In a time of pop-savvy adolescent couch potatoes, urbane camp addicts, and postfeminist professionals, a land in turmoil cried out for a heroine: She was Xena, a mighty princess, forged in the heat of prime-time syndication.
Striding through the TV landscape in truly mythic fashion, our heroine has dealt a decisive blow to her competition in record time. Midway through its second season, the Universal Television fantasy-adventure series Xena: Warrior Princess regularly beats syndication champs Baywatch and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, not to mention the sibling lead-in from which it was spun off, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Earlier this year, the show even won its Saturday prime-time slot against network competition in New York and L.A.
Xena’s weapons? A snarky, kitchen-sink warping of one of TV’s most notoriously formulaic genres — the superhero odyssey. And the introduction of a lead character (played by Lucy Lawless) who has single-handedly upped the ante on women’s place on television. As Xena, the Amazonian Lawless traverses the known world — with faithful sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor) in tow — defending the defenseless, righting wrongs, and vanquishing anyone who gets in her way. Each episode affords a plethora of ass-kicking opportunities, in giddily absurd, hyperkinetic action sequences equally reminiscent of Jackie Chan and TV’s Batman: See Xena vanquish foes with her trusty chakram, a razor-sharp metal circlet she hurls with ludicrous accuracy and force! See Xena vault into multiple midair somersaults! Hear Xena’s ”Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!” battle cry, a bansheelike wail her fans avidly ape!
Lately, those fans have become legion. Like Star Trek and The X-Files before it, Xena is speeding toward that most oxymoronic of distinctions, mainstream cultdom. Evidence includes the first official convention (in Burbank, in January), numerous Xena-fests (organized by fans), Xena-themed apparel, trading cards, fanzines, action figures, CD-ROMs, and a Web presence of more than 60 sites and counting. Perhaps more indicative of Xena’s pop-culture infiltration are the increasing homages on network television: Both Roseanne and Something So Right have featured Xena doppelgangers.
What separates Xena from its cult predecessors is its ability to reach a variety of rabid audience segments on totally different levels. There’s something — and something quite different — for everyone. For the married-with-children set, the show offers nearly bloodless action and a morality tale in which good triumphs over evil. Feminists like Dana Eskenazi, a 37-year-old schoolteacher from New York, see a take-no-crap grrrl breathing fresh air into an estrogen-deprived genre. ”There hasn’t been a female TV character who is totally independent of a male figure in her life,” says Eskenazi. ”This is a woman who can fight — and beat — men, who walks the world like so many male adventurers have.”
And Xena’s invasion of a staunchly male domain, by the way, doesn’t offend straight guys. Hardly: ”What’s not to like? The show is a scream. Xena’s a total babe. Not only that, she’s a babe who likes other babes…it’s a babe-fest,” says 20-year-old George, an online devotee. ”I watch her in action and think, ‘Wow, she could kick my a– ,’ and I kind of dig that.” Gay females, ironically, are hooked for much the same reasons.