Yetide Badaki’s haunting, sexy, goddess-like portrayal of the Queen of Sheba—Bilquis—on ‘American Gods’ has been the scene-stealer for many. But why is Bilquis so important, both in the story, and in general television?
Oh, she did it.
She did it numerous times.
In case you’ve been a) living under a rock; b) have not seen ‘American Gods‘ yet (see point A) or c) see points A and B—you’ll know that Yetide Badaki, a relative newcomer onto our screens, portrays Bilquis.
Historically, Bilquis is the goddess of love. Alternatively, she is sometimes called the Queen of Sheba. For those of you who are yet to see the episodes there will be spoilers ahead.
The premise of ‘American Gods’ is a battle between the Old Gods and the New. With Old Gods like Odin, Easter and Bilquis fading in their power because of weakened belief, they are falling out of existence. Existence as divinities, that is. The Old Gods have to work as prostitutes, as taxi drivers—just to make it by every day.
Then there is Bruce Langley’s Tech Boy, accompanied by Gillian Anderson’s marvellously seductive portrayal of Media. They’re the New Gods. They do not need your active worship. As I type here, and as you watch television shows, you are offering these New Gods your subconscious worship.
There’s an argument unresolved here. Is the faithful worship of an Old God more powerful than the subconscious worship of Tech Boy and Media? Or is worship just worship? That’s a question for another time, but let’s focus on Badaki’s scene-stealing Bilquis, and why we all want to worship her. Even if it means—yeah, even if it means that.
Bryan Fuller, Michael Green and Neil Gaiman have expanded terrifically on the women’s roles in this project—and Bilquis is one of them.
In the book, Bilquis gets one of the ‘Coming to America’ chapters. We see the Queen of Sheba work as a prostitute in order to garner worship.
There’s a moment of vulnerability Gaiman shows in the books that is ingeniously kept in the television show. The first encounter we get of Bilquis, she cracks open her confident appearance and asks her lover—well, her sacrifice—if she is spent. If her days are numbered. Badaki, as beautiful as the moonlight and the rising sun, is anything but that. But it shows us just how vulnerable Bilquis actually is, on the inside.
As per Executive Producer Michael Green, Gaiman was only too happy to expand on the women’s roles:
From day one, conversation with Neil, his excitement at the prospect of seeing more of them because he would still even say and say it nicer than I will. That he always wondered what those characters were doing off screen also but the novel he didn’t want to do with a twelve hundred page book.
Not only does Bilquis need that but she needs to be worshipped—sexually—in order to gain power. That’s quite some character. Now if you think of Bilquis who has been reduced to a prostitute in a modern-day world that doesn’t believe in the ancient Gods anymore, then what kind of belief does she have in herself?
The Gods have power beyond our belief. But does that stop them from being human, too?
Now, more than ever, there is a push for powerful women on television—call it ‘girl power’ if you want to—and Bilquis is the prime example of that.
In a world where women are still being reduced to wives or scapegoats then the role of Bilquis is hugely important.
The commentary from actresses will disagree with this piece, and that is truly acceptable. After all, what is one opinion versus the industry’s? But in ‘American Gods’, the women’s roles are boosted from the books and given back-stories to explain their actions. It’s purposeful and explicitly done. And sadly, that’s actually rare–still.
If we took a closer look at what is airing on television right now, we land on my favourite topic in the world, ‘The 100‘. If you had Bellamy (Bob Morley) cuff Clarke (Eliza Taylor), shout at her, reduce her to tears, blame her—an eighteen year old—for the massacre of Mount Weather whilst shunting the blame from himself, a grown man, then it is seen as some gross man-pain. Clarke, however, points a gun at Bellamy, then it’s pitchforks and fire for Clarke, because how dare she do that to her one true love? How dare she hurt a man?
History is ingrained within us.
That is why Badaki’s Bilquis is so important. She’s powerful, she is proud of it, and she owns that mother-effing television screen every—single—time she graces it. ‘American Gods’ is ostensibly a much better-produced, better-written story (well done, Ricky Whittle). But we need to be looking to programmes like ‘American Gods’ for change.
Sexuality doesn’t have to be from the male gaze all the time.
If our head-spinning experience with Badaki’s Bilquis doesn’t prove this, then that will? Bilquis’ romps with her ‘worshippers’ are sexy, dimly-litted, and ritualistic. The moment you are sucked into Bilquis’ intention of seducing them, you’re rerouted when you realise that her idea of seduction links into worship, and when you begin to worship Bilquis, it isn’t sex for sex’s sake. Historically, Bilquis is the goddess of love; the intoxicating Queen of Sheba.
One could argue that Badaki is just that: intoxicating and alluring. But Bryan Fuller had fresh ideas for the take on Bilquis’ sex scene. When asked when Fuller realised this could be a television show, Fuller did not hesitate:
Probably reading the Bilquis scene, because at that point that’s when the narrative shifted in became anthological in a really interesting way, and it was also incredibly visual and it felt like a fantastic opportunity of how to capture cinematically an orgasm and then a realisation that you’re being consumed, was, just felt like a delicious opportunity. So I think that that was the first time that I was like “oh my God, this has to be cinematic”.
Badaki, on one hand, consistently fended off questions about “that scene“–but are journalists missing the point in jokingly censoring it? How did Badaki see Bilquis’ sexual scenes?
I think it goes back to that question you’re asking about who they were previously and what it is that that these characters are still searching for. And in this that I was just seeing an individual looking for a connection again. The idea of this Goddess of Love being almost anemic in this present day because the intimacy is something that’s not pursued as much. It’s almost something people are afraid of or even afraid of talking about.
Time for a change.
Teens grow up watching misogynist hour-long bores because that’s the channel given to them. That’s the work the producers and CEOs approve—because let’s face it, the majority of the people behind-the-scenes on television are white. They are male.
They have no perspective on minorities—despite their sympathetic, scripted words.
This is not an attack. This is merely a plea: find yourself something that is truly powerful, for a woman. It doesn’t have to be a romance. A woman does not need a whirlwind romance to be a great character. But be careful in your choice. A man and a woman can have a gorgeous romance without any of the abuse shown in cheap shows like ‘The 100’.
From the eloquent Badaki herself, she said of her character’s desire in belief:
I mean, that was one of the major themes that was really interesting to me, because the more I delved into Bilquis the more I kept on feeling this theme of “repression leads to transgression”. Repression being the greatest transgression in a way and she knew who she was knows who she is. It’s everybody else that’s forgotten.
Be a little more like Bilquis—minus the “swallowing men and women whole in her vagina” part. Be proud of who you are; don’t let any man or woman change what you believe, or who you believe yourself to be. Be powerful. A goddess.
(Just…not like that).