Recently, I’ve seen a lot of posts taking stabs at Xena for taking the ‘subtext’ way out of LGBTQ+ representation during its six-year run. I would totally be on board with that if the show stopped at, say, season 3 or 4. But it didn’t.
The first few seasons showed our heroines in an unusually intimate friendship because that’s what the writers originally had intended Xena and Gabrielle to be, based off the Hercules and Iolaus mold. But their relationship seemed to grow beyond the writers. It developed a life of its own, and the writers began shifting their angle from 'intimate, saving friendship’ to 'lovers and soul mates.’
After season 6, I struggle to think who can call it subtext. Yes, it’s true that they never took the Ron Burgundy route and had Gabrielle scream out, “Xena and I had sex and now we are in looooove!”, but let’s face it, would that be in character? For either of them? By this stage in the game, the way I saw it, it didn’t need to be defined because it was pretty explicitly laid out after six years of following them around.
For instance, we’ll take the reincarnation episodes. Sure, the first stunt they pulled had Xena and Gabrielle getting romantically together while Xena was reincarnated into a man’s body. Technically gay because we tend to think of them as we knew them best: both women. But by the last reincarnation episode, 'Soul Possession’, we see Ares swap Xena and Joxer’s bodies so that she’s a woman again, more palatable to his taste. And what happens at the end of this episode? Xena and Gabrielle are still together. There’s nothing subtexty about Xena with her arm around now-red-headed wife Gabrielle saying, “I liked ya better blonde, but I can go with this!” Or let’s look at the Rheingold trilogy. They pulled the Disney, true love’s kiss can break Gabrielle’s sleeping curse move, but the trick was, only Gabrielle’s soul mate could walk through the flaming prison that kept her away from harm. Xena walked right through it and kissed Gabrielle- not on the forehead, not on the cheek, but on the lips- and, in true Sleeping Beauty fashion, Gabrielle was awakened.
The Rheingold trilogy really opened the doors for our leading ladies’ sexualities. Xena was shown first manipulating Odin into believing she loved him, and then doing the same for the Rhine-Maiden. We’ve seen Xena’s varied past, explicitly shown with Borias and Ares, for instance, and heavily implied with Lao Ma and M'Lila, but, with the exception of Gabrielle, this may be the first episode we’ve seen Xena openly flirtatious and sexual with two sexes in the span of 43 minutes. Gabrielle, whose sexual history had been decidedly hetero for the first few seasons, had been gaining quite an array of romantic interests in the last few. It became a joke of the fandom that “everybody loves Gabrielle.” In the Rheingold trilogy, we see another woman take interest in Gabrielle: Brunhilda. The two develop a reliance upon each other until Brunhilda declares her love for our battling bard. And let’s also keep in mind that during all this, she was also dealing with Beowulf’s well-meant but badly-timed advances.
Gabrielle’s sexuality had also been explored with Aphrodite, let’s keep in mind. The goddess of love had always had a weakness for Gabrielle, and in season six’s 'The God You Know’, she essentially makes out with her, much to Gabrielle’s surprise.
Of course, there’s the episode 'You Are Here’, one of the crackiest, strangest and most fantastic episodes in Xena history. We see defensive Xena telling the stage manager to “watch his hands” while giving Gabrielle a mic and we see, as love is restored with Aphrodite’s godhood, pink hearts falling all over our heroines as they gaze into each other’s eyes and smile. What’s drawn some heat is the end of the episode, where the reporter asks them for the hundredth time what the true history of their relationship is. Xena asks, “should we tell him?”, which is, of course, not a question you’d ask if you had nothing going on between you and your friend. But as she launches into her explanation, the camera “cuts out”. I don’t think this was the writers opting out. I think this was the writers having a laugh with the image of a straight man puzzled by their relationship to end an episode that was nothing short of ridiculous.
The most damning of all evidence is 'When Fates Collide.’ Basically AU fanfiction of itself, the episode explores what would have happened if Xena and Caesar had ruled together. Spoilers: Caesar is still a dick. Gabrielle is a playwright in this universe, and her play is being shown as entertainment in the Roman court. Xena automatically feels an attraction toward this work and to its creator. After the play is shown, they share this exchange:
Xena: “In the third act, you had your hero throw himself over the
cliff with no fear of dying– all for her. Do you really believe
that kind of love exists?”
Gabrielle: “That’s what we all dream about, isn’t it? Someone who
looks so deeply into our soul that– they’d find something worth
We see Caesar becoming bitter and jealous as he watches the women interact, and later on we hear Alti taunting Xena with, “I saw the way you looked at her tonight during the play. Wouldn’t Caesar give anything to have you look at him that way?”
As the plot goes on, Caesar has Gabrielle wrongly imprisoned, and Alti shows Xena what her true life really was. And as Caesar is about to crucify Gabrielle, she admits her connection with Xena, despite knowing nothing of her former life: "Xena– Xena– when I thought I was going to die– it all became so clear. My life is empty– despite my success. I write about love, but I’ve never felt it before. I will never forget you.“
Alti is sent to kill Gabrielle, and shows us foreshadowing of the Xena finale: "your story will end with your playwright unable to save her fallen angel.”
As they are recaptured, another exchange is had:
G: “Xena– when I’m with you– this emptiness that I have felt my entire life– is gone. You have to tell me what’s going on.”
X: “Caesar changed our fate– giving us this godforsaken world.”
G: “There must be something that I can do.”
X: “No– what you can do is get out of here alive. I have to go
through this alone.”
G: “I can’t let you die.”
X: “Some things are worth dying for. Isn’t that what your play
was about? Being prepared to sacrifice all for love?”
G: “For love.”
X: “In the other world, my destiny was linked to Caesar– and
that cross– and I hated them both– but now I realize that–
everything happens precisely as it should– precisely. …I’ll love you forever.”
It boggles my mind that people claim that is simply subtext. This is the quintessential Xena/Gabrielle episode in my mind, because it shows that no matter how fate is changed or manipulated, these ladies will always find each other because they are meant to be. And of course, we have, in A Friend in Need, Gabrielle’s tearful pleading that Xena is “all that matters to her”, Xena introducing Gabrielle as “her soul mate”, and Xena teaching Gabrielle the pinch while saying, “if I only had 30 seconds to live, this is how I’d want to live them- by staring into your eyes.”
In my opinion, the writers of Xena did not choose the easy way out. Seasons 5 and 6 blast through any and all subtexty vibes. They raise a child together, Xena has a poem written for Gabrielle by SAPPHO OF ALL PEOPLE, they are married in reincarnated forms, they are shown through all lands and fates as soul mates and two people who are madly in love. The intensity of their relationship defies explicit terms like 'girlfriends’ that the wider audience would comprehend, and after six seasons of watching these ladies grow and love, who needs that label, anyway? My grief with the writers is in episodes like 'Antony and Cleopatra’ where, I’ll admit, they made Xena treat Gabrielle like shit because of a guy. But for some reason, that blunder can almost be absolved by the beauty of the story they’ve put forth through six seasons, beauty that most shows nearly twenty years later are still afraid to put forth because of societal norms.
Could Xena: Warrior Princess be told as a more explicit LGBTQ+ love story? Absolutely. But the show was never just a love story, even if it revolved around the relationship between its two protagonists. The show is about perseverance, overcoming odds, redemption and the power of forgiveness- both from others and from yourself. Xena is a powerful character behind a powerful story whose life was shaped by the love and unconditional support, understanding and forgiveness of Gabrielle. Their story moved at a pace that was realistic for the damage in Xena’s heart and the confusion surrounding Gabrielle’s character development. Their love proved to defy time and death, over and over and over again.