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The Truth About Xena And Gabrielle's Relationship

"Xena: Warrior Princess" is a TV show beloved by the queer community. Which is odd, because the relationship between the series' two leads — Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) — was never made explicitly canon. Yet there are shows with confirmed LGBTQIA+ relationships that fans have a much more ambivalent relationship with. Looking at you, "The L Word."

"Xena" was a syndicated show starring Lucy Lawless as the titular heroine of ancient Greece. A former warlord, Xena became a champion of the downtrodden in order to atone for all the mayhem and murder she'd previously caused. The show was a spin-off from "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and had huge success for a show without a dedicated network. "Hercules" and "Xena" were broadcast around the world, had their own special effects show at Universal Studios, and still have dedicated fandoms — "Xena" especially. The show was beloved by lesbian audiences for the deeply queercoded relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. But what exactly were Xena and Gabrielle to each other?

The start of an unlikely friendship

Xena and Gabrielle meet in the first episode of the "Xena: Warrior Princess" series. Xena rescues a group of women from the village of Potidaea from the warlord Draco. Gabrielle, awed by Xena's fighting skills, vows to follow her across the ancient world and possibly become a warrior too. Xena is, at first, annoyed to have this tagalong poetess, but the two develop a fast friendship.

Xena feels very protective of Gabrielle as she hasn't experienced the dangers and iniquities of the world yet. In Gabrielle's worshipful gaze, Xena sees a version of herself untainted by all the violence she committed in the past. Gabrielle sees the redeemed Xena, not the bloodthirsty one. "She felt she was irredeemable," Lawless told Entertainment Weekly of her character. "That friendship between Xena and Gabrielle transmitted some message of self-worth, deservedness, and honor to people who felt very marginalized, so it had a lot of resonance in the gay community." 

But you know what would have even more resonance for the gay community? An actual gay relationship. So why did it never appear?

Politics got in the way of love

Gay relationships were extremely controversial in the '90s and '00s TV landscape. Willow and Tara weren't allowed to kiss on "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" for the first season of their relationship. Eventually, they did get to smooch, and it was the first kiss between a committed queer couple on TV, per Refinery29. And their first groundbreaking kiss in 2001 was a quick peck shared in grief, not a smoldering expression of desire.

"Xena" executive producer Rob Tapert told EW that network skittishness sank the Xena/Gabrielle ship before it even left harbor: "Before we started shooting Xena, we shot the material that we were going to use to create the opening title sequences with," he said. "The studio was so concerned that it would be perceived as a lesbian show that they would not allow us to have Xena and Gabrielle in the same frame of the opening titles." So the creative team pushed the relationship into a subtextual space. For those in the know, it was readily apparent that Xena and Gabrielle were in love. For those who didn't want to see it, it did not exist.

The subtext becoming text

The "Xena" writers and performers snuck sapphic material into the show wherever they could. "​I think that the writing staff, who were extremely sophisticated and savvy and witty, caught on much faster than I did," Renee O'Connor told EW. For example, when Xena confiscated a breast dagger off Gabrielle and put it down her own bodice, Gab quipped "It's not like your breasts aren't dangerous enough." And when Gabrielle becomes a vampire-like creature in Season 2, guess who she bites. It ain't Joxer.

But it wasn't all subtext between Xena and Gabrielle — the pair actually kissed. Well, kind of. Xena kissed Gabrielle goodbye when Gab briefly married a man, and the two shared a kiss when Xena was in Autolycus' body in Season 2's "The Quest." Xena has been temporarily dead for a few episodes, and the pair reconnect in the spirit realm. "There's so many things I want to say to you," Gabrielle says before Xena cuts her off. "Gabrielle, you don't have to say a word," and they kiss. Or Gabrielle and Autolycus kiss, depending on how you look at it.

Things only got gayer from there. They briefly raise a child together, die for each other multiple times, and say "I love you" all the time. You know, like galpals do! The three-part "Rhinegold" saga of Season 6 codifies that Xena is Gabrielle's soulmate, as Xena is the only one who can walk through magic "soulmates only" fire and awaken Gabrielle with true love's kiss.

Ares was a fly in their ointment

Still, with more sexual tension than you could cut with a chakram, the Xena/Gabrielle relationship was never technically official. This was in part because the show's creative staff wanted to keep another player in the mix: Kevin Smith's Ares. As EP Ron Tapert noted, the show relied on the tension between Xena's past warlord era and her kinder, softer present. That tension was represented by the kinda-sorta love triangle between Xena, Gabrielle, and Ares.

"We did not want to give up the hold that character had over Xena and the enjoyment we had with telling stories of Xena and Ares," Tapert said. "So as much as we liked that Xena and Gabrielle were two people who were the best of friends, and perhaps intimate friends, we never wanted to give up Ares."

As the god of war, Ares never wanted Xena to work on herself. He was like the bad boyfriend who enables your worst habits — if your worst habits include slaughtering entire villages. So even though there were plenty of episodes where she chose Gabrielle, there were still some episodes where Xena went off for little flights of violent fancy with Ares.

Xena's legacy -- good and bad

Despite the pressures both internal and external to keep Xena and Gabrielle apart, their relationship had a huge impact on the TV and film that followed. According to Salon, Joss Whedon has acknowledged the huge influence "Xena" had on "Buffy." We can see the evolution of the Xena/Gabrielle pairing in the coming out story and relationships of Willow Rosenberg.

On the negative side, the queercoding of Xena and Gabrielle has become the standard for entertainment companies that want gay audiences without the risk of offending homophobes. As YouTuber Rowan Ellis points out in her series on queercoding and queerbaiting, subtextual representation isn't real representation, no matter how fun it feels in the moment. Eternally teased relationships like the one between Castiel and Dean on "Supernatural" or Stiles and Derek on "Teen Wolf" do not need to be the norm. People on TV can just be gay, it's okay!