Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Woman = sex: Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Having been impressed with Gaiman's Coraline, and the racial subversion ofAnansi Boys, I thought it would be worth checking out  American Gods to see what kind of subversion the partner novel engages in.  In Anansi Boys, all the characters are black, but it's never mentioned and many readers don't pick up on it unless it's pointed out to them. There are heaps of hints - for example, there's a group of women who practise voodoo, and speak in dialect, the white characters are identified as white, Anansi is an African god, and builds a model of himself out of tar - so if you've read it and didn't pick up on it, it's definitely worth a second read! This technique is a great way of drawing attention to the general 'invisibility' of whiteness in western culture by confronting the reader with their own erroneous assumptions when they realise who the characters actually are. (invisibility of whiteness: it's seen as the default, and not a racial category, which effectively normalises white privilege - see Richard Dyer's 'White', or Aileen Moreton-Robinson's Talkin' up to the White Woman).

I had such high hopes for American Gods I set it for a reading group I've been involved in at Deakin over the last few months - although Anansi Boys doesn't do anything particularly great in terms of gender, it's not terrible. To put it bluntly, in gender terms, American Gods is just that - terrible.

All of the female characters are defined by their sexuality, and any form of'deviant' female sexuality is punished with death, preferably graphic, violent death.

The first female character the reader is introduced to is a prostitute, who turns out to be a goddess who gets off on swallowing clients with her vagina when they 'worship' her. There aren't any teeth, but it's a representation of dangerous female sexuality - like the praying mantis figure - nonetheless. She is later run over and her dead body violently mangled, a scene which is evoked in graphic detail, and arguably a (narrative) punishment for being sexually aggressive. I'm not suggesting that it would be a great idea to kill men with your vagina, even if that were possible, but this forms part of a pattern throughout the novel of evoking anxieties about female sexuality. Ie: that women use it for evil...

Another important female character is the male protagonist's wife, Laura, who dies seemingly tragically in a car accident two days before Shadow is released from prison. Only it turns out that she was giving Shadow's best friend a blow-job while he was driving... Shadow accidentally reanimates her, and her dead body rots around her as she spends the rest of the novel saving Shadow's life by murdering anyone who tries to hurt him. Arguably, her rotting body stands as a symbol for the inherent corruption of the America Gaiman portrays, which, I would argue, makes a concrete link between female sexuality and corruption. Again, I'm not suggesting that cheating on one's partner is an appropriate act, either. However, the 'best friend' that Laura cheated on Shadow with is let off the hook, as he suffers no ongoing punishments, nor is his body made into a grotesque object. It's very much the same hypocritical beliefs underpinning the ancient laws (resurrected today in strict Sharia law) decreeing that women must be stoned to death for adultery, while adulterous men go completely unpunished.

None of these female characters has any agency of her own - the vagina-goddess has no real purpose other than to consume men with her sexuality, and zombie-Laura's primary role is to help Shadow out of trouble. Oh, and she'd also like to be truly alive again, rather than a rotting corpse, but it's an ambition that is never fulfilled. She was sexually deviant, and although she tells Shadow that she regrets cheating on him, she must be punished with death, with no hope of redemption.

The way that both deaths draw attention to the women's grotesque, dead bodies is also quite problematic, as it effectively fetishises them. This is, sadly, just a repetition of the historical understandings of female bodies as objects of desire or degraded and corrupt (and thus still objectified).

The one nod to progressiveness is the fact that the one female character who survives and is portrayed relatively positively is revealed to be lesbian. Hooray! Being a lesbian is normal, not deviant! However, she is still defined by her sexuality and sexual acts, not by her goals. One of her major actions is to kiss Shadow in an act of defiance against a town that has turned against him, and she has no real function in the novel outside of showing her sexuality.

I can't argue that the novel does nothing positive for humanity - it is quite progressive in racial terms, as Gaiman's work usually is, making whiteness visible and constructing the protagonist as 'racially ambiguous' - but its portrayal of gender is so backwards and damaging that it's depressing in this day and age, particularly from an author who clearly thinks about issues of social justice.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I'm glad that someone else picked up on these things while reading American Gods, and that they gave voice to these concerns.
    Another female character that might be interesting to consider is Zorya Pulonochnaya, who met Shadow on the roof and gave him the coin from the moon. She's both sexualized and upheld in an ideal sort of way.