The Refreshing Queer Sensibility of American Gods

With his Starz series, the showrunner Bryan Fuller has fully realized an aesthetic he has spent much of his career developing.


There is something unabashedly and unapologetically gay about Bryan Fuller’s work. The writer and television producer may not quite be a household name yet, but his shows have rabid fanbases that have responded to his off-kilter sensibility and his, dare one say it, uniquely queer sense of style.

You can detect it in Fuller’s 2004 series Wonderfalls, which cast Diana Scarwid—who played the young, abused Christina in the campy cult classic Mommie Dearest—as an overbearing mother. You can’t miss it when, in the comedy-drama series Pushing Daisies, he got the Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth to recreate an iconic scene from The Sound of Music for a quick gag. And he definitely made good use of it when, for the 2012 TV special Mockingbird Lane, he put the actor Cheyenne Jackson into a snug adult-sized Boy Scouts uniform. But perhaps most famously, Fuller’s trademark style enwrapped NBC’s horror-thriller drama Hannibal, where he turned a notorious cannibal and his FBI profiler into a homoerotic pairing that inspired a fan-fiction genre called Hannigram.

The openly gay writer and showrunner has returned to television with his most ambitious work to date: an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s epic novel American Gods. Centered on a coming war between the Old Gods that roam the U.S. and the New Gods that have come to take their place, this allegorical meditation on American culture is right in Fuller’s wheelhouse and well-tailored to his signature take on the fantasy-horror genre. But like his earlier work, this Starz series, which Fuller co-developed with Michael Green, is unequivocally the brainchild of a queer writer: Gaiman’s imaginative premise has made way for Fuller’s deliciously campy casting choices, playfully witty repartee, and emphasis on male beauty.

For fans of the Fullerverse—the imagined shared universe of Fuller’s television works—American Gods’ aesthetic is nothing new. Nor is the way it’s been anchored on metaphorical explorations of difference. Fuller’s shows use allegories to probe what it means to grow up knowing you’re not like those around you, and that “normal” is something you’ll never live up to. They’re queer narratives in the most literal sense of the word. Fuller’s metaphors have seldom been subtle: The first episode of Pushing Daisies has its protagonist—who learns as a boy that he can bring the dead back to life, with a catch—discover he “wasn’t like the other children.” Mockingbird Lane, Fuller’s pilot for a modern take on The Munsters, hinged on Eddie Munster coming out as a werewolf.

But more importantly, these works have been framed by a devilish queer sensibility that’s put form and style at the center of his oeuvre. To connect Fuller’s flair for style (he does love a dapper plaid suit and can rock a killer floral crown) with his own sexuality may seem like a curious and even contentious proposition. One can already hear the complaints: Not all gay men love fashion, melodrama, and bitchy divas. Yet, as the theorist David Halperin quips in his 2012 monograph on queer aesthetics, How to Be Gay, “a culture is not the same thing as a collection of individuals.” In many ways, pop culture today continues to prefer what Laurence Barber has aptly diagnosed as “incidental gayness”—the “just so happens to be gay” line that’s cheered as a sign of progress when it comes to on-screen LGBTQ visibility. Amid this media landscape, Fuller’s attention to non-sexual markers of queerness like fabulous fashion and an eye for interior design, gives his work a vibrancy that’s often lacking in shows that rightly and courageously push for gay content alone.

Given its penchant for slow-motion shots, fussy art direction, and love of color and patterns, Fuller’s work can often feel like an exercise in optics. But he’s pushed to the forefront the idea that a striking aesthetic need not be seen as superficial. This is nowhere more obvious than in Hannibal, Fuller’s refashioned take on Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. Where past iterations of the character hinted at his lavish lifestyle, Fuller’s take immerses viewers in Dr. Lecter’s (Mads Mikkelsen) fastidiously groomed world.

With his immaculately tailored suits, his impeccably coiffed hair, and unnerving poise, Mikkelsen’s Lecter is both terrifying and alluring. His taste (in clothes, in food, in decor) marks him as a modern-day dandy, though his imposing frame complicates the stereotypes of effeminacy that many have come to associate with such a label. The show around him, with its operatic score and gore, also prizes the aesthetic experience. In the hands of Fuller and Mikkelsen, Dr. Lecter is a rococo riff on the doomed Dorian Gray, his every move and meal a deadly seduction of those around him.

Where Anthony Hopkins and Silence of the Lambs had enshrined Dr. Lecter as a foil to the feminized Buffalo Bill (as queer a villain as you can get), Fuller’s take toys with Hannibal’s fluid sexuality. In a show that trafficked in culinary metaphors and fetishized any and all kinds of violent stabbings, Hannibal and Will (Hugh Dancy) teetered between wanting to consume and penetrate one another, something Mikkelsen and Dancy leaned into as the show went on.

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American Gods, which has a sprawling ensemble of characters that includes anthropomorphized versions of gods and goddesses from various mythologies, has also found ways of winking at its audience with its choice of performers. There’s the outspoken and dry-witted Cloris Leachman, known for her appearances in Mel Brooks films, most famously as Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, playing a flirtatious, vodka-swilling old Eastern European deity. There’s the sunny Chenoweth turning Easter into a pastel-wearing hostess all too happy to entertain every kind of Jesus on their special day. And then, of course, there’s Gillian Anderson.

Kristin Chenoweth as Easter in American Gods

Best known for her work as the skeptical FBI agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, Anderson gets a plum role as the new goddess Media, a character viewers only ever encounter in various disguises. When Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), the show’s everyman who doubles as the audience’s guide through this god-riddled world, first encounters Media while shopping, he sees her on various flat screen TVs as Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy. Anderson doesn’t impersonate Ball’s Lucy so much as she weaponizes her likeness to craft a performance that’s equal parts mimicry and irony.

Anderson’s Media joyously plays with the idea of diva worship, with its long history as an emblem of the queer community. On the page, Gaiman depended on readers to imagine Shadow talking to a sly version of Lucy Ricardo. On the screen, though, and with the decision to use Anderson as a canvas on which to map instantly recognizable icons, Fuller went a step further. In full Lucy garb, sporting her instantly recognizable red hairdo, the actress conjures up images of queer appropriation, where mainstream pop culture was repurposed for one’s own delight. There’s a cheekiness to her impersonations that borrows from drag culture even as their verisimilitude never quite veers into self-parody. It’s no coincidence that in addition to appearing as Lucy Ricardo, Media takes on Marilyn Monroe doing her famous subway grate scene in The Seven Year Itch, “Life on Mars”-era David Bowie, and even Judy Garland in full Easter Parade mode. These are all figures that embody notions about self-presentation that are central to queer culture; their images speak to those who know the strategic purpose of a shape-shifting persona.

Gillian Anderson as Media (here, Marilyn Monroe) in American Gods

But beyond picking queer icons with which to represent the Goddess of Media, Fuller has also suffused the world of American Gods with a gay aesthetic sensibility. Whether tracing the gorgeous penmanship of Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) as he jots down in ink the many stories the audience is being told about American gods, or showing the sexy seductions of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Goddess of Love, this is a show that delights in surfaces, be they embroidered costumes or glistening skin. The saturated look of the America presented here, where sunshine scorches and neon lights dominate nighttime scenes, helps defamiliarize the world Shadow finds himself navigating, but it also makes viewers aware of how instrumental color, texture, and light are to Fuller’s vision.

Accompanied by the kind of soaring score that the composer Brian Reitzell had already fine-tuned on Hannibal, American Gods has made a point of its ostentation throughout the season, forcing audiences to notice the perfectly distressed leather jacket Shadow wears and the synthetic fabrics that make up Technical Boy’s (Bruce Langley) wardrobe. In its most recent episode (co-written by Fuller, Green, and Seamus Kevin Fahey), Shadow and his mysterious employer Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) visit a small town in Virginia where the god Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) has set up shop. Long associated with fire and metalworking, Vulcan, we learn, has bound himself to guns. As if to show viewers what it is Americans now revere the most, the episode twice gives us sleek montages of how bullets are made that luxuriate in their sensual metallic sheen.

Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya in American Gods

American Gods also models a lustful gaze aimed at its male characters that feels quietly radical, and of a piece with other series that have queer showrunners. Like the Wachowski siblings’ Sense8 and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, American Gods takes genuine delight in ogling beautifully sculpted male bodies. Going even further than recent skin-bearing HBO shows like Westworld, Fuller seems intent on finally leveling the field when it comes to on-screen nudity in TV. This is a show unafraid to show a dick pic to advance its plot (indeed, almost every episode includes a shot of a penis) and eager to present what might be the most explicit gay sex scene in American television.

Salim (left) and The Jinn in American Gods

The hotel-room fling in Episode 3 between Salim (Omid Abtahi) and a fiery-eyed jinn, or genie (Mousa Kraish) is steamy yet shrouded in metaphor. After Salim realizes the cab he just hailed is being driven by a jinn whom he feels intensely attracted to, he invites him back to his hotel room. Shots of their naked bodies writhing together soon give way to dark desert landscapes where tumescent penises and flaming erotic energy make an R-rated tableau that’s as beautiful as it is sexy. This is a scene that breaks through what the film historian and LGBT activist Vito Russo once dubbed the “celluloid closet,” by giving viewers a frank look at two queer characters giving into their sexual urges.* And it breaks with how American television has tended to handle erotically charged queer representation: not just because of its explicit visuals, but for the way it marries them with the outré, radical aesthetic that characterizes the world Fuller has created.

Whether through the high masculinist drag of Hannibal or the campy verbal wit of Pushing Daisies, Fuller celebrates a panoply of queer identities beyond simply representing them. American Gods, in turn, speaks to those kids who loved Bowie, to those campy queens who revered Judy Garland, and even to those swishy interior decorators with a passion for opera. Throughout his career, Fuller hasn’t just given fans queer stories and characters, he’s made sure to give us plenty of queer style.

* This article originally attributed the "celluloid closet" concept to Larry Kramer. We regret the error.