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American Gods Gives Us a Tale of White Female Privilege

American Gods Gives Us a Tale of White Female Privilege

Written by: Jonita Davis

This week, the “Coming to America” story of Essie Tregowan intertwined with the saga of Laura Moon as the AG showrunners tried to build a little more depth into the character of Laura. I get it. She struggling. I see it. The use of this storytelling did evoke a little sympathy in me for Essie (I still hate Laura Moon). However, I had to stop myself short. It was a trap. AG don’t play with our sympathies for entertainment. There is a lesson here. That lesson is about privilege.

Mr. Ibis weaves this tale about a woman who seduces her way out of jail and forced servitude in the form of transportation. He explains to us that transportation, a sentence often applied in criminal cases, was when criminals were shipped to the new colonies as labor. They worked off their sentences and then were free to go. AG even illustrates, showing a white man putting down his tool and WALKING OFF THE PLANTATION. We all know how this went down for black people.

In fact, AG showed us. The fate of the black man in America was encapsulated in the lyric stylings of Mr. Nancy. “You arrive in America, “Land of Opportunity,” “Land of Milk and Honey,” and what? You all get to be slaves. Split up, sold off, and worked to death.” Doesn’t sound like the indenture, does it? If a black man decided that he had been employed long enough and just walked off the plantation, he would be hunted like a dog, beaten, maimed, and brought back to work the next day.

But let us get back to poor Essie.

Sentenced to transportation once, she gets out of it by seducing the captain and becoming his wife. She is then returned to England–to the damn captain’s house—where she steals all his shit and goes off to live the life of a thief.

Meanwhile, back the BET version of “transportation” that we know as slavery, the women who are found attractive by the captain or his crew or the dude in the kitchen washing dishes, is forced to give up her body. She is RAPED and repeatedly. No one puts a ring on it when they get to shore. No one brings her home and offers his wealth to her. They throw her used body back down in the hold until the next one wants his turn. Don’t believe me about all of this? Educate yourselves “the middle passage.”

So, Miss Essie lives white, wild, and free until she runs into trouble. In the book, she tries to seduce a man to pickpocket him, only to realize that the man is the first employer she stole from years ago. In the show, however, Essie gets caught stealing lace. She is sent to jail, where the warden helps her into another transportation gig by “pleading her belly.” She spread her legs again to get out of trouble.

We next see Essie on a ship bound for America. She is in a bunk; it’s cramped, Mr. Ibis narrates how sick she is. Poor thing. Let’s compare her to the slaves in the hold of the ship Mr. Nancy preached on. No one has room to move, much less lay down. Anyone laying down, well, there was no way they were getting up until the crew came to rotate everyone. I say “everyone” because if you look closely at the slave men talking to Mr. Nancy, they are in shackles, from neck to foot. A man can’t even cross his legs without cooperation from the dude 10 bodies down! But, poor Essie, right?

FYI, pregnant women on slave ships were shackled too. Just in a different part of the boat.

So Essie has her baby on the ship and gets off. She becomes a wet nurse to a tobacco farming family. No, she is nothing like a “mammy”. Essie is a servant of the family, yes, but she is not subjected to the beatings and maltreatment that the black slaves in her position underwent. In fact, when the master takes a liking to Essie, she can rebuff his advances in a way that makes him propose. Then, he doesn’t touch her “virtue” until the wedding night. Slave women were raped the second the master took a shine to her. She never ended up with a ring and half his wealth. No. She may even bear his baby like Essie did, but even those babies of the black woman weren’t free from a life of slavery. Sometimes the master even sold off the light-skinned progeny, so the mother never got to see her children grow up.

But, poor Essie, right?

This, my friends, is what privilege is all about. The place of birth and skin color are what makes these two stories so very different. There must have been more than one resourceful African woman who tried to gain her freedom by plying her “feminine wiles,” but the results were far from favorable. And, “pleading your belly” while black did not exempt from the shackle, the rape, or the violence.

Screengrab pulled by EPs. Original filename: Graded Reference Stills Episode 8-323

Essie’s story, while heart-wrenching on its own merit, reminds us that privilege is as long as time. Black women in the same situation always came out worse, but no one mentions this when the Essies of the world are telling their sob stories. No. We concentrate on the white girl tears and forget the women of color who are really going through it out there at the exact same moment. 

These parallels are important, and I think the AG showrunners agree. Just look at the music they chose as a soundtrack to Essie’s struggles. “Come on Get Happy” by the Partridge Family, circa 1972. The lite, uplifting melody is in stark comparison to the story being told. It’s as if the show is saying, “This looks a lot worse than it really is.” When we go back to the slave ship Mr. Nancy destroyed, we see that things could have been a hell of a lot worse:

Essie could have been a black woman.

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  • Great article. I had an argument with 2 other people on a youtube video comment section (yeah yeah i know) about how the woman reviewing this ep was dismissing the pain and struggles that Irish people went trough on those ships and at the plantations… Most white people keep thinking that “white slaves” where treated as bad as black people and no matter how much I told them that those white slaves were treated as people while blacks were treated as less than animals I still was called “racist”.

    PS: I do empathize with Essie as a woman. She had to do what she had to do to survive and I won’t ever shame her for that.

  • Everyone has their struggle, black women in the US have it better than some women in 3rd world country’s so does that mean we shouldn’t complain about our hardship?

  • Great article! I also thought about the fact that Essie became the Mistress or her late husband’s Tobacco plantation. She owned slaves, pictured in the flashback, and possibly also indentures.

  • I totally agree with the argument here–though I hadn’t thought about the episode that way. (I watched it last night for the first time). The parallels to the Mr. Nancy episode certainly mark her white privilege–and her beauty privilege. If she’d been ugly, she would have hanged. I don’t think, though, the story is particularly sympathetic to her much past the beginning. When her would-be hubby sells her out to his classist mom, there is a sympathetic moment. After that, she’s someone who gets opportunities–the captain seems to be a good man–and uses up people and drops them. (Much like Laura in modern day.) She seems to be a bit better when she marries in VA. I find the end touching because I find the reward of belief touching–Leprechauns are tricksters of a certain type, and she was, too. Who knows what the afterlife for her is, but it seems fitting that the Leprechaun is the one who takes her there. It is interesting, too, though that we see the Leprechaun not doing so well in America, either in Essie’s time or Laura’s, and it was the selfish needs of Essie (and a few others) that brought him to America. She could easily be read as using someone again.

    Now, again, none of this is against the reading of her as an example of historical white privilege. It certainly is, right down to how her god can save her in a very different way from Mr. Nancy. Laura is dislikable, but then again, she’s able to be and still be successful in the world around her–another marker of privilege.

  • The argument about Essie having white privilege is bang on, but this article feels a little too bitter at the show itself for presenting that privilege. This is primarily a show about the struggles of a hapless back protagonist; it needed to show the unfairness of the world, in the past by showing Essie’s preferential treatment on the ships in contrast to the black slaves, and in the present by showing how Laura gets away with a crime she planned whilst a black man ends up in jail.

  • Aren’t most people doing what they have to do to survive. Not saying essie deserved to be shamed but if you’re going to empathize with her than I hope you could also empathize the vast majority of white men who wouldn’t have been afforded the privileges she herself got. I think we need to start being more fair with who we empathize and criticize. Most people are just doing what they need to get by in life. Most people don’t have the kind of privelege that can be used to exploit and disempower or abuse people. Being a poor white man is not much different than being a poor white woman… only.if you’re a good looking poor white woman… you’re much likelier to improve your quality of life because someone with wealth will afford you that privelege.

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