Xena is gay: what next, marriage?

A reboot of the fantasy series would no longer hide the Warrior Princess’s sexuality. It’s part of a social shift unthinkable a generation ago

Xena: that she’s a lesbian won’t come as a huge surprise to fans who watched her bond with Gabrielle in fetish gear

Xena: that she’s a lesbian won’t come as a huge surprise to fans who watched her bond with Gabrielle in fetish gear

 

Let’s ponder a story that doesn’t matter very much but that leads us towards one that matters a great deal. It has emerged that Xena Warrior Princess is gay.

This won’t come as a huge surprise to fans who watched Xena and Gabrielle bonding in fetish gear throughout six series of that smashing TV fantasy. Like Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder in ITV’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the couple dealt in a code easily unpicked by anybody with frontal lobes to their brain.

It seems there has been a cultural shift since Xena: Warrior Princess ended, in 2001. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, executive producer of a proposed reboot, explained: “There is no reason to bring back Xena if it is not there for the purpose of fully exploring a relationship that could only be shown subtextually in first-run syndication in the 1990s.”

I thought about this when watching a recent episode of the BBC quiz show Pointless. Turning a patronising face to the empty seat beside me, I congratulated myself and the world for being relaxed about the fact that such series now casually welcome same-sex couples as contestants. Transgendered people have appeared on Mastermind and Only Connect. Nobody much seemed to care. (Okay, the phenomenon is sufficiently novel for me to mention it here. You win that point, cultural watchperson.)

It is hard to express how inconceivable this would have been in the 1970s. The ironies sound deafeningly. Nobody had a problem with Larry Grayson making endless transparent allusions to his own homosexuality on The Generation Game, but the notion of a same-sex couple appearing in the morris-dancing segment would have been as unacceptable as an episode dedicated to devil worship.

David Croft, one of the writers of Are You Being Served?, and John Inman, who played the camp Mr Humphries on that show, felt the need to clarify (or obfuscate) that the menswear assistant was “just a mother’s boy”. Ooo, is that what you call it these days?

Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk premiered in 1999, but, as Grillo-Marxuach says, the contemporaneous Xena – playing to more of a “family” audience – still felt the need to bury the relationship in subtext.

Sinister organ chord!

Social change is so hard to predict. In the wake of last year’s referendum on marriage equality, discourse has moved on to the nagging issue of the eighth amendment to the Constitution. Think back, if you’re old enough, to the era of its insertion. Who would, in 1983, have guessed that same-sex marriage would arrive before any sufficient shift in abortion legislation? Social conservatives made no attempt to buttress the constitution against (sinister organ chord!) “redefinition of marriage”. Why would they? The issue was then the preserve of satirists and naive fantasists.

By way of contrast, abortion was an adjacent reality. Such procedures were available in Britain and in the United States. Television again offers clues to the era’s anxieties. In 1977 RTÉ cancelled its broadcast of a US soap opera named Executive Suite midseries because an episode dared to deal with abortion. If US TV really did offer a measure of social drift then the eighth-amendment people were right to panic.

As long ago as 1972, a year before Roe v Wade, the title character of the mainstream US sitcom Maude, played by the much-missed Bea Arthur, decided to terminate a pregnancy. In the same era Billy Crystal (a straight man) played Jodie Dallas on Soap as a borderline-offensive, comic jumble of gay, transsexual and transvestite.

Over the next few decades something quite unexpected happened. Attitudes to homosexuality became gradually more liberal before, in the past 15 years, accelerating towards a social revolution. Meanwhile the right hardened its opposition to abortion. By the mid-1990s Republican candidates were required to be “pro-life”.

That closing-in reflected itself throughout popular culture. In the first series of Friends Ross’s wife settled down with a lesbian partner, but nobody ever had a termination in that series. In 1992, 20 years after that ground-breaking episode of Maude, the Chicago Tribune argued that the networks would never allow such a story to be broadcast.

All this matters. Visibility matters. More than anything else, everyday encounters with gay people changed society’s attitudes to the marriage debate. When, as has happened recently, women calmly – without pretending to shame – discuss their own abortions in the media, chinks open up in the information cordon that has grown up around this fraught issue.

The people who commission TV programmes and commercial movies also need to show some guts. Viewers are not so fragile as advertisers and programmers pretend. They can be trusted with the real world.

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