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The Rise of a Legendary Warrior Princess and Her Unintentional LGBTQ Legacy



In the mid-1990s, the television landscape was not forever changed with the arrival of a powerful, brave, and iconically dressed warrior woman named Xena. Xena: Warrior Princess burst onto the scene as a spin-off from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, captivating audiences with its mix of fantasy, action, and a healthy dose of campy humor. While the show may have seemed like just another supernatural drama at first glance, it didn’t take long for Xena to develop a passionate cult following within the LGBTQ community – a following that has persisted for over two decades. 

Xena’s origins were humble. The character was initially introduced in 1995 as a villainous warlord bent on killing Hercules. However, actress Lucy Lawless’s charismatic portrayal of the role struck such a chord with viewers that plans quickly changed. Just one year later, Xena was reborn as the star of her own series, which ran for six seasons until 2001. Gone was the murderous villain, replaced by a heroic yet morally complex woman seeking redemption for her dark past.

At the heart of Xena’s appeal was the character herself – an unapologetically strong female lead who defied convention and shattered stereotypes. In an era where many women on television were depicted as damsels in distress, Xena was a fierce warrior who could take down the biggest, burliest foes with her iconic chakram (a circular throwing weapon) and lethal martial arts skills. She was feared and respected, yet also displayed a strong moral code and warmth that made her immensely likable.

Adding layers of depth was Xena’s accompanying Travelling companion, Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). What began as a traditional student-mentor dynamic between the bard and warrior blossomed into one of television’s most iconic female friendships, fueled by chemistry and subtext that sent fans into a frenzy.

“Xena has been embraced by the LGBTQ community for several reasons,” says Jarrah Hodge, co-founder of HeroCorp Productions and host of the Xena: Warrior Podcast. “Obviously her very close relationship with Gabrielle and the deeply intense bond they shared resonated strongly with a lot of viewers who saw themselves represented in that.”

Indeed, while Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was never officially confirmed as romantic, even casual viewers couldn’t help but pick up on the intimate undertones and building sexual tension that permeated their storylines. The writing was purposefully ambiguous, teasing at a “will they or won’t they” dynamic that titillated fans. Coupled with an array of subversive tongue-in-cheek humor and lesbian/LGBTQ allegories, it’s no surprise that LGBTQ viewers saw Xena as a groundbreaking pop culture milestone representing their experiences.

“For many lesbians in the 90s, especially young ones coming to terms with their identities, this show quite literally changed their lives,” Hodge explains. “Even though the term ‘queer-baiting’ wasn’t used yet, Xena was a perfect example of that in a way that brought so much joy and yes, frustration to fans.”

Furthering the show’s LGBTQ legacy were the creatives behind the scenes. Xena’s producers were well aware of the program’s appeal within the LGBTQ community and actively embraced it, empowering the series with rare positive LGBTQ representation during an era where it was still sorely lacking. The writers frequently included LGBTQ characters and subtextual nods, while crew members helped nurture Xena’s ascent as a queer icon behind the scenes.

“All the writers and staff were incredibly aware of the lesbian following,” says Brent Fletcher, an award-winning author who worked in Xena’s publicity department. “We embraced it and celebrated it. The show could have really suffered commercially in that time period with such clear subtext, but we put it in front of the censors and they approved it. Xena was and still is an incredibly queer-positive show.”

In addition to breaking barriers for LGBTQ representation, Xena’s feminist roots cannot be overstated. The show placed a heavy emphasis on depicting positive female role models, encouraging girls to be true to themselves, and exploring womanhood in all its complexities. It helped shatter conventional standards of femininity and female agency, offering a stark counterpoint to the hypersexualized “girl power” attitude that was prevalent in other contemporaneous programs. 

More importantly, Xena was one of the first mainstream series to depict the full range and diversity of womanhood. The series featured numerous strong female characters beyond just the two leads, showcasing women of different races, body types, and walks of life. Even villainous women were written as complex, nuanced individuals rather than reductive stereotypes.

“Xena wasn’t afraid to show women as gritty, physical warriors who could get down and dirty,” Fletcher remarks. “But it also showed women who were intelligent, caring and sensitive leaders. There was an amazing balance of different personalities and skill sets among its female characters.”

Thanks to these empowering themes and its self-aware subversive humor, Xena achieved a passionate worldwide following that exponentially grew through word-of-mouth, fan conventions, and the then-burgeoning online community. Even after the series concluded, its devoted LGBTQ fanbase has kept the Xenite community thriving for over 20 years.

“You couldn’t be on social media in any kind of queer circle in the late 90s/2000s without hearing about Xena,” Hodge recalls. “Even people who had never seen the show knew it was an important piece of culture.” Online platforms like message boards and Usenet groups facilitated passionate debates about the two leads’ subtextually romantic relationship and queer undertones. Conventions were attended en masse by lesbian fans dressed in Xena garb. The show’s popularization of the term “Xenites” for followers represented how it had evolved beyond just a TV program into an empowering identity and movement for many.

While recent years have brought a surge of more overt LGBTQ representation in media, Xena’s legacy as a pioneering force for the community remains as vital as ever. Its cult status has expanded beyond just the LGBTQ sphere into larger facets of popular culture, with numerous reboots and revivals being perpetually teased amid overwhelming fan demand. A new age of young queer viewers continue discovering the show and relating to its positive messaging.

“For a whole generation of us, Xena and her badass lady crew were our first brush with source material that felt made for queer audiences, even if it was watered down for television,” Hodge affirms. “That show’s courage and the fierceness of its fanbase cannot be overstated.”

In the end, Xena’s unlikely ascension into an LGBTQ pop culture phenomenon is a testament to the power of subversive representation. Much like its protagonist who prevailed against all odds, Xena: Warrior Princess resonated in ways its creators likely never anticipated. By fearlessly projecting women as authoritative heroes while celebrating the inextricable bonds of sisterhood and chosen families, the series carved an indelible legacy that continues inspiring and empowering LGBTQ viewers worldwide.

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