All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.
When people reference Xena: Warrior Princess as a series, the emphasis is usually on, well, Xena. A former warlord who struggles to change her wicked ways over the course of a whole series is intriguing subject matter, after all. Still, Xena was far from the only interesting character on the show, nor is she the only one who underwent a significant character arc. Although she is generally dismissed as Xena’s girlfriend and sidekick by writers and fans who revisit the show, Gabrielle’s storyline is at least as compelling as that of Xena herself, and Xena’s own pathway to redemption would be a very different thing were it not accompanied by Gabrielle’s relative fall from grace.
By the end of the series, Xena had gone from a warlord to a tired warrior with no war left to fight. Meanwhile, Gabrielle had gone from pacifist to warrior in her own right. The story of how they got there took six seasons to tell, and it was a real rollercoaster ride.
Gabrielle appears in the first episode of the series, a young bard who becomes immediately enamored with Xena and begs the jaded warrior to let her tag along and tell her tale. Xena sees no need for anyone to glorify her shameful story, and she declines. Gabrielle spends the rest of the episode using her words to get herself out of increasingly disastrous scenarios, first with a Cyclops, finally saving Xena from an angry mob using nothing but her powers of verbal persuasion. Xena sees that there is no convincing Gabrielle to go home, and allows her to come along.
For a series in which the main protagonist died and came back multiple times, Gabrielle herself was also notably put through the wringer. Her husband is murdered by an angry Callisto for ill-defined revenge purposes. When she flirts with the idea of violence, she only endangers herself and Xena even more. She is raped by the god Dahak, then gives birth to what is an identical duplicate of herself named Hope, a wicked, demonic creature that kills Xena's son after Gabrielle fails to destroy her in time due to her own maternalistic uncertainty. Xena briefly blames Gabrielle for her child's death, but the two of them reunite and team up against Hope in the end. Over the series, Gabrielle loses Xena more than once and is forced to go to the ends of the earth to retrieve her.
In the beginning, Gabrielle’s costume is unwieldy and unfit for battle. She spends most of Xena’s fight scenes hiding, getting kidnapped, or using her words to assist in negotiations with various antagonists. Over the series, her outfit becomes more practical for fighting, and she adopts a quarterstaff that is given to her by the Amazons. In the end, she adopts a pair of sais as her weapons of choice. As the focus on Gabrielle’s skill as a conflicted warrior increased, her original choice of career as a writer and storyteller falls mostly by the wayside. The idea of a woman who is both a storyteller and a fighter is compelling, but there was never much chance to fulfill that character potential as the series moved along. As it stood, Gabrielle already underwent an incredible amount of character growth and change.
The hinted-at queerness of Gabrielle significantly adds to her characterization as the seasons go on. Her mild jealousy and possessiveness are only explored in her responses to Xena, and the extent to which she goes in her journey to forgive and save Xena is important. Her identity morphs to resemble the woman she once emulated, became friends with, and then grew to love, which would send a significantly different message if separated from the romantic tension of their relationship. Creator Rob Tapert mentioned that the network executives wouldn’t allow Xena and Gabrielle to appear onscreen together in the credits because they were apprehensive to give the implication that the show was about queer women. The series played around with queer subtext but never took a decisive stance on the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and it wasn’t until the last episode and the death of Xena that they were revealed to be romantically involved. Regardless, as Gabrielle becomes more herself, she and Xena prioritize and interact with one another in the way you would expect of a married couple. Although there is something to be said for the lack of emphasis on non-romantic work relationships between women, or platonic relationships between queer women at all, Xena and Gabrielle were in many ways set up as a love story from the beginning.
Xena wasn’t the only character to receive a redemption arc throughout the series. Aphrodite showed up throughout Hercules: The Legendary Journeys as shallow and amoral, tormenting mortals to appease her own sense of vanity. In Xena, she slowly began to change into a kinder, more empathetic character, focusing on helping mortals rather than hindering them. Aphrodite’s story is one that seemed cut short by the end of the series. Likewise, the villainous Callisto showed up in the first season, angry and destructive, blaming Xena for her role in her family’s demise and swearing to take her revenge. Xena was tormented by the truth of Callisto’s claims, but the woman’s murderous rampages left her with no recourse but to end them. Callisto was eventually destroyed, then reborn. Both Xena and Gabrielle struggled to forgive the woman they knew as a monster.
In the end, Xena was not just a show about a warrior woman having epic fight scenes, but also a complicated serial about the nature of forgiveness. We were shown every part of Xena’s character, from the worst to the best, and we were given the opportunity to watch her find peace through a long process of trial and error. Gabrielle’s story, however, proved to be almost more interesting in the long run. Initially innocent and naive, she joined with Xena hoping for adventure and found her own tragedy along the way. With Xena as a role model of sorts, Gabrielle was fortunate to forgo many of her failures and become a more complete person in the end. Her promise to Xena to take up her cause left a long, untold story. Gabrielle taking up Xena’s role as the peaceful warrior was where the series was destined to go from the beginning, and it’s a shame so much of that story was to be left unexplored.