call it the kiss that shook cyberspace -- a revelatory moment in the second season of the TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess." Xena, an action hero who makes Wonder Woman look like a simpering debutante, bent her head down and smooched her sidekick, Gabrielle, a blonde quarterstaff-wielding bard, smack on the lips. In the silence that followed, sharp-eared fans could almost hear the screen-captures being digitized and uploaded to the Web. Proof, proof at last, that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just friends.
And proof, too, that the Xenaverse (as it's affectionately known) encompasses more than a just a wacky fictional world where myth and history are so jumbled that one is as likely to bump into Julius Caesar as a tribe of Amazons, or bounce from a tussle with Ares to a showdown between David and Goliath. The Xenaverse knows no limits. It extends even into the Internet, where Xenites are hard at work evangelizing the legend of the Warrior Princess in every direction possible, from the familiar old pleasures of chat rooms, mailing lists and countless Web sites to the outer boundaries of faux-scholarly Xena criticism and erotic lesbian fan fiction.
Xena's online following offers a fresh example of how the Internet is altering the way fans and creators influence each other. In the absence of any clear sign, so far, of disapproval from Xena's rights-holders, Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures, Xenites have freely created a festival of Xena glory online -- a world chock-full of unauthorized screen captures, video clips, sound files, screen savers, computer games, detailed episode summaries and ream after ream of fan fiction. On the Net, fans are hardly helpless consumers of pop cultural commodities. They have been given the power to redraw the lines that separate them from the objects of their devotion.
There is an intimate connection, in every sense of the word, between the Net and the Xenaverse.
"The producers are very aware of the Internet and the Internet fan's reaction," says Kym Taborn, editor of WHOOSH, a tongue-in-cheek Web zine that serves as the journal for the "International Association of Xena Studies" and focuses on such issues as the hair color myths surrounding Lucy Lawless (the actress who plays Xena) or Xena as Byronic hero. "I have a whole boatload of honorary members of the International Association of Xena Studies who are production people or actors on the show," says Taborn.
"The Renaissance folks are very much aware of the large online community, the numerous Web sites and the fact that these Web sites have screen captures and use images from the MCA/Universal Xena/Herc Web sites," says Michael Martinez, maintainer of the comprehensive Xena Online Resources Web site.
Representatives of Renaissance Pictures proved impossible to reach for this story -- most of the show's principals are in New Zealand, where Xena is taped, and the Renaissance publicist referred all questions to Universal Studios. But the online footprints of Renaissance are everywhere. Writers, editors and producers of the show subscribe to mailing lists and participate in chat room-based interview sessions -- not all of which are smooth sailing. Lawless found herself kicked out of an IRC chat room devoted to Xena when she made fun of her own character while chatting under the nickname "Hercules." The chat room regulars were outraged. Nobody messes with Xena.
Unless, that is, one is an author of Xena-related fan fiction, in which case anything goes. Not only does Xena get beat up and battered in some fan-written chronicles, but she and Gabrielle have been transmogrified into 1990s bikers in the American Southwest and have been known to pop up in regions as far afield as Ireland and Japan. And then there's the sex. One measly televised kiss doesn't even begin to capture the weight of passion expressed online in lesbian Xena/Gabrielle erotica. Xena is truly a feminist hero for the '90s, an ass-kicking sex object accessible to men and women alike.
Which is not to say that in the annals of pop cultural fan obsessiveness, the outpouring of Xena/Gabrielle erotica is by any means unique. So-called slash fiction dates back at least 15 years, to the days when the first band of boldly-going "Star Trek" fans began to publish stories that posited a graphic homosexual relationship between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Spock. But back then, slash implied underground, and had an audience composed mostly of the slash writers themselves and sharp-eyed lit-crit academics.
In the Internet era, there is no more underground, and every obsessive subcultural faction is easily accessible. Xena/Gabrielle slash may not be unique, but it is vigorous, public and, to a certain extent, even officially condoned. Gene Roddenberry probably never intended Kirk and Spock to be seen as gay lovers, but there is no denying the explicit lesbian subtext in "Xena," the television show. As one of the Subtext FAQs notes, the show's producers have admitted as much. Televised incidents such as the Xena/Gabrielle kiss, or the even more notorious "disco lesbian vampire" episode "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," provide, at the very least, evidence of a tacit consent to a lesbian reading of the Xena-Gabrielle relationship.
Contemporary pop culture may be far more accepting of overt lesbianism than gay male sexuality, but the lesbian Xena scene flourishing online still presses some taboo buttons.
"I would say that in a climate of homophobia, any story which takes lesbian sexuality and relationships seriously and deals with them sympathetically has a transgressive element to it," says Henry Jenkins, author of "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching." "If Xena seems to allow a lesbian reading, it doesn't insist on it. The producers want to have things both ways, while the fan stories make the lesbian subtext explicit."
"Most slash stories are a form of cultural criticism," says Jenkins, "often an attempt to explore more fully the characters and their motivations, and thus fall under the legal notion of parody. On the other hand, if you are a schoolteacher in the Midwest posting slash stories on the net, and Viacom comes crashing down upon you armed with a whole tribe of lawyers, you stand to lose far too much to go to court ... They will crush you and all you can do is roll over and play dead, whether they are legally in the right or not." But the legal implications of fan fiction aren't as simple as cut-and-dried trademark infringement. For instance, producers and writers for "Xena" are careful to note that they do not read fan fiction for fear of being accused of stealing ideas. In other words, they're afraid of being sued for stealing from their own fans, who are blithely adapting already trademarked characters. Confusing? So be it. Nobody ever claimed that the Xenaverse makes sense.
Right now, apparent trademark violation and copyright infringement are rampant in the Xenaverse, but so far, Universal isn't cracking down on anyone. The Universal approach is in sharp contrast to that taken by its media-titan brethren, Fox Television and Viacom, both of whom have stirred up considerable Net ire with harsh cease-and-desist stances against unauthorized Web site creations by fans of such shows as "The X-Files," "Millennium" and "Star Trek."
But what is Universal's policy? It's not easy to find out. In response to repeated inquiries, a spokesperson for Universal (who insisted that she be referred to only by that label) finally issued the following statement:
"We do monitor Internet sites for many of our characters and properties and sometimes certain Web sites are also called to our attention, and in such cases we will analyze on a case-to-case basis when it might be appropriate to take action. But we recognize that most of these unauthorized sites are created by fans, and we find that flattering and supportive of our shows and properties."
The spokesperson noted that Universal reserves the right to take action against sites that cross the line into "bad taste," but at the same time admitted that the notion of bad taste is "very subjective."
There is no shortage of bad taste on the Net, to be sure. When Lawless accidentally exposed her left breast while singing the National Anthem at an NHL playoff game, pictures of the incident immediately popped up on the Web. Lia Crandall, a publicist for Renaissance Pictures, recalled being sent a photograph of Lawless in which the actress' head had been digitally superimposed on a naked body. The Xenaverse can be a rough place.
But still, most Xena Webmasters say that Universal has taken no action against fans.
"The official policy of MCA/Universal seems to be a don't-ask-don't-tell one," said Tom Simpson, a Web producer who works for CitySearch. "Obviously people haven't been asking permission to create the Web sites, but MCA/Universal hasn't asked anyone to shut down their site. If they did, I would be one of the first asked. I have over 400 megabytes of Xena images, sounds and QuickTime videos, and around 3,000 visitors daily."
And, intriguingly, the most potentially controversial aspect of Xena on the Net -- the lesbian erotica fan fiction -- is also probably the best protected from any potential corporate-sponsored censorship. Despite using trademarked characters, fan fiction is protected, says lawyer (and devoted "Star Trek" fan) Judith Gran, by several Supreme Court precedents ruling that "transformative" works are not necessarily infringements on copyright.
Furthermore, for a corporation to win a cease-and-desist order against an author of fan fiction, says Gran, it would have to prove that it was suffering financial damage -- when the truth could be exactly the opposite.
As fans see it, their online creativity has helped propel "Xena's" huge popularity to its spot today as the No. 1 syndicated action-adventure television show in the world.
"It appears that MCA/Universal has realized the value of a few dedicated Webmasters who spend ungodly hours creating monstrous Web pages that only serve to help advertise their product more," says Simpson.
"The Xena fans are for the most part extremely thoughtful, courteous, law-abiding citizens," says Kym Taborn, the WHOOSH editor. "All they want to do is enjoy the Xenaverse. There are many who take great delight in writing their own Xena adventures and even more who take delight in reading them. Who is this harming? If it is doing anything, it is adding value to the property of Xena. The Web activity enhances the product."
Still, statements like Universal's appear to be designed to allow for a future change of direction. The current peace could easily be just the calm before the crackdown. But the Xenites, like their hero, don't intend to go quietly. Should the media colossus ever decide to move, they intend to be ready. Taborn and Martinez, of Xena Online Resources, recently began organizing a Xena Webmaster's Association that will act as an intermediary between the Net and Universal. If Universal suddenly decides that certain activities are unacceptable, the XWA will work to get the information out as quickly as possible. As Xena would be the first to observe, forewarned is forearmed.