The Problem with Warrior Princesses
September 21, 2013 4:47 PM   Subscribe

Jennifer Sky, a former model/actress, recently published a NYT op-ed about her recurring role as Amarice in Xena: Warrior Princess, stating, "Gender was not relevant in the Xenaverse." Her perspective has been met with some contention.
posted by rcraniac (57 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Whether or not Slate's XX Factor blog feels compelled to pick apart a fairly short op-ed, I don't think that it's too controversial that being on Xena would be better for women than being in the modeling industry.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:03 PM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yep re: Halloween Jack.

I kind of interpreted the quote differently in the context of the article/interview: Sky talks about all these ways she was disempowered, by men, in ways unique to being a woman in the modeling industry. Pressure for topless shots, poor treatment, groping. On Xena, she got to do crazy fun stuff, like shooting bows and riding horses, and enjoyed working with people. It must have seemed to her that all the stuff that she felt so acutely as a female model just didn't matter in the context of Xena. In that context, gender didn't matter.

I don't think she was claiming there was suddenly no concept of gender at work, or that the girls wore ties to work, and they all shared one bathroom.

But Slate has to do what Slate has to do, I suppose.
posted by hank_14 at 5:09 PM on September 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


If she’s “powerful,” why does she also have to be “sexy”? Sky says her character is “unapologetically” both, but we are long past the point, in pop culture at least, of women “apologizing” for being alluring.

Good questions I guess but perfect is the enemy of good. I think "unapologetically" refers to women being allowed to have more than one dimension.
posted by bleep at 5:10 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Princesses are lame

Aaaand ya lost me.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:11 PM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Slate article really rubbed me the wrong way. Jennifer Sky wrote a personal essay about an experience she found to be empowering after years of exploitation, an experience she obviously continues to look back on fondly over a decade later.

I mean, I suppose on the Internet everything is sort of fair game, but I think it is kind of mean-spirited, no matter how well intentioned, to write a rebuttal piece that essentially amounts to, "You have interpreted this event from your life wrong".
posted by The Gooch at 5:12 PM on September 21, 2013 [31 favorites]


"Actress's Pro-Female Empowerment Statements Not Quite Feminist Enough"

Look, I agree that it's high time "sexiness" stopped being a universal attribute all women are judged on regardless of what they actually intend to bring to the table. What I can't agree with is the judgement heaped on this woman for daring to bring sexiness to the table. Can't a woman who perceives herself attractive wear short shorts for the same reason a muscular man wears a sleeveless shirt: to exert a subtle influence and dominance over those around them, regardless of gender?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:15 PM on September 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


When I rewatched some early episodes of Xena recently, what suprised me was how short Xena's skirt wasn't: it goes to her knees. And the breast plate is pretty covering. Later season Gabrielle shows off her abs a lot, but Xena wasn't especially sexy in its costuming.

Also, gender really didn't matter, either for story or costuming/sexual objectification. They went happily all ahistorical with female characters (owning property, being merchants and bards and warlords). They didn't treat female characters as sex objects or love interests; they were the protagonists around whom the male characters orbited. And - unlike most shows - there was as much (if not more) beefcake as there was cheesecake. The original show, Hercules, was basically beefcake in search of a plot.

If you look hard enough, you can find offense in anything. But looking for sexism in Xena is ridiculous when it's in the top 25% of the medium for the depiction of women.

also, great subtext becoming text. Millions of queer women thank you.
posted by jb at 5:16 PM on September 21, 2013 [26 favorites]


Slate gonna hate
posted by infinitewindow at 5:18 PM on September 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


It may be overthinking a show that was never really meant to be serious, but if you asked the average person what he or she thought of the portrayal of women in Xena, it would be of leaders, fighters, and warriors (with hints of same-gender relationships).

It is not as though Xena was some kind of Swedish Bikini show, that required all the women to be dressed in very few clothes.

I almost get the impression that Katy Waldman thinks 'sexy' should not be a choice, and never be allowed, even if it isn't the emphasis of the show.
posted by eye of newt at 5:21 PM on September 21, 2013


Princesses are lame

Aaaand ya lost me.


Yeah, color me pretty fucking unimpressed by the cues this blog has taken from the Jezebel school of shitty divisive journalism.
posted by elizardbits at 5:27 PM on September 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


I totally get what Waldman is saying, I really do. And I personally always thought of Sky's performance on Xena as leaning maybe a wee bit further on the eye candy side and a bit lighter on the character side than some of the others. But considering the context of the rest of Sky's piece, I think it's still an interesting perspective.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:27 PM on September 21, 2013


What's shitty is that illustration -- by a woman! -- of a scantily-dressed swordswoman carrying hangers on her blade. I don't think it exactly helps make the case that the column addresses, or underlines its seriousness as an issue.
posted by dhartung at 5:31 PM on September 21, 2013


I disagree with Sky's take that gender wasn't relevant on Xena, but I can kind of see what she's saying. And it was her experience; mine, as a viewer, was that is was hugely relevant. We can both be right.

Slate piece is stupid.
posted by rtha at 5:33 PM on September 21, 2013


Wait why are we all complaining that a TV show that came on basic cable like 15 years ago isn't feminist enough by 21st century standards?

I mean, there are a shit ton of reasons why we can look at Xena from the standpoint of 2013 and pick apart its feminist bonafides. That doesn't mean that an actor didn't have an amazing time working on it.

Jeez.
posted by Sara C. at 5:34 PM on September 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


It may be overthinking a show that was never really meant to be serious, but if you asked the average person what he or she thought of the portrayal of women in Xena, it would be of leaders, fighters, and warriors (with hints of same-gender relationships).

And hottubs. I watched for the hottubs.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:36 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Just to clarify, by "we", there, I mean Slate, basically.)
posted by Sara C. at 5:36 PM on September 21, 2013


Would Waldman have been happier had Xena's producers cast some guy who looks like John Goodman and slapped a wig on him? Or got Betty White to play the role? (Not I don't worship Ms. White.) Slate's blogger is complaining that Xena isn't the show she would have made.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:37 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reading the original op ed, it occurs to me that the lede is thoroughly buried. To the point that I'm a little sad Slate didn't pick up on it:
Perhaps the main difference, then and now, is that actors have a union and models do not.
Yes, I'm sure Xena was a wonderfully empowerful show to work on, and it definitely must have seemed like a godsend coming from the fashion world where it's taken for granted that women exist to be the subject of the male gaze. But the things she says about being given drugs or being yelled at for something outside her control? That stuff just doesn't happen to actors in principal roles, outside of maybe the sketchiest non-union indie project. Even on your standard non-feminist projects. Even the lamest cheesecakiest female roles in a TV show or film have actresses that are treated like human beings.

Unions are a big part of why that stuff doesn't happen, and why actors are generally treated with kid gloves.

There are, of course, other reasons for that. I loved the interview with Simon Pegg where he said that the reason actors are given so many drivers and minders and helpers is to make sure they show up on time and don't wander off, not because actors are precious unicorns. And from the fashion side of the coin, there are a lot of power imbalances built into the business (14 year old girls, to begin with) which probably make it hard for models, as workers, to be treated fairly.

But, seriously, the difference between how actors are treated and how models are treated really is a matter of organized labor. It's almost a classic case study of why unions are good.

Damn, if only Slate had chosen to pick apart that angle of the OpEd rather than, as The Gooch said, "You have interpreted this event from your life wrong."
posted by Sara C. at 6:03 PM on September 21, 2013 [39 favorites]


Slaters gonna hate
posted by infinitewindow at 2:18 PM on September 21 [4 favorites +] [!]


Dude you were so close
posted by Sebmojo at 6:12 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure if it is just because I watch less TV now, but there seemed to be a lot more "sexy female hero syndicated dramas" back then. I don't know if it's because we as a culture have moved on or women are just getting better roles than they used to. I hope the latter. I think we have moved from a "women can only pay the wife" mode to a "women can be the lead, but she has to be sexy doing it" to finally a "women can just play regular roles like all the men have" world. There are still exceptions, of course, but I think we're going in the right direction.

That being said, Cleopatra 2525 got me through a lot of long lonely nights as a hormone driven 15 year old.
posted by fishmasta at 6:38 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Slate: I just wish pop culture could deliver us a woman role model so kick-ass we didn’t care how she looked in shorts.

Okay...
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:55 PM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think that, in the 90's, possibly tied in with the onset of UPN and WB, and definitely related to the dearth of original programming on cable, there was a HUGE audience for that sort of thing. That and ersatz ST:TNG-esque beige science fiction.

My guess is that it's because TNG and Hercules were such runaway hits, sort of like all the paranormal Gossip Girl knockoffs we're seeing nowadays, and all the various iterations of racy period cable dramas. (Which, what even was the original version of that? Deadwood? The Tudors?)
posted by Sara C. at 7:01 PM on September 21, 2013


So today, we've got Gwendoline Christie, who is stunning, playing a supposedly very plain Brienne on Game of Thrones, and we're supposed to see that as a symbol of progress for women when compared to the bad old days of Xena?
posted by peppermind at 7:13 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


You just can't make sex appeal go away. It will always, must always be a big part of the equation. And we all live with it.
posted by INFOHAZARD at 7:13 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


what suprised me was how short Xena's skirt wasn't: it goes to her knees. And the breast plate is pretty covering.

I don't really think either of those things are true. Her skirt comes down to mid-thigh... and is split into thingies so almost her entire leg is exposed when she is moving. And the top is pretty standard boobplate. It's her hair that was often blocking her torso. The thing about Xena was the writing and acting, not the very standard cheesecake costuming.
posted by Justinian at 7:20 PM on September 21, 2013


I took "unapologetically" as a modifier for sexy as well as powerful. It's clear that, whatever Katy Waldman thinks, Jennifer Sky likes being sexy. She just doesn't want to be dehumanized in the process. Should all women have to be judged on their sex appeal? No. Should women who enjoy being sexy have to apologize to those who don't? No.
posted by zanni at 7:22 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Re Xena's costume (and Amarice's, too) -- yeah, but you know if this show was made now they'd be in Slave Leia bikinis.
posted by Sara C. at 7:24 PM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


In 2012, Sky suggested models be admitted to SAG-AFTRA which sounds great but I'd be greatly surprised if the union and its members went for it.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:27 PM on September 21, 2013


The notion that a person considers themselves sexy means they have relatively healthy self esteem, which is not a bad thing. Slate's critisisim is completely misdirected, and any halfway competent editor should have realized this.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:28 PM on September 21, 2013


Female warrior in current television fantasy garb.
posted by Justinian at 7:32 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I kind of think that models would have to create a completely separate union that addressed the needs of their particular industry. SAG organizing fashion models would be a headache and a half, and I don't think it would be attractive to any of the players involved.
posted by Sara C. at 7:38 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hate slate so much, but I wish that there was a favorite button strong enough to email that last link to everybody who ever uttered a false justification of why a female videogame character obviously needed to also be presented as a sex object.
posted by 256 at 7:39 PM on September 21, 2013


During the late 90's, I lived a couple blocks away from Meow Mix, which was the big-name lesbian bar in New York at the time (in Chasing Amy - you know the bar Amy takes Holden to? Meow Mix).

While Xena was on the air, Meow Mix would have weekly viewing parties, followed by staging mock battles with Nerf Swords. I suspect that they wouldn't have been quite so enthusiastic about the show if it didn't at least nod in the general direction of feminism and women's empowerment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:55 PM on September 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Re Xena's costume (and Amarice's, too) -- yeah, but you know if this show was made now they'd be in Slave Leia bikinis."

I don't think so. Sam Raimi still produces television shows and that's not the case. Legend of the Seeker had one female lead in big dresses and the other fully covered in (skin) tight leather. The Spartacus series has plenty of nudity and cleavage, but it fits the times it is set in and men and women are just as naked. (I haven't seen any other of his shows.)
posted by thylacine at 8:05 PM on September 21, 2013


AAAAAA MEOW MIX!!!!!! So many memories. So many feels.

Also that anecdote reminds me of the L Word viewing parties at Angels And Kings in the same neighborhood, what felt like a lifetime later. And of course I think even Angels And Kings is closed now. Whither the NYC lesbian bar?
posted by Sara C. at 8:34 PM on September 21, 2013


Thylacine, it's not so much about Sam Raimi specifically, just about sort of a trend toward Maxim-ization of women in genre TV that's happened over the last 15-odd years. And which was in fact happening before our eyes during Xena's heyday in the case of Star Trek adding Seven Of Nine, etc. Xena characters look positively chaste compared to what came after them.
posted by Sara C. at 8:38 PM on September 21, 2013


I used to read about the Meow Mix viewing parties on the Internet, and seethe with envy.
posted by rtha at 8:41 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Xena viewing parties happened at Chathouse in San Francisco in the late 90s. I miss that place.
posted by feckless at 9:41 PM on September 21, 2013


So today, we've got Gwendoline Christie, who is stunning, playing a supposedly very plain Brienne on Game of Thrones, and we're supposed to see that as a symbol of progress for women when compared to the bad old days of Xena?

I think it would probably be a good thing if we all realized how much the (normal, judicious) application of makeup (and professional hair care, &c.) completely changes people's opinion on most women's looks.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:09 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it would probably be a good thing if we all realized how much the (normal, judicious) application of makeup (and professional hair care, &c.) completely changes people's opinion on most women's looks.

Certainly true.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:12 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I like her.
posted by kadonoishi at 11:51 PM on September 21, 2013


Xena's costume was still much less sexy than it had been in my memory.
posted by jb at 12:34 AM on September 22, 2013


thylacine: ""Re Xena's costume (and Amarice's, too) -- yeah, but you know if this show was made now they'd be in Slave Leia bikinis."

I don't think so. Sam Raimi still produces television shows and that's not the case. Legend of the Seeker had one female lead in big dresses and the other fully covered in (skin) tight leather. The Spartacus series has plenty of nudity and cleavage, but it fits the times it is set in and men and women are just as naked. (I haven't seen any other of his shows.)
"

As per Sparticus and Xena, thank you for satisfying years of curiosity...
posted by Samizdata at 12:44 AM on September 22, 2013


Wow, isn't it great when other people tell you what you should and shouldn't find empowering. Thanks SO MUCH, Slate. I might have started being happy for the wrong reasons, just like Jennifer Sky!
posted by kyrademon at 1:29 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Am I missing something here, or is the Slate author missing the fact that every male action star from Will Smith to Brad Pitt is expected to kick ass and look great shirtless?

Hollywood took Wolverine and waxed his back. He was supposed to be really hairy and relatively unattractive. He was also supposed to be 5'6".

In mainstream motion picture media, most heroes get re-crafted into sex symbols, regardless of gender.

Who's the last male action lead you can remember who was intentionally cast and portrayed as unsexy and unattractive?
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 6:42 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm saying this as a HUGE Xena fan, and as a fan who thought it did a lot for women's equality, but I'm just not connecting with Sky's piece in the way I suspect I'm meant to.

She seems to be saying:

"In modeling, I did physically strenuous things while looking sexy and was treated badly. In acting, I did physically strenuous things while looking sexy and was treated well. Therefore... fashion industry is bad, find some other way to look sexy and get treated well for it."

I dunno, maybe it's too short a piece to get across what she's actually trying to say?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:32 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Xena was awesome, I used to watch it with my sister. I think she moved before the show ended so I never saw how it ended, because watching it without it bumming me out. To this day I can't see Ted Raimi in anything without exclaiming "Joxer the Mighty!!", much to the confusion of 99% of the people around me.

It wasn't perfect; while the primary characters were relatively modest, there was a good amount of cheesecake (beefcake too), but given it came about in an era when other dudes would look at you askance if you were too skilled with Chun-Li in Street Fighter II, it was a hell of a thing.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:22 AM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Whither the NYC lesbian bar?

cubbyhole on w12th and w4th
posted by elizardbits at 8:35 AM on September 22, 2013


Who's the last male action lead you can remember who was intentionally cast and portrayed as unsexy and unattractive?

MITCHELL
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:54 AM on September 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


playing a supposedly very plain Brienne on Game of Thrones

This is a challenge as well because attractiveness is also a bit more than just facial configuration and people who can't seem to be attractive aren't going to go very far as actors. None of the cast are bad looking people in the sense of dealing with monstrous physical deformities, and Brienne is at least cast as appearing huge, muscular, covered and not given much eye makeup.

But she's going to appeal to *someone*, because humans can be very accepting just as much as we can be very rejecting.
posted by Phalene at 10:55 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


THe Underpants Monster - my read of it is that it's a pretty facile point. She ultimately seems to be saying that, for a young woman coming out of the fucked up fashion industry, working on Xena -- and really the whole existence of shows like Xena -- helped her become a stronger person, and therefore media that empowers women is good.

I was left wondering why this was published in the New York Times. I mean, I'm all for whatever Xena did for her, on a personal level. And I definitely think we need to be talking more about women in media, especially women in genre media and media typically aimed at men (and previous shows like this really were seen as being for 18-29 year old guys and nobody else). I just think this piece is pretty weak, as a newspaper editorial. It reads more like extremely light memoir, or a college admissions essay.

That said, not trying to poke holes in her overall message of "this one particular show was both empowering to me personally and empowering to women in general". I just don't know why it's in the NYT.
posted by Sara C. at 10:57 AM on September 22, 2013


She'll always be Cleo to me. A show that was so terrible I not only watched ever episode, I convinced a friend who was traveling in Europe to grab me copies of the DVDs back when it was only available there.

My first introduction to Gina Torres as well.

Terrible, terrible show, which my wife and I secretly loved.
posted by quin at 11:40 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's important that this be in the NYT because there's something truthful and important in what she's saying: being a model in the fashion industry was an actively degrading experience, whereas a recurring role on a "cheesy" fantasy show was an actively empowering experience.

There are a number of things to draw from this. One thing I would draw from in particular is how fashion is typically treated as being much "classier" than cheesy fantasy. Genre entertainment is often many times more progressive than supposedly "classier" art/entertainment/etc.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:24 PM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Put another way, the New York Times has a Fashion section, but it doesn't have a Fantasy & Sci Fi section.

Or: The Devil Wears Prada was a huge hit. Can you imagine a similarly popular book/movie about a woman who breaks her way into a role making a Xena-type show? I have the funny feeling that the main character's journey in The Devil Wears Prada is meant to seem both relatable (to women) and ambitious - there's no explanation needed, that it would be incredible to work for Anna Wintour (or her doppelganger). I have the funny feeling that a similar story, where the main character is trying to break into the world of "cheesy" fantasy TV shows, would have to have a very different tone.

And yet, one industry is, on average, much more systematically degrading than the other.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:33 PM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Terrible, terrible show, which my wife and I secretly loved.

Me, too! That show was so horrible, and I loved the hell out of it. I don't even know how to explain that to people. If I ever meet Gina Torres, Cleopatra 2525 is the only thing I want to talk to her about.
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:26 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sara C.: "Wait why are we all complaining that a TV show that came on basic cable like 15 years ago isn't feminist enough by 21st century standards?"

Not only are "we all" not doing that; AFAICT none of us are doing that.

Just some controversy-begging writer for Slate.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:07 PM on September 23, 2013


Maybe I wasn't the intended target audience for Xena (the older I get, the most I start to doubt that I've ever been the true intended target audience for anything that stayed on the air more than a season). I always felt that the cheesecake (and the guest beefcake) was secondary to the action and the character development. Sure, Lawless looked good in the costume, but I don't think the show would have lasted or developed anywhere near the same following if that had been the primary thing she did in it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:17 PM on September 23, 2013


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