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Why “American Gods” Is Socially Relevant

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When British science fantasy writer Neil Gaiman published “American Gods” back in 2001, he delighted fans with his unique mix of dramatic storytelling, Americana, and ancient mythology. It was a fin de siècle novel that captured unique insights into the end of the 20th century. Now that the TV version of “American Gods” has been released for streaming on Starz and Amazon Prime Now, it’s stirring new debate. There are several reasons why “American Gods” is socially relevant.

#1: A parable about immigration

One major plotline of the show is that the ancient gods of mythological lore are now hanging out in America, just scraping by while trying to fit in. Some cultural commentators have latched on to this idea, using it as a parable for immigration and the high cost of cultural appropriation.

In short, generations of foreigners have come to America, but have been forced to fit in and acclimate, while sometimes giving up their careers and lives in their home countries. They have often been forced to “Americanize” their identities. And Bryan Fuller, the producer of “American Gods,” has supported that line of thinking by saying, “We are a country of cultural appropriation.”

In fact, the tech blog Gizmodo ran an extensive piece about “American Gods” and “the high cost of immigration to the U.S.,” commenting on the role of the nation’s immigrants. America has always relied on new waves of immigrants to keep the American dream going. In the process, these immigrants have sometimes suffered greatly, and may have even been forced into ghettos or other communities, while being forced to change their names to those that sound more “American.”

Case in point: one of the “abandoned” gods in America is Mad Sweeney (played by Pablo Schreider), who is representative of the wave of Irish immigrants to America. At one time, waves of Irishmen came to America, and packed into East Coast cities. Other than a few parades and a major holiday, the Irish contribution to America has been largely forgotten. And there is Bilquis (played by Yetide Badako), the Queen of Sheba, who is now reduced to using online dating as a way of finding romance. At one time, she was one of the greatest gods, but now she is just getting by.

All of this is particularly relevant, given the enormous public debate that America is now having about immigration. While this theme of immigration may have been present in the original 2001 novel by Gaiman, it’s something that resonates particularly in today’s political climate, where there are weekly rallies in support of immigrants and where even members of the political establishment are deeply divided about the prospects for building a border wall with Mexico. We are all re-assessing what it means to be American, and whether certain immigrants should be here at all.

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#2: A cultural critique of America’s “new gods”

Embedded in “American Gods” is the plotline of the coming battle between the “old gods” (as personified by people like Odin, the Norse god) and the “new gods,” which Gaiman has characterized in the form of characters such as Media (played by Gillian Anderson) and Technology (played by Bruce Langley). This, too, is a trenchant social criticism of the current American tableau.
When Gaiman wrote his novel back in 2001, he had in mind the great dot-com wave that made companies like eBay, Amazon and Google household names. Now, 15 years later, they have been superseded by the likes of Facebook, which is arguably the most powerful technology company on the planet today. We are now starting to question the role of social networking companies in limiting our privacy, and the role of Silicon Valley in helping the government control its citizens by offering them state-of-the-art surveillance tools. These tech companies are the “new gods.”

And, making “American Gods” all the more relevant is the fact that we are having a national debate about the role of the mainstream media and the prevalence of “fake news” everywhere. The “new gods’” have failed us, it seems. We put so much faith in them to keep us safe and give us a better life, and they may have done precisely the opposite.

#3: The notion of two different Americas

Finally, it’s hard to ignore the fact that America is deeply divided right now. There are, as many political and social commentators have pointed out, two different Americas. You can think of these as the typical supporters of both President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. On one side, you have the poorly educated white male in a declining industry like coal. On the other side, you have the liberal media elite and the urban working poor. Although those are very simplified representations, they give you a sense of the stark divide in this nation.

Thus, when Gaiman posits that there will be a clash between “old” and “new,” it’s possible to see this as a clash between two rival political parties, or two rival socio-political blocs. As “American Gods” suggests, there is no way to settle this divide except by war. And both sides are struggling to round up as many supporters as they can to ensure that they can emerge victorious. That, too, is what we are starting to see. There is no common ground, it appears, between Trump and Clinton supporters.

Of course, there’s more to “American Gods” than just a social critique. And, certainly, when Gaiman wrote his novel 15 years ago, he couldn’t have predicted the current state of affairs in America. But he correctly nailed the rise of media and technology as two prevalent forces at work in shaping the new America, as well as the untold stories of American immigrants.

It’s here that Gaiman has been most outspoken. He has been very critical of the way that the American myth largely obscures the fact that the first white settlers to America dominated the local Native American population, and then set into motion a system in which institutions like slavery could flourish. The original signers of the Declaration of Independence, in fact, owned slaves. So you can understand why Gaiman is particularly sympathetic to the plight of American immigrants.

You can watch “American Gods” as just a science fantasy tale of Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (played by Ian McShane), or you can watch it as an illuminating social critique of America. Certainly, “American Gods” is socially relevant and has a lot to say not just about the present of America, but also its future.

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