You may be a Neil Gaiman fan and already had your DVR set to record American Gods before it premiered in April. Or you heard through the grapevine that there was a show featuring a woman who was sucking men into her vagina and it was awesome, so you had to tune in out of curiosity. Either way, you have been introduced to Bilquis, the ancient goddess of love, whose powers derive from prayers of a sexual nature. In last night’s season finale, we finally got Bilquis’ “coming to America” backstory, and it spoke to the very nature of how our culture treats Black female empowerment and sexuality.
After the first instance of vagina consumption and some supernatural snooping around a museum, we see Bilquis at her height — an otherworldly deity leading a gaggle of worshippers in an orgy that would make the Britney Spears “Slave” video blush. She’s powerful, and still consuming humans with her lady parts, but in her glory days, she was classy enough to liquify them first. Her downfall begins in 1979 when a disco party is raided in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. The violent takeover is symbolic of the power that governments exert over female sexuality. Then, in America during the ‘80s, Bilquis watches one of her worshippers die of HIV in a hospital bed — another nod to the potential dangers women face for being sexually active. Finally, we see Bilquis living on the streets, until Technical Boy offers her an American Gods spin-off version of Tinder. The lesson: being sexual never ends well for women.
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yetide Badaki, the actress who plays Bilquis, talked about the goddess’ fall from grace and what that says about responses to women’s sexuality. “For me, when I was reading that, it pointed out this whole idea that repression leads to transgression. You see her become something completely different. You see her voice literally silenced. You see her shrinking from what she fully embodies,” she said. Despite the fact that we’re all sexual beings, shame is still engrained into women’s sexual experiences. Badaki said, “She has denied part of her greatness, because she's been made to feel shame for what was a thing of great beauty, at least in her past.”
That Bilquis is not only a woman, but a Black woman, adds another layer of complexity to the shame, guilt, and repression of sexuality. From the 1965 Moynihan report, to the panic about twerking when it first went mainstream, to critiques of the lyrical content of female rappers, Black women’s sexuality has been seen as deviant, taboo, and threatening to our culture’s moral fiber. Where women’s sexuality is often a debate in the moral realm (with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale *shivers*), Black women’s sexual deviance is seen as a threat to their communities. We still tackle these narratives on a daily basis in our neighborhoods, our Twitter mentions, and our homes.
It was these negative connotations that initially made me very uncomfortable with the show’s casting of Bilquis. It’s a painful reminder of the way our sexuality is controlled. But ultimately it stands as an accurate and honest critique about who is most affected by our regressive views on women’s sexuality. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable.