Note: This article includes spoilers for American Gods, The Good Place, What Dreams May Come, and Soul.
In the American Gods episode “Head Full of Snow,” the god Anubis (played by Chris Obi) approaches a Muslim woman, Mrs. Fadil (portrayed by Jacqueline Antaramian), to take her to the afterlife. In their conversation, Anubis states that he has come because she grew up listening to (and perhaps believing in) her tita’s stories of Anubis and the Egyptian gods. In gratitude for this belief, he escorts her to the afterlife.
This vignette is meant to be a touching tribute to the power of storytelling and of revisiting the wonder of children (both very Neil Gaiman themes). However, I could only wonder: would the Hēibái Wúcháng come to escort me to the underworld, even though I only learned about them through the video game Detention? Would I find Niútóu and Mămiàn guarding the gate to the underworld, even though I was told no stories about them? Or would I go to a white American afterlife, since I grew up surrounded by stories of damnation and judgment? People have so many different intersecting identities that a single god of a single pantheon wouldn’t do. In worldbuilding your own fictional afterlife, be aware of how the rules of your storytelling may accidentally erase those identities. Your marginalized character may have a place in your living world, but in light of those marginalizations, ask yourself: where will you place them when they die?
The Mrs. Fadil and Anubis vignette plays a little with the concept of belief. Anubis does not discount nor address Mrs. Fadil’s Muslim faith yet uses his own terminology for the afterlife: he weighs her heart against a feather and refers to her destination as the Duat. Mrs. Fadil herself wonders, if she follows Anubis to the Duat, will she not end up with her tita? The vignette elides the issue of Mrs. Fadil’s faith in order to focus on the show’s premise: that the Old Gods still exist and have power in modern life.
Yet Anubis’s presence brings up questions. What of Mrs. Fadil’s Muslim faith? Does her faith not matter for final judgment to the afterlife? Would she not feel comfort with a Muslim guide in this transition? Do stories told to her as a child overwhelm a lifetime of faith? Mrs. Fadil lived and died in Queens, and the dialogue hints at her being an immigrant. Is she American? Anubis’s presence seems to suggest, in her weighed heart, she is not. Her interaction with the afterlife reduces her to a single identity: Egyptian. The rest of her life, her faith, her family’s immigration, and her attempts to build a life in America are flattened or ignored.
I don’t frame the Mrs. Fadil scene in this way lightly. White America often sees PoC cultures as stuck in the past, both in reality and in fiction. We are “mired in tradition,” “backward,” or “struggling with modernizing.” Sometimes this is spun in a “positive” light: “honoring their traditions,” “in touch with their history,” or “engaged in their culture” as if contemporary expressions of culture aren’t culture. In addition, these perceptions anchor immigrants as part of their sourcelands, but never American. (Just as the phrase “Go back to China” evokes the idea that Asian Americans are always invading from an elsewhere to return to.) These old ways are often framed as strange and uncomfortable, wild and uncivilized, and in this vignette, what is more uncomfortable, wild, and uncivilized than death? With a chthonic deity such as Anubis, the audience can associate both Anubis and Mrs. Fadil with the truth of death (no, sorry, people of color always seem to engage in wisdom). And the wisdom of the Mrs. Fadil scene is that in death she can finally return to where she truly belongs, away from Queens, away from America, away from the present and threatening modernity.
There is an irony in the Mrs. Fadil scene regarding Islam. Muslims are also constantly portrayed as “mired in tradition,” “backward,” and “exotic” in American media, with ominous music and that ubiquitous sickly pale yellow color filter. However, in the show, Islam (and to a lesser extent Christianity in the Easter scene) is seemingly unaligned in the Old vs New yet treated as New. The character of Salim (played by Omid Abtahi) is a devout Muslim, yet encounters no gods aligned with his religion. He instead falls in love with and pursues a jinn (portrayed by Mousa Kraish), presumably the pre-Islamic version of the myth. Salim, in this way, like Mrs. Fadil, only encounters the spiritual (read: the old ways) through the jinn; in dialogue, Salim even calls the jinn “his afterlife.” As the show progresses, Salim’s character more deeply explores the issue of modern faith yet he still only encounters Old Gods. This leaves the concept of being Muslim as not an objective fact, but subjective interpretation, unlike the actual, physical presence of the other Old Gods.
The afterlife of American Gods strictly divides along hard borders, aka Old vs New, American vs immigrant, America vs sourceland, putting characters firmly on one category or another. Even characters who straddle the line do so in conflict. Identity and belief are subtractive in the show; one cannot be of the New without sacrificing something Old. American Gods’ central theme is that in modernity (a specific American form of modernity), we have lost something vital. Yet by constantly framing this as conflict, it claims that characters such as Mrs. Fadil and Salim would get so much more out of existence if they returned to the old ways, anchoring them in amber.
The pilot of The Good Place, titled “Everything Is Fine,” introduces the character of Jianyu (portrayed by Manny Jacinto), a Taiwanese Buddhist monk following a vow of silence, along with the other principal characters waking up in heaven, the Good Place. I immediately felt something wrong with the premise. Why would a Taiwanese Buddhist find himself in a heaven called the Neighborhood, fashioned as a cozy European-styled small town? (Not to mention I was surprised an American prime-time TV show had a Taiwanese character.) Taiwan is a tropical island of hot, humid summers and plentiful warm rains. The island nation has dense rainforests dotted with tall downtown high-rises and houses winding up forested hills. Why would a Taiwanese monk feel the Neighborhood would be his heaven?
Of course, for those familiar with the show this premise gets upended; this heaven is in fact artificial and designed to lull its inhabitants into a false sense of security. This version of “Heaven” is actually Hell, and its bland, white veneer an alluring mediocrity to keep the inhabitants from realizing the truth. Even Jianyu himself turns out to be fake. He is actually Jason Mendoza, a failed Filipino DJ from Jacksonville, Florida, completely ignorant of Buddhism and Taiwan.
Still, for the premise to work, the audience of primarily American viewers has to be fooled also. Why wouldn’t a white American audience accept this faux heaven? The Neighborhood looks like any inoffensive tourist trap, like any cookie-cutter Pacific Coast seaside resort town. Everyone gets a heteronormative soulmate pairing (barring the jokes that Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor may be bisexual). The food is very white American-centric resort town: clam chowder, frozen yogurt, scones, cakes, and the like. Jason even receives Jianyu’s “favorite” food, a single block of semi-soft dofu, regardless of how Buddhist vegetarian foods have a wide variety of flavors and types of vegetables, mushrooms, roots, dofu, and so on. While the double joke is that Jason is a hot-wings type of guy and that he is being tortured by Hellish forces, it does rely on the American perception of dofu as bland, flavorless, and unappealing for the joke to land.
Religion also gets the bland, flavorless treatment in the Good Place. Neighborhood architect Michael, played by Ted Danson, claims every religion only gets about 5 percent right regarding the afterlife. This is meant as a kind of religious egalitarianism, not giving one belief system any more validity than another: a very safe, liberal, agnostic American stance. Yet what does it mean to be faced with an afterlife that claims 95 percent of your religion doesn’t matter? Even having Jason/Jianyu there as “Buddhist” suggests that people can still cling to religious belief. But the Neighborhood has no religious signifiers, nothing Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Daoist, Buddhist, Sikh, etc. Once Jason discards his Buddhist disguise, any mention of Earth’s religions also gets discarded. (Jason’s disguise is literally a religious costume in the world of The Good Place. In the last season, Jason continues his disguise as a Buddhist monk even though he has no real reason to.) Of course religion is just a costume in this afterlife. The show has proven religion to be useless in the understanding of universe. The 5 percent claim makes all religions interchangeably the same, flattening them into a monolithic, irrelevant mass. Why would any character in the show be attached to their religious beliefs anymore?
While the Neighborhood was designed as a spiritual trap, it does offer a lens toward how creating a uniform, supposedly egalitarian heaven can lead to worldbuilding pitfalls. To make a heaven that satisfies every single person, a creator may be tempted to create a happy medium, but a medium biased toward the creator’s concept of a medium. Is it a warm tropical place full of life, banyan trees drooping their branches and roots into everything, or is it a temperate American tourist trap? Is it an irreligious, liberal paradise or one that fully embraces religion as the cultural, philosophical, psychological, and social influence that it is? In heaven, it seems, the colors, flavors, and nuances of your life can get flattened into a bland, flavorless American version of dofu.
The movie What Dreams May Come utilizes surrealistic visuals to present a different kind of heaven, one molded by the viewer, the dead participant. Robin Williams’s character, Chris, wanders through painted landscapes representing his attachment to his wife, a painter. Here we get a heaven of the literal imagination, and the movie explains that Heaven and Hell are places constructed out of our own minds and experiences. If you fell into despair in life, your afterlife is one of despair, like that of Chris’s wife Annie, portrayed by Annabella Sciorra. Her afterlife comes in dark colors, deep purples, blues, and blacks, depicting a melting tree, reflecting the time when she destroyed one of her paintings of a similar image. If you loved fiercely in life, as Chris did, however, your afterlife consists of bright imagery, beaming golden sunlight, and vibrant colors.
(Those of us with chronic depression, I suppose, are doomed in this afterlife.)
In extending this metaphor, and to provide plot twists, the movie also claims you can literally change yourself, your “body” in the afterlife. Though Chris and Annie look as they did in life, the other people he encounters “choose” a body they feel best represents themselves. He first encounters this when he wanders into “another” heaven, one of canals, flowers, a white stucco city on a hill, and angels. A guide, portrayed by Rosalind Chao, an Asian woman, explains how this heaven works, but in the conversation, Chris learns that the woman is actually his daughter, Leona, who was white in life. This is Leona’s heaven, pulled from a large diorama-like display from her childhood bedroom. And she chose the form of an Asian woman because she watched her dad compliment an Asian flight attendant once.
This body swapping continues throughout the movie. Chris’s other guide, Albert, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., takes on the form of Chris’s mentor and friend, a Black man, in order to provide a reassuring presence. But in a third act reveal, Chris learns that this Albert-guide is actually his son, Ian, who was white in life. (Chris even finds the real Albert-mentor in the afterlife in the form of a white man played by Max von Sydow, who doesn’t imagine himself as Black in the afterlife but habitually wears glasses despite saying his body doesn’t need sight assistance.) In other words, skin color has no intrinsic meaning in this afterlife, is only of concern to the living, and can be swapped around, like a pair of glasses.
While the movie could be excused of having the political naiveté of the 1990s, this interchangeability of skin, of physical markers of identity, skin color as costume, mirrors how some people have co-opted marginalized identities now, like Rachel Dolezal and C. B. Cebulski. Skin color and identity is merely a label or badge to be worn, a commodity to be taken on, like clothes signifying class and background. Leona’s costuming comes from a view of exotification. Ian’s costuming occurs to give comfort to Chris. Albert’s costuming has no explored explanation, but implies that people of color wish to be white. This afterlife evidently allows people to “overcome” what are seen as limitations, and white people can finally achieve the dream of being a person of color (but without the baggage of being marginalized) and a person of color can achieve the dream of being white.
And it isn’t simply that the skin of people of color in this kind of heaven is akin to a costume. It is the idea that being a person of color is something limiting, that once we can overcome our own skin, we are free to be who we really want to be. Even Roger Ebert framed this as such in his review, stating “that its inhabitants assume identities that please themselves, or us; that having been bound within one identity during life, we are set free.” One can only wonder how different this depiction of heaven could be with not only a PoC protagonist but also a PoC director, people who don’t see their skin color as something to be freed from.
As an Asian American, I can also only wonder if Leona learned anything wearing the skin of an Asian woman. Did she realize that her father’s compliment was really a microaggression by describing all Asian women as “lovely, graceful, and intelligent”? (Did Leona realize that taking on the form of a woman her father was checking out implies something rather problematic?) What does it mean for a white girl to take on Asianness because she perceived this microaggression favorably? Again, it seems to imply that if only people of color didn’t take their own skin color so personally, and had the detached perspective of a white person, we’d be so much happier.
When people die in Pixar’s Soul, they become blue-green, vaguely human shapes. They retain something about their facial features while alive as well as height and size. So while the main character Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, retains some of his facial features, his skin color becomes that translucent blue-green. (Incidentally, none of the dead have noses either, as if a nose is the symbol for corporeality, and Joe’s nose is perhaps his largest facial feature on his living body.) This means that some aspects of a person’s identity do remain when dead while other things are discarded. Later in the film, Joe encounters the Great Before, a land filled with “new” souls ready to be born on Earth. These new souls are blue-green teardrop-shaped blobs, the same translucent blue-green as those who have died. These new souls have no ethnicity, no identity (except for predetermined personality traits), and so this blue-green skin color represents this lack of ethnicity. So what does it mean when a dead soul attains this same blue-green skin color? While the movie doesn’t explicitly state this, Joe’s soul returning to blue-green signifies becoming “pure” and “unblemished,” untouched by ethnicity, and that skin color no longer (literally) colors his existence.
This purity is exemplified in another scene where Joe encounters “The Zone.” In this place, people who have become engrossed in their activity, be it art, music, or just vibing, “ascend” into this space, projected as the same blue-green human shape pantomiming the activity. When human beings can truly enjoy themselves, they are no longer bothered by their corporeal form, untouched by base things such as a body with all of the issues that come with it such as skin color.
Color-as-costume again surfaces in the movie with a “pure,” unborn soul named 22 who accidentally falls into Joe’s body. Soul 22 is voiced by Tina Fey and even admits she picked the voice of a white woman to be extra annoying, so she comes across as white. To help audiences keep track of who is in whose body, 22-in-Joe’s-body speaks with her voice but through his mouth, adding more to the feeling of bodies as costume. She fumbles through Joe’s life, not even masking her cadences or way of speaking, inadvertently living Joe’s life better than he does. If only Joe wasn’t weighed down with his Blackness, the movie seems to say, he would get so much more out of it.
Yet skin color does mean something in this spiritual realm. Hinted throughout the movie are the lost souls; they’re the living who have become consumed by an obsession, losing the joy or love of life, the spiritual opposite of “The Zone.” When this happens, the blue-green of these souls turns dark gray and black. Contrast this to the actual afterlife, the Great Beyond, with souls turning into bright white spheres and joining a giant mass of stars, a globular cluster of pure, white lights. Not much is revealed if a person dies as a lost soul; perhaps they gain peace in the Great Beyond as a ball of white light. The closest to Hell in this spiritual realm is a space of lost souls of black and gray muttering about the joyless activities of their living bodies. And so, skin color in this spiritual realm reflects a damnation of your own making. (Again, depressives and now obsessives are doomed in this scenario.)
Namwali Serpell’s article already touched upon the troubling intersection of the Black experience with the production of the movie. In line with skin-color-as-costume, she mentions in the article, “It’s telling that, in most race-transformation tales, the ideal is presented as a white soul in a black body.” It has been rumored that adding a Black protagonist occurred late in the production of this movie, so the question must be asked if the movie’s spiritual realm was worldbuilt (with the assumption of a homogenous prelife and afterlife) before having a Black protagonist. Serpell also asks in the article, “What would a Great Beyond and a Great Before informed by black culture look like? Would greenish white be the right color for new souls? Would pitch-black be the right color for lost ones?”
With What Dreams May Come and Soul, in the afterlife, identity, background, heritage, and culture limit people. If only we all could swap out skin and color, if only we all spoke the same language (English in both movies’ afterlives), if only we could discard our experiences and just “be happy” to not be obsessed or concerned with “negative” emotions, we could achieve Heaven. In light of the mental health issues, the anxiety and depression that marginalized people suffer due to their marginalizations, Heaven seems farther and farther from reach.
Crafting a fictional afterlife requires the same depth of care as crafting any fantasy or science fiction world. Your choices make an objective statement of the themes of your world, perhaps more so than in your typical worldbuilding. The Mrs. Fadil scene narrowly focuses on her relationship with Anubis, forgoing other aspects of her identity and existence. The scene could have ruminated on the American experience through the eyes of an immigrant, Muslim grandmother, living in the present day. Instead, it focuses on a (perhaps tenuous) attachment to the old ways, placing her as not-American, not-modern, and not-Muslim. (Salim, in contrast, does get a more nuanced treatment as he navigates the line between the Old and the New.) Still, the danger lies in turning identities into hard, delineated borders, shuffling a person into a specific box regardless (or because) of religion, politics, her home, immigration status, and the lands she lived on.
A supposed egalitarian afterlife like in The Good Place and Soul can also accidentally erase those identities, by ignoring them completely. In The Good Place, people “transcend” identities such as religion, since the afterlife essentially proves your religion wrong. Religion then becomes a kind of costume, as when Jason masqueraded as Jianyu. The afterlife also ignores identities by placing the Neighborhood in a cookie-cutter European-looking tourist trap, making the assumption that this land represents everyone’s ideal. (Again, The Good Place’s inversion still proves the blanding of identities is the point.)
Soul’s egalitarian afterlife has the dead turn blue-green, literally erasing skin color. Color metaphors still exist in this afterlife (and before-life), with souls turning pure white as they enter the Great Beyond and turning dark black when lost. And the movie utilizes identity-as-costume with a white woman’s soul falling into the body of a Black man. Soul’s attempt to make an every-heaven, one inoffensive to any identity, literally turns everyone into the same.
The personal heaven of What Dreams May Come has its own pitfalls. In creating an afterlife where an individual can change their bodies, one can accidentally create a fiction that implicitly or explicitly considers identities as limitations as opposed to definitions. Suddenly, skin becomes a costume again, identity as casual wear, without the actual lived experiences of that identity (not to mention the potential for transphobia and ableism).
Identity is a many-faceted, many-tangled thing, all important in different ways. A fictional afterlife should reflect such a many-faceted, many-tangled thing. The temptation is to make a fictional afterlife be simpler, either to reflect an internal consistency or to make a statement about simplicity equating to elegance (since mortality seems so complicated). Yet simplification requires sacrificing some aspects of mortal life in your worldbuilding, with all the erasure that it entails. In the end, the question your worldbuilding has to ask, taking into account all of the different aspects of the human condition is, “Where will you place us when we are dead?”