Bilquis’s Shadow

American Gods doesn’t exactly have a wizard detective in it, but it’s still the kind of urban fantasy that floats my boat. Neil Gaiman’s writing is more sophisticated than the average sci fi/fantasy dude, and that has made me pretty tolerant of the intensely male-gazified women in all his stories. So of course I’m watching the Starz adaptation.

I was so pleased to see the lack of white-washing: characters who are not white are played by actors who are not white. Shadow’s race is ambiguous in the book, but he’s definitely not white on screen. And there are a lot of non-white characters. It’s nice! I’m glad.

Yes, of course the series fails the Bechdel Test hard. HARD. I think the only scenes with more than one woman are those with the Zoryas. (p.s. the Y is a glide. Seriously, three of them have the same name and you couldn’t look up how to fucking pronounce it???) Zorya Utrennyaya doesn’t speak at all, but in their introduction, the focus is on her interest in romance novels and how attractive she finds Shadow. Only one of them speaks one line in the five minute dinner scene. Major Bechdel fail.

I knew, going in, that it would be a sausage fest because I’ve read the book (okay, full cast audiobook production) many, many times and I know that it’s Gaiman’s typical male-gazey lady-light storytelling.

So I was glad to see that Audrey, for example, gets a more sophisticated treatment on screen than she got in the book. Her anger is marbled with intense grief. And, though there’s no way the wife of a gym owner in Eagle Point, IN would have as much Botox as Betty Gilpin, who plays her, at least she is compelling and specific.

I was glad to see Gillian Anderson as Media, all smart and fun.

But I was astonished to see this Entertainment Weekly interview (NSFW), where one of the producers claimed they were trying to make the series inclusive of women. He recognized how intensely “male” the storytelling was, and he wanted this to be “for everybody.”

This is them trying to be feminist!

Epic. Fail.

When they talk about Bilquis in their “making-of” snippet at the end of Episode 1, they say they “celebrate an empowerment of sexuality at the same time that we are creating this strange little horror movie for middle aged white men.” Yeah, no. That’s not feminist or inviting. It’s cool and interesting as a supernatural phenomenon, but it doesn’t make women feel included. It almost cartoonishly clings to the worst stereotype of black women as voraciously sexual. Especially when, on the other hand, the “making of” clip at the end of Episode 3, you talk about the importance of Salim’s encounter with the Jinn being romantic, not just sex quickly in an alley. “Because there are some cultures where homosexuality is punishable by death.”

Hey, fellas, there are some cultures where adultery by a woman is punishable by death. And this includes punishing a woman who has been raped. So, ya know, remember that women are persecuted, too. Way more than men, in fact.

The creators imposed this romantic perspective on Gaiman’s version of Salim and the Jinn— in the book, Salim and the Jinn have a hot one-night-stand, but it’s not really romantic. Gaiman’s version is better in terms of literary structure, in my opinion, because it parallels Bilquis’s story, and sets up her interactions with her worshipers as the same as the Jinn’s. But I do appreciate the intention to destigmatize gay sex.

Anyway, I wasn’t overwhelmingly bothered by the male gaze of American Gods until I heard them say that they were trying to make everyone feel included, to reduce the maleness of the storytelling.

They didn’t succeed. A little speculation might illuminate part of the reason why:

Going by the pronouns in their bios, among the six writers credited for the first two episodes, only the lowest ranking one is a woman. Only one episode, not yet aired, was directed by a woman.

Eight episodes, five directors, one woman directing one episode.

Eight episodes, six writers, one woman contributing partially to two episodes.

Hey, fellas, if you really want to make women feel like this story is their story, that they are included and welcomed into it, you’d find that easier if you actually included and welcomed some women by hiring them. Maybe it sounds like a crazy, drastic step; but if you really are trying to reduce the maleness of the storytelling, then reduce the maleness of the creators.

Thanks for being all liberal about race and immigration and homosexuality and religion and stuff. That’s nice. I appreciate it. And according to the response from the non-white actors in the EW interview, they appreciate it, too.

Now, since you’re trying to be feminist, too, here’s how:

Take one giant leap for writer-kind, and expand your vision to femininity that isn’t either domestic or predatory, mother or whore, servant or dominatrix. If you believe you’ve done that already, then I’m here to let you know that you’ve failed. I recommend you get some assistance from a womanhood expert— for example, pretty much any woman.

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