Collecting Themes: Primary Activities in Xenaverse Fandom Culture



Some of the most prominent activities discussed in the Xenaverse are very similar to the primary activities of traditional fandom cultures outside of the Internet: collecting and trading memorabilia related to the TV show. This is the emblematic action fantasy theme which has been socially chained out in the discourse for the sector of the Xenaverse I have labeled "Fandom Culture." Other activities surround collecting, enrich collecting, perhaps even take precedence over collecting, but for my purposes here, collecting stands as a symbol for what many in the Xenaverse want most as fans: to get as close as possible to the show itself.


The show, "Xena: Warrior Princess," is the object of their attention and, by extension, the actors on the show are idealized fantasy theme characters. Fans talk about them, want to know more about them, relentlessly hunt down any tidbit of information about them- both the characters they play and the people they are in real life (IRL). Others fall into this central spotlight as well, creating character themes which will reappear again and again throughout this analysis: directors, producers, film editors, writers, many known by name, some even known by an online email address or "handle" (nickname). Collectively, the people who put together the show are known as The Powers That Be (TPTB). Filling out the dramatis personae for most online fantasy themes are the fans themselves, cast as Hardcore Nutballs (HCNBs), or Xenites.


The most traditional side of collecting involves joining a fan club, of which there are many in the Xenaverse, some official, some not. Creation Entertainment, the commercial (and monopolistic) sponsor of most of the face-to-face Xena Conventions, is also the sponsor of the official Xena Fan Club, which publishes a print newsletter and sends fans a package by postal mail. This package generates considerable excitement in online discourse when people join the club in numbers and a chorus of fans post crowing messages online, all saying the same thing: "I've got my purple box!" The box includes photographs and a bloopers tape from the show, which are also exclaimed over and used to tease people who are still anxiously checking their mailboxes. After the excitement of the purple boxes had died down, there were still other goodies from Creation to be exclaimed over: a glossy color Xena calendar full of some never-seen-before photos; and a monthly photo club which promises to deliver batches of exclusive 8x10 glossies taken during filming.


Because the Internet facilitates one-to-one contact, there are few people online who don't know about "Sharon from Creation." Sharon Delaney, the fan club president employed by Creation is a warm and friendly presence online. She is the official conduit through which Lucy Lawless posts email notes to the Xenaverse. Sharon frequently solicits fan input on which photos to select, and she conducts most of the interviews with the actors and TPTB for the fan club newsletter. Sharon is an interesting character fantasy theme as she is invoked in online dramas, functioning as a high priestess who stands on the borderlands between the power of TPTB and the masses of HCNBs, going to TPTB on the fans' behalf. Although she is paid by TPTB to put out a good spin from a public relations standpoint, many fans see her as a true ally who dares to ask TPTB hard questions at times (such as about the brutal "Gabdrag" at the beginning of the episode "The Bitter Suite"). Without the Internet, Diane Silver, a Xenaverse journalist, wrote, "We wouldn't know that Ms. Delaney, deep in her heart, is a true fan of XWP."



Renee O'Connor's mother (a gregarious Texan affectionately known by most fans as "MommaROC") oversees the Renee O'Connor Fan Club (Renee plays Xena's sidekick,Gabrielle), which also publishes a print newsletter. MommaROC was also present for the "Gabgames" at the October 4-5, 1997 Valley Forge (PA) Xena Convention, and several fans have had contact with her online. MommaROC is such a well-known character fantasy theme online that periodically someone will impersonate her on NetForum, pretending to give out (fabricated) inside information. Because it is easy to impersonate various well-known online "handles" on NetForum, a number of members are often conned into believing they are really talking to one of TPTB.



There is an unofficial Lucy Lawless Fan Club, as well as fan clubs for most of the prominent minor characters on the show, most notably for the actors who play Callisto, Ares, Autolycus, Salmonius, and Joxer. Also remarkable are the growing numbers of international fan clubs which have prominent Web sites and members who work very hard to keep a regular schedule of Xena episodes running on their sometimes indifferent television networks. (Note: some markets in the United States also have programming problems, with stations that are quick to pre-empt Xena for baseball, or to change the programming time without warning.) Fans in the U.S. and around the world have created a standard fantasy theme drama about "villainous" television stations treating syndicated shows as filler, cutting off scenes, putting commercials in the middle of a scene, and committing other offenses that drive the avid videotaping fan crazy. Some fan rhetoric even polarizes the drama into the accusation that independent TV stations are censoring the show's content for decency, and so some fans report that they have become hypervigilant in comparing taped reruns, to make sure that not a bit of skin or violence was cut out. In all, programming problems alone keep the worldwide trade in bootleg videotapes going strong. There are also international sites dedicated to the translation of popular fan fiction into Spanish and German, as well as the hosting of original fan fiction written in those languages.



Traditional memorabilia can also be bought at face-to-face conventions, from T-shirts to shot glasses to $300 black leather Xena jackets, but by far the hottest place to be at a Con is at the "Picture Table." Early on at a Convention the line at the picture table can run all the way around the showroom floor. At the front of the line there is a constant scramble to grab pictures quickly, before the best shots run out.



At least three different women at the Valley Forge Convention, all in their 20s, told of deliberately maxing their credit cards on memorabilia, even though they didn't have the money to pay the bill. "Ah, who cares? They'll get their money when they get it," was a college student's response to the prospect of having to pay off a large American Express balance in a single month. A woman I sat with in the Ballroom said she was supposed to be saving her money for a trip to New Zealand. I held her seat as she went out on one of the breaks, and when she returned she had bought two very heavy and quite sharp swords, each over three feet long, from one of the medieval weapons tables also set up in the showroom. Money seemed to flow quite freely at the Cons, but most of what I saw changing hands were credit cards. I came away from the Con with the impression that collecting "Xenastuff" was a very intense fantasy theme action which chained out even more in the face-to-face setting of the Con, motivated from the frenzy of people in line grabbing photos or buying quickly. Back in the Ballroom, as people in the seats around the collectors admired their booty, the fantasy theme action seemed to be valorized, and the heroic quest for "Xenastuff" was redeemed.





Another prominent activity at the Cons that seems to epitomize the ultimate in collecting is the Costume Contest. Young and old, HCNBs put a great deal of work into fashioning intricate costumes, often in leather, modeled after Xena, Gabrielle, or Callisto (the three most popular), as well as Autolycus, Hercules, generic Amazons, Princess Diana (a Xena-look-alike), or even Janice and Mel (Xena and Gabrielle's 1940s descendants). For a time Xenites become the character. At the Valley Forge Convention, Deborah Abbott (shown below) traveled from Texas to win the contest (she also took similar honors at the Burbank (CA) Convention). Another contestant (shown at right) traveled to Valley Forge with a group from Belgium. The crowd at the Con was mixed racially and ethnically, and an African American woman in a blonde wig, dressed as Gabrielle, entered the costume contest to great cheers. A tall, husky man with a moustache also entered the contest dressed as Xena.



Collecting and trading are both activities facilitated and in some ways initiated by the Internet, and these online activities don't cost a thing except in access time and memory space. Some of the largest web sites in the Xenaverse are devoted primarily to providing electronic artifacts from the show, most of them created in direct violation of the copyright. Ironically, in a somewhat delayed commercial response to such developments online, Business Wire in the spring of 1998 announced a new company, CyberAction. The new products are, digital trading cards, with digital video on one "side" of the virtual "cards." It is far too early to judge the success of such a venture, and a great deal will depend on the interface of the "cards" and the medium set up for trading. Actual cardboard Xena trading cards and a preview version of a Xena card game (somewhat like "Magic") have found a receptive audience in the Xenaverse among people who also collect and trade comic books, or who come from a background of Dungeons and Dragons-style gaming from the science fiction and fantasy culture. The Xena Card Game is scheduled to be released in 1999.




In the Xenaverse online, the most popular noncommercial archives consist of digitized screen captures and scanned images from magazine articles or other photographs. Certain Web sites are known for the quality of their image collections. Using primarily the .jpg compression format, these sites can archive thousands of images. Some digital artists also take the images and compile them into montages and banners, which are also appreciated and praised in the various discussion groups.

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What do fans do with these digital images? Some fans can output them to color printers. Many customize their desktops with Xena screensavers, wallpaper, and icons, both at home and at work. And some fans just have them to have them. With a click of a mouse button, one can save an image to one's hard drive. Ironically, some sites have become quite proprietary about their vast image collections, such as Chris "KNerys," who strongly requested that no one take the images without crediting the source. KNerys and others are presuming to claim ownership of the images because they put the work into making the screen captures. However, they are disregarding the fact that all the images were reproduced without permission of Renaissance Pictures or MCA/Universal, which is presently turning a blind eye toward the Internet copying. Fox, on the other hand, has issued cease and desist orders to corresponding "X-Files" sites. What these Web site owners seem to resent is the lifting of whole archives from their sites by noncommercial competitors who then create their own archive sites. KNerys said that if she rented the necessary disk space and maintained the archive out of love for the show, she ought to get credit as the source of the images, and people ought to ask her permission to use them. She told me she is most disturbed with people taking the bulk of her image collection in order to create competing archive sites.




Fan-created original artwork is one common feature of face-to-face science fiction fandom which is not yet as rich in the Xenaverse, although sites seem to be increasing. The ease of capture and manipulation of digital images in the Internet-dominated fandom culture of the Xenaverse could be the reason. Time could be the other factor. The rich collections of artwork found by Camille Bacon-Smith and Constance Penley in the Star Trek fan cultures had many years to be created, and the Xenaverse has only been in existence for three. While some drawings and other artwork are starting to appear on Web sites, they are not at the level of sophistication as the work I have seen from Star Trek fandom as presented in Bacon-Smith's book. There are indications online that, while the Spring/Summer of 1997 saw an explosion of fan fiction during what fans call Xena Withdrawal Syndrome (XWS: symptoms appear during summer reruns), 1998 XWS may see an explosion of hand-drawn or painted artwork.




The second most commonly found collectable digital items online are sound files, again captured from the show. Because the show puts out many quotable one-liners, people can take the sounds and customize their computers with them, but again some people collect sounds just to have them to play, for whatever reason. Many HCNBs eventually purchase the three Xena Soundtrack musical CDs as well. Digital video files are much more difficult to find, but some sites have them. The most complete online collection seems to reside in a collaboration between Tom Simpson and the Fourth Horseman (the site has since gone down), who has sophisticated video editing and digitizing equipment. Unfortunately video clip files can be huge and take forever to download, and they require an enormous commitment of memory space from the archive owner.




Like the Star Trek fan culture, the Xenaverse puts considerable effort into creating edited music videos, or what Constance Penley calls "songtapes." These are edited visual excerpts from the show arranged around a particular theme and set to music, often popular romantic songs. These tapes are played at parties and traded through the mail or at Cons and Fests, the videotapes being much too large to digitize. Creation Entertainment has dabbled in the making of music videos as well, and they are a memorable part of the entertainment at Cons, using such songs as Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," Pat Benatar's "Holding Out for a Hero," and Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." However none of the Creation music videos have been released to fans in spite of considerable requests for them. The songtapes themselves reveal strong fantasy themes in the Xenaverse culture, with the most popular and requested songtapes being the ones that highlight the steadfastness of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship (such as "Wind Beneath My Wings"). While the syrupy sentimentality and longing looks highlighted on the tapes may be too much for some, they are coveted items.



The last item collected online gets an analysis category of its own because it has spawned an entire industry numbering more than 1,500 catalogued items at the time of this writing. I am referring to fan fiction, one of the greatest natural resources of the Xenaverse. While stories can be read online, many fan fiction fans save their favorites to their hard drives or print them out for bedtime reading. The popularity of fan fiction provides an interesting counter example for media theorists who claim that reading long blocks of text onscreen will never catch on. Some of the most highly acclaimed fan fiction is novel-length, from 100-200 text pages, with some going as high as 500-page historical epics. Online I heard very little complaining about the difficulties of screen reading, and only a few reported that they printed out stories to read. A small industry of fan fiction audio tapes exists in certain circles, as some fans have taken it upon themselves to read some of the most popular fan fiction stories on tape and then share them with their circle of friends, who report that they like listening to them in their cars on long trips or when stuck in traffic.


In summary, the fantasy theme action of collecting show memorabilia dominates much of the external activity in Fandom Culture. This action has a deeper motivation behind it than mere acquisition. Through the collection of Xenastuff, fans are striving to get closer to the show itself, to make parts of it their own. On one hand, the need to get closer is a strong indication of the distance that exists between TV shows and their audiences. The peculiar style of face-to-face interaction with the stars that has evolved into the Con experience provides perhaps the greatest testament to the strength of the barrier the television tube erects between the shows and their audiences. On the other hand, the need to be closer to the show can be seen as a natural outgrowth of the pleasure, admiration, love, and even obsession some fans develop for the show, its actors, and TPTB. The show, the actors, and TPTB are the fount from whom all blessings flow, the heros who provide a product that goes beyond entertainment and touches something profound in the fans who are truly extremist in their obsession with the show. The show is the central object in their dramas, the focus of their attention.





The icon of Xena's Sword explores deeper fantasy themes that arise from a fandom culture built on collecting-- themes which affect constructions of authority in the Xenaverse. The icon of Xena's Breastplate looks at the most pervasive fantasy theme motivation underlying collecting: knowing. Continuing on the path of Gabrielle's Staff 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 © 1998-2021 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.