"American Gods" committed an unnecessary diversity fail.
American Gods, the TV show based on Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel of the same name, premiered in 2017.
At the beginning, the show focused on Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle) who was recently released from prison. Shadow is quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of bizarre experiences thanks to Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who we later discover is the Germanic mythological god Odin. Mr. Wednesday is trying to build an army of "old gods" to pit against the "new gods," and he enlists Shadow's help. The new gods are Mr. World a.k.a. globalization (Chirpin Glover), Media (Gillian Anderson)—who is replaced by New Media in season two (Kahyun Kim)—and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley).
Odin/Mr. Wednesday, with his bodyguard Shadow in tow, embarks on a cross-country journey to recruit gods he personally knows to fight against the new gods to gain back the faith and worship of the masses. Odin recruits the Slavic god of "darkness and evil," Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Hindu goddess Kali/Mama-Ji (Sakina Jaffrey), he Pagan goddess of Easter, Ostara (Kristin Chenoweth), and many more. Also on his team is a character from West African folklore, Anansi, who in the material world is known as Mr. Nancy, played by Orlando Jones.
Anansi (pronounced uh-naan-see) is a storyteller and a prominent character in season two (with few scenes in season one). On December 14, 2019, Orlando Jones took to the Internet to reveal that he was let go from the show in September and would not be returning for season three.
Fans of the show were (and still are) outraged. Since he was one of the few characters of color that appeared in season one and two, fans of Anansi/Mr. Nancy were confused as to why the showrunners would make their show less diverse. During an exclusive one-hour interview with The Blerd Gurl podcast, Jones explained the full timeline that led to his firing.
The Removal of Anansi
Jones detailed conversations he had with the new showrunner, Charles (Chic) Eglee (the third showrunner thus far), who felt that the Anansi character was "not good for Black America." For those unfamiliar with Anansi in the show, the West African god made a powerful first appearance in season one, episode two. We meet Anansi on a slave ship, where he first says his mantra, "Angry gets shit done," which urges the captive Africans on board to burn down the ship transporting them to America.
However, the scene that created waves was in episode four, season two, in which Anansi made a speech stating that "slavery is a cult." In this conversation, Anansi, goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), and Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) discuss the current state of Black people in America and the global epidemic of human trafficking of Black and brown bodies. According to the new showrunner, this scene (and the overall "angry gets shit done" perspective Anansi maintains throughout the show) was not what Black America needed in the current political climate.
During The Blerd Girl interview, Jones even recounts hearing that Eglee (a white man) said to other executives that he "writes from a Black male perspective" better than Jones himself.
While this is already a solid slap in the face, it's particularly offensive given the minimization (and frequent nonexistence) of traditionally Black faiths and beliefs in shows and movies. Anansi was one of the few Black characters in mainstream television centered around spirituality and religion as he discussed the Black experience in a real and raw manner. As Jones explained in his interview with Blerd Gurl, fans flooded his DMs with messages telling him how important the Anansi character was to the landscape of television and what it meant for them to see that kind of representation.
During the TCA tour earlier this month (Jan. 7-19), Starz network president and CEO Jeffrey Hirsch addressed the situation with Jones, simply stating, "Orlando [Jones] is a tremendous talent and is a great actor and person. The book is rich in story and [Mr. Nancy] doesn't have a prominent role in the story… that's where we are."
Hircsh also added, "Chic and the team decided to be in [an] area where Mr. Nancy doesn't play a prominent role, so that's where we are." This blanket statement, while extremely diplomatic, entirely ignores Eglee's previous statements.
The State of (and Demand for) Black Spiritual Representation
Given the current uptick in themes of spirituality and faith in popular shows (CC: Good Omen, The Chilling Tales of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, October Faction, The Path, and even SYFY's The Magicians), it is a terrible move to remove important Black representation.
While we know shows take creative liberties regularly, it would make sense within the world of American Gods to include a character that speaks for the Black experience with urgency. Referring back to the aforementioned mortuary scene between Anansi, Bilquis and Mr. Ibis, what makes the scene powerful is seeing three Black actors portraying African gods and goddesses having a conversation about current Black America. This moment of thoughtful representation was applauded by viewers of all backgrounds, but it fell on (tone) deaf ears when it came to the current showrunner.
In a media climate where diversity is praised but not fairly executed, keeping the character of Anansi could have been a slam dunk for a show that sees trouble in the writers' room and prominent characters exit (or suddenly let go) for unexplained reasons.
In a wider sense, there have been limited examples of people of color in the mystical and spiritual space as it relates to popular shows and movies. We can point out Rachel True as Rochelle in The Craft, Jasmine Guy as Sheila Bennett in The Vampire Diaries, Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven, and more recently Tati Gabrielle as Prudence Blackwood in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Because of this lack of diversity and open call for more relatable characters, we turn to shows from independent filmmakers. Web series such as Juju Web Series, created by director and screenwriter Moon Ferguson, have a growing fanbase consisting of those looking for binge-worthy shows with mystical Black and brown representation. On the creation of Juju, Ferguson writes, "I wanted to experience supernatural beings who look like me. Blacks and People of Color are very underrepresented in the fantasy genre. I think it's time to start writing our stories in the fantasy realm. We are long overdue for Black witches, vampires, werewolves, sirens, soothsayers, fauns, etc. We hold an abundance of history which includes magic stemming back to Africa."
The Future of American Gods
During the TCA tour, Hirsch did mention that Anansi is not prominent in the chapters that the show is covering from the original novel. However, Anansi is relevant in later chapters (if sticking to the canon is really that important).
American Gods' third season is currently set for a 2020 release date, which will see the debut of the standard 10 new episodes. With all the changes in actors, debacles in the writers' room, and overall drama surrounding the show, is it even worth watching? The world will have to wait and see.
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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