By: Justin Agrelo
When it was announced last November that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were exiting their positions as showrunners on Starz’ hit show American Gods, I reacted like many other fans — I was worried. My fear, however, differed from the collective worry I witnessed online.
See, I wasn’t afraid that Fuller and Green’s exits would jeopardize the show’s sophomore season. I was confident that season one was too successful for Starz to just pull the plug (the show was renewed after the first two episodes).
What did worry me about their exits is the all-too-obvious reality that Starz will likely place a big-name, cishet, white man in the now-vacant showrunner positions, and this decision will do nothing but further perpetuate the toxic representations of marginalized folks that plagued the first season.
Like many people who loved the novel, I waited through years of speculation, two networks, casting announcements, and what felt like the longest production season ever, to finally see some of my favorite literary characters come to life on my T.V. screen.
I too was excited that at Neil Gaiman’s request Starz did not whitewash Shadow in the television version, casting Ricky Whittle, a visibly black actor to play the show’s protagonist. The decision to not cast a white or “racially ambiguous” actor to play Shadow was a clear diversion from Hollywood’s racist tendency to whitewash everything, while seemingly positioning American Gods as a show that would address issues of social inequity and do it well.
Unfortunately, fans of color didn’t have to get far into season one to realize this wasn’t the representation holy grail we had hoped for (Shadow is lynched at the command of a white god in the first episode). The show’s first season made many errors in its representation of people of color — from the more annoying to the outright toxic.
Revisiting The Mistakes
American Gods is based on Neil Gaiman’s beautifully written fantasy novel of the same name. The show follows Shadow Moon, an ex-conman who is recently released from prison, and his role in a forthcoming war between old gods (e.g. Odin, Jesus) and their newer rivals (e.g. Media, Technology). In this world, gods and other mythical creatures are real, created and sustained through the beliefs and sacrifices of the humans who worship them.
At a surface-level, an obvious flaw in the show’s attempt at diverse representation is that its characters of color don’t really do anything — at least nothing that propels the story in any direction. The show’s people of color are vessels devoid of agency who are used for world building, as aides for white characters in their journeys, or as pawns in a larger, yet-to-be-revealed scheme.
The only black woman in the series, Bilquis (a.k.a. the Queen of Sheba), spends most of the season having casual sex with numerous people and then swallowing them whole with her vagina. Salim, an Arab character, spends most of his screen-time helping Laura, Shadow’s dead wife, on her journey to reunite with her husband by driving her and another white character around in a taxi, only to completely vanish after they decide they no longer need him. Anubis, the egyptian god of embalming and death, also helps Laura, who is basically a zombie, in her attempt to win back her husband by painting her to look more alive. Like Salim, Anubis essentially disappears from the show’s central narrative after his primary purpose thus far — helping Laura — is fulfilled.
Even the show’s protagonist, Shadow, is frustratingly passive in his journey. His choice to follow around his sketchy new boss, Wednesday (a.k.a Odin), despite all of the incredibly strange and violent outcomes this creates for him is confusing at best. While working for Wednesday, Shadow agrees to be his accomplice in a bank robbery, gets into a bar fight just hours after being released from prison, watches Wednesday kill a man, and is nearly murdered several times himself, all without much pushback aside from the occasional “wtf?”
And the list of characters of color not really doing anything other than what white people want them to do goes on.
Interestingly enough, the show (and novel) spends a considerable amount of time supplying the characters of color with a back story, yet fails to provide them with a purpose or destiny outside the parameters of what white people want from them.
Consequently, the characters of color exist only as stand-ins for diversity, often becoming stereotypes of the communities they are called to represent. The hyper-sexualized black woman. The arab taxi driver. The black caretaker. The black male felon. Yes, people of color are present, but as we all (should) know by now, hiring several actors of color and calling it diversity isn’t accurate representation, it’s tokenism.
The characters’ of color stories are almost always secondary to the show’s nearly entirely white, cisgender set of main characters. Their wants and needs are left in the shadow of the series’ central conflict: an inevitable war created and led by two white men at the expense of everyone else.
As someone who loved Gaiman’s novel, it’s disappointing to see the television versions of his characters be just as or even less complex than their narrative counterparts given T.V.’s ability to transcend the limitations of a novel with a singular, third-person narrator.
At a deeper (read: more fucked up) level, American Gods’ most egregious mistakes are the moments when it co-opts the generational trauma marginalized people have survived through and continue to live with for the entertainment of its primarily white audience and then trying to pass it off as progressive, social commentary.
Take the scene with the only Latinx people in the entire series for example. We are at the U.S.-Mexico border following a group of presumably Mexican immigrants (yes, the only Latinx people in this 2017 T.V. show are undocumented, Mexican immigrants). A woman leads the group of immigrants in a prayer before they cross the Rio Grande, which is especially dangerous on this night.
As the group swims across the divide, one of the men begins to drown, but is quickly saved by “Mexican Jesus,” who rolls onto our screens walking on water. The entire group makes it across safely, but not for long. Seconds after “coming to America,” the group of men, women, and children and their “Mexican Jesus” are all violently shot and killed by an all white, xenophobic, (caucasian) Jesus-loving, border militia.
Whatever symbolic significance or political commentary the show’s creators had hoped for with this scene is quickly lost at its overt offensiveness. No one on this show’s mostly white production team is a Mexican immigrant and therefore the trauma they are co-opting for cool points, for style, for shock-value, for ratings, for themselves, is not theirs to use.The trauma that many immigrants often experience during their migration to the U.S. is very real, and is only exacerbated when it’s fetishized and commoditized by white, Hollywood elites for consumption by a primarily white audience.
What is also strikingly reckless here, is that Gaiman describes the novel as a story about “immigrants and immigration” yet allows his T.V. show to have the largest group of immigrants in the United States today murdered for the amusement of Starz subscribers.
“Mexican” Jesus himself deserves an eye-roll of goldy proportions, having been made up by some white dudes in a Hollywood writer’s room for laughs and faux authenticity (tell me when you meet a Christian, Latinx person who doesn’t see the white Jesus that was brought over on the ships of colonizers when they pray).
In a piece for Wear Your Voice Mag, writer Joy Mohammed also critiques American Gods’ co-option of generational trauma when analyzing the implications of Shadow’s lynching, asserting:
“Everyone knows the symbol of the noose is not something black people play with… watching a careless adaptation of a lynching for no other reason but entertainment is not something that should be on television. There were so many other ways we could have understood the power and influence of technology other than to make light of the tool white supremacists used to keep black people in their place. By using this as a part of Shadow’s narrative, the creators are clouding the narrative of black pain and sensationalizing the experience of a lynching. It is irresponsible.”
Shadow’s lynching at the hands of a racist, white god and the murder of the group of Mexican men, women and children by a white, xenophobic border militia sends viewers of color a very clear message: for white people, our trauma will always be the only part of our stories worth telling and we don’t even get to tell it ourselves.
What Next For The Gods?
Season one of American Gods was a beautifully shot, haphazard mess. Fuller and Green’s departure presents Starz with a unique opportunity to do better. Much of the premiere season’s mistakes can be attributed to Fuller and Green’s decision to cram so much of the book’s content into eight short episodes, coupled with the lack of diversity at all levels of the show’s production.
The same way Gaiman championed for Ricky Whittle to play his protagonist, there needs to be an equal amount of effort put forth to ensure that Shadow and the rest of the characters of color are given the time, space, and attention to be as complex, relatable, and important to the show’s overall narrative as their white counterparts.
Starz should view this “shake up” as a chance to diversify its writer’s room and production teams and not as a threat to the shows longevity or quality. Simply having actors of color on the cast list is a good first step, but alone it will never be enough to achieve responsible representation of marginalized communities. From the writers room to in front of the camera, marginalized people deserve every opportunity to tell our own stories. It’s 2018. We should no longer be having our generational trauma co-opted by major cable networks for the amusement of white audiences.
Starz should use the time ahead of American Gods’ sophomore season to recruit talented people of color to fill the now vacant showrunner and writing positions because another season filled with racist tropes, inactive characters of color, and toxic representation of our most vulnerable communities is sure to turn off even the show’s most devout followers.
Editor: Juwairiyah Khan