Monday, March 2, 2015
Core Response #4: Kiss the Girl! Audience Activism and Xena: Warrior Princess
The ideological activism of audiences with regard to their favorite shows figures prominently in this week’s reading. Contrary to the interpretive tradition by way of Frankfurt that depicts audiences as passive dupes to their would-be ideological masters, Ellen Seiter discusses (via Carl Bybee) an alternative reading that assigns audience an optimistic role with regard to media. They emphasize “active engagement and the ways the media could be employed by individuals to satisfy needs and accomplish personal goals” (462).
This active role gains new aspect as “oppositional reading” under Fiske’s encoding/decoding model of active audienceship. For Fiske, oppositional reading posits alternatives to the dominant reading that the television creator might have envisioned. As Seiter writes, “Contradictory in nature are the responses which individuals may make to different types of program: audience members may read one program subversively, another according to a dominant reading; or they may read the same material differently depending on the context (465). Audience response is an unruly thing. Often readings that are subversive of the original intent of the program proliferate. In one particular historical instance, in fact, so powerful was that oppositional reading that in time it overwhelmed the dominant reading and imprinted itself on the show’s primary text.
I’m thinking, of course, of Xena: Warrior Princess. Over the course of the show’s syndicated run, the fan community, especially a vocal feminist and queer subset, became so invested in the what they read as the show’s lesbian subtext that the show’s creators eventually made that subtext a centerpiece of the creative project of the program. The character of Xena grew by force of audience interest from a one-off guest villain in an episode of Hercules to a series protagonist in a short skirt to a full-fledged lesbian icon. At each step, the writers followed the lead of the audience.
In the case of Xena, that the show makers folded the alternative reading into their primary text increasingly into their text presents a striking contrast to the heteronormative response of LucasFilms to sexual difference in the Star Wars universe (Jenkins, 475). It is even a long way beyond the K/S fiction (Jenkins, 488) that developed only in the void, after the show's 1969 cancellation. Unlike either, the Xena fanbase imprinted its interests on the show as it unfolded. That’s active viewing.