation: Ethos and Interaction Across the Virtual Landscape of the Xenaverse." The icon of Xena's Breastplate will take you on to "Integration: Social Groups and Argumentative Alliances." Continuing on the path of Gabrielle's Staff will lead on into the analysis of my data in Fandom Culture. As always, the Chakram will take you back to the Navigational Map.


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

Copyright © 1998-2021 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.