“American Gods commits the biggest sin a prestige television show can—giving the glossy veneer of thoughtful racial and gender commentary but leaving much to be desired.”
Title: American Gods
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Bryan Fuller 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 and Michael Green 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Original story and TV scripts by Neil Gaiman 👨🏼🇬🇧 (8 eps), TV scripts by Bryan Fuller 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (8 eps), Michael Green 👨🏼🇺🇸 (8 eps), Maria Melnik 👩🏼🇺🇸 (8 eps), and various (1 woman, 2 men, no POC)
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
American Gods is a show that wants to have important things to say. Indeed, it does act as a thought exercise, pondering what happened to old-world gods such as the Norse Odin or West African Anansi. It leads the audience along a path, making them wonder about the social, political, and communal aspects of religion and its place in a world that worships computers, TV, and cell phones.
However, the show might also be seen by some as a mere collection of ideas that hides the main throughline of the show—a war between the old gods of ancient religions and those of the new world order, with the dominion over American society at stake. The old gods include the aforementioned Norse god Odin/Mr. Wednesday and West African trickster nd spirit of storytelling Anansi/Mr. Nancythe, as well as Germanic spring goddess Ostara/Easter and Bilquis, the biblical Queen of Sheba. The new gods, Media, Mr. World (aka globalization), and The Technical Boy are Gaiman’s personifications of our obsessions with pop culture, technology, and the force of globalization. The dialogue itself could make some feel lost, since occasionally, the script reflects an air of self-importance. While it is in this reviewer’s experience that the show sometimes seems more enamored with itself and its subject matter than it is interested in actually bringing the uninitiated along for the ride, if you can successfully hop onboard American Gods, the show proves to be a unique, fascinating look at our society.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women play various roles in American Gods, ranging from villains to aimless zombies to old-world goddesses. However, women, even the most powerful women, still seem to come secondary to a world ruled by male gods. For instance, Media (Gillian Anderson) is one of the most pervasive gods in that she is everywhere and can be anyone in pop culture. However, her role is mostly to act as the sweet-talking enforcer for Mr. World (Crispin Glover) instead of as a god acting on her own. Part of the plot concerning Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) is that her day has been crowded by the Western World latching onto Jesus instead. While this is part of the story makes for some fun moments, it is probably one of the most blatant examples of a woman playing second to a man. Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) is yet another overt example of male chauvinism overpowering a woman; one of the major themes of Bilquis’ journey to America is how the rise of male power weakened her own. We find Bilquis has regained some of her stature due to The Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), a god completely beneath her, but more powerful only because of society’s reliance on technology.
Bilquis is probably one of the most contested god characters, since she is a black woman whose power stems from sex. Some might be uncomfortable with how Bilquis’ introduction focused solely on the “OMG” moment of her swallowing a man with her vagina. In one vein, this introduction still showcases black femininity and sexuality in a freakshow-esque way, similar to how Sarah Baartman was exhibited during the 1800s because of her large posterior. However, for many, Bilquis is a form of female empowerment because she’s worshipped not only because of her sexuality, but because of her beauty and femininity.
Race plays a very large role in American Gods, and for the most part, the show approaches its discussions about race and ethnicity with awareness. However, the show’s commentary on the topic can be hit-or-miss. For instance, a moment featuring The Technical Boy, who is white, lynching Shadow Moon, who is black, becomes a recurring moment of tension for Shadow and the other gods. However, the moment is treated as merely a “faux pas” by the gods and not as the historically-drenched horror that it is. While the faux-seriousness with which the gods treat Shadow’s ordeal is part of the gods’ characterizations, it also might seem like his lynching was partially used as shock value.
Also, while Bilquis and Mr. Nancy/Anansi (Orlando Jones) provide the audience with portrayals of gods of color, the show’s treatment of them can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. For instance, we rarely hear Bilquis talk throughout the entire season, except if she’s trying to seduce. Save for moments during her journey to America, we rarely see who she is when she’s not seducing people. This makes her one-note.
Also, Mr. Nancy presenting himself as a 1920s Harlemite to his worshippers—captured Africans on a slave ship—is not only wildly anachronistic, but it also doesn’t provide as much weight to the scene, which undercuts Jones’ performance as a god who has a right to be angry and vengeful. However, while Mr. Nancy’s anger is understandable, he’s never developed beyond that. All we know is that his motto is that getting mad “gets shit done.” Gone is a lot of what made the “real” Anansi—the god we’ve read about in books growing up—cool and interesting.
Joy Mohammed wrote for Wear Your Voice Magazine about why she found fault with the characterizations of Bilquis and Mr. Nancy:
“Bilquis has been depicted in Christian, Arabic, and various other African narratives as a beautiful African queen. Never in any of these interpretations of the mythical character has she ever eaten anyone with her vagina. Other legends are presented with accuracy…I am perplexed as to who found it okay to arbitrarily place trumped up narratives on women of color without explanation.”
“...If you examine African American folklore of Anansi, you would find that he motivated us to endure, to be creative and utilize our families’ strength to manipulate our world to be of service to us, not the other way around. So the show’s interpretation of him is wrong.”
Other aspects of race and ethnicity are touched upon with varying degrees of success, with the most successful moment being Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) developing a relationship based on a shared cultural history. However, some aspects of their portrayals, such as Middle Eastern and North African accents, failed the smell test for viewers of those backgrounds such as Canadian poet and award-winning fantasy author Amal El-Mohtar, who joined Ars Technica Decrypted podcast to discuss the show’s failure at showcasing the vast diversity of the Middle East.
American Gods would have benefited from consultants and writers of color to help create characters with more resonance.
The show shines a light on LGBTQ characters, both mortals and gods. Bilquis, for instance, seduces both male and female worshippers into her sanctuary, and the Jinn finds love with Salim. In fact, the relationship—and sex scene—between the Jinn and Salim is one of the standout moments from the season. However, that also puts Bilquis’ sex scenes with women in stark contrast; whereas Bilquis’ scenes are all about carnal gratification, voyeurism, and exploitation, the scene between the Jinn and Salim is full of give-and-take and understanding.
Aside from these instances, LGBTQ representation partially resides in the background. No other gods are depicted as being anything other than straight (unless you count Media portraying David Bowie, who initially stated he was gay in the 1970s and later said he was bisexual). Shadow, our protagonist, is also portrayed as straight. However, the momentousness of the Jinn and Salim’s relationship, coupled with the fact that their sex scene was a watershed moment for LGBTQ representation (especially for Middle Eastern and Muslim LGBTQ), was something that the show should be praised for. There is also a major focus on Bilquis’ most devoted worshipper throughout the years during the show’s focus on Bilquis’ journey to America. While it’s not explicitly telling us if Bilquis’ worshipper, a woman, is on the LGBTQ spectrum, it is apparent that she meant a lot to Bilquis, seemingly more than just a random conquest (since this worshipper is the only one Bilquis hasn’t vacuumed up).
It helps that co-creator Fuller, who is gay, helped make the scene between the Jinn and Salim authentic. This is a prime example of someone’s lived experiences helping to strengthen a scene, as opposed to the errors made in racial and ethnic representations discussed previously.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.88/5
At times, American Gods is a show that exhibits what the age of prestige television is all about—pushing the envelope, showcasing underrepresented characters, and giving its audience some food for thought. However, it also embodies the negatives of prestige television, which includes believing its own hype and occasionally drowning in self-importance. It also commits the biggest sin a prestige television show can—giving the glossy veneer of thoughtful racial and gender commentary but leaving much to be desired. However, American Gods still provides moments that stay with the viewer long after the show is over, whether or not they’re moments you want to remember.