As an avid, lifelong Xena fan, news of the reboot fills me with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Casting choices and possible Hollywood industry problems with ageing female actors aside, there’s a lot to look forwards to. Xena is camp, fun, dark at times but a love story that always comes to back to its core: that of one of the most beautiful, enduring relationships to ever grace the small screen. Xena and Gabrielle’s love is bright as day, despite the censorship they had to fight past and the wacky plot lines necessary to provide enough plausible deniability for on-screen kisses to get through that. Seriously, how anyone interpreted those longing looks, romantic affirmations of love and kisses as heterosexual is beyond me; but even if it was obvious to me it’s still exciting to consider a reboot where even that flimsy shyness could be discarded, where Gabrielle and Xena could show affection/flirt outrageously more openly and even outright, explicitly tell characters that this is my girlfriend and we’re in love. Gabrielle and Xena are already enough of a hallmark in the history of on-screen gay pride. Getting to admit what everyone already knows while bringing that relationship into this century would be an absolute dream.
But those conservative studio limitations, while they attempted to obscure true love in their fear, did unintentionally do something even more progressive than many other queer shows do today; they showed a successful, long-term queer and polyamorous couple. The characters of Hercules and Iolaus, amongst others, weave in and out of Gabrielle’s and Xena’s love lives with little to no interruption to their own relationship. One of the best examples of this is in Gabrielle’s marriage to Perdicus in Return of Callisto.
Her ex-betrothed from the village she left at the start of the series rocks up at Troy, makes moon eyes at her before she runs off with Xena again, and a while later resurfaces to ask her to marry him. Admittedly, tragedy can be seen a mile away, as the show has an established pattern of introducing love interests only to have them be killed or otherwise removed from the story so that they don’t get in-between Xena and Gabrielle. Still, the most interesting part about these events before Perdicus’ part in it ends are the ways in which Gabrielle navigates a marriage with him while remaining loyal to Xena.
When he initially proposes to Gabrielle, you see her hesitate very clearly, and it’s not her feelings for him that are the problem. She plans on rejecting him, but Xena, seeing how clearly happy Gabrielle is with him, tells her:
“Look, Gabrielle—if it’s me you’re worried about, let me set your mind at rest. Seeing you happy will make me happy. And if that means settling down with Perdicus, then… you have my blessing.”
Not too long afterwards, Gabrielle decides to accept, and Xena stands right by her side as she’s wed to Perdicus. There’s a flicker of seriousness on her face as she watches them; perhaps she’s less certain than before, worried things with Gabrielle will change too much or that she might lose her, but still, she’s there to support her all the way, and once the ceremony is complete they take a moment aside to reaffirm their own bond before Gabrielle leaves for her honeymoon.
This entire journey is a really important, excellent example of compersion, a common part of the polyamorous experience. Seeing you happy will make me happy. Though this theme is never again explored as explicitly as it is in this episode, it is one that runs on throughout the series as both ladies find closeness and intimacy with others. Things are not always perfect, metamours are sometimes villains or pose threats, but Gabrielle and Xena support each other throughout it all and work on their problems and signs of jealousy as adults and as a team, no matter how hard it gets. As Xena once advised to Joxer as he sought advice from her on how to seek Gabrielle’s affection: love unwavering and unconditional, “no strings attached”.
Why is Polyamory Important?
In an article on Polyamory and Queer Anarchism, Susan Song wrote:
Queer theory resists heteronormativity and recognizes the limits of identity politics. The term “queer” implies resistance to the “normal,” where “normal” is what seems natural and intrinsic. Heteronormativity is a term describing a set of norms based on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, gendered as male/female and monogamous, along with the assumed and implied permanency and stability of these identities. Queer theory also critiques homonormativity, in which non-heterosexual relationships are expected to resemble heteronormative ones, for instance in being gender-normative, monogamous, and rooted in possession of a partner.
Xena and Gabrielle are not heterosexual or monogamous, or even homosexual. They are both bisexual women (Although despite constant uses of anachronistic languages, never use this word despite definitionally falling under that umbrella). They are unerringly loyal and committed to each other, but they do not possess each other. Xena does have a certain amount of seniority in the relationship based on having roughly ten years of experience in relationships and adventuring over Gabrielle, but she defers to Gabrielle’s wisdom more and more as the series goes on and they reach an even par with each other. This creates a relationship based off equality which defies the usual attempts to fit same-sex relationships into boxes of traditional gender roles of who ‘wears the pants in the relationship’ (regardless of how many ‘butch’ jokes are tossed Xena’s way, she still also engages with traditional femininity on a regular enough basis to undermine that stereotype). Though they are both portrayed as cisgender, in many other ways they are radically queer, something which is astonishing to see from a show as old as it is. In our modern context, there is so much opportunity for that queerness to be embraced even further, for there to further rejections of gender-normative expectations and ideas of what relationships are ‘meant’ to look like underneath the current hetero-normative paradigm.
That visibility of counter-culture queer relationships is incredibly important, especially around the topic of same-sex marriage. As our culture moves closer to that becoming a reality, pressure builds up from both queer and straight communities to understand what gay marriage means for society and make it seem as non-threatening as possible. People seek to make gay marriage look just the same as straight marriages, to make it seem more and more ridiculous that it could be denied as a right.
Unfortunately, that goal often means throwing polyamorous queer relationships under the bus. Polyamory is hardly as common as monogamy, and many people in polyamorous relationships aren’t interested in marriage as an institution at all, but the process of alienating polyamory from gay communities, saying that gay marriage is not a “slippery slope” that will lead to multiple people in a marriage, is one of demonization, creating new borders of sexual diversity so that homonormative gays are now part of the acceptable “in-group” and everyone else is in the unacceptable “out-group”, quite literally dividing the LGBTQIA community.
This tends to be a fairly harmful process. The bottom line of this mindset is that, no matter how positive and consensual and harmless your orientation and expression thereof may be, so long as it’s not performed according to other people’s rigid expectations of normality, you deserve to have your rights as a human being taken away, to be shunned and treated with revulsion. If we as a society can only accept “gays” but not “queers”, we have not evolved past sexuality-based discrimination, or even shown much of an understanding as a society on why that was wrong in the first place. We’ve simply continued to assimilate without changing society for the better.
It follows a similar line of slut-shaming that gets applied on a daily basis to people with multisexual orientations: that if you are “greedy” or “promiscuous” you deserve to be treated badly and abused, a dark undercurrent of thought that already leads to higher rates of domestic abuse against bi women, amongst other issues. Bi and pansexual people are often directly challenged in their identities through expectations of monogamy; if you’re monogamous, your sexuality is frequently erased by way of defining it by your partner’s gender, while you are forced to choose between communities, excluded and have your unique experiences of discrimination silenced; if you’re polyamorous, you are rejected by society, reinforcing “bad” stereotypes of greedy/disloyal bisexuality, hypersexualised, forced to keep multiple relationships in the closet for fear of being shunned by loved ones, and so forth. Either way, it’s a paradigm in which multisexual people are forever being questioned and judged for their choices. And perhaps it’s that constant pressure which makes it easier for people who aren’t monosexual or cis or otherwise not part of the growing LG ‘mainstream’ to question the real necessity of monogamy and whether or not it actually suits them, and conduct the relationships regardless of external approval. Asexuality adds even more dimensions to the queer polyamory experience, defying the lie that polyamory is only ever about sex. The queer side to polyamory is undeniable.
So, in making Xena and Gabrielle have ongoing relationships with men and other women in the context of the show, even though that move grew from lesbophobia/homophobia, it was one that ultimately created an incredibly progressive, even queerer relationship than they meant to, an expression of queerness that people still struggle to accept in the mainstream today. Their polyamory and their bisexuality build upon each other to defy stereotypes in a beautiful celebration of women loving on their own terms.
Who Cares About Losing That When We Stand To Gain Something, Anyway?
This is the most common response that mainstream gays have to queerer parts of the community when we point out our rights being left behind in the Same Sex Marriage debate. And it shows just how far we really have to go before attitudes, even left wing ones, have to progress.
If Xena and Gabrielle continue to have histories with men but do not openly identify with queer or multisexual labels, then their bisexuality risks being erased altogether, allowing the lesbian community to once again co-opt bi stories and experiences into their narratives while simultaneously rejecting bi women and leaving them out. And even if they manage to get past the stigma in media against the B word, we still risk selling other aspects of their queerness down the river.
It is incredibly likely that their relationship will be recreated as a monogamous one. I have little hope to the contrary. But Gabrielle and Xena have always been a non-monogamous bisexual couple. If that’s changed, we aren’t just making them what they were ‘always meant to be’. We’re taking away what they are. This means we are making a value judgement on facets of their love and identities and what they should be. Do we really want to redefine Xena by legitimisation through assimilation? Or do we want Xena to be defined by accepting people and loving relationships for what they turned out to be even when that isn’t what we want them to be?
The queer and polyamorous community may very well have to say goodbye to one of the few instances of positive representation that they have access to in western media, with barely a nod of acknowledgement from the parts of the community which stand to benefit from this instance of exclusion. And you know what? I’m ready to deal with that. I’m ready to love the reboot and see the best in it. In many ways, those mainstream voices are right: the state of queer representation is so poor that I will take what I can get and still love it ten times more than most heteronormative media. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that we dont all stand to lose something precious along the way. The old show gave us all something bright and beautiful. The reboot will either carry that over, and be true to Xena, or it will be a show of the same franchise that tries to be but is not Xena. I will not stop loving the old series and what it gave me. I just hope that the new one will show love to me and mine, and the parts of us reflected in the original.