Given its portrayal of a strong female protagonist who enjoys intimate friendships with other women, “Xena: Warrior Princess” courted a massive LGBTQ following during its six-season run. Though 18 years have passed since the show went off the air, many continue to hail the titular character as a lesbian icon, though her sexuality was never formally clarified.
As a new documentary, “Queering the Script,” reveals, there was one person initially oblivious to the queer appeal of the fantasy series-turned-pop culture phenomenon: Xena herself ― or, rather, Lucy Lawless, who played the role.
When Lawless and co-star Renee O’Connor learned of their LGBTQ fans, “we just thought it was really kind of amusing,” she said, as seen in the above clip. “A huge part of this fandom, which had never been seen in the history of the world before, was that it was born at the same time as the internet.”
The “Xena” cult is one of many examined in “Queering the Script,” which debuted this weekend at the 2019 Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto and will continue to play additional festivals over the course of the year. Canadian filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha told HuffPost she wanted to examine how queer audiences have embraced “Xena: Warrior Princess” and many other TV shows ― including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and, more recently, “One Day at a Time” ― and, by doing so, “straddle an interesting line” between fans and activists.
“When they haven’t seen themselves represented on TV, they wrote themselves back into the narrative with fan fiction and other transformative works,” Zilkha said. “Today, with LGBTQ representation becoming more popular, this fanbase is the first to champion representation done right, but also the first to critique, pick apart and demand something better.”
Many of Zilkha’s previous films, such as 2016’s “Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana,” have looked at issues affecting marginalized communities. For “Queering the Script” specifically, she said her ultimate goal was to “encourage audiences to consider the power of pop culture on our lives” and prove that “representation really does matter.”
“Seeing ourselves or not seeing ourselves has a significant impact on our development of self and the scripts we follow in our lives,” she explained. “It informs how others see us and how we’re positioned in society at large.”
But the film isn’t intended as a love letter to the LGBTQ fan base behind popular TV shows, either. In fact, Zilkha said her aim was to look “critically” at those fans, too.
“Many of the top queer ‘ships’ and characters that people ‘stan’ over are white, femme and meet a certain feminine beauty ideal,” she said. “Are we really promoting representation well if we aren’t championing shows with characters of color? Why aren’t we expressing the same internet rage when characters of color fall prey to tired tropes vs. when pretty white queer women are?”
“Queering the Script” is one of several films headlining the Inside Out Film Festival, which runs through June 2 and is now in its 29th year. Anchored by the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” the festival’s lineup also includes “Late Night,” documentaries like “Halston” and “Scream Queen,” and episodic series like “Eastsiders,” “Vida” and Netflix’s “Tales of the City” reboot.