Genders 34 2001
Whatever Turns You On
Becoming-Lesbian and the Production of Desire in the Xenaverse
by JEANNE E. HAMMING
 At the end of the Xena: Warrior Princess episode, "The Play's the Thing," in which Gabrielle directs her own play, Minya, with her new friend Paulina in tow, exclaims:
Gabrielle, I wanted to thank you. I never would have met Paulina here if it wasn't for you. In fact, the two of you made me realize something deep down about myself that I guess I always knew but just didn't dare admit...Yes. I'm a (dramatic pause) thespian!
While same-sex desire is regarded by fans as subtextual in the popular syndicated television show, Xena: Warrior Princess, a campy and often anachronistic series detailing the adventures of a Greek warrior woman and her youthful sidekick, obvious references such as this one are part of an ongoing narrative trope that is all too scrutable and marketable. This marketability of lesbian sexuality and the titillation that such a show produces for its viewers speak quite clearly to its perpetuation of a model of desire predicated on an "open secret," which relies simultaneously on confession and restraint. Despite positive reactions from its lesbian fans who hail the show's "covert" exploration of female homoeroticism as liberating, this so-called "liberation" masks the policing of the very lesbianism the show seemingly brings to the surface. The more we talk about a possible sexual relationship between Xena and her sidekick, Gabrielle, the more that relationship is regulated as an already socially regulated site of sexual deviance. Furthermore, the cache of Xena/Gabrielle slash fiction which has grown out of the show's reliance on open secrecy has led to a circuit of productive desire between the creative forces behind Xena: Warrior Princess and the writers of Xena slash. These instances of Xena and Gabrielle's romantic relations, as they are produced and re-produced through the circuit formed between the show and its online fans, suggest a breakdown in the ostensible boundary between production and consumption. At the same time, they also foreground the mechanisms of repression and commodification of lesbian sexualities working to intensify and reproduce a desire for discourse on lesbianism ad infinitum.
 My goal in examining the conflation of Xena production and Xena consumption is not to liberate the lesbian/fan/subject from the tyranny of repressive mechanisms which govern the avid consumption of television. Rather, I want to examine how these mechanisms work in relation to the lesbian consumer-as-producer of sexually explicit fan fiction in order to explore the ramifications of such productions on our notions of lesbian subjectivity and agency in a commodity culture.
 Slash fiction is the practice by fans of writing short stories, screenplays, and even novels, detailing same-sex encounters between two characters of a cult-popular television series. Slash actually derives its name from the abbreviations of characters' names linked together by a slash (/). K/S stood for Kirk/Spock, S/H for Starsky/Hutch, and so on. In the past, slash fiction has characteristically consisted of writings about male same-sex encounters written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. In this respect, Xena/Gabrielle breaks ground by upsetting previously understood notions of the relationship between the sexuality of slash writers and their work. From a psychoanalytic stand point, Xena slash operates as an endlessly repetitive production of sexual encounters which merely stand in for the show's evasiveness, the ceaseless fetishization of the imaginary relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. In these terms, what is played out through Xena slash is the fantasy of lesbian sexuality which substitutes for the absent relationship between the female characters on the series itself. Elevated to the status of a "Cogitatio universalis" (Thousand Plateaus, 376), this universalized and interiorized "logos" prescribes how we see ourselves as desiring-subjects. It structures the interpretative practices involved in determining what is, for example, "reality" versus what is a fetishistic projection.
 This interpretation of the phenomenon of the online Xenaverse would, perhaps, explain an unsettling encounter between Lucy Lawless and an assembly of Xena fans in an internet chat room. Lawless explains that, while "simming" as a fan of her own show,
I joined a conversation about 'Xena,' which was a mistake...I felt the pressure to say something and I made some jokey comment about Xena not being real. The people in the room were appalled. 'I can't believe what she said.' It was the worst possible thing you could ever say about Xena, apparently. I got flamed and they all left me there. (Sheff)
Lawless's need to assert the unreality of the series and the fans' "appalled" reactions attest to an anxiety typically felt for and by fans, as Henry Jenkins has illustrated in his study of fandom. In his book, Textual Poachers, Jenkins typifies the popular view of the fan as an "infantile" and "brainless consumer" who places "inappropriate importance on devalued cultural material" and cannot "separate fantasy from reality" (10). This list of stereotyped characteristics of fans was compiled, in part, from Jenkins' analysis of a Saturday Night Live skit starring William Shatner which parodies a Star Trek fan convention. Hordes of "trekkies," donned in Star Trek uniforms and Spock ears hound Shatner about minute details of obscure episodes. Coincidentally, this same joke was recycled for Lawless's appearance on SNL with the added feature of an audience consisting of overly-determined "butches" trying to seduce Lawless during her opening monologue. It is precisely this characterization of the neurotic fan that surfaces in Lawless's above account. The anxiety implicit in her "mistake" of getting too close to her fans speaks more to her stereotypical attitude toward fan culture and her understanding of Xena's reality than to her fans' supposed pathology. In other words, the assertion that Xena is "not real" presupposes a necessary condition of desire inherent in psychoanalytic methodology: the fantasy produced by Xena fans is constituted by a lack, namely, a lack of a fulfilling reality.
 The anxiety felt by Lawless over the idea of fans thinking Xena is real, and the anxiety felt by fans who take offense at being accused of conflating fantasy with reality, marks a crucial failure of certain forms of psychoanalysis to deal adequately with the positive production of meaning. To invest a text with significance is, after all, to make it real, as Deleuze and Guattari point out.
If desire produces, its product is real. If desire is productive, it can be productive only in the real world and can produce only reality. Desire is the set of passive syntheses that engineer partial objects, flows, and bodies, and that function as units of production...Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject unless there is repression. (Anti-Oedipus, 26)
According to this model, desire produces in the realm of reality rather than fantasy because it is the assemblage of heterogeneous elements that produce the object of desire--of desired reality. In this sense, Xena fanwriters operate as desiring-machines, and the uses to which Xena is put are not an effect of delusion or lack, but the production of new texts, and hence new augmented "realities," from the "raw material" of the show.
 Jenkins calls such products "home improvements that refit prefabricated materials to consumer desires" (52), an act which he terms "textual poaching," borrowing the phrase from Michel de Certeau. Jenkins' conception of textual poaching, however, offers an unsatisfactory explanation of the circuit formed between the fan consumer and the television producer. Nor does it account for the resultant repurposing of the show's content on television as well as online. It is certainly true that fans appropriate Xena: Warrior Princess and manipulate it to fit their lived experiences, but it is not true that this movement is unidirectional, from the producers of the show to the "poaching" consumers. "Poaching," as de Certeau uses the term, is a description of tactical reading practices which produce "modes of enjoyment" but not stockpiles of texts:
readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write...Writing accumulates, stocks up, resists time by the establishment of a place and multiplies its production through expansion and reproduction. Reading takes no measures against the erosion of time (one forgets oneself and also forgets), it does not keep what it acquires. (174)
de Certeau certainly points to reading as a productive practice, but it is a different brand of production than is seen in slash fiction for the simple reason that slash writers stockpile, publish, and circulate texts.
 Although Jenkins attempts to deal with this productive aspect of fandom in his discussion of "fanzines," magazines which compile and publish fan fiction, he seems to falter when he claims that "[f]anzines are not commercial commodities sold to consumers; they are artifacts shared with friends and potential friends" (160). This assertion is problematic, partially because Jenkins' book predates the burgeoning popularity of the internet, making it impossible for him to anticipate its effects on fandom. With the internet has come the increased availability of venues for writers, and as a result, has brought fan fiction to the immediate attention of television producers who have responded by incorporating fan material into production. The X-Files, for example, has aired an episode in which Scully and Mulder act out a (bad) piece of fan writing. An episode of Xena, too, chronicles the life of an overzealous fan played, of course, by Lucy Lawless.
 Furthermore, Jenkins' understanding of fanzines ignores the productive nature of fan writing. Jenkins' insistence that these collections of stories aren't commercial commodities, in other words, is informed by his insistence that fan writing is an act of textual poaching--of consumption. So while he attempts to liberate fans from the passive position of reader in order to grant them agency as active consuming subjects, he fails to account for fans as producers of, in this case, Xena. The problem, I think, with Jenkins' analysis of slash is his overreliance on locating the subjectivity and agency of fans.
 The subject, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, is the fantasy effect of repression, and repression is the necessary foundation of the production of lack: "Lack (manque) is created, planned, and organized in and through social production" (Anti-Oedipus, 28). And lack is the necessary component of capitalism: "The deliberate creation of lack as a function of market economy is the art of the dominant class. This involves deliberately organizing wants and needs (manque) amid an abundance of production" (Anti-Oedipus, 28). Capitalism, in this respect, maintains itself by concealing the possibility of "auto-production" (getting what you want) and by harnessing the "subject" through a complex system of repression (the psychoanalytic fantasy that you can never get what you want) and production (the capitalist fantasy that you must replace what you can't get with something that you don't need). Agency, then, acts as the lure of subjectivity (what you really want but can never get). So by trying to find the subject within the fan, Jenkins reasserts the logic of psychoanalysis that has already bound the subject by stripping away his or her agency and calling it lack. Poaching as a "tactic" is, after all, "an art of the weak" (de Certeau, 37).
 In an April, 1999 interview with Bob Irvy, writer for the men's magazine Maxim, Lucy Lawless was asked yet again to elaborate on Xena's sexual relationship with Gabrielle. Although her response is elusive as usual, it is also telling for two reasons. Her first and obviously ironic answer, "don't ask, don't tell," rings with parodic political sanction, playing on Clinton's infamous and now clichéd policy regarding gays in the military and the naive faith that the epistemology of the closet saves all. Lawless extends this metaphor of legalistic policing of one's sexuality (even if one is a fictional warrior princess) with her second response:
We like to have the audience make up their own minds about that. That interpretation seems to work for some people, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Whatever turns you on--hey, I get letters from judges and televangelists who want me to walk on their backs with my leather boots on. (Irvy)
Although she immediately retracts the statement, "No. Just kidding," Lawless's comment about judges and televangelists can hardly go unnoticed for its reference to public agents of political and religious power and regulation. Her singling out of these (presumably heterosexual and male) figures allows for Xena to be formulated as an object of kinky straight male fantasy. In such a scenario, Xena operates as an element of sadomasochistic fantasy, as a dominatrix or prostitute in leather boots, undermining the possibility of such a strong female representation to threaten heterosexual masculinity.
 But Lawless's invocation of judges and televangelists fails to address the multitude of lesbian followers who vehemently insist on a sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, as evidenced by the gigabytes of Xena/Gabrielle slash fiction available on the internet. Often taking on the characteristics of soft-porn, Xena/Gabrielle slash generally follows one of three basic formulas. The most common stories are of "coming out" and offer some grand realization of Xena's and Gabrielle's mutual desire, punctuated by pornographic descriptions of their consummation of that desire. The second formula involves what may be called "lost episode" narratives. These narratives usually entail a romantic conflict between Xena and Gabrielle, often caused by the interference of a prankster god, and its eventual resolution, punctuated by pornographic descriptions of their "making-up." The third formula is known in the Xenaverse as "Uber-Xena" fan fiction and generally involves reincarnations of Xena and Gabrielle who meet, discover that they are soulmates, and live happily ever after.
 At the same time that Xena slash fiction functions as an underground expression of the series' "subtext" and allows fans to play out the "unmentionable" sexuality hinted at in the show, it also operates as a necessary displacement of that same sexuality, positing it as dangerous and subversive. Xena slash fiction sites almost always begin with a disclaimer, such as this one found at the Xenerotica site:
WARNING The following material contains descriptions of sexual activity between consenting adults. If you are younger than 18 or if you are offended by this type of material, or if this material is illegal where you are, stop reading now and go outside and play. (Thompson)
 While slash narratives appear to offer subversions of the heteronormative regimes that govern sexuality, such liberatory claims display a blindness to the mechanisms which make such subversions necessary in the first place. I would argue that the show's refusal to bring to the fore consistent narratives of its characters' sexualities compels its lesbian viewers to produce lesbian narratives in a kind of online confessional mode. It is the same repression that maintains the show's playful ambiguity (and marketability) that encourages fans to relocate their desires to the safety and anonymity of cyberspace. This compulsion to re-produce Xena and Gabrielle as lesbian lovers, evidenced by the ubiquity and formulaic quality of Xena slash fiction, marks such texts as an effect of the series' failure to buttress the repressive forces that insist on "don't ask, don't tell" television.
 Yet the explosion of Xena slash fiction is only half of the story. Lawless's recourse to the doctrine of "don't ask, don't tell" is evidence of an impasse out of which is produced a feedback loop as both producers and consumers of Xena market the very unmentionability of lesbian sexuality. Neither refusing nor admitting to a homosexual subtext, Lawless (as synecdochic of the "powers that be" behind Xena) leaves the possibility open to interpretation--"Whatever turns you on." In this respect, "don't ask, don't tell" operates as a discursive inducement, channeling viewers' conjectures into the realm of cyberspace where they develop into the volumes of Xena/Gabrielle slash available on the Web. At the same time it perpetuates the "subtext" in the show as a profitable and "cutting-edge" endeavor.
 In fact, as Lawless suggests in an interview with TV Guide, the show's lesbian subtext was not intentionally written into the show's story-line by its producers, but was rather deciphered by lesbian consumers and then routed back to the show where it was taken up by the cast and eventually the writers:
At first, I kind of laughed and said, "Oh, isn't that silly!" It struck us all as very amusing. But then, because there's always a large lesbian contingent on the crews in New Zealand, we started playing up to it on the set. We'd drop a few jokes into the scenes here and there. They weren't in the script, just impromptu lesbian high jinks on the day of filming. (TV Guide Online)
Yet these "high jinks" have become more than impromptu, as suggested by less than subtle references to lesbianism in individual episodes and in interviews with the show's cast members and writers.
 In an episode called "The Quest," for example, Xena (in the body of a man) passionately kisses Gabrielle for no apparent reason. A two-part retrospective called "The Debt" details Xena's erotically charged relationship with Lao-Ma, wife of Lao-Tsu and the "real" source of Taoist philosophy. In "A Day in the Life" Gabrielle comments to a chubby and hopeless suitor of the warrior princess that prospects of his marriage to Xena are slim because, "she likes what I do." In an online article, Steven L. Sears, Head Writer, Supervising Producer, and confessed reader of Xena fan fiction, interviews himself, and asks, "Have you ever been guilty of pushing the subtext for the sake of the audience?" He answers, "Yes. Aside from the fact that I like it, I think that it adds to the characters. And, also, it doesn't diverge from my interpretation of who Xena and Gabrielle are or what their relationship is" (Sears).
 The movement from consumer interpretations of lesbian subtexts in Xena to their emergence in the series indicates a feedback effect in the production and circulation of meaning, propelling the ongoing re-production and re-negotiation of Xena and Gabrielle's sexual relationship. One effect of this is an unusual participatory relationship between fans and cast members, made possible, in part, by the emergence of online chat forums.
 Chat-based interviews with stars of Xena, such as Hudson Leick, who plays Xena's nemesis, Callisto, illustrate how fan questions regarding the show's "subtextual" narrative elicit predetermined responses which both displace and perpetuate fans' desires to pursue that narrative further. For instance, Leick is asked by a fan, "At the end of Sacrifice2 when Callisto is stabbed by Xena, she drags her hand down Xena's body. Your interpretation of that scene was very sensual. Was it improvised by you and [Lucy Lawless] or was it written this way in the script?" She responds, "I just wanted to feel her up" ("hudsonchat"). While her answer must be read as snide, as well as ironic, it demonstrates a kind of "giving the fan what she wants to hear" quality. On one hand, her response indicates Leick's deliberate antagonism, and on the other, suggests that she is willing to participate in the ongoing discourse about the show's lesbian narrative. In this respect, the fan/cast relationship in such interviews offers an example of this circular production of desire. While Leick gives the fans what they want, the story that Callisto/Leick lusts after Xena/Lawless (notice that Leick speaks in the first person rather than referring to her character's desires), she also limits such an acknowledgement through a sardonic response which critiques the very question that it pretends to answer. The effect is a perpetuation of the desire to read and write more about lesbianism and Xena.
 Xena slash fiction, at its core, is the endless production of alternative versions of Xena perpetuated by the indeterminacy of the show's sexual implications--"don't ask, don't tell." Once these alternative versions are uploaded into cyberspace, they become available for consumption by other--presumably but not necessarily lesbian--readers. The circuit created between Xena: Warrior Princess and Xena slash fiction, between the production of the series (as commodity) and the production of slash confession (also as commodity), is, in short, a capitalist relation; "sex(uality) sells!" This relation inevitably leads, according to Brian Massumi, to the "real subsumption" of society: the penetration, expansion, and intensification of the capitalist machine into the social fields of identity, increasing capitalist production and consumption through the appropriation of sexual identities offered for sale on the market (Massumi 154).
 This investment and commodification of sexuality under capitalism has led to, among other things, the enormous commercial success of shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess, but not simply because the show has an obvious quotient of eye candy. The show's success must be attributed, in part, to its construction and commodification of lesbianism as a dangerous and secretive activity, making it all the more appealing to lesbian viewers who celebrate their alternative and subversive identities, as well as to crossover viewers, male, female, straight, and bi, who find the show's sexual overtones amusing and exciting.
 Furthermore, the implication of a lesbian sexuality which, nevertheless, always remains hidden just beneath the surface, perpetuates the series' marketability by maintaining the tension between secrecy and openness. By relying on its "don't ask, don't tell" policy of social repression, Xena creates a "break-flow" in production characterized by "the stasis of libidinal energy" (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 118). This impasse created in the flow of desire from the show's production to its audience's reception leads to a reciprocal and reiterative production in the form of slash fiction. But it also leads to a multiplication of capital gain for the series' producers in the form of fan conventions, Xena and Gabrielle action figures, comic books, and even a Xena card game. In other words, the anxiety of indeterminacy--the crisis of "not knowing for sure"--has the effect of continually regenerating the (very profitable) desire-producing circuit created between Xena and its fans.
 The important point to remember in this context is that what is being commodified and sold to lesbians is lesbianism, but this lesbianism marketed by pop-culture television is not of a politically progressive nature. While media attention does ensure lesbians widespread visibility, it also, as Danae Clark points out, "appropriates lesbian subcultural style, incorporates its features into commodified representations, and offers it back to lesbian consumers in a packaged form cleansed of identity politics" (197). In other words, the commodity lesbianism apparent in Xena is yet another manifestation of "queer chic;" it relegates lesbian sexuality to the domain of the "in-crowd."
 The capitalist territorialization of lesbianism, then, does not work to situate lesbian identities in a liberatory, non-marginalized public space, as "honorary members of the majority" (Massumi, 122). On the contrary, it exposes the fact that, even in the "in-crowd," lesbianism, like any other identity, is a politicized social construction rather than a political subject position. Clark sees this link between sexuality and consumerism as a depoliticizing strategy which negates the effectiveness of a lesbian political agency predicated on community and solidarity (196). I would argue, instead, that there is no volitional political affect "there" in the first place, just as there is no "subject" independent of a culturally mediated susceptibility to such circular flows of desire.
 Rather than emptying lesbianism of its political velocity, the capitalization of lesbian desire by pop-cultural television programming such as Xena: Warrior Princess draws our attention to the fact that sexuality is mediated by and through the colonization of sex as a social practice. Moreover, the capitalization of lesbian desire exposes sexuality as a construction that is always already absent of political content even as it maintains itself as a political issue. Sexuality is the politicization and commodification of sex necessary to propel sex and its ensuing discourse into the domain of a capitalist economy--"sex(uality) sells."
 This realization of the constructedness of sexuality, as well as the constructedness of those who are defined by their sexual orientation (read: everyone), should not necessarily lead us to lament a "lost" agency, which was never really there in the first place. To do so would be to fall back into the trap of insisting on self-alienation and lack. Rather, we should find refuge in the polymorphism that constructed and constructable identities afford. Identity, as Massumi illustrates, "becomes increasingly negotiable, as new sexualities come onto the market" (134). In this sense, the consumer (sometimes lesbian, sometimes not) is able to shop for multiple and plural identities--picking them up, putting them on, and discarding them just as easily.
 By unhooking ourselves from dominant reality as defined by the state/church apparatus, which insists on the fixity of identity categories in order to striate and repress them, lesbians can at least retain the possibility of inhabiting contested and mobile zones of sexuality which resist the overcodings of social repression. As Deleuze and Guattari advise, "keep moving, even in place, never stop moving, motionless voyage, desubjectification" (Thousand Plateaus, 159). While my formulation may look considerably like a return to agency, let me point out that agency implies a locatable agent--a stable subject. Rather, I am arguing for what Massumi calls "mutational aptitude" (135), the continual process of transforming ourselves from one multiplicitous and plural "becoming" into another, and pushing the limit of the socially striated spaces of identity.
 How, then, does mutational aptitude come to bear on our understanding of the relationship between Xena and Xena slash? While the existence of Xena slash is, in part, contingent on the repression of lesbian sexuality in the series (if Xena and Gabrielle "came out" in the show, there would be little reason for them to "come out" in cyberspace), this is not to say that Xena slash is necessarily a compensation for the show's actualization of its "open secret." On the contrary, Xena slash fiction can be read as a positive and productive extension of the lesbianism hinted at in the show. In terms of an ongoing construction of desire, there is no rational basis for drawing a distinction between the production of Xena on television and the production of Xena on the web. Rather Xena slash operates as a kind of unnatural participation, a mutation of the series that is nonetheless an inextricable part of the Xena circuit, entering Xena: Warrior Princess into a de facto alliance with slash writers to produce a character who is constantly "becoming-lesbian."
 Lucy Lawless was certainly correct to suggest that, "On Xena, we link everything to sexuality" (TV Guide). It is therefore no surprise that lesbian viewers have self- referentially linked Xena to their own sexualities. In their exploration of Xena's and Gabrielle's desire for each other, and by association, their own desires, lesbian followers of Xena produce for themselves a character who is as interesting as, and certainly more libidinous than, the Xena of television fame. More importantly, however, these writers have demonstrated the possibility of producing an ars erotica that has its own intrinsic pleasures and generates its own rules as to what is and isn't acceptable to produce, market, and consume. Although it is correct to say that Xena slash fiction is both the product and perpetuation of a desire to say and see more than is said or seen in the television series, what takes place between Xena and Gabrielle in the online "Xenaverse" is just as productive as the show itself.
 In a sixth season episode of Xena called, "You are There," the ambiguity regarding the true nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship threatens to surface on national television when a Geraldo-esque tabloid reporter attempts to crack "the world's greatest story" by asking Xena and Gabrielle, "Are you two lovers?" Predictably, in classic television cliff-hanger fashion, the camera fails and all the viewer hears from Xena is, "It's like this...technically...," after which the screen turns to snow and a "Please Stand By" message appears. But, as the previous pages demonstrate, many Xena: Warrior Princess viewers aren't merely standing by. Rather, they produce and reproduce their own versions of a hypersexual lesbian superhero. The circuitous relationship that has formed between the series and its fans has created a character who hovers always on the threshold of the closet, or to put it more boldly, who is both in and out of the closet at the same time. What such a character offers its audience is a model of identity which allows for mutation and contradiction, which resists social overcodings of sexual orientation insistent upon rigid categories of heterosexual and homosexual. While it is true that Xena, in all her myriad manifestations, is a fictional product of the social regulations which govern the television medium, the emergence of an online network known as the Xenaverse offers a figure who pushes the categorical limits of sexual orientation. Moreover, the online creators of this contradictory and multiplicitous warrior princess have moved beyond the passive consumption of lesbian images to mobilize for themselves a representation of lesbianism that does not constantly ask its audience to "please stand by."
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Xena: Warrior Princess. Renaissance Pictures. Perf. Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor.
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JEANNE E. HAMMING is a doctoral candidate in English at West Virginia University where she studies masculine subjectivity and environment in twentieth-century American fiction. In addition to her doctoral research, Jeanne Hamming is part of a multimedia project, Mariner10, which develops educational titles for interdisciplinary study. Publications include "Dildonics, Dykes, and the Detachable Masculine" forthcoming in the European Journal of Women Studies.
Copyright ©2001 Ann Kibbey. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
Copyright ©2001 Ann Kibbey.