An earlier version of this story was published on July 24, 2019; it has been updated to reflect the 25th anniversary of Xena: Warrior Princess.
When New Zealand-born actress Lucy Lawless first donned the armored chestplate of the Grecian warrior princess Xena for a mid-season episode of the syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, she had no idea that her alter ego would go on to make television history. Neither did the show’s creators — a list that included executive producer, Sam Raimi — who intended to kill Xena off after her three-episode guest starring gig. Instead, they were so knocked out by the character and Lawless’s portrayal that they created a whole new show.
Debuting 25 years ago this month, Xena: Warrior Princess enjoyed a six-season syndicated run and has lived on as a pop culture touchpoint ever since. “What I love about is that a lot of people took messages of self-empowerment,” Lawless remarked in a Yahoo Entertainment-hosted BUILD panel in 2019. “It seemed to have sparked positive change in so many peoples’ lives.”
One of the reasons for its longevity is the fact that it introduced the world to one of fandom’s most endearing — and enduring — same-sex couples: Xena and her constant companion, Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor). In the series premiere, Xena rescues Gabrielle from a warlord and the younger woman decides to join her in her adventures through a mythical world filled with magic and monsters. While some fans saw the groundbreaking nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship right away, Lawless says that she and O’Connor were slower to pick up on the cues. “We were like, ‘Really? That’s curious!’”
The actress specifically credited former Village Voice writer Michael Musto with cluing a wider audience into the show’s positive messaging about female love. (Musto interviewed Lawless for a 2003 issue of Out magazine where she openly declared that Xena and Gabrielle were in love.) “I’m really grateful to have been part of something that did that, to let people feel like they were seen for the first time onscreen,” Lawless said. “The show was great for ethnic diversity and empowerment generally.” To this day, the actress regularly appears at gay pride events, like Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. “I’ve always tried to pay back, because [the LGBTQ community] has been so great to me personally and professionally, and I thank them and love them for it.”
A quarter-century later, the legacy of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship can be seen in such popular genre shows as Black Lightning, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Wynona Earp, which prominently feature lesbian couples. Meanwhile, on the big screen, Tessa Thompson is leading the charge to represent LGBTQ audiences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The actress has said that her Asgardian hero, Valkyrie, will be openly bisexual in Thor: Love and Thunder.
For her part, Lawless is more modest about the impact Xena: Warrior Princess had on LGBTQ representation. “Everything paves the way for everything else, but it can contract, too,” Lawless said. “To be honest with you, my inspiration [for Xena] was Ripley from the Alien movies. And Joan of Arc was there long before us! Interestingly, enough, when we started making Xena, the French syndicators at the time were like, ‘The French will never accept a female warrior!’ I was like, ‘Joan of Arc?’ There was a lot of resistance generally to a female action hero, and I think we put a nail in that argument. ”
After seeing Linda Hamilton return to her signature role as Sarah Conner in last year’s Terminator: Dark Fate, Lawless was inspired to contemplate picking up her Chakram again should a Xena reboot ever become a reality. “I saw Linda being amazing, and I’m like ‘Why can’t we do that?’ Bring back me and Renée and reboot Xena!” But here’s the caveat: it would have to be a one-off movie that passes the torch to another generation. “I always hated the action, and I don’t want to live that life. But for a movie, I can do a little bit! And it’s about handing over the baton to Junior Xena or whatever. If you need mine and Renée’s help to do that — let’s talk.”
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