Gabrielle’s narrative is still important to queer viewers 25 years after the premiere of Xena: Warrior Princess.
“Before I met you, no one saw me for who I was. I felt invisible. You saw all the things that I could be. You saved me, Xena.” – Gabrielle, “The Ides of March”
The story of Xena is remembered as many different things. A heroic saga, a tale of redemption, a campy romp. It’s a series that truly had it all, and that’s why it remains iconic a quarter of a century later. Yet it is perhaps best remembered for the series-long slow burn subtextual love affair between Xena and her “traveling companion” Gabrielle.
While Xena and Gabrielle never became a canonical couple throughout the show’s run, producer Liz Friedman was (and is) an out lesbian and she, along with many of the writers, are on record as having worked to push queer themes throughout the series. Though studio executives refused to allow an openly queer relationship to flourish in late 1990s all-ages programming, looking back, they got away with a lot. While the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle remains the most talked about element of the show with good reason, something that stands out during a rewatch is that Gabrielle’s story is a queer narrative from the very start.
In the pilot episode, Gabrielle and her fellow villagers are taken hostage by henchmen of the villainous Draco. Despite being “only a bard,” Gabrielle is a brave young woman, and tries to stand up for the others, but to no avail. She is, after all, a storyteller, not a warrior. At that fortuitous moment, Xena arrives and defeats the warlords effortlessly, and it changes Gabrielle’s life forever. Not only is her life spared, she has found a new purpose – Xena.
Gabrielle is immediately smitten and attempts to follow Xena out of town when the other villagers, knowing her reputation as a ruthless killer, demand that she move on. Xena is jaded and prefers to travel alone, but Gabrielle trails her. She is committed to proving to Xena that they need each other. She even saves Xena’s life by thinking on her feet and keeping her cool under pressure so that Xena finally, grudgingly feels compelled to hear her out. When Xena threatens to send her back home, Gabrielle immediately replies, “I won’t stay there,” and makes an impassioned plea to Xena to allow her to accompany her on adventures.
Gabrielle doesn’t elaborate on the details of her alienation, but any queer viewer would be able to relate.
Even from the very first episode, Gabrielle knows she does not belong in her hometown. She knows she does not fit in, and the heteronormative plan that has been laid out for her by the people in her life seems akin to torture. She doesn’t elaborate on the details of her alienation, but any queer viewer would be able to relate. Xena is moved by this, and she finally agrees to accept Gabrielle into her life. For both of them, this proves to be the most important decision either of them would ever make.
This is all within the very first of the one hundred thirty-four episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, and it truly set the standard for what we would see going forward. Gabrielle would have some romantic interests outside of Xena over the course of the series, but there is no questioning that her life revolved around the Warrior Princess from the moment she met her. Xena struggles with myriad romantic attachments throughout the show, conflicted over her past loves like Marcus, and the god of war, Ares, who sees the bond between her and Gabrielle as a threat and consistently attempts to break them up. For Gabrielle, she is briefly married, but her husband is little more than a plot device who is then almost immediately killed. She is trailed after by Joxer, but has no interest in him. In contrast, she is dedicated to Xena, and rarely questions the strength of their connection. Though it isn’t always explicit, by the end of the series, it’s difficult to view their relationship as anything but a love story.
Looking back, what was mandated a platonic relationship by censorship comes across more like a highly successful polyamorous relationship, in which the two grant each other space and understanding while remaining fully committed to one another. By the end of the story, they appear to be in a more monogamous arrangement, with Xena ultimately choosing Gabrielle as her one true partner, but it’s important that they allowed each other to express outside interests without anger as they grew together.
Indeed, though Xena’s affairs are many, Gabrielle’s strongest outside interest is with the Amazons. This, of course, is not without its own subtext. In the episode “Hooves & Harlots”, Xena focuses on trying to solve a murder mystery while Gabrielle trains and bonds with the Amazons. The Amazons emphasize sisterhood and they give Gabrielle a greater understanding of who she is as an entity separate from Xena. In “The Quest,” we learn that if Xena were to perish, Gabrielle would go to live with the Amazons rather than rejoining her old village or even pursuing her career as a bard. Though the Amazons are also never confirmed as queer despite the obvious queer elements of their story, Gabrielle’s emphasis on surrounding herself with a community of other queer people is important. In the Amazon episodes, the Gabrielle-specific subtext is as strong as it ever gets. In “To Helicon and Back,” Gabrielle politely notes that Xena will have to leave because a pending ceremony is Amazon-only, and Xena graciously agrees with only a trace of apprehension, quipping, “Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do.” Xena supports Gabrielle and encourages her to form close bonds with other women, but they always come back to each other.
In “The Ides of March,” the villainous Callisto teams up with Xena’s cruel ex Caesar to usurp rulership of Rome from its tenuous democracy. Xena has seen a prophecy warning her to never set foot within Rome lest she risk her own death, but when Gabrielle is captured, she feels she has no choice. They nearly escape, but she is paralyzed by Callisto in the middle of a fight to free Caesar’s prisoners. Gabrielle spent much of the last season on a quest for peace, but when she sees Xena fall, she does not hesitate to unleash her full rage on the Roman guards. She fights valiantly while Xena begs her not to, fearing the cost to Gabrielle’s spirit. After they are both captured, they are imprisoned together and sentenced to death. When Xena weakly apologizes to Gabrielle, asking her forgiveness for making her break her vow of non-violence, Gabrielle insists that it’s meaningless, as nothing has ever mattered to her besides her life with Xena. The two of them are crucified together, and they die gazing into each other’s eyes. Though they return to life in the next season, we see that even in death, their souls were just as intertwined as their lives had become.
Gabrielle’s struggle with violence and the inner peace she ultimately achieves in concern to it is generally what people focus on when talking about the importance of her story, but that all happens alongside her journey to acceptance of herself as a queer person. She and Xena are not an immediate item but rather a slow burn love story in which they both must prove their love and devotion while struggling with their own inner demons. Yet still, at any time throughout the series when the two become separated, Gabrielle is not well until she is reunited with her partner. Xena, for her part, grows to depend on Gabrielle in a way that is, at first, completely alien to her. Though Xena has had many loves, none of them went to the lengths that Gabrielle went to in order to be with her. Leading up to her catastrophic death in the final episodes, her commitment to Gabrielle is agonizingly apparent. Even in death, the two of them will never be separated.
Without Gabrielle’s queer subplot, textual or not, Xena would not have been the show it was. Xena’s story involves a lot of conflicting feelings and ends with her making amends for who she was before ultimately letting go of it all and finding her own peace. Gabrielle’s story is about holding on to her faith and her kindness regardless of what she goes through. Together, these stories combined to be one of the greatest love stories in television history. Though the comics would later portray their relationship as openly queer, the fact that it didn’t need to be canonical within the show to be as important as it is to queer audiences only further proves the impact of the series, the vitality of Gabrielle’s story, and the poetic beauty of her complicated, but all-encompassing, love for Xena.