Xena: Warrior Princess was my first organized fandom as an adult, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Not Xena herself. She may have been the icon, but I was there for the supporting cast, as my reputation in the OG fandom as “Everybody’s Gabrielle” (typically, most of the people who rocked up in Gabrielle cosplay did so because their Xenish partners wanted them to, so any Gabrielle you saw who wasn’t me was usually part of a pair) showed. I was this way about Buffy Summers too, by the way…I was way more into the rest of the Scoobies (and the spinoff) more than I was the Slayer herself.
But Xena: Warrior Princess was iconic, and so was the experience surrounding it. I joined the party at the beginning of Season 3, and stayed with it til the end. My first real cosplay experiences were at Xena: Warrior Princess cons…in fact, my very first time out, I had such a bad encounter with a fellow Gabrielle who decided to be hostile to what she saw as competition, that I almost fled the entire thing. I later found out that she had a tendency to be a little grouchy to everyone she didn’t know, and we became friends anyway.
While I was quietly licking my wounds in a corner of the con, wondering whether I should just give up and go home, a woman approached me. She said she was one of the organisers of Xena Night at Meow Mix (a lesbian bar not far from where I lived in NYC at the time), and that if I came to one of their events in my homemade Gab gear, I would definitely be appreciated and lauded.
That’s exactly what happened. For the next four years, the second Tuesday of every month would see me there, doing tequila shots with the Xenites. I would play Gabrielle in the alternate ending skits they did between episodes (always three episodes, along a theme of some kind), and when someone won a custom made cigarette lighter with pics of Xena and Gabrielle on, they got to remove it from my cleavage, where it had been showcased. We organized “The Marching Xenas” for the Pride March a few years running (typically 30 or so Xenas, and maybe one or two other Gabrielles apart from myself—I remember dragging along an Aphrodite and an Ares to one of them).
I made out with far too many women whose names I don’t remember, and when we celebrated some step forward in LGBTQIA rights by having a mock wedding, I exchanged vows with a gorgeous Xena cosplayer while the male partners we both happened to have at the time (everyone remembers Xena and Gabrielle as famous lesbians, and they were certainly each others’ soulmates, but it’s important to remember that canonically, they were both bi) were good sports from the sidelines. I went to every driveable Xena: Warrior Princess con (back when Creation events were sort of affordable), and Team Meow Mix named me their Official Ambassador of Love (and eventual deputy of the monthly festivities). Ah, the good old days.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the Xena: Warrior Princess experience didn’t have its warts. First of all, no one could understand why I liked Gabrielle better. On the rare occasion people saw me with my Gabrielle wig off, my then-red waves would make people ask me why I didn’t cosplay Amarice instead (do not do this at your cosplay friends, trust me). Because she was annoying, and anyway that’s not from whence cometh the cosplay urge (we cosplay characters, ideally, because we love them, not because we happen to have a feature in common). They would ask why I didn’t update my costume from the S3 look I favoured, and once or twice a bar regular would come pat me on the belly and say “sit-ups, Cat, sit-ups.” No, I did not punch her—though had I been half as fit as Renee O’Connor, I might have considered it.
Gabrielle made the journey from sidekick to actual partner over the 6 seasons of the show. She was coming into her own as a human and a character, learning to fight, figuring herself out as a bard, and working out her spirituality. By Season 3, her hair was perfect, as was her costume (aside from being flattering to my figure, no matter what that woman thought of the state of my abs), and more importantly, this was the season where I found in her a truly relatable role model. Season 3 saw Gabrielle f*cked in every possible way (including literally, a mystical rape leading to a demonic pregnancy). She was tricked into willfully killing someone, saved Xena’s butt on more than one occasion, and still she never lost her sense of hope.
She genuinely assumed every new person she met would be a friend, she was keen and curious to learn new things, write stories, and grow as a person. Throughout all of this, Xena’s treatment of her best friend wasn’t exactly what I would call steadfast. When the pair faced crucifixion at the end of S4 (another in a line of deaths for both), Xena even apologized to Gabrielle for all the times she hadn’t treated her right. It did my heart good to hear—though Gabrielle’s dismissal of many things that could be seen as abuse (the Gab-drag? Don’t get me started) by telling Xena, “you brought out the best in me” was way more generous than I think I could have managed.
Anyway, enough about me. The fandom is still going strong, if you know where to look—there’s even a yearly retreat, to celebrate all things Xena! To help celebrate the Xenaversary, I hit up some of the fans and cosplayers I am privileged to know, and asked them how the Warrior Princess etc influenced their lives. All photos and quotes are used with the subjects’ permission.
“For me, Xena was a definite role model. When I was growing up I struggled with wanting to be feminine, and yet still touch enough and able to keep up with the boys. I joked that I used to play in the mud with the boys, I just wanted to wear a dress while doing it. Xena debuted during my Freshman year in college. It was right as I was discovering who I was as an adult and I firmly believe that it had an effect on who I became. She helped me realise that I could be a self rescuing princess. I didn’t have to choose to be tough or femimine. I could just be myself, a mix between the two.” – Lindsay Reinoehl Bartleson
“Look at the diversity of the cast regarding race, gender and sexuality. Still cutting edge.” – Sherri Savannah Anderson