Princesses are lame, but what girl hasn’t dreamed of being a warrior princess? That mix of power, athleticism, and, yes, beauty is intoxicating—a way of both acceding to norms and remaining independent. Imagine being valued not only for your mind and character, but also for your fantastic body as it leaps over walls and knocks down bad guys. Being a hot action heroine feels good, so good that I suspect at least half of the women I see at the gym have left their humdrum lives behind to temporarily become Xena, or Black Widow, or Ziyi Zhang’s character from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Jennifer Sky, who played the Amazon fighter Amarice for six episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, talks about how liberating the experience was in a New York Times op-ed. Her years as a teenage model, before she took up acting, had given her PTSD. She’d been drugged and photographed topless, forced to pose in a freezing swimming pool until her skin turned blue, abandoned in foreign hotels with no food or money, and groped countless times. Graduating from the indifference and exploitation of the fashion industry to “horseback riding, archery, and numerous fighting techniques,” she writes, was “shout-it-to-the-heavens inspiring.”
It was inspiring to read about, too. “Gender was not relevant in the Xenaverse,” Sky continues. “There, a girl or a boy could be a warlord or a farmer, a bard or a sad sack needing protection.” She describes how her character “kicked butt … I hung with a Christ figure called Eli; I had a same-sex lover and a boyfriend of a different race than mine; I threw bombs and walked along high wires.”
A pause for you to scan these images into the mental file you keep for pumping yourself up while jogging.
OK. And if Sky had left it at that, everything would be fine. But it’s not as cut-and-dry as modeling bad, kick-ass Xena character good. The problem with the warrior princess model manifests, subtly, in sentences like this:
“[Xena] was feminism at work, with female lead characters who were unapologetically powerful and sexy.”
“I did it all in a wig of wild red hair and leather short-shorts.”
“I was able to embody all my hoped-for attributes: strength, athleticism, courage, grace under pressure, looking good in shorts.”
While I want to love the “hot super-heroine” type and to share in the pleasure Sky takes in her, these statements ring to me with a kind of false empowerment. If Amarice is so strong, brave, and self-assured, who cares how short her shorts are? If she’s “powerful,” why does she also have to be “sexy”? Sky says her character is “unapologetically” both, but we are long past the point, in pop culture at least, of women “apologizing” for being alluring. Instead, Sky’s modeling horror stories should remind us of the many ways in which we pressure and coerce girls (even 14-year-old girls) into sexiness.
In a phone interview, Sky spoke movingly about the trauma she endured as a teen model—the photographers who screamed at her when she botched a shot, the adults “towering over [her], pushing [her]” to strip off layers. Partisans of the warrior princess type will say characters like Amarice are strong first, sexy as an added bonus. They’ll argue that being able to add beauty to positive attributes like brains and grit represents a feminist “win.” But in light of Sky’s modeling experiences, I see the warrior princess’s hotness as less of a perk (Cool! She’s allowed to be sexy too!) than a nonnegotiable law (She’s required to be sexy too. Of course.). Now, there’s nothing wrong with Amazons who have it all, who can dispatch evildoers and look awesome doing it. I just wish pop culture could deliver us a woman role model so kick-ass we didn’t care how she looked in shorts.