29 August 2010

‘Xena’-philia with Renée O’Connor and Her Fans

Xena: Warrior Princess, the syndicated television show that ran from 1995–2001, achieved such a high degree of popularity that I hardly felt the need to watch it in order to be aware of its cultural impact. Particularly among women, it seemed to strike a chord (or several) that resonated throughout the public discourse. I knew that — but not much else. And so I’m probably a true fan’s worst nightmare: I got the privilege of hanging out with Renée O’Connor, who played Gabrielle in the series, though I’d never watched a single episode.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to assess Xena’s hold on the popular imagination — and it turns out that my general and ultimately vague understanding didn’t measure up to the reality. Years after the show ended its run, a small army of Europeans turned out for a fan convention, the first of its kind in France, thousands of miles from Hollywood and from New Zealand (where Xena was filmed). Fans had traveled from Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden and Norway; the intensity of their devotion to the show, to Gabrielle, and to Renée herself was palpable and ultimately quite moving.

That’s Ms. Legend to you: Lawless as Xena

As a saga of strong women traversing ancient civilizations, Xena presents an invented mythology (alongside some synthesized ones), but it’s potent, offering many people a way to understand the world and themselves — which is what mythologies do. I’d only guessed at Xena’s success in that regard.

This weekend, I learned how the producers guaranteed Xena’s status as an epic by adhering to the template of legend, rather than abiding by the rules of present-day popular entertainment, where everything demands a sequel and a franchise. Thus Xena dies in the series’ final episode, heroically sacrificing herself to a noble cause, as well as sealing her relationship with Gabrielle.

Again and again this weekend, I saw how that relationship served countless real-life women as a model of strength (these ladies kicked some serious ass) and love.

Yes, the short-skirted, midriff-baring costumes, fleeting kisses, and assorted other titillations were likely designed to lure in the fanboys, but a lot of women saw something else. There was absolutely nothing that Xena and Gabrielle wouldn’t do for each other, and while the series shied away from depicting a sexual relationship between the characters, what was shown was incontestably physical — and generally quite tender. In addition to frequent, simple affirmations of “I love you” were some lines of dialogue that approached poetry.

“I will never leave you.”

Throughout the convention hall, I saw evidence that women had recognized themselves in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and that they had received a powerful message: love is an adventure to be shared.

It’s not unlike the message that gay men received from Jacques Martin’s Alix and Enak: perhaps not precisely what the creators intended, but an independent interpretation that they welcomed. Even in pop culture, some creative artists do find the grace and courage to say to their audiences, “This belongs to you now; you are free make it your own story.”

Bard softly, but carry a big stick.

Women and men received other messages from Xena, too, and as I eavesdropped on (or translated) Renée’s conversations with her fans, I got additional insight into the show’s impact, because many of the fans had a personal story to relate. In no particular order, Xena had:
  • Given viewers a starting point to form a community and to connect with likeminded souls around the world;

  • Encouraged them to work out and take better care of their bodies, so they could look as fierce as Renée and Lucy Lawless;

  • Helped to improve their English-language skills;

  • Inspired their artistic endeavors, ranging from poetry to comic books (of which I saw one excellent example) to videos;

  • And — in at least one case — saved a life.
I didn’t get many details on that last one; the rest of the story was intended for Renée’s ears alone. But her eyes filled with tears as she listened.

Naturally, I thought back to the Star Trek conventions I attended in my youth. Watching these young fans meet the adored actor, I remembered the excitement — a kind of stage fright mixed with religious ecstasy — that I felt when I met Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. The fans thrilled at the chance to communicate directly with an artist who’d touched each of them and given them something meaningful to carry through life.

But there’s an aesthetic dimension here, too. Both Xena and Star Trek have their cheesy elements, and to a point, you wouldn’t be wrong to say, “Oh, it’s just a silly TV show.” And yet, by inviting viewers to invest in and to locate themselves within the televised saga, some shows have the power to transcend the usual limitations of the genre. It’s useful to be reminded periodically of the value of popular art.

Renée spent an inordinate amount of time translating for me
whenever fans referred to any of the show’s signature weapons,
such as this one called (I believe) a “whatsis.”

On Friday, Renée’s fans weren’t wearing character costumes (and neither, for that matter, was she), and their memorabilia paled in comparison to the phasers and other gizmos we used to trade. But the truest signs of their devotion came from within.

Throughout a long, busy afternoon, Renée remained fully engaged with her fans. She knows that these are special moments for them, and they’re special to her, too. Just as Xena invited them to form a community, so they invited Renée to join it, too, completing the circle.

I’ll write more about Renée in an upcoming post, but for now, suffice to say that she’s a smart, centered woman with a clear sense of who she really is. (Not every actress can say the same.) And she’s even prettier than she was on TV.

Next Sunday: An interview with Renée O’Connor!

NOTE: One important difference between the Xena convention and a Star Trek convention was the lack of nitpicky questions during the Q&A session I attended. At no point did anyone stand up and say, for example, “In S3E12, Scene 7, the third extra to the left standing behind you is clearly wearing a Swatch over his armband. Shouldn’t somebody have been fired for that?” Maybe the distinction between science fiction and fantasy explains the differing mindsets of the fans.


wine&baguettes said...

You've never seen an episode of Xena?!?!

I loved Gabrielle and, of course, Xena.

Girl power!!!

Gabsfan said...

Thank you for your impressions of the convention and Renee's appearance. I look forward to your upcoming ROC interview and anything else you report about her appearance. ROC Rocks!

Xena fans not nitpicky? Well, you might think differently if you read the fun and lively online discussions about the YAXIs (Yet Another Xena Inconsistency) while the series was in production. Although, we might not be as seriously nitpicky as Trek fans. Perhaps the difference between the fandoms is that our discussions were mostly done with some humor. Like the fun of finding another bit of subtext, it was fun to spot a YAXI. Also, as far as I know fans didn't ask the actors or Xenastaff those nitpicky questions at the conventions.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Gabsfan, and I couldn't have put it better: ROC rocks!

She and I did talk a bit (though not during the official part of the interview) about the temperamental difference I noticed between Xena and Star Trek fans. She knows more of the former than the latter, of course, and I'm just getting to know the former, so we couldn't come up with any sure explanations.

My impressions may have been inaccurate, too -- but the fans I met on Friday seemed interested above all in the good feelings and in the spirit of the show: sharing the love instead of trying to score points. They're a terrific bunch of people.

Which isn't to say that Star Trek fans aren't terrific, too, in their way … I guess I'll have to mull this over more!

Gabsfan said...

William, I wasn't at the convention in Paris but based on the atmosphere at the Xena conventions in the US, your impressions from the fans on Friday are correct. While Xena was labeled an action-adventure or fantasy series, as Renee and Lucy said, it was really all about the love. Yes, within the diverse Xena fandom, we've had our heated debates and discussions like Trek fans but it's also a community that embraces the love, the fun and the Greater Good, especially at conventions and other fan gatherings.

And then of course there is the ROC haze that has struck many fans who meet gentle-souled, gracious Renee one on one or are in her presence for the first time. :) That ROC haze has mellowed some to the point of barely remembering their name or remembering to say something intelligible. :D

William V. Madison said...

Ha! Yes, I saw plenty of ROC haze in Paris -- at times, it was thicker than vichyssoise, and it got my head spinning, too.

This morning I finished prepping my interview with Renée, and she has so many smart, caring things to say. I'm really pleased, and I hope you will be, too. Come back and visit on Sunday!

Unknown said...

Lucy Law less as Xena, the Warrior Princess, is Michael the Archangel.

Unknown said...

Xena, the Warrior Princess, was also screened in the UK.