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.

1 comment:

  1. JJ, you read my mind! After the Jenkins reading talking about women trying to create a space for themselves in the male-dominated Star Trek storylines, I also thought about Xena, so I wrote to an acquaintance who was a producer on the series, Steve Sears. He's someone who's remained very active with the fanbase, both online and in forums, so I asked him if he had any interesting stories about fandom. Here's what he said.

    "Xena was a series that tackled many issues. Granted, within an action fantasy format, but we managed to make a lot of social statements in the process. One that the series is constantly credited with is the empowerment of women. Obviously, we had two female leads and we didn’t allow ourselves to tone them down for any particular audience. We wrote them as real characters. As a result, I received many comments and thank-yous from women who were able to get out of abusive relationships and others who were living lies, trying to pretend they were someone they weren’t. I can’t tell you how many fans have come up to me an introduced me to their partners, wives and husbands, saying they found each other because they had a common interest in the series. And this goes for all sexual orientations. It’s no secret we have a large lesbian fan base and many of them found validation and strength in our characters. Now, honestly, I like to believe they ALL had the strength inside themselves all along. But if we had anything in the slightest manner with nudging that strength in the right direction, then I feel very proud and humbled."

    Sears also had a funny story about the way the show is interpreted. "I got an e-mail from a fan blasting me for writing about lesbians. It was obvious, the author said, that the characters were gay and we were trying to push our agenda on the public. If I wasn’t gay, she said, I was obviously “pro-queer”. Within five minutes, I got another e-mail from someone else. This person called me a homophobe for not outing the characters. It was obvious they are gay, he said, but just as obvious that I don’t like gays because I refused to allow them to show their real relationship. So in five minutes, I was accused of being “pro-queer” by one basher, and homophobic by another. My solution? I forwarded each e-mail to the other person with a note that read “Perhaps you two should switch TV sets.” I never heard back from either of them."