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American Gods’ most explicit sex scene is a lesson in respectful filmmaking

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What happens when a sex scene is more than sex?

Yetide Badaki as Bilquis.
Starz

If you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and you’re now watching its TV adaptation on Starz, one question you may have is how they’re going to film that particular scene.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first episode of American Gods.]

The most memorable scene from the first episode occurs about halfway through. A middle-aged paunchy man walks into a bar, a hesitant look on his face. He slowly approaches a woman in her 30s sitting at the bar, wrapped in an an air of confidence. She smiles at him, he smiles back nervously. They start to talk and he becomes immediately entranced by the mysterious woman named Bilquis.

Soon he follows her to bed, strips naked, and is consumed by Bilquis, through her vagina, to fuel her godlike powers.

As prestige television puts its thumbprint on pop culture, we’ve become more accepting of explicit sex on television. The line between an artful tease of intimacy and straight-up porn has become thinner with every new HBO or Showtime series. It may seem like Game of Thrones increases the number of breasts with each new season, but it’s not as shocking as it was six years ago when the series debuted.

Why are we talking about this particular scene in American Gods, then, besides the obvious straying away from normal social norms? Unlike those scenes in Game of Thrones or True Blood, American Gods relinquishes all of the power in this situation to Bilquis — and that’s made very apparent by the way it’s filmed.

Although the majority of nudity on screen belongs to Bilquis, the goddess — who belongs to the old gods’ regime — is never submissive. She controls everything that’s occurring in that moment. She controls the man beneath her, the act of what’s occurring and, inevitably, how it ends. Showrunner Bryan Fuller ensures we’re made aware of this the entire time without ever explicitly stating it. We can see it in the cinematography and direction, hear it in the dialogue.

Yetide Badaki as Bilquis.
Starz

The scene is framed to make Bilquis seem taller and stronger than she is. Fuller never lets you forget that Bilquis is a goddess. She does what she wants, whenever she wants. This isn’t a superfluous scene that exists simply to provoke. Bilquis is a woman with a mission and no one will get in the way of what she needs.

This entire story can be seen in the way Bilquis treats the man she’s with. She orders him to worship her. While he’s listing off how devoted he is to her and her body, frantically spouting compliments, the camera pans up Bilquis’ body until it reaches her smirking face. It’s sexual, but not erotic. It’s also not a casual sex scene. It shares more similarities with great political plays in shows like Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad. There’s something diabolical about the way Bilquis controls the moment that removes any inkling of eroticism; American Gods’ most sexual moment is far from the lustful grab for attention television has demanded sex scenes deliver.

The other important detail about Bilquis’ stunning debut in the series is how little Fuller and his writing team stray from how the scene is written in Gaiman’s novel. Fuller was asked how — or if — he was going to include the scene in question and, delivering perhaps the most typical Fuller response, the showrunner confirmed they weren’t going to deviate at all.

“One of the most amazing sequences for me when I was reading it was the Goddess Bilquis eating a man with her vagina,” Fuller told Den of Geek. “I think it’s beautifully written in the novel … That came up in the Starz meeting, they were like, ‘how are you going to do that moment?’ and we said, ‘we’re going to do it exactly as written.’”

Fuller added that they talked to actor Yetide Badaki, a woman from Nigeria, about what the role would encompass, ensuring she felt entirely comfortable. It was through their conversations that they learned Badaki was excited to play a role that empowered a woman’s sexuality after being raised in a community where it is so often repressed.

Yetide Badaki as Bilquis.
Starz

“It’s fascinating to talk to Yetide, who grew up in Nigeria in a society where women weren’t allowed to have ownership of their sexuality, were not allowed to have sexual pleasure, for her as an actor to come in and play this woman who is so empowered by her sexuality and in control of it,” Fuller told Tor.com.

Michael Green, Fuller’s co-showrunner, agreed but said a large part of Bilquis’ sexuality is the projected empowerment she gives to the various men and women she’s with. Although Bilquis masquerades as a prostitute in the book, the concept that Fuller and Green wanted to get across was the idea that ordinary people would be willing to give up everything at the hands of a goddess. The relationship Bilquis has with the people she sleeps with isn’t a sexual or a competitive one; but rather spiritual.

“What are you willing to give to your god, and what is god willing to accept from you,” Green told Tor. “What is the largest gift you can give? You body. Your life.”

Starz sent Polygon the first four episodes of American Gods, and from them it’s apparent Bilquis has quite a large role to play in the series. Her sexuality is at the forefront, but it’s not the only aspect that Fuller and Green pay attention to. Bilquis is one of the most interesting characters who, in an age of exaggerating and creating an excess amount of sexual content on television just for the hell of it, has a story to tell outside of her sexuality.

From the way that Fuller and Green have decided to frame the shots to the dialogue written to the careful amount of attention given to every aspect of Bilquis’ being in that moment, the showrunners have helped to redefine what sex on television looks like.