Written by: Paige Allen
Somehow, we are already halfway through the first season of American Gods, the dazzling lovechild of novelist Neil Gaiman, showrunner Bryan Fuller and co-creator as well as co-showrunner Michael Green that has graced our screens and social media feeds in the last few weeks. To call the show, a springtime smash hit is a slightly underwhelming assessment. In truth, it feels like nothing short of a masterpiece – an innovative combination of beautiful aesthetics, stunning storytelling and insightful ruminations on how humans make sense of the mystical universe around them.
It is this examination of divinity that has especially captivated its diverse audiences. The show’s depiction of gods and their relationship with humanity is worth an entire analysis on its own, one that further delves into the complex nature of religion, belief, immigration and culture (like this one!). At the same time, the show has (somewhat accidentally) created its gods as reflections of today’s tense social and political climate. Already groundbreaking scenes about the gods’ origins and current activities have taken on a new revolutionary life in the face of the current presidential administration’s systemic persecutions of marginalized groups. Professional reviews across print and online publications have thus praised American Gods for the ways in which it has tied the fictional concerns of godhood to real-world issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia and various other oppressions humanity both suffers from and perpetuates. In confronting these serious topics, critics rave that American Gods is perfect.
Well… almost perfect, it seems.
Underneath the show’s still boisterous acclaim, I have noticed some quieter and more critical rumblings. While for the most part, they exist on Tumblr, some of my favorite outlets have also been steadily voicing their concerns about the show. The loudest point of contention has been about sexism, and whether American Gods has been fairly treating its female characters. For example, in a review of the show’s first four episodes, The Daily Dot notes that:
“Told from Shadow’s viewpoint, the novel is shaped by the male gaze. Gaiman can barely go ten pages without describing someone’s tits, in a story dominated by speeches from Mr. Wednesday, an elderly creep with an oily kind of charm. Likewise, the show namechecks “teats” and “fat-breasted women” in the opening voiceover, but waits 25 minutes to give any meaningful screentime to a female character. She’s a love goddess with an extravagantly explicit sex scene.
So, American Gods tread a familiar line. Is the show sexist, or does it simply depict the reality of its male protagonist? Shadow lives in a world of men (prison; Mr. Wednesday), idolizing his wife without really understanding her. This attitude makes sense in context, but it’s still surprising to see…”
This is not new criticism for either American Gods creator or showrunner. I’m not surprised there are aspects of Gaiman’s novel that have not aged well since its debut in 2001, and I too have found some less-than-savory moments appear in his three decades-long bibliography. Meanwhile, Bryan Fuller has been called out in the recent past for his polarizing handling of queer women and women of color on NBC’s Hannibal, another adaptation he spearheaded based on the Thomas Harris novel series.
On the one hand, I don’t want to let sins of the past affect how I approach this show, as both men have stated their commitment to revising the source material so that it is no longer a “sausage fest” with underdeveloped women forced to orbit the more nuanced plots of men and male gods. Still, it does make me wonder – is American Gods sexist?
Let’s examine The Daily Dot’s arguments on the matter. Based on some shorthand metrics that analyze gender representation in the media, the show does seem to be lacking.
Men do indeed dominate the narrative landscape, and their vulgarity when it comes to women leaves a lot to be desired in the name of equality and respect. As the article mentions, Mr. Wednesday does have the tendency to reminisce about previous sexual conquests like the old pervert he is, and Mad Sweeney does negatively reference Laura Moon’s infidelity to Shadow when, in episode 3, he says he’ll be “just one more in the long line of men to climb on top of [his] dead wife” to retrieve his lucky coin from her grave. We can also include former prison confidante Low Key Lyesmith in this growing list of casual misogyny, as his most memorable line in the show so far is his sound advice for Shadow to “not piss off those bitches in airports.”
However, the article also acknowledges that the context of these interactions may explain the purpose of this sexism, and I’m inclined to agree. These three men are not what we would call the best representatives of their gender identity, and their toxic masculinities are unfortunate byproducts of several hostile environments and the special type of insanity brought on by centuries of godhood. Through Shadow’s noticeable discomfort in interacting with them, we as an audience know that the comments these men make are not appreciated and thus their views of women not welcomed. As Shadow himself does not display these behaviors, nor do any of the other men that briefly flitter in and out of the plot, these three men are further distanced by the narrative as ideological outliers.
So, while inworld examples of sexism exist aplenty, these are not strong enough examples to claim that American Gods itself is sexist.
Next, we should examine The Daily Dot’s designation of “meaningful” female screen time. If we looked only at Laura Moon and her appearance in episode 4, then it’s clear that the show has allowed its important female characters to embody all the emotional breadth and messy complexities of humanity as the men have so far. Laura is depressed and utterly detached from the joys of life around her, and she feels so trapped in her hometown and her dead-end job that it makes her quite literally want to kill herself using the especially harmful method of asphyxiation by bug spray. In her desperate pursuit to feel anything other than terrible about herself, we join Laura on a path of self-destruction that begins with her taking Shadow (then a stranger to her and an attempted casino thief) home for rough sex, segues into her convincing Shadow to attempt the ill-fated casino robbery that lands him in prison and ends with her death following her attempt to blow her best friend’s husband while he’s driving.
Laura is all painfully illogical starts and frustrating, damaging ends. It is these many, many, many flaws that breathe a certain life into Laura even in her death, one that audiences can recognize and find “weirdly refreshing” for its authenticity as The Daily Dot admires in its more recent review. While Shadow does have his issue of seeing Laura as his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is a form of benevolent sexism in its own right, American Gods is once again quick to reveal the inaccuracies in this belief. Laura’s former best friend Audrey is also an equally refreshing portrayal of women, her refuge in spiteful audacity a sad and justifiable reaction in the face of death and betrayal.
However, it is easy to find a strange sort of inspiration in Laura and therefore praises American Gods for its respectful consideration of her struggles. When critics accuse the show of being sexist, it is not because of Laura at all – it is because of Bilquis, already the most infamous character in this season despite her few appearances thus far.
Is American Gods sexist in its portrayal of the mythical Queen of Sheba? If you asked The Daily Dot, she isn’t a meaningful form of female representation since she is only afforded an “extravagantly explicit sex scene.” A review from Vulture is even more critical to her character development on the show, stating that:
“Her introduction presents a prime opportunity for American Gods to shape a tricky character who could use more definition, in no small part because Bilquis is a Black woman who devours sexual partners with her vagina to regain her youthful appearance.
Badaki does impressive work depicting Bilquis’s vulnerability when she first appears, but that quickly fades as she lures her newest victim to an all-red bedroom… the [first episode] presents Bilquis as a sex object, a vessel to meet the bare-breast quota that’s become a requirement for any premium cable drama. The hypersexualization of the episode’s only Black female character is uncomfortable, to say the least.”
From this perspective, one could certainly argue that American Gods fails to pass most feminist metrics when it comes to this character. In comparison to Laura, Bilquis is the only female character to appear completely nude, engaging in the type of passionate sex with a stranger that further exposes her body to the audience under a seductive blood red glow. The way she acquires human worshipers is intimately tied to her body, and as a result, audiences know her quite literally because of her vagina in this first scene. In her second scene at an anonymous museum, where the audience finds Bilquis admiring the statues used to praise her in her former life, a silhouette of her naked body can again be seen pressing against the shining jewelry that used to lavishly decorate her. In her prime, she was an object to be admired much like the artifacts in the museum around her, categorized for consumption. Described in this way, the shortness of Bilquis’ scenes and her overall lack of lines this season might signify an egregious case of misogynoir.
This assessment is also very simplistic and ultimately lacks nuance in its argument.
Analyzing Bilquis and her powers as a goddess of love is a tricky endeavor. Not only must we consider her various appearances just within the context of the overall plot, but there is an additional history behind what Bilquis represents in the real world as a Black woman. In the plot, the comparative lack of screen time for the goddesses we’ve met could represent the decaying, backward thought that still dominates the world of the gods. It is telling that the war for which Mr. Wednesday prepares is being led primarily by male gods – old men trying to relive their gory glory days of power and young boys trying to prove themselves more deserving of that power through extreme violence. Life goes on for the female gods as they just try to navigate their daily circumstances and determine how best to survive this looming threat of external conflict. Is this not the usual course of affairs in all of human history?
There are also certain aspects of Bilquis’ character and presence that have truly been revolutionary in the context of this expansive human history. In American Gods, one of the most desirable women in most myth and religion is a dark skinned Black woman. In her prime, she was worshiped for her beauty and her sexuality, and her worshipers experienced great pleasure in their sincere appreciation of her. Now, despite dealing with the widespread issue of waning belief in the old gods, Bilquis refuses to succumb to a silent death in obscurity. Instead, she rises from the previous passivity almost implicit to her brand of godhood to actively seek out new forms of worship.
In her sex, she demands compliments, controls the narrative of sacrificial sexual activity and dominates her partners both in belief and physical height (it’s no coincidence she’s visually always on top, even if the position also gives her better access). She is the owner of her sexuality, and she wields this ownership to claim the various sacrifices that empower her and satisfy her desire to live. The audience ends its first encounter with Bilquis dumbstruck with awe, as her worshipers always are. Meanwhile, she really could not care less – she smirks at a job well done, stretches her still nude body and admires herself in the mirror, this latest performance created entirely for herself. The victims – her blind dates and the audience – are just the latest fools unfortunate enough to be distracted by her sexiness.
Her second scene in the museum also allows Bilquis relatable moments of vulnerability that underscore the desperation behind her conquests. While the Vulture article considers these emotions to be disingenuous, a more nuanced observation finds the glimpses of delicate humanity genuine as they threaten to bubble to the surface. Once again, to see Bilquis alone is to find her at her most authentic – and behind these moments are centuries of life that we as viewers cannot even begin to comprehend. We are only privy to Bilquis’ raw heartbreak as she reminisces on all the things that she has lost.
In just two simple scenes this season, American Gods reveals a subtly mesmerizing characterization of its sole Black female character that elevates her pursuit of agency as a recurring plot point, allows her to explore the longing she feels for her past life and respects the ways in which she uses her body and sexuality to secure her survival in the future. This latter point particularly makes accusations of sexism based on racial hypersexuality seem a little ludicrous, as since episode 1 we have been blessed with more asses, bare chests and beautifully erect penises than all six seasons of Game of Thrones. It’s all the more important that this characterization has been given to a Black female character. We already have so few fictional examples of Black women who are empowered by their bodies and the sex they adamantly pursue purely out of self-interest. Not only does Bilquis easily join this sisterhood, but she also serves as a subversion of the typical one-dimensional character that audiences expect when encountering a fictional Black woman like her for the first time.
The fact that the cited reviewers in Vulture and The Daily Dot – who are non-Black men and women – believe Bilquis to a be poor feminist representation because of her nudity and sexuality is worrisome to me. While I can understand the impulse to decry what seems to be senseless female nudity in general, these concerned analyses about Bilquis’ naked body do miss all other points about her character to an extreme degree. Even as the show intricately weaves Bilquis into the main plot, there persists a strange preoccupation with the naked Black female body. Reviewers see exposed dark breasts and a Black woman having sex and cannot imagine anything other than frivolous, hypersexual misogyny.
I cannot stress enough that nudity is not itself an indicator of sexual fetishization. Rather, the story crafted around that nudity, related sexual activity and its necessity to the plot reveals the true intent – and so, if it’s just for the raunchy pleasure of the male gaze, then it’s a serious problem that belies any other attempted feminist appeals. I have agreed about claims of sexism in many cases like this before.
This is ultimately not the case with Bilquis. It is, in fact, the total opposite of the case the show is trying to make in its overarching narrative about female autonomy and empowerment in a world dominated by the uncontrollable forces of fate, time and the fickle will of gods and humans alike. I almost wonder why Bilquis’ character has specifically been received so negatively since the show began, especially with Laura entering the picture in all her scornful contempt and equal sexual explicitness. But, well… you might know why that is.
Regardless, let’s turn back to our original question. Is American Gods sexist? From the critical arguments being made so far, I would say no. What the show admittedly lacks in certain aspects of female character involvement, it more than makes up for in its female characters’ brief moments of emotional poignancy and their diverse multitudes of human experiences. Personally, I’m more than comfortable with what I’ve seen so far and remain eager to see how the show will further develop Laura and Bilquis in its upcoming second half.
Of course, there is always a chance I will end up disappointed in American Gods. The show has been great so far in its expansion of character roles, but I’ve read the book, and I know how all these stories end. But I have faith in this adaptation. I believe – and that’s the most powerful thing I can do right now.
Paige Allen is a brand storyteller and content developer at a small public relations agency in Greater Boston. In her spare time, she’s an avid consumer of comic books, novels, and television shows. In the last few weeks, she has become quite a fantastic baker, which is fortunate as her pastries fuel her passionate feminist crusades across the city on horseback. She particularly enjoys double fudge brownies.
Connect with her on Twitter @goodbye_duppy.