With a televised version of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” set to air on Starz in early 2017, there’s no better time to delve into all the ways this book did wrong by its female audience.
I was about halfway through “American Gods” when I became sick to my stomach. While the story is all kinds of interesting and captivating, Gaiman’s classic is actually the first time I’ve been faced so head-on with a female cast consisting almost entirely of sexy lamps.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Sexy Lamp test serves a purpose similar to the Bechdel test, used to gage the way female characters are represented in media. Where the Bechdel test requires two women to have a conversation about something other than a man (how improbable! How impossible!) the Sexy Lamp test dictates that replacing female characters in the story with – you guessed it – attractive light fixtures will have no perceivable effect on the plot.
So while I wish I could say “American Gods” passes the test with flying colors, that isn’t the case. Sure, sue me, not all of them are sexy lamps. But the way the author deems it necessary to mention sex or beauty whenever a female character is introduced makes me feel like he was one of those frat boys who sees a girl walk in to a bar and immediately tells his buddy that she’s: “a solid 7, but a 9 in New Jersey. Am I right or am I right, Chauncey? Reagan?”
The pattern of sexualisation gets old really quickly.
Anyway, here’s a bullet-point list I compiled while reading of almost every female character in the novel, and the ways they are shortchanged from being anything other than uncomfortably objectified:
- Laura, Shadow’s wife, gets the ultimate female character treatment: she dies in the first chapter, while blowing Shadow’s best friend, Robbie! Coincidentally, her sex life is the cause of the car crash which kills her. More on her later.
- Bilquis is a goddess that gains power by absorbing people through her vagina. That’s it, that’s all she does.
- Zorya Polunochnaya gets to sleep all day, kiss Shadow, teach him how to take the moon and then he forgets her name. But not her lips, is my guess.
- In Wisconsin, Shadow has a weird sex dream about going down on a cat-woman, who is apparently the cat (and only female) companion of Ibis and Jacquel. We don’t know her name, but apparently she’s good in bed.
- The cause of death of the girl Jacquel is dissecting when we meet him was that she had “poor taste in boyfriends.”
- Essie Tregowan’s short story revolves around who she was married to at what point, who raped her, and what children she had. And one day, she dies. While shelling peas. (At least it wasn’t while blowing Robbie!)
- Shadow meets two young, probably early high-school girls, on the bus to Lakeside, and ok, they’re talking about sex, girls do that. But it’s an association that the book has been making consistently, and the fact that these girls are super underage freaks me out. Especially when he goes on to mention “how beautiful he had known [Allison] would become one day”. He had known it, therefore it was true; man, the all-seeing eye that we never knew we needed.
- And let’s not forget the incredibly creepy fact that Wednesday compulsively hits on/sleeps with barely eighteen year-old girls while they are at work? That’s all these girls are there for; Wednesday’s enjoyment. This happens several times in the book and made me want to gag uncontrollably.
- In the story of Wututu and Agasu, Wututu is raped repeatedly, has children and knows magic. Basically, it’s every kind of horrible stereotype and shitty thing to happen wrapped up in a way that passes it off as just another innocuous tale. She also gets to be called Mama Zouzou, lucky her.
- Easter, when we meet her, is immediately described as “curvaceous.” Note the importance of this term, (the book even italicizes it, for extra emphasis on her curves) because in the sentence before the author writes that “she was – not fat, no, far from fat”, as if fat was the epitome of what a woman like Easter is not supposed to be, could not be, has no right to be. Not when the all-seeing-man’s-eye is around, at least.
- Later in the same conversation, Wednesday tries to make a bet with Easter where the prize is how many times she’ll have to sleep with him.
After reading that, I had to put down the book and just stare out the window like a lonely Jane Austen character, in the hopes of being someone who wasn’t treated as a sex option for a middle-aged man.
We’re about halfway through the book at this point, FYI.
- Bilquis’ story gets a follow-up, which refers to her “cunt-magic” and the fact that she dresses “like a slutty plastic bride”. She chants to herself that she is “black but comely”, which is racist and horrible, and then she dies, like the “smeared red meat of roadkill.”
- Mrs. Wood’s reputation is that Mr. Town wants to fuck her, and that’s that. How sweet.
- The cat lady that Shadow dream-screwed is called Bast! Finally, a name for this feline temptress. When Shadow is dead, she takes his heart, but then she gives it to Jacquel on the next page; essentially, her whole contribution is pretty pointless. Sexy Lamp confirmed.
- Easter brings Shadow back from the dead, neat! But she kisses him, not-so-neat.
Sam Black Crow and Laura leave relatively unscathed in terms of unnecessary lamp-age, but still with enough war scars to justify bragging rights and ‘back when I was in ‘Nam stories around a campfire.
- Sam is super cool when we meet her, hitchhiking down a highway, and gets bonus points for not being immediately objectified aside from being described as “attractive but fairly mannish”.
- In fact, it’s weird to note how normal Sam seems in contrast to all the other female characters of “American Gods”. Personally, I think that says something about how Gaiman views women: that those who don’t tote what he deems as ‘feminine’ characteristics (read: that don’t want to have sex with him) are necessarily more masculine, and therefore end up being treated with the most respect.
- She has a conversation with Marguerite Olsen where she asks “is the new neighbour cute?”, and the author once again proves that if his characters can’t be sexy lamps then they at least have to be talking about boys.
- Then she kisses Shadow – not because she loved him, but to make a point, I guess? – and it isn’t so bad, but it sucks that everyone feels the need to make out with the protagonist. Was Gaiman living vicariously through him at this point?
- She’s bisexual, though, that’s neat.
- Laura – after coming back from the dead, which immediately made me like her – actually plays an important role in the story. She does some pretty badass stuff and has interesting philosophical remarks that end up driving some of Shadow’s decisions, like holding Wednesday’s vigil.
- But then she dies again, and though I support that decision, story-wise, she kills herself (and Loki) for Shadow. She literally says, “I dedicate this death to Shadow”, as if not enough of what the women in “American Gods” were doing was not for themselves, but for men. No, Gaiman had to tell us that even the most independent female character in the novel was going to die, twice, for a man.
- At least she wasn’t still blowing Robbie.
And of course there’s the nameless – but necessarily pretty – women of Iceland, mentioned in the Post-Script. That’d be fine, I think, if it weren’t for the fact that smiling at them made Shadow feel “pleasantly male”. I don’t even want to pretend like that phrase has real meaning. It just gives me the creeps.
There’s a way to write characters, to write people, and women fall under those guidelines same as anyone else. That shouldn’t be so difficult to understand, and I’m hoping there’s a day where the very notion of Sexy Lamps is so far gone that we just assume it’s something people with fetishes look for at IKEA. Because if Neil Gaiman can write for a dozen pages about Shadow hanging from a tree, then he can definitely talk about a woman for one paragraph without mentioning her boobs, or her lips, or how curvaceous she is.
Come on, the bar is pretty low.
Julie Brown is a Canadian student with a love of goldfish crackers and Nintendo games. She is majoring in Art History and Studio arts, and spends her spare time trying to sound witty on the internet.