As this premiere season of American Gods has progressed, it’s been exciting to see how the television adaptation expands the role of the book’s many female characters—and not just because it means there are more women on screen (though that’s certainly a nice perk). As the season finale demonstrated, an increased presence of women affords the show the opportunity to explore new themes that weren’t present in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel. The dual stories of Bilquis and Easter, for example, explore how women who hold power—literal goddesses, in this case—are ousted, co-opted, and replaced by men.
[brightcove video_id=”5363767337001″ brightcove_account_id=”3653334524001″ brightcove_player_id=”rJs2ZD8x”]In the book (spoilers!), what very little we know about Bilquis consists of the fact that she was once the Queen of Sheba, now working as a prostitute in Hollywood; she only appears in two chapters on the book and is unceremoniously killed off by Technical Boy about 300 pages in. To adapt her story for a modern audience, the series dramatically improved her circumstances: now she selects her worshippers not on the side of the road but with a dating app, and—as we learned in the season finale—works with the New Gods rather than hiding from them.
But as we also learned in the season finale, the Queen of Sheba’s fall from grace did not come so gradually. According to Mr. Nancy, kings have always been trying to overthrow her but could not match her; it was only the threat of violence from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that truly brought her down. “Our queen’s power, which is the power of all women, the power of rebirth and creation. It makes some men kneel in awe and give gifts, but it makes other men angry,” Mr. Nancy says in the episode’s voiceover. “So men did what they do. They took from her that power. Took ’em a long time, took them guns and knives and sharp dicks. But they grabbed the power they were too scared for a queen to have. They laundered it and gave it to men. They forced our queen into the back seat.”
In truth, the causes of the Iranian Revolution (also sometimes called the Islamic Revolution) were much more complex. Attempts to forcefully modernize and secularize Iran by the country’s unpopular CIA-backed leader led many rebels to adopt a more conservative, pro-religious stance; many women, in fact, participated heavily in the revolution themselves, often wearing the then-banned veil as a sign of protest. In the aftermath, however, secular laws protecting women’s rights were abolished, and Iranian society pushed them towards more traditional gender roles. Disco clubs like the one Bilquis finds her worshippers in also would have been completely forbidden, as would the western clothing she and her dance partner wear.
Bilquis might be able to make a modest living for herself now that she’s fled to America, but now her power is no longer her own; it has been filtered through a male presence, specifically that of Technical Boy, and he feels entitled to point her at his enemies like a weapon he owns. Under the threat of violence—not just from the extremists who destroy her image but from the New Gods of America, too—she has ultimately been forced to compromise herself.
Easter might not have reached the same low point as Bilquis did, but she, too, has had her power laundered in a manner much more intense than how Neil Gaiman first depicted. In the book (again, spoilers), Wednesday and Shadow meet the goddess at a feast in San Francisco, where he makes more or less the same argument does in the show: that Easter does all the work, and Jesus gets all the prayers. To demonstrate this, he asks a barista what she thinks the word “Easter” means, and she says she doesn’t know anything about “that Christian stuff” because she’s pagan. Easter is upset, but Wednesday’s point rings true, and she reluctantly agrees to help him in his cause.
In the series, Easter isn’t in denial about the way Jesus has taken over her festival day; she’s begrudgingly complicit in it. Like Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale, she maintains a glamorous facsimile of power by kowtowing to the men who’ve been positioned above her in a situation of her own design. Sure, it complicates matters that the many Jesuses who attend her party are “kind, generous men” who don’t want to think they could possibly be part of a system that has stolen someone else’s power and special day. But as Wednesday points out to one of them, “when they started following you, everybody else got burned in your name.”
It’s been whitewashed away by popular culture, but Christianity, too, has a violent history of forceful assimilation that goes back almost as long as the religion itself does. After the 313 Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, it wasn’t long until other forms of worship were prohibited on penalty of death. Its unclear whether the pagans of that time deliberately molded their rituals to a Christian framework to preserve their traditions (much like enslaved Africans in Cuba did when adapting Santeria from a combination of their own Yoruba beliefs and their slavers’ Roman Catholicism) or if they were encouraged to do so as a means of compromise with Christian leaders. In any event, both they and Easter adapted as a means of survival, just as Bilquis did when Technical Boy came calling.
(It’s also fitting, in a way, that Easter chooses to assert her power at the end of the episode by deliberately withholding it until she is once again found worthy of worship. Anyone who’s ever read the play Lysistrata—or seen any sitcom episode where a wife refuses to have sex until she gets her way—will recognize the tactic as traditionally, stereotypically feminine.)
Obviously Bilquis is in a more precarious position than Easter, in more ways than one; her connection to female sexuality and her status as a black woman in America both leave her more vulnerable in a country that’s anxious about both, whereas Easter’s whiteness and subservience to Christian tradition allows her to live very comfortably. But while both goddesses experience the marginalization of female power very differently, their shared displacement should not go unnoticed.
America may be a land of opportunity, but for many women, those opportunities are still limited to what men will allow. Why should the opportunities of Gods be any different?