Back when the world was new, there was a young woman whose only dream in life was for everyone to know her name. Though she would eventually marry wealthy, the desire to be famous still burned in her veins. She prayed every night.
The gods, feeling itchy and bored one day, noticed this young woman’s yearning. One offered her a proposition: If she sacrificed her daughter, everyone would know her name.
The woman agreed without hesitation — she had many daughters after all. The god smiled and gave her a potion.
“Your face will never age. Nor will your daughters’ faces see the curse of time. Perpetual youth is necessary so that no one will ever forget your name,” he said.
She drank it, sealing her and her daughters’ fates.
Pleased with her obedience, the gods granted her irrational fame. But it was also a curse upon her and upon mankind. They found the most intimate moment of her second-eldest daughter’s life and made it immortal. They cursed the woman and her descendants to be the butts of jokes and to perpetually embarrass themselves for all to see, for eternity.
Kris Kardashian and her family’s rise to power is the closest thing modern America has to a Greek myth. Her story is equal parts terrible punishment, cruel ingenuity, and erotic hubris, and it explains the incalculable: how a family with no visible talents can amass fortune and perpetual fame. And myth, in this case, is just as plausible as reality.
Mythology is as useful an approach as any when it comes to puzzling out contemporary American pop culture and the jagged idea of fame. Is there any rhyme or reason to why we hate one celebrity but adore another? Can anyone say for sure that certain stars haven’t made Faustian deals to achieve their renown? If confronted with that kind of opportunity — our humanity for a kingdom of glitz and popularity — who would say no?
Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods — the television adaptation of which premieres on Starz on April 30 — tackles this very idea. It’s a story about an imagined pantheon of American-bred gods and goddesses, who soak up our admiration and feed off our obsessions, and who find themselves obsolete as the world around them changes.
But Gaiman’s use of gods and goddesses is just one level of the story. On a broader level, American Gods examines American identity and questions whether the country has somehow cobbled together its own unique religion, with its own relative sense of morality.
American Gods is an examination of American obsession and identity
The premise of Gaiman’s American Gods is scintillating: Old gods, forgotten in the United States, are losing power to new gods like Technology and Media, and a war is brewing between the two factions. It’s a riff on an older concept from Greek mythology — the Titans overthrew their deity parents, and the Titans’ children in turn overthrew them — that suggests there’s always a new set of powerful beings on deck, to represent people’s changing obsessions and devotions.
Without giving too much away, American Gods protagonist Shadow Moon meets a mysterious man named Mr. Wednesday, who represents one faction of the American gods. Wednesday and his cohorts are American manifestations of gods from the old world, and are usually depicted as older or downtrodden. People have no reverence for these gods they’ve largely forgotten, and in turn they live on the fringes of American society. For example, Bilquis, the queen of Sheba and goddess of love, sex, and fertility, is a modern-day prostitute in Los Angeles who seeks devotion and adoration from her tricks. Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun, is a belligerent drunk.
On the other side of the war are new, powerful gods who have arisen in modern times, and who represent some of the best stuff in the book. Gaiman uses the new gods to analyze and take swings at American identity circa 2001. Reading American Gods today is a bit like reading a time capsule of that year, with Gaiman observing things like our burgeoning obsession with the internet, and predicting where those compulsions would go. The Technical Boy, Gaiman’s god of technology, sums up this analysis of how America has changed thusly:
Tell [Mr. Wednesday] that we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religion is an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam. Tell him that or I’ll fucking kill you.
Technical Boy believes that prayers are obsolete and that worshipping a deity has given way to obsession. Americans can spend an hour in church, but then spend the rest of the day on the internet or on the couch watching television or on their phones sending text messages.
Technical Boy’s argument is so spot-on that even Mr. Wednesday recognizes its validity, hence the war he’s preparing for. What’s a little less clear (and what you’ll find out as you read the book or watch the show) is how Shadow Moon figures into this war, and why he’s such a sought-after figure to the gods.
American Gods is 16 years old, and sometimes it shows
In Gaiman’s book, one of the New Gods is Media — a goddess of television, radio, news, and glossy magazines. In the book, Media takes on various personifications (Lucy Ricardo, a newscaster), promising fame to the protagonist in exchange for his loyalty.
“We can give you power over what people believe and say and wear and dream,” Media tells Shadow. “You want to be the next Cary Grant? We can make that happen. We can make you the next Beatles.”
Setting aside the older references, Media’s characterization in the novel is complicated by the fact that the media’s relationship to fame has changed a lot since 2001. Shows don’t need televisions anymore. News doesn’t need newscasters to deliver it. Songs don’t need radio stations to be popular. Glossy magazines are no longer the arbiters of style and cool. And becoming famous can involve a large number of variables — it isn’t dependent on becoming the next movie star or big band. Popularity isn’t gauged only by one’s level of success or talent; a Kardashian has as much cultural potency and currency as a movie star or popular singer.
It’s in these moments focused on Media (and media) where Gaiman’s book feels curiously dated. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on Gaiman — no one in 2001 could have predicted the seismic shifts that have happened in media over the last decade and a half. But it’s still fascinating to read and remember how powerful those traditional forms of media (e.g. television, magazines, newspapers, movies) used to be. By highlighting 2001’s sense of “media,” American Gods highlights how the concept of “media” lives on today.
Gaiman’s goddess of Media in 2017 would feed off our addiction to Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook. She’d get fat on our need to assert our lives through pictures, 140 characters, and short videos. She’d gain power every time we flipped on our smartphones during breakfast, lunch, dinner, work, play, and even when we’re watching television.
Gaiman’s Media would be as relevant as ever in 2017: as an illustration of how addicted we are to the thrill of telling our own stories, and as a reflection of how sneakily adaptive media can be.
The new series builds on the book — that’s what makes American Gods so great
I’ve seen four episodes of Starz’s American Gods so far (the first season is eight episodes), and what I’ve seen is a fantastic, stylish spectacle. Its look is smooth and sleek, and the acting, particularly Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday, is top-notch.
But what’s most impressive is how showrunner Bryan Fuller worked with Gaiman’s original material, and Gaiman himself (who’s a producer on the show), to update American Gods for 2017.
The show revamps Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) from his depiction in the novel as an acne-pocked, greasy basement-dweller into something more Silicon Valley sinister. It changes the way Media (Gillian Anderson) talks about power and fame, and makes her more of a multi-platform menace. And it drives home powerful themes from the novel — like immigration, assimilation, and race — in interesting ways that are enhanced by a live-action series.
To find the old gods, Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Wednesday take a road trip through the middle of the country, the visual loneliness of the highway snaking through forgotten America representing the old gods’ feeling of neglect. Similarly, the old gods are often people of color or immigrants with accents, while the new gods tend to be white and affluent — a canny message about who has power in modern America that becomes clearer when you see it lived out onscreen.
Fuller possesses a keen sense of balance between honoring the source material and tweaking it just enough to make it current. The story’s most memorable scenes, like one involving Bilquis and a death-by-vagina, are kept intact, dialogue and all. But there are also small wrinkles, like the show’s addition of Vulcan, a God of firearms who doesn’t exist in the novel.
Such updates, along with the astounding visuals, should give fans of the book something to look forward to in the series, which should also inspire new fans to pick up the original book. Ultimately, American Gods works because its source material is such a strong, shrewd narrative about identity. And it understands that being an American, as Gaiman believed in 2001, is a religion worth examining.