Interacting Themes: When Community Becomes the Primary Activity



Community is a nebulous concept. On the path of Xena's Sword a more fully developed definition of community is considered in regard to determinism and resistance. On this node I focus on the fantasy theme of interaction, of relating to others in a community, which is how many Xenites describe themselves and their activities online. Despite what scholars or communitarians might say, many if not most HCNBs who are deeply immersed in the Xenaverse describe it as a "community, " and some, like Evy below, see the interactions online as "family:"

Date: Thurs., 17 Jul 1997 00:30:52 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: "Xenaverse Family"

The Xenaverse,Chakram,gabsclan and all the other mailing list , in my
opinion, are like families. We are like brothers and sisters who care for
each other. I list i see it that way.



If "real" communities exist in the Xenaverse, I believe they develop because of a significant shift in the primary activities of the participants. Collectors in fandom culture, particularly collectors who pursue knowledge about the show almost obsessively, need not forge lasting and interdependent bonds with other collectors in order to get what they want, although some certainly do. Collectors' activities more closely resemble a reciprocal economic exchange, what Sandel (1982) calls the "instrumental approach to community" (as qtd. in Howard 72), where an individual is situated as a more or less autonomous agent independent of the collective. While Sandel (and Howard) include the "instrumental approach" within an "individualistic" conception of community, the focus on reciprocity and the economic aspect model more of what Kit Wilson in the Xenaverse called "The Gimmee Factor." The interactions fall short of what I would define as "community." In dealing specifically with what one gives and gets in return, the idea of community loses its heart.






In fandom culture, the activity of collecting focuses on items and knowledge connected with the show. As fans acquire show memorabilia, they may feel it brings them closer to the show itself. In other words, for fans who are primarily collectors, the center of their activity exists outside of themselves and the online Xenaverse. They must reach out to The Powers That Be (TPTB) in some fashion to acquire what they want. This primary activity also can lead to a certain attitude reflected in rhetoric, the attitude that TPTB are the center of the fandom universe, the fount from whom all blessings flow. While not all collectors are predisposed to say only positive things about TPTB, among avid collectors, language patterns reveal a constant striving to get closer to the show, the stars, and the people who produce it. This deference to TPTB can sometimes become a kind of verbal genuflecting similar to what we see in the AOL chat transcript following the episode "The Bitter Suite," when Tyldus dropped in to see what the fans had to say about the unusual musical format.







An attitude shift occurs, I would argue, among the fans who discover community within fandom culture, whether online or at face-to-face events. While nothing could remove the fantasy theme characters of Xena and Gabrielle, or Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor from their central position as objects of worship and the dynamic force that causes the Xenaverse to cohere, the attitude shift occurs when HCNBs begin bonding with other HCNBs. Interacting and nurturing those bonds become the central fantasy theme action even more so than collecting. Social groups take on a life of their own with activities that only have a marginal connection to the show itself, and friendships begin having greater material effects on HCNBs' lives both inside and outside of cyberspace. Fans organize face-to-face parties and Xenafests, which revolve loosely around the show but exist primarily as social gatherings. Few celebrities are present. HCNBs develop a familiarity with each other and share significant life events with their online friends. People online develop a distinctive ethos, so that their voices are "heard" as known quantities. In some forums an internal system of celebrity develops, often around acclaimed fan fiction authors, prominent web site owners, or Xenaverse journalists and scholars. Quite often I would get a sense of several cliques in operation, of insider and outsider status, shadows of private conversations that went on behind the more public postings. Only through spending time online and forming active friendships myself was I eventually invited to join in some of these private conversations.









Granted, this is a transient, less invested kind of community, as Stephen Doheny-Farina would be quick to point out, but that does not diminish the force of the testimonials of people who write about how their Internet friends have changed their lives. When a prominent Xenite went into a coma following a car accident at the same time as Lucy Lawless's famous accident with the horse, Xenites expressed intense anxiety. When another Xenite passed away, there was respectful mourning. Births are announced, and requests for prayers or good wishes during times of personal stress lead to an avalanche of public and private email. At the time of Princess Diana's death, most Xenaverse discussions were almost completely given over to public mourning as Xenite after Xenite felt compelled to share her grief with a community modeled on the heroism of a warrior princess. They wrote long and highly personal eulogies for what they felt was a real life heroic princess. The outpouring of sentiment online even amazed the British people on the list, as one (living in the United States) wrote:

Date: Tues, 02 Sep 1997 12:40:57 -0400
From: XBass <>
Subject: Thankyou

This weekend my life was (still is) very disorganised as I moved into my still-being-renovated house. So I have had no access to any TV, and no time to spend online. I would just like to say a big thank you to all of you who had such kind words to say about Princess Diana, and to those who sent condolences to all British Xenites. It has meant a lot to me that everyone cares so much - I did not realise that people of all nationalities loved her as much as we do. As always, the XenaVerse is an eye-opener in the best of ways, even in the saddest of times.


May the Gods bless Diana, Princess of Wales, and may she always rest in peace. I loved her.




In some ways it is difficult to demonstrate how the fantasy theme action of interacting in community reveals itself in rhetorical artifacts. Instances that demonstrate the commitment to community don't happen in concentrated bursts like the mourning for Princess Diana. Rather, they reveal themselves in the greetings and short asides, in relationships developed over time, what Howard Rheingold calls "idle talk" and "context-setting." According to Rheingold, "in a virtual community idle talk is context-setting. Idle talk is where people learn what kind of person you are, why you should be trusted or mistrusted, what interests you" (Virtual Community 60). To understand the community of the Xenaverse, I have to rely more on my cumulative ethnographic data on "idle talk," putting together hundreds of instances of "God I love you guys!" and posts like Sugar's below:

Subject: Re: "Xenaverse Family"
X-Juno-Line-Breaks: 0-7,11-13
From: (Cindy H)

On Wed, 16 Jul 1997 21:45:58 -0400 (EDT) writes:

>I wonder if many of we "Xenites" are so attracted to this show because "the cornerstone of the show is the bond of friendship" (to quote Rob Tapert), and we hold friendship as a strong value?

That's a really good point. maybe that's why the people on the XenaVerse resonate this homey feeling. i know i hold friendship very high on my value list. I am always there for my friends when they need me and i will always have that dream to have a friendship like Xena and Gabby's.






One of the most supportive community-building fantasy themes emerged in a virtual roll call thread on "National Coming Out Day." Like a related roll call thread for heterosexuals I coded, ("Heterosexuals for Subtext"), the National Coming Out Day thread gave the lesbian majority and their strong heterosexual supporters a chance to do more than just come out. They shared highly personal stories of life as members of a persecuted minority; they offered support to people who were still too scared to come out; they celebrated their long term relationships; they raised an alarm when a homophobic minister from Kansas was reportedly planning to picket on National Coming Out Day outside of a theater where Lucy Lawless was performing Grease; and they thank the unique mixture of lesbians and friendly heterosexuals who make the Xenaverse a community. Many testify this community gives them strength and moral support.



Although data is building slowly, the initial trends indicate that significant numbers of women (and at least one man) are meeting their future life partners in the Xenaverse. This is not to say that the Xenaverse is a crass meat market, some sort of lesbian answer to the personal ads. I have never been "hit on" in the Xenaverse, although I have been told people do flirt and enter into long private conversations in #xenitepub on IRC. The testimonials I have collected detail extreme personal circumstances. Lovers move across the country or out of the country, as many Xenites come from Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, and the Holland to be together. Women have discovered through the show and the Xenaverse community that they are "woman-identified." Some report leaving their husbands. A few testified that they gained the support and courage to leave abusive situations for the first time. I attended one couple's private online commitment ceremony, which took place in a chat room. The couple walked down a virtual "aisle" and typed their vows as one spectator passed out virtual "tissues" for people who were on the verge of crying.


Even when people don't enter into relationships right away, the Xenaverse attracts a steady stream of straight women, or women who start out announcing themselves as "bi-curious," who claim to have discovered their lesbian sexuality through the Xenaverse. A number of women, some married, have said they were drawn to the Xenaverse because they watched the show and felt an attraction to either Xena or Gabrielle. Once they began interacting with the community of lesbians in the Xenaverse, a number of them "came out." At the same time, I should note that there are quite a few prominent figures in the lesbian subtext-focused sectors of the Xenaverse who are nonetheless solidly heterosexual and extremely comfortable with and supportive of the predominantly lesbian culture. The "roll call" thread on "Heterosexuals for Subtext" demonstrated the strength of their support, as post after post reiterated the theme, coined by one member of the "Xenaverse listserv," "SUBTEXT: IT'S NOT JUST FOR LESBIANS." Repeatedly heterosexuals "outed" themselves as subtext fans, saying it was their primary reason for watching the show. The consensus was that a person did not have to be gay to appreciate a great romance. The presence of these supportive heterosexuals brings a refreshing diversity to the community, because while there can be no majority "heterosexual assumption," there can be no majority "lesbian assumption" either. This factor and other political attitudes give the Xenaverse a rather unique kind of feminism, as Diane Silver wrote in the Subtext FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions):

In one sense, on-line Xena fandom seems to me to be like a grand experiment in diversity and communication. For perhaps the first time, a large number of heterosexuals are interacting with a large number of lesbians/bisexuals and, for once, us lesbians and bisexuals are speaking very openly about our views. I have never come across anything else like this open exchange. And while lesbians and bisexuals are used to hearing the heterosexual viewpoint, few heterosexuals have ever had the opportunity to hear the other point of view because it is so often ignored by the media. (emphasis added)








Lesbians are very sensitive to the homophobic charge that they are "recruiting." But the "recruitment" joke at the end of Ellen Degeneres's coming out episode, about how the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force gives out a toaster oven if one signs up enough new lesbians, has been integrated almost immediately into the gay culture, opening up the once sensitive subject to humor. There are many references to "toaster ovens" in the Xenaverse, a minor fantasy type that became a kind of rhetorical shorthand for people coming out, charges of lesbian recruitment, and relief at the ability to laugh about it. The coming out episode of ABC's prime time show "Ellen" in the Spring of 1997 coincided perfectly with some of the most sexually ambiguous episodes of "Xena." The coincidence led to a galvanizing period of political power and gay pride that buoyed the sense of community in the Xenaverse during the period of my study. The stress and personal risk in coming out raises the level of community connectedness, as an elaborate and important support network is created. For some Xenites, especially those newly "out," it is the most important connection they have. Comparing aspects of what I have observed in the Xenaverse against the important reservations about online community raised by Doheny-Farina, I would conclude that the Xenaverse is >a material, tangible, essential community, albeit centered in the somewhat transient "place" that is cyberspace.










In summary, the fantasy theme action of interacting and relating in a community appears to govern an entire sector of the Xenaverse. Then the obsession with the television show has turned inward, toward others who also occupy these cyberspaces and share similar ideals and goals: creating a safe space for lesbians; placing a high value on friendship and tolerance. These are values modeled on what is seen as the ideal friendship between the fantasy theme characters of Xena and Gabrielle. People who have come through dark times in their lives identify with Xena's strength in overcoming her dark side. Oddly enough, the Xenaverse appears to be a place where such people gather and find others like themselves, looking for the courage to seek redemption, perhaps even looking for a romantic, committed bond like the subtextual reading of the partnership between Xena and Gabrielle seems to idealize. One dominant fantasy theme in the Xenaverse, with both gays and straights, casts the character themes of Xena and Gabrielle as soulmates, bonded for life and inseparable. The theme is so strong that there tends to be a serious backlash against fan fiction stories (or episodes of the television program) that depict Xena or Gabrielle forming a romantic relationship with anyone else. From my time in the Xenaverse, I have come to know how much this online space is populated with romantics and idealists. People who have had their ideals crushed in the past have testified that they are learning to believe in love, romance, and ethical values of justice and integrity again. We will especially see how this idealism is expressed through the creative products of the Xenaverse, the romantic fan fiction, in the Fan Fiction sector of this dissertation.


Perhaps the best way to summarize the community of the Xenaverse is to give voice to an example of how they describe themselves. In what follows, Vashti, Fashion Advisor to the Amazons, attempts to quell a tiresome flame war through a lighthearted "Top Ten" list,

Top Ten Things we KNOW about the Xenaverse

10. We are all much given to hyperbole. (Oh, and don't forget exaggeration, and generalization!)

9. We will never, ever agree on Joxer. It's ok. (If he looked exactly like YOUR husband, you'd be afraid to diss him, too! Hee hee)

8. We will never, ever all agree on the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. (Those two characters could kiss openly on the mouth, make love by the campfire, and go shopping for rings together, and there would be those among us who would claim something else was happening.)

7. We all care TREMENDOUSLY about the show "Xena Warrior Princess." (If we did not, we would not be so strong in our respective opinions and positions.)

6. There will be some serious crimes committed if we don't get some new episodes soon. (The men of Xenaverse are getting an acutely personal insight into what PMS feels like!.)

5. We're all careening a little bit out of control here. (Sort of like the real world, huh!)

4. A large number of us cannot spell or type in our posts. (An even larger number of us have acquired the gift of translation in order to read those posts. Hey, I'm putting it on my resume.)

3. We all think that we are "damned right and don't you forget it!" (It's hard when we're the intellectual elite of the Internet.)

2. We are a marvelous diverse cross-section of world society, in unique connection because of XWP. (ABBA should write a SONG about us!).

1. A large number of us should use our saddlehorns more often. (And others of us get burrs beneath our merkins and codpieces.)

Submitted by

Lieutenant to Athena
Fashion Advisor to the Amazons
Keeper of the Merkins

P.s. Did someone mention "warm woolen mittens?" Try a muff - it's EVER so fashionable


I discuss the various demographics that make up the Xenaverse community in the Xenaverse in Cyberspace sector of this dissertation. The icon of Xena's Sword moves into a discussion of the power of fantasy themes of rebellion in the Xenaverse community. The icon of Xena's Breastplate looks at the effects of the Xenaverse community beyond the world of cyberspace, as fantasy themes of "Livin' Like Xena" influence Xenites in real life (IRL).




The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

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