In a time without a Black Widow movie on the horizon, two fans in turmoil cried out for a heroine. She was Xena, a mighty female protagonist forged in the fires of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The action, the camp, the queer subtext. Her adventures will rock their worlds.
Clare: Did I mention last time that the greatest part of Xena is that it supplies its own tropes? Well, Xena continues that trend, as Xena and Gabrielle go undercover at a beauty pageant (beating Miss Congeniality by three years) in order to suss out a would-be killer.
This is a favor to Salmoneus, who—oh, Sal, never leave me again. Joxer annoys the living daylights out of me because he feels more like a clip art collection of "funny" slapstick rather than an actual person. Salmoneus is certainly a fun character whose haphazard approach to doing the right thing is a great contrast against Xena’s quest for morality and redemption, but he also seems like he has a life outside of Xena and Gabrielle, both externally and internally. Salmoneus running a beauty pageant to soothe over a fragile peace seems exactly like something he’d do.
And, of course, this is his last episode in Xena: Warrior Princess. Wail!
Renay: This is exactly one of this show's biggest failures with me concerning Joxer, and why he continues to confuse me. Because they do such a great job showing how Salmoneus leads a life outside his interactions with our ~favorite couple~, and in theory they attempt to do that with Joxer, as well, but it comes off feeling forced and insincere. Joxer's whole shtick is running around boasting about himself and being, seemingly, utterly incompetent, although he has to be good at something, otherwise he'd be dead.
Clare: Mediocre straight white guy remains at large, news at eleven.
Renay: I'm confused about how the writers handled Salmoneus's comedic presence but fail almost every single time with Joxer. I can't figure it out, and I'm bitter that we're losing Sal but we get to keep Joxer.
Clare: I wonder if part of it might be due to the actor? Robert Trebor (Salmoneus) and Ted Raimi (Joxer) have similar working actor filmographies, but Trebor is able to imbue what could be a pretty sleazy character with an impish kindness and an actual emotional life, whereas Raimi seems to be cast as pure comedic relief.
Renay: I also don't know how to feel about the opening, which was such an odd, overtly male-gazey tonal shift? I know the show does plenty of sexualizing Xena (and to a lesser extent, Gabrielle), but the whole lead in had me like ??????? and then when it was clear it was an episode about a beauty pageant, I definitely felt some Concern.
Clare: I feel like we’re going to run into this as we go forward in the show; the kind of "satire" that’s basically eating your cake and having it, too. See, this episode "can’t" be sexist, because Xena and Gabrielle deconstruct beauty pageants, so it’s "okay" to still have a shot like this, we get a pass! As female-focused and friendly as the show is, we have to remember that a lot of the production team is composed of dudes.
Anyway, Xena and Gabrielle are both initially hostile towards the beauty pageant, with Xena called the contestants "bimbos." (Yikes.) At first, I was really worried about how the show might treat the contestants, given this "charming" introduction, but Xena and Gabrielle soon make it clear that her issue is with men exploiting women instead of women enjoying traditionally feminine things. As the episode progresses, each contestant is revealed to have her own reasons for joining the competition—more food for their village, an escape from their village, etc. And even though the plot seems to finger one of the contestants as the would-be killer, it turns out to be one of the kings running the pageant instead.
So that was a relief.
Renay: Also, the way that the beauty pageant becomes such a thing for Gabrielle was excellent. Our Gabrielle is a competitor and I love her for it. ♥ Also, the way they framed everything worked for me, and provided a solid mystery. Although, it did make me a little nervous because once once people's true reasons for being in the pageant became clear, it opened the door for the women to absolutely be the mastermind behind the murder plots and I'm not sure how I would've felt about it. I was glad when it was the dudes, constantly arguing about being the greatest (like they were competing) even while they did nothing, and Gabrielle trying to Social Justice 101 some of them. But yeah, I was relieved when it was one of the dudes, and the women were just trying to complete a task that got them something they wanted or needed.
Clare: Less of a relief was the way Miss Artiphys, a trans contestant, was portrayed. At least, it seems obvious to me that she’s trans. When she confronts Xena, scared that Xena will out her and disqualify her from competition, she specifically says that Xena wouldn’t understand, since she was born a woman. Xena, because she’s a.) on the hunt for a would-be killer and b.) a human being, doesn’t bat an eyelash and promises to protect Miss Artiphys’ secret.
On the one hand: Miss Artiphys wins the Miss Known World competition and gets celebrated, affirmed, and validated for a gender identity that usually gets her laughed at or worse, in her own words. She’s the first woman to kiss Xena to the bafflement of Gabrielle. I can see why an episode of television that treats a trans woman like a person and gives her a happy ending would be nominated for a GLAAD award in 1997.
But on the other hand—she only wins when the other cisgendered contestants all opt out by making statements of personal agency on stage. (I honestly thought she was just going to win outright!) And the episode ends on a joke about how she’s "really a man."
It just bugs me so much, because, despite Xena’s grab bag approach to mythology and history, it couldn’t grab some expanded ideas of gender from our past? Ugh.
Renay: I was very shocked to see this (although maybe I shouldn't have been)? But it took me a long time to see trans people in media, so it's likely 90s media had plenty of this type of representation and I just missed it.
Once it was clear what was going on, I was… sort of on board with it, even though it has problems (anything about trans issues from that time period from our view now is going to have serious issues). It was nice that Miss Artiphys wasn't demonized and that at one point she saves Xena from being outed and it was also nice that Xena was like "okay cool, whatever." I think that my preference would have been for the show to let both the cisgendered contestants have their moment but also give Miss Artiphys her moment, too. If Miss Artiphys had won the contest on her own merits and that had been revealed even after the cisgender women dropped out, that would have gone a long way for making this feel less like "trans character gets to be validated and celebrated once cis people get out of the way", which we already see too much of when it comes to media now.
Renay: And I was also disappointed with the joke at the end. This was a complicated episode to like: it has its good character moments, but the framing is very lackadaisical with how it handles fraught social issues to give our heroes a place to have an adventure. In summary: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Clare: Femslash Alert! Um, two female characters kissing on American television in 1997 as one looks kind of jealously on? Pound that alarm, sister.
Much like Xena herself, Renay and Clare have powerful allies in their quest.
- The Hercules and Xena Wiki entry for "Here She Comes... Miss Amphipolis"
- Normally, we link to Whoosh’s episode guide, but its entry—from 1999—has enough transphobic language on it that we will not be doing that this week.