Gender Myths in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a work of postmodern urban fantasy literature that ventures away from conservative fairytale presentations of female characters by representing women as rotten, promiscuous, manipulative, ruthless, and powerful beings. Gaiman’s creation of an alternate, secondary universe in this the novel is one in which readers are able to question the dominant gender ideologies and gender myths that pervade American culture today. The presentation of women as sexual objects in American Gods calls into question current gender issues in America in regard to the objectification and commodification of women and sex. In addition, the novel deals with America’s flawed cultural construction of femininity, which sets binding expectations for females and categorizes women as emotional, dependent, delicate, and inferior beings. The contradictory nature of the female characters, specifically, Shadow’s wife Laura, the prostitute god Bilquis, and Sam Black Crow exemplifies Gaiman’s critique of American gender myth. This analysis gestures toward the ways in which America understands, represents, and considers gender identity as told my Neil Gaiman in his novel American Gods.
American Gods is not Gaiman’s first stab at the patriarchy and attempt to reconstruct society. His short story “Snow, Glass, Apples” is a complete rejection of the fairytale Snow White, told from the perspective of the evil stepmother. This story speaks to the reasons why Gaiman believes that the retelling of myths and the act of inspecting them is important (Reflections on Myth, 80). Gaiman’s queen, similar to Laura in American Gods, defies all traditional expected gender roles with her independent, confident, and authoritative role in the story. The power of the story lies in Gaiman’s critique of the patriarchal system of power that controls the characters of the original fairytale. Gaiman’s subversion of American notions about gender has also been observed in his American comic book series The Sandman. Paul Booth and Ally Brisbin use Judith Butler’s discussion of queen theory, in her novel Gender Trouble, to argue for Gaiman’s “normalization of queerness” and “obstructing of the ‘rules’ of gender” in The Sandman (23, 24). Booth and Brisbin’s analysis of Gaiman’s subversion of gender in The Sandman can also be applied to American Gods in regard to his illustration of the female characters Laura, Sam, and Bilquis. Furthermore, Gaiman believes in the things stories and myths can tell us and “in the stories we can tell with them,” and, in the case of American Gods, the things a story can tell us about gender in American patriarchal society, which is further proved in his story “Snow, Glass, and Apples’,” and Brisbin and Booth’s discussion of The Sandman (Reflections on Myth, 84).
In Neil Gaiman’s own reflections about his use of myths in American Gods he states: “All the myths I care about, or have cared about, will be in there, but there in order to try and make sense of the myths that make America” (Reflections on Myth, 83). The myths about gender explored in the novel relate to the way in which American culture constructs masculinity and femininity as well as the dominant gender ideologies that perpetuate the issues of gender inequality and violence against women in America today. The contradictory nature and multiple identities of each of the female characters in American Gods is Gaiman’s way of commenting on the illogical, flawed way that America explains gender to itself. Through Laura, Bilquis, and Sam the novel provides radical commentary about the way 21st century American culture positions and presents women in patriarchal society. The women are identified and characterized according to their sexuality and gender, which is indicative of the way American culture constructs ideologies about gender. However, despite their sexual and moral deviance the female characters in American Gods are illustrated as emblems of powerful, independent, and clever human beings.
American Women in American Gods
Early on in the novel, Laura is introduced as Shadow’s dead wife who cheated on him with his best friend while he was in prison. After Shadow throws the gold coin into Laura’s grave she is brought back to life in the sense that she is a dead person existing among the living. When Shadow is reunited with Laura he describes her as smelling rotten, “of flowers and preservatives” (American Gods, 60). Shadow, more or less, asks Laura why she was having sex with Robbie and she simply responds with the lame excuse that she “needed someone to talk to” and “a shoulder to cry on” (61). Shadow describes her voice as she speaks: “Her voice lacked expression; each word was flat and dull, like pebbles dropped, one by one, into a deep well,” which presents a female that is unemotional and detached, defying American feminine female stereotypes (61). It is inferred that Laura does not have any remorse for what she has done by the way in which she explains the situation: “Robbie came over. We got drunk together. We did it on the floor of the bedroom. It was good. It was really good,” demonstrating a lack of consideration and empathy towards her husband (61). After the conversation is over and Laura kisses Shadow, he observes: “her breath smelled, faintly of mothballs” and describes her tongue: “cold, and dry, and it tasted of cigarettes and of bile” (64). In this first appearance of and introduction to Laura’s character she is portrayed as Shadow’s morally and physically rotten, unfaithful, insensitive, dead wife.
This initial, physical representation of Laura is repeated throughout the novel. She is frequently portrayed as Shadow’s putrid, adulterous dead wife yet her actions throughout the narrative suggest otherwise. In fact, Laura proves to be Shadow’s most loyal companion. Almost every time Shadow finds himself in trouble Laura comes to his rescue, reversing traditional gender roles of male and female while also commenting on the American gender myth that infers that women need men for protection. She kills Mister Stone and Mister Wood and frees Shadow after they captured and beat him. She cuts him down from the tree and kills Mr. Town as well as Mr. World, dedicating Mr. World’s death to Shadow. These violent acts paint Laura in a masculine light, having stereotypical male traits such as being aggressive, powerful, fearless, and violent. It is apparent that in death Laura is made aware of the extent to which her infidelity has hurt Shadow. In death, Laura does everything she can to repent and prove her loyalty to her husband. The way in which she proves her loyalty, however, is by being violent and manipulative, traits that oppose patriarchal society’s idolizing of the stereotypical passive, innocent, and honest woman.
Laura’s repeated physical characterization of smelling “of rotten meat and sickness and decay, pervasive and unpleasant” and having flesh “cold as ice” is not only contradicted in her loyal actions but also in the way she effects Shadow’s temperament (150, 467). Despite being cast as physically repulsive, Laura has a profound effect on Shadow emotionally: “She sighed; and then she smiled, the same smile that had been able to tug at his heart no matter how many times he saw it” (371). Here, it is obvious that Shadow still loves and cares for Laura. Similarly, later in the novel Shadow tells Wednesday, his boss, that nothing has surprised him since Laura, “Since I learned she was screwing Robbie. That one hurt. Everything else just sits on the surface” (344). It is clear that Shadow is forever wounded by Laura’s infidelity and that nothing will ever surprise him or hurt as much as finding out his wife was unfaithful. Laura’s intense effect on Shadow’s emotions is extremely important because it humanizes him; it reveals to the reader that he is a man who is capable of feeling, which is a side of Shadow that is rarely acknowledged in American Gods. Laura’s character is immediately classified as unfaithful, physically rotten, and cold yet by the conclusion of the novel Laura’s actions render her to be, in many ways, Shadow’s guardian angel.
She is introduced as “[…] a tall woman dressed cartoonishly in too-tight silk shorts, her breasts pulled up and pushed forward by the yellow blouse beneath them,” as she interacts with a man who has hired her to have sex with him (27). Using the word “cartoonishly” and the phrases “too-tight silk shorts” and “her breasts pulled up and pushed forward,” Gaiman paints a picture of an erotic, promiscuous woman. From this description, Bilquis appears to be a walking advertisement for sex, exemplifying the phrase “sex sells,” which is commonly used and practiced in American commerce today. Bilquis’s crafty manipulation of this man with her body portrays her as a cunning, deviant woman: “Her hand runs up her body from thigh to breast, a gesture of presentation, as if she were demonstrating a new product” (27). Here, Bilquis is presented as a sexual object, a means of sexual gratification for a man. By using the words “presentation” and “product” to describe this woman Gaiman links America’s construction of gender and sex with the commodification and objectification of people for profit. Bilquis is more than a sex object, she is a powerful goddess that manipulates and murders men during sexual intercourse. Similar to Laura, she appears to have no remorse for taking a man’s life when afterwards “[…] she stretches once more, and she closes her eyes, and she sleeps” (31), completely unaffected by what she has just done. At first glance, she is another illustration of a cunning, promiscuous, and ruthless woman.
However, in Bilquis’s second appearance she is represented quite differently. She appears “standing and shivering on the street corner,” realizing “that she has a habit as bad as that of the snack whores and the crack whores, and this distresses her […]” (374). Here, Bilquis appears desperate and vulnerable. A man in a limo pulls up beside her and asks her to come in. Not realizing whom this man is, Bilquis makes a mistake and gets into the limo. When she realizes that the man is the technical boy, the new god of computers and Internet, she knows that her life is in danger. After the technical boy declares that he wants a clean world, implying that she is making it dirty, Bilquis jumps out of the moving vehicle and attempts get away. As she is running for her life Bilquis is portrayed in a vulnerable and fearful state: “She has power, true, but it’s hunger-magic, cunt-magic. It has kept her alive in this land for so long, but for everything else she uses her sharp eyes and her mind, her height and her presence” (378). Bilquis is more than just a pretty face; she is more than a sex object; she is more than her first description lead on. She can be a prostitute and still be a smart and worthy human being. Moments before she is killed, Bilquis is portrayed sympathetically, as a woman who did what she had to do in order to survive, which contradicts the novel’s initial portrayal of her as cunning and promiscuous. This association between being sexually promiscuous and evil, displayed in Gaiman’s conflicting portrayal of Bilquis, is representative of his critic of the American gender myth that equates whores with villians.
The last image of Bilquis as “smeared red meat of roadkill, barely recognizable as human, and soon” to be “washed away by the rain” speaks volumes about the way America’s cultural construction of gender has lead to a society that punishes women for being sexually promiscuous by dehumanizing and devaluing them (379). Bilquis is reduced to roadkill by a society that views women who embrace their sexuality, by being sexually promiscuous, as dirty, irrelevant, evil beings. According to American gender myths regarding prostitutes, Bilquis is a whore therefore she must also be corrupt. Due to the fact that Bilquis is a prostitute it becomes okay, in the novel, to run her over and smear her body all over the road. Gaiman’s interest in “the ways that American explains itself to itself” is evident in his characterization of Bilquis (Reflections on Myth, 83).
The character of Sam Black Crow counters the representations of Laura and Bilquis because she is not presented in a contradictory manner. Sam is neither a dead woman nor a prostitute god; she is a “normal” human female. She is one of the only female characters in the novel that is not portrayed as ruthless and cunning; however, she is described by Shadow as having “[…] a face that was both attractive and, he decided, faintly mannish: her features might have been chiseled out of rock” (American Gods, 166). This description implies that Sam has a rough, masculine appearance. In addition, Sam acts in a masculine manner. Sam curses repeatedly throughout the novel, which is not a part of the guidelines for how women should behave according to America’s culturally constructed system of gender. For example, when she and Shadow part ways from their first meeting she says: ‘you’re fucked up, Mister. But you’re cool’ (172). Also, later in the novel when she stands up for Shadow against Audrey Burton, who accuses him of murder, she confronts Audrey by saying:
‘I don’t’ know who you are. But. You. Are such. A cunt.’ Then she went up tiptoes and pulled Shadow down to her, and kissed him hard on the lips, pushing her mouth against his […] it was a strange kiss […] it wasn’t intended for him. It was for the other people in the bar, to let them know that she had picked sides. […] Even as she kissed him, he became certain that she didn’t’ even like him—well, not like that. (398)
Here, it is evident that Sam is not feminine and is bold and rather profane in the way that she defends Shadow. It is also implied that Sam does not have sexual feelings towards Shadow and that she is not sexually attracted to men, which is later supported when she says to Shadow ‘You kiss good for a boy’ (398). In this passage she is not only portrayed as having masculine traits but is also revealed to be more manly than womanly based on her sexual preference, which is that of a man. Despite the vulgarity of her behavior, Sam is not represented in a sexual or negative manner but as a powerful, understanding, and loyal woman. She is not a character that is capable of murder, as Laura and Bilquis are, but is, however, depicted as more masculine than feminine. Thus, when the only respectfully acknowledged and presented female character turns out to be more similar to men than women one cannot help but suggest that the author is making a statement about sexuality and gender.
Sam’s respected presence and masculine representation in the novel is a comment against the American gender myth that masculinity is superior to femininity; therefore, men are superior to women. Gaiman uses Sam’s character to confront the American gender notion that in order for women to be respected by men they must be more masculine than feminine. However, if this is the case then why isn’t Laura treated with respect and dignity? The text raises these questions about the ways in which America deals with sex and assigns roles and expectations to people based on their gender. When is it okay, as a woman, to be aggressive and violent or to be sexually promiscuous and intelligent? These are the questions American women ask themselves as they navigate their way through the patriarchal system of power that permeates American culture today.
Gaiman’s Subversion of Gender: American Gods, “Snow, Glass, Apples,” and The Sandman
Gaiman reverses the roles of the victim and the villain in “Snow, Glass, Apples” whereas in American Gods he merges the victim and the villain into one character, Bilquis. Gaiman’s presentation of the princess in “Snow, Glass, Apples” and Bilquis in American Gods is similar and different on a variety of levels. The motive behind his construction of these two characters, however, is the same. Gamian’s portrayal of Snow White and Bilquis, in his two separate works, represents his critique on different aspects of America’s cultural construction of gender and the gender myths that pervade 21st century American society. Taking a closer look at his presentation of Snow White, Elizabeth Law in her essay, “The Fairest of All: Snow White and Gendered Power in ‘Snow, Glass, and Apples’,” discusses Gaiman’s illustration of the princess as a demonic vampire who, quite literally, feeds on men for her own survival and participates in sexual acts for her own pleasure (180). Law claims, “Gaiman deconstructs the virgin/whore dichotomy through this revelation that the virgin is the whore” (180). Much of the previous description of the princess by Law resembles Gaiman’s characterization of Bilquis. Similar to Gaiman’s Snow White, Bilquis uses men for her own advantage and, more specifically, manipulates and murders them to survive. Both Bilquis and the princess engage in sexually and morally deviant acts and defy America’s definition of femininity and gender.
In addition, Gaiman’s princess embodies two opposing identities, the whore and the virgin, and manipulates the patriarchy into believing that she fulfills the feminine roles assigned to women. Gaiman’s demonic, erotic, and manipulative reinventing of the princess shatters the innocent, virginal, traditional image of Snow White, while also revealing the flaws of the virgin/whore dichotomy that exists as an American gender myth today. Bilquis, on the other hand, is Gaiman’s way of critiquing the binding expectations that America’s construction of gender places on women to be pure, harmless, submissive beings. He calls into question the American gender myth that equates whores with villains and portrays Bilquis as a victim of the patriarchy. Although these two female characters serve different purposes, they both demonstrate the ways in which Gaiman uses characters in his works to raise questions about American culture’s treatment and presentation of women in society.
In contrast, Gaiman’s queen in “Snow, Glass, Apples” is comparable to Laura in American Gods. In Law’s discussion of the tale she sums up the queen’s character in one sentence: “She is strength without dominance, power without the repression of the feminine” (179). Like Laura, she is presented as a wise, strong, independent woman attempting to control her own fate by manipulating and operating against an oppressive, designated system of gender. In addition, the queen is represented as a woman who embraces her sexual desires, which can be seen in the section of the story that details her relationship with the king: “When he wanted me he would send for me, and I would go to him, and pleasure him, and take my pleasure with him” (“Snow, Glass, Apples”, 2). Here, there is no sexual repression or repression of the queen’s passion, which rejects the patriarchal painting of the female as being pure and having no sexual desires. Similarly, Laura also embraces her sexuality in this way when she participated in sexual acts with Shadow’s best friend, Robbie, for her own pleasure. Both Laura and the queen defy the gender roles and stereotypical behaviors assigned to and expected of them as women existing in a patriarchal and, in many ways, American society.
Also, in “Snow, Glass, Apples” it is not long after the stepmother is crowned Queen that she is punished and killed for being authoritarian and confident, which Law observes are “both traditionally masculine traits” (Law, 181). Although Laura is not killed for being a powerful ruler, she embodies the same conventional masculine traits that the Queen does. Both Laura and Gaiman’s Queen are confident, assertive, and relentless when it comes to getting what they want. They are not passive and delicate; they are strong and gallant. Yet in the end, both Laura and the Queen die and although their deaths differ in circumstance the fact of the matter is that they are not rewarded and honored for their brave behavior. Gaiman’s queen is punished for not adhering to the domestic, submissive, role expected of her in patriarchal society and Laura, essentially, chooses death when she asks Shadow to take the coin that has kept her alive off her neck. Despite the difference in circumstance, Gaiman’s creation and presentation of these two female characters as valiant warriors symbolizes his challenging of patriarchal standards of behavior for women that create issues of oppression in America today.
Shifting works, Paul Booth and Ally Brisbin analyze contemporary gender ideologies and notions of gender theory in Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman by comparing and contrasting the subversion of gender in Gaiman’s work to the queer theory revisionism discussed in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Booth and Brisbin’s discussion is relevant to Gaiman’s critique of American gender myth in American Gods in that they claim that The Sandman “illustrates the notion that sex and gender are social constructs which inherently lead to ideological oppression” (21). This notion is also demonstrated in Gaiman’s presentation of Laura and Sam in American Gods. Laura is Shadow’s wife yet she rarely behaves in a feminine manner and never once plays the role of housewife. Laura is violent about getting what she wants and manipulates many of the men in the novel with very little effort. Also, it is important to note that the word “queer,” as referred to in their essay, is a description of someone who does not conform to the traditional gender norms that are communicated through the “masculine-feminine binary” of which is based on the presumptions of hetero-normative society (22).
Another character that demonstrates Gaiman’s gender subversion is Sam Black Crow, a college student Shadow meets during his journey, is a good example of Gaiman’s normalizing of queerness for she is repeatedly described as a masculine female and, like Laura, performs outside the feminine roles expected by patriarchal American society. The latter is what Booth and Brisbin call “gender-bending subversion” (21). The authors discuss Gaiman’s dynamic representation of gender in The Sandman and Butler’s argument that the “deconstruction of gender is possible only when people perform outside of long-standing prescribed norms […] not to form new constructs but to do away with any fixed concepts of what it means to be male or female at all” (21). Both Laura and Sam “perform outside of long-standing prescribed norms,” as Butler puts it, and do not fit the stereotypical feminine female that patriarchal society accepts and praises. In American Gods, Gaiman’s dual representations of gender identity, as Booth and Brisbin argue is true of The Sandman, “offers both a critique of gender norms as well as a realization that our society is still a long way from universal acceptance” (25). In American Gods, gender subversion is at work in Gaiman’s characterization of Laura, as unfaithful and rotten but loyal and heroic, and of Sam Black Crow as a masculine female, thus exemplifying Gaiman’s normalization of queerness discussed in Booth and Brisbin’s examination of gender in The Sandman.
Neil Gaiman reflects on his myth-making in American Gods and states: “All the myths I care about, or have cared about, will be in there, but there in order to try and make sense of the myths that make America” (Reflections on Myth, 83). The contradictory nature and multiple identities of each of the female characters in American Gods is Gaiman’s way of commenting on the illogical, flawed way that America explains gender to itself. The women are identified and characterized according to their sexuality and gender, which indicative of the way American culture constructs ideologies about gender. The topic at stake in this text is the issues surrounding the ways in which 21st century America explains and presents women in society. Despite their sexual and moral deviance, the female characters in American Gods are illustrated as emblems of powerful, independent, and clever human beings. Gaiman’s novel is radical in revealing the flaws in America’s cultural construction of the male and the female, the masculine and the feminine, and the roles and expectations assigned to each gender.
Booth, Paul, and Brisbin, Ally. “The Sand/wo/man: The Unstable Worlds of Gender in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Series.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 46.1 (2013): 20-37. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2001. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. Snow, Glass, Apples. Minneapolis: DreamHaven, 1995. 19. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. “Reflections on Myth.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 31 (1999): 75-84. Print.
Law, Elizabeth. “The Fairest of All: Snow White and Gendered power in ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’.” Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman. Eds. Drucker, Aaron, and Prescott, Tara. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012. 261-279. Print.
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