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Which entertainment phenomenon has done more for feminism in the past few years: Xena: Warrior Princess, starring Lucy Lawless, or The Vagina Monologues, starring Lucy Lawless?

It's not a trick question.

I manage to remain genuinely perplexed about how (a) chicks in leather mini-skirts fighting each other and (b) chicks chanting the C-word constitutes any sort of latter-day feminist revolution. But on balance, I prefer Xena. It's got better costumes.

Tonight is the first episode of the last series. Shame, that. If they'd kept the thing going perhaps Lawless would never have been tempted to sit on a stage boring us all (oh, all right, me anyway) to death with facts about how nerve-endings in bits of the female anatomy somehow make us superior.

Never a dull moment in tonight's Xena though. Although you could argue that this episode belongs to the late Kevin Smith as Ares, for more than the obvious reason.

There's more ham in his performance than there is the freezer at the supermarket at Christmas time. Which is meant as a compliment; Smith's supernatural being turned super wimp is easily the best thing in the episode.

The God of War has lost his powers; he can't hurt a fly, let alone a Xena. Cue a cheeky Xena entrance: she catches said fly, flicks it and sneers "Lucky for you. The fly nearly had ya." Ares is reduced to begging a favour from the gal pals. The only way he can get his Godhood back is to steal the Amazonians' ambrosia stash.

Cue lots of male fantasy shots of the Amazon chicks at Amazon boot camp. And of scantily clad sheilas fighting each other. Which brings to mind the Seinfeld line about why cat fights are so exciting to watch: there's always the chance they'll kiss.

Then there are the really bad chicks in the form of the shape-changing Furies who are out to drive Ares insane (or is that the scriptwriters?) and to get the Amazonians to turn on Xena and Gabrielle. Cool. It's all one big, bitchy schoolgirls' scrap, except that instead of pulling each other's pigtails, these girls are really, really mean to sisters turned traitors.

Snitch on them and they'll put your head in a frightening-looking scold's bridle thing, with spikes. When that gets boring, you get to watch Xena taunt Ares: "What's the matter with the God of War? You afraid of a girl?" The props are great. Watch out for the wonderful polystyrene rock scene, and I'm not talking about the acting. The accents are even better.

I can't think of any other TV show where you'll hear such a range of accents: from the really bad fake American ones to the rilly broad Kiwi ones.

Perhaps Xena's real service has been not to feminism but to cross- cultural acceptance of bad accents.
Or perhaps it's really - despite all those theses - that Xena has got something for everyone: cleavage and pecs, action scenes and sexual tension. And the chance of a cat fight. Now that's what I call empowering.

* Xena: Warrior Princess TV4, 8.30pm

March 19, 2002, NEW ZEALAND HERALD