Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus American Gods is a sprawling story that’s funny and weird and wise. It’s also erotic in certain scenes when sensuality doesn’t contribute to the plot. You’d think this tendency would only be amplified in its cable television adaptation, but the third episode of the Starz show does something entirely unexpected. It tones down a scene’s sexual aspects in favor of focusing on how it serves the larger story.
In “Head Full of Snow,” protagonist Shadow Moon has an intimate encounter on a Chicago roof top with Zorya Polunochnaya, a Slavic goddess who is a pretty virgin. He’s staying in her home overnight while on a road trip with his employer Mr. Wednesday, and he’s trying to come to terms with the surreal and magical events that have suddenly invaded his otherwise ordinary life.
Both Shadow and the audience know that the youngest Zorya sister is a virgin, because she goes out of her way to inform Shadow and proceeds to “gift” him with her first kiss.
Revering virginity is a practice that has significance within almost every religious pantheon (the Virgin Mary, Athena, Anat). It makes perfect sense that American Gods would venture into that territory — and yet the American Gods show is able to address its cultural significance without dipping into fetishization. The scene conveys her intention to gift Shadow with the moon in the form of a coin; it conveys the odd and unexpected intimacy of their kiss, and yet she isn’t filmed in a way that makes her body the scene’s centerpiece.
Contrast that to the book. The passage describing her reads:
The wind gusted cold, flattening her nightgown against her body, and Shadow became uncomfortably aware that Zorya Polunochnaya was wearing nothing at all underneath….Her nippples, every goose-bump on the areolae, were visible momentarily, dark against the white cotton.
Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with including a character’s nipples — and yet when the character is not a large part of the story and this dominates their introductory scene, the result is that it defines them. In the novel, half of Zorya Polunochnaya’s characterization is essentially centered on the shape and texture of her nipples.
The show is able to convey the uneasy sexual tension between Shadow and the youngest Zorya sister, without reducing her to a fetishized body. The viewer walks away from the scene with the impression that she’s been something of a guide to Shadow. Because she’s ethereal and far more benevolent than most of the gods who have appeared thus far, she shows a new side of gods in this world. As Shadow himself comments, she surprisingly doesn’t want a fight or a checkers game from him. All she wants is a kiss in exchange for a coin.
And while such an interaction is naturally steeped in sexuality, the Bryan Fuller and Michael Green show wisely understands that it doesn’t need to zoom in too closely.
American Gods Season 1 is currently airing Sunday nights on Starz.