Claire Regnault, Senior Curator New Zealand Culture and History, talks about the legacy of Xena: Warrior Princess and a new exhibition in Christchurch, We Could Be Heroes: The gods and heroes of the ancient Greeks and Romans, where her costume is currently starring until Oct 2017.
The history of Xena
In 1995 a new heroine, tormented by a dark past and searching for redemption, flashed across our TV screens. She was Xena: Warrior Princess.
Xena began her screen life as bit-part in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. But it quickly became clear that Xena had enough charisma and narrative scope to star in her own show.
Developed by the American company Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Xena: Warrior Princess was filmed in Auckland and starred Lucy Lawless in the title role.
Of Xena’s character, the curators of We Could Be Heroes, Penny Minchin-Garvin and Terri Elderthe, write:
‘Set in ancient Greece, the plot drew on classical mythology and featured many gods and heroes from Greek and Roman traditions. Accompanied by her sidekick Gabrielle, Xena travelled the world destroying tyrants and monsters in an attempt to find atonement for her own bloody past. Possibly the offspring of a divine parent (Ares, god of war), Xena is in many respects like the heroes of ancient myth, but she is different in one fundamentally important way: she is a woman.
‘In Greek and Roman mythology, heroines were mothers, faithful wives or maidens awaiting rescue. They supported and encouraged the male hero but did not actively influence events. For contemporary audiences, however, Xena is an embodiment of an important change in western cultures, encapsulating the move towards equality between the sexes. Here is a powerful woman who, despite her faults, achieves great things in the defence of her community. Just like male heroes in contemporary comics and movies, Xena is a new spin on an ancient hero.’
Xena did indeed capture the public’s imagination, providing an alternative female role model to the passive female characters so often trotted out on screen.
In the below episode of Tales from Te Papa, Anna Greaves, a former Te Papa staffer and committed ‘Xenite’, discusses Xena a symbol of female friendship, strength, competence.
She also provides an insight into just why Xena appears to have such large feet – all the better for kicking butt with yes, but there is a bit more to it.
When Xena: Warrior Princess came to a close in 2001, the producers kindly gifted Xena’s signature costume to Te Papa, along with that worn by her side-kick, Gabrielle.
Xena’s costume was initially designed by Barbara Darragh, then reworked by Ngila Dickson. The weapons and other props were designed by Robert Gillies. Nglia Dickson has subsequently gone on to dress numerous heroes for the screen, including Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hal Jordon aka ‘The Green Lantern’ (2011), and Matilda from Mr Pip (2013).
Xena meets her classical origins
Xena’s costume is currently on display in We Could Be Heroes at the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities in the Christchurch Arts Centre.
While the exhibition primarily focuses on gods and heroes from classical antiquity, it also features a small group of more recently conceived heroes, including comic book characters Asterix and Superman, and, of course, Xena.
As Terri Elder comments, the creation of these characters shows that ‘ancient myths are compelling because they deal with the human condition – they are powerful because they are great adventures which also deal with issues of identity, love, belief and fear etc. That is one reason why they have endured throughout the ages and been reimagined or reinvented for each new generation’.
The curators have positioned Xena’s costume in the ‘Monsters and Anti-heroes’ section of the exhibition. She is amongst some staunch female company, including an Amazon in the midst of battle (below).
In Greek mythology, the Amazons are a race of warrior women. In the 1940s, the myth gave rise to the comic book character Wonder Woman, who is currently gracing the big screen – and as Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) works as a curator of ancient weapons at the Lourve in Paris! – and certainly influenced the creation of Xena.
Girl power – the Amazons
As symbols of female empowerment, the Amazons have inspired generations of women.
In Te Papa’s collection, we have two uniforms named after mythological race – an ‘Amazon Corps’ uniform worn by a member of the Wellington Ladies’ Khaki Corps in 1901 (below) – the group was also known as ‘the Amazons’ – and a 1970s uniform worn by a member of the Amazons lesbian softball team.
Was there really a tribe of Amazons? Read Amanda Foreman’s article in the Smithsonian magazine.
The Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities in the Christchurch Arts Centre is a brand new museum dedicated to showcasing Canterbury University’s Logie Memorial Collection of classical antiquities. It’s considered to be one of the finest teaching collections of its type in the Southern Hemisphere.
As a former student at Canterbury, I spent many happy hours in the collection and marvelled at being able to handle and study such ancient objects so closely. Now, based at the Arts Centre, the collection is accessible to the general public as well as students.
Over 200 items in the Logie Collection were damaged during the 4 September 2010 Canterbury earthquake. We Can Be Heroes marks the return of many of these objects to display following conservation and repair. Having survived against many odds, the objects are considered by the curators as ‘heroes’ themselves.
We Can Be Heroes runs at the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities in Christchurch’s Arts Centre, until 29 October 2017.