The Women of American Gods Get to Actually Be People
It’s 2017 and apparently it’s still controversial to have female characters who actually get to be people, something that absolutely boggles the minds of the women of American Gods.
“Oh my god, guys, there’s this show that we’re doing and the women are allowed to be actual human beings, can you believe it?” actress Emily Browning, who plays Laura, joked at the American Gods press day in New York City. “Obviously it’s still a conversation, and it’s really exciting for us, but I wish that it didn’t have to be.”
“One of the great things is that these women, they’re not perfect, and they don’t fit into one particular box,” said Yetide Badaki, who plays Bilquis. “Each character is deeply flawed in their way that makes them incredibly human, even though we’re calling it American Gods. And we see women as three-dimensional characters, and we see also these people that are not afraid to own whatever part of themselves maybe society has said previously that you couldn’t.”
Kristin Chenoweth, who plays Easter, said, “I think sometimes that women, we are taught to be embarrassed by that. But we shouldn’t be. We should embrace our strength and our authenticity more. And we’re going in the right direction with shows and, if I may, female characters this strong.” Later, when asked about the struggle many actresses have to make their characters “likable”, Chenoweth said, “It’s what makes them imperfect that’s interesting.”
One of the most exciting things I learned during my interviews on Monday was that a lot of the minor characters in American Gods have been expanded — and this includes all of the female characters. “The novel is about Wednesday and Shadow,” said co-executive producer Bryan Fuller, “but a television series is about every character that’s on screen. And this is absolutely an ensemble.” The much-talked about example was Laura, the dead ex-wife of main character Shadow (Ricky Whittle). Laura plays a fairly integral role in the story but in the book she only appears whenever Shadow sees her, and there is clearly more to her story than that.
“She’s one of my favorite characters in the book,” said Neil Gaiman, who wrote the book on which the series is based. “I love her attitude, I love how complicated she is, and it’s sort of frustrating that you only get to see her whenever Shadow sees her. So part of the joy of this was we knew going into it that she was going to be a co-star. The fun of television is we don’t have a word count, we don’t have a page count, and also it’s very easy to take the camera off Shadow and go and follow somebody else’s story.”
Michael Green, co-executive producer, said, “We […] thought it was a good opportunity to surprise and delight people who thought they knew what to expect, fans of the book. Everyone loves that character, so here’s an expanded take on who she is and where she came from.”
Indeed, the fourth episode of the season, “Git Gone” (airing May 21st) functions almost as a second pilot. The first episode is from Shadow’s point of view, but the fourth episode features the same events from Laura’s perspective. Book readers will recognize almost none of what happens because everything is new. “She’s very abrasive and crass and does some morally questionable things,” Browning said about Laura, “so it was really helpful to have episode 4 and learn a bit more about her backstory, because it doesn’t necessarily make her any more likeable, but I think it helps people to kind of empathize with her to a degree, to see where she’s at in her life before she meets Shadow and when Shadow’s in prison.”
Gaiman had nothing but praise for Browning’s portrayal of Laura. “Laura is so complicated and human, and Emily Browning embodies that in a way that, as far as I’m concerned, is- if there is any justice, there will be award nominations.”
Another female character who benefits from extended screen time is Bilquis- and in a change from the book, she is no longer depicted as a prostitute. “We didn’t want to fall into the female character stereotypes like, ‘Oh, she’s an infidel! And this one’s a prostitute!'” said Fuller. “We didn’t want the women on the show being represented in that way.” Instead, Bilquis’s introductory scene (and yes, they do include that scene) shows her meeting a blind date that she met online.
“They did want to make it something that’s incredibly relatable,” said Badaki. “I don’t know if y’all have been online dating lately, but it’s a rough world out there.”
I think the change to Bilquis’s character is an important one. In this day and age, female characters who are sex workers are often not doing that by choice; it’s usually shown as a last resort, something that they do because they are desperate. Now, among the many talented women of American Gods, here is a female character who unapologetically owns her sexuality which is something we don’t get to see that much.
Said Fuller, “It’s interesting to talk to Yetide, who is a Nigerian woman, who grew up in a climate where women did not have ownership of their sexuality and were not allowed to have sexual pleasure because it was all about servicing the king.”
“I’ve not seen sex owned by a woman in that way, and it was incredibly empowering,” said Badaki. “I had to ask myself, what does sensuality mean, what does intimacy mean, all of these questions that I had maybe myself shied away from a little bit. And with this role you can’t shy away from it, you have to dive right in. And I was just so joyful at how empowering it was.”
Easter- who only appears three or four times in the novel- not only gets a bigger role, she also gets a best friend. Chenoweth described Easter and Media (Gillian Anderson) as BFFs, and told us, “There’s a moment where they have a moment.” Easter is a character who is nice and civil on the inside but boiling mad on the inside, and Chenoweth hopes that she will eventually get her hands dirty. “It’s fun to watch a character that looks a certain way actually not be.”
It’s clear how important it is to everyone involved with the show- not just the actresses- that the women of American Gods be done well. All three women were quick to give credit to Fuller, Green, and Gaiman for their concerns about the portrayal of women on the show. “I knew that they would be this strong,” said Chenoweth, “because I knew how Neil and Michael and especially Bryan view these female characters. I love that, of course, being a strong woman in her forties-ish. I like that.”
Said Badaki, “[Fuller] gets an honorary women card. He’s someone that’s really truly is interested in the female experience and really wants to know and try and explore. That’s fascinating, for someone to say, ‘Yeah I don’t know your experience, tell me.'”
Browning, meanwhile, was thrilled at the lack of objectification both for her character and for herself on set. “That was the nice thing about Bryan and Michael as showrunners. Never did we feel, like, ‘You guys have to look super hot in this scene.’ Not ever did we feel that way.”
One thing is for certain: the women of American Gods all embody different characteristics of the word “strong”. “I think people misinterpret this idea when women say, ‘I want to play a strong female character’,” said Browning. “It doesn’t mean ‘I want to kick ass and have a gun’. It can mean that, but it just means we want as much variation as dudes have always had. I wanna play like a really weak pathetic character. If it’s written well I consider that to be a strong character.”
Said Chenoweth, “Every woman is not afraid to take anyone on. And it might be in their own way, but I like that.”
“I love all the women in this show, and we haven’t even gotten to meet all of them yet,” said Badaki.
American Gods premieres Sunday, April 30th on Starz.
Stay tuned to The Geekiary for more from the cast of American Gods!
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from THE Ohio State University. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, and conventions in the NYC area.