Inevitably a cool lady appears on screen with a sweet outfit, a wry smile, and this sense that she is not to be fucked with wrapped around her like a cloak. While women aren’t on the top of the call sheet as often as men in genre film and television, there are a lot more women there now than before, and despite them being entertaining folks with compelling backstories and appealing characterizations, not a single heroine has come close to matching Lucy Lawless’s Xena when it comes to fucks to give.
Xena was originally just a villain for a multipart 1995 story on Hercules: The Legendary Journey. Hercules had neatly shifted from made-for-TV movie to syndicated TV and Xena was introduced as a new kind of villainess as physically capable as she was beautiful. While there’s plenty to side-eye when it comes to Kevin Sorbo’s modern politics, his Hercules was a sensitive guy — a prototypical Superman who was more apt to stop bad guys with a clever word than a fist to the face. He stopped Xena not with brute strength, but with kindness and empathy, and the show’s creator (and Lawless’s future husband) Rob Tapert immediately realised he hadn’t put to rest a villain of the week, but created a heroine’s origin story.
Xena: Warrior Princess was quickly pitched and greenlit; Lawless was joined by Renee O’Connor as her plucky sidekick Gabrielle, and the show that launched on September 4, 1995 was immediately a hit. While Lawless was dreadfully uneven in early episodes, there was something electric about her — and not just because she was running around in a leather one-piece and skirt doing yiyiyi backflips into bad guys’ faces. Her Xena was confident in a way woman heroines rarely are outside Aaron Spelling action hours. She was assured of herself.
She would often say, in the most dead serious and severe way possible, that she “has many skills” and they ranged from needlework to cooking to mathematics and strategy, and style of martial arts that was distinctly “New Zealand stunt team that loves Hong Kong action films.” The gag was that Xena was a woman who could do it all and felt as comfortable at home as she did beating the ever loving shit out of people.
Despite being so butch she transformed the lesbian romance genre, Xena didn’t seem especially transgressive to most of the audience. Straight guys liked to look at her, straight woman liked to be inspired by her, and kids like myself were honestly just out to have a good time.
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But Xena was absolutely transgressive because she was a rare heroine allowed to screw up in some of the most deadly, violent, and awful ways possible, and then redeem herself. Heroines on a path to redemption rarely get that opportunity. Black Widow had to die to “save her boys” after spending years as an assassin, and the same goes for Amy Acker’s Root on Person of Interest. Sure, women do get to be redeemed sometimes — She-Ra’s Catra had a season-long arc doing it — but in 1995 there weren’t a lot of women headlining TV shows, and there were even fewer allowed to be both absolute bastards and heroes too. There really was just Xena.
She was a warlord and killed a lot of people and kept on killing people throughout the show. Heck, she dragged Gabrielle to her death in season three (don’t worry, a trip to a music afterlife had them work things out and come back to life) and slit more than one throat with her chakram.
And even wilder — Xena liked it. Lucy Lawless played Xena with this incredible joy, smiling and screaming as she laid waste to whole armies. Even when things were dire Xena usually had a manic grin on her face. Lawless always played her as unapologetically delighted to commit wanton murder and destruction.
It’s telling that nearly two decades after the show ended, and a full 25 years after it began, most people give a pass to Xena’s worst episodes from a structural or critical standpoint. Instead it’s the finale — where Xena says she must die to make amends for accidentally drunkenly torching a town of 14,000 people — that gets viewers rankled. The majority of the show was focused on how a bad woman could do good and those good deeds alone were enough to redeem her. She didn’t have to hurt herself or lose out on love or family to find redemption — she just had to always work to do better.
Until literally the last scene of the show, Xena was an apologetic woman war criminal you loved watching murder gods. Twenty-five years later that’s the part of her legacy that still stands out. So go ahead and skip right past that finale.
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