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Sex in the Good Omensverse

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This is not really a fully worked out reading, mainly just a bunch of observations about the status of sex–not gender, not sexual orientation, but sex the physical activity–in Good Omens. With special reference to the Witchfinder Army. Spoilers for both the novel and the series.

So. Observation #1:

* Crowley is utterly uninterested in sex with humans.

This is somewhat unusual. Because Christianity has for much of its history and in many of its forms been extremely sex-negative, sex is pretty closely associated with evil in that context, and there’s a long tradition in high and low culture of demons and other supernatural evil creatures sexually interfering with humans in one way or another. In contemporary popular culture, Satan is often portrayed as irresistible to women; and though this never fails to set off the fundamentalists, in a way it merely confirms the staying power of their own conviction that sex is a thing of the nightworld and belongs to its diabolical creatures. (Of course that also goes back to Milton and his portrayal of Lucifer as the best and the brightest before the Fall, but I digress.) 

Whether we’re talking about the book or the TV show, Crowley has zero interest in any of that. He seems interested in *being sexy* (I’m using male pronouns for Crowley because the book does); but that may just be an example of Crowley adapting himself to human circumstances. Nearly all the other demons, even when manifesting on earth, are the opposite of sexy. At any rate, we are given no reason to believe that Crowley has ever inveigled any human of any gender into that sterile hypermodern flat. He seems more interested in terrorizing his houseplants.

But it’s not just that Crowley doesn’t personally care for sex with humans. What sets him apart from Hastur in particular is that for Crowley sex, per se, just has nothing to do with evil. Hastur’s Deed of the Day is tempting a priest into breaking his vows of celibacy by getting him to “notice the pretty girls.” That’s his idea of a productive day on the job. Everything we hear, either from Crowley or the narrator, about Crowley’s Deeds has to do with making modern life a little bit more hellish for the poor slobs trapped in it: crashing the mobile phone network, designing the M25, etc. As someone else argued in some post I now can’t remember (the one about how contrary to popular opinion, Crowley is actually great at his job), his objective is always to aggravate and irritate people so that they will be less kind and more cruel. It’s utterly irrelevant to him how much sex people are having; he’s focused on how people are treating each other. Maybe this is why Hastur loved the 14th century and Crowley hated it: the 20th (or 21st) century really gives Crowley scope to do this kind of work on a grand scale, whereas in the 14th there was a lot more focus Downstairs on tempting priests and distracting knights and whatnot. Come to think of it, that may also be why (in the novel) Crowley is supposed to have slept through most of the 19th century.

Observation #2: Aziraphale may or may not be interested in sex with humans.

With Aziraphale, again because of Christianity’s history of sex-negativity, you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to be into sex, although contemporary angelology doesn’t rule that out. (In Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, for instance, angels are basically made out of the joy God felt in creation; they are a kind of embodied ecstasy, and even casual contact with an angel can give a human an out-of-this-world orgasmic experience.) But given Aziraphale’s obvious enjoyment of other corporeal pleasures (mainly food and drink, but his bookshop is also anachronistically sensory; it’s a little cave full of soft lights, comfy chairs, beautiful music, and the smell of crumbly paper edges and gently deteriorating leather bindings), it’s reasonable to wonder whether he might be curious about this ‘sex’ he keeps reading about. In the novel, this wondering is encouraged but also deflected by the narration, which informs us that Aziraphale impresses human observers as “gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide,” but that they are wrong about this, since angels don’t have gender and therefore can’t be gay (replace “gayer” with “queerer” and they would be right on the money). In the TV adaptation, I would argue, Aziraphale pretty much does present to the viewers as gay. TV Aziraphale’s gender presentation–his self-presentation in general–is consistently male (whereas Crowley sometimes presents as female, or mixes up feminine and masculine pieces, even when not being Nanny) but also consistently not in step with whatever humans of his time and place would consider Straight Masculinity (that’s Gabriel’s bag). So I leave open, in his case, the possibility that he might have gotten it on with one or two of his gavotte buddies, though I very much also want to leave open the possibility that Aziraphale experiences all the corporeal ecstasy he can handle just from doing the gavotte.

This, of course, has no necessary or obvious bearing on the question of whether Aziraphale and Crowley have sex with each other. I have no position on that. I would go only so far as to say that if they do have sex, it seems to me like the attraction is probably predicated on their both being angels (one former) and that angel sex is probably very different from human sex.

Observation #3: Sex is very important to the human men in this novel, in ways which range from mildly annoying to seriously fucked up. 

Before I had read the book or watched the show, I saw people expressing disappointment with the fact that neither of the heterosexual relationships were updated. Now I see why. But I also see why it would have been difficult to update them, because both arise out of something that is structurally foundational to the novel: a satirical attack on exactly the kind of sex-negativity that I was talking about up there under observation #1.

Because that’s really what the whole “witchfinder” thing is. Shadwell is the spiritual descendant of Puritanism, which considered most forms of corporeal pleasure, including this one, to be Of The Devil. That’s why Shadwell’s ancestor is named Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulcifer. Sex-negativity is one of the foundational pillars of misogyny; from a Puritan point of view, it’s women who create lust in men, thereby damning them for eternity. Witchfinding is that misogyny mobilized, as women who are considered to be literally or spiritually dangerous to men are singled out, persecuted, tortured, and killed by men who claim to be doing God’s work. Agnes Nutter can’t escape this misogyny but she is able to weaponize it; not only does she blow up Adultery Pulcifer, but through her prophecies, Agnes eventually destroys the whole Witchfinder Army. As individuals, Shadwell and Newt get happy endings (undeserved though they may appear). But from Agnes Nutter (and perhaps Pratchett and/or Gaiman’s) point of view, what really matters is that now that each of them has found their witch, they will stop looking for others. Adultery Pulcifer, if he’s looking on from the afterlife, would understand that in pairing up Shadwell with Madame Tracy and Newt with Anathema, Agnes Nutter has utterly defeated his quest to save men of God from the wiles of women. There won’t be any more witchfinders, and there won’t be any more witch-burnings.

This all seems very laudable; who doesn’t love a good old frontal assault on the Church’s sexual hypocrisy? Shadwell’s whole character is built on that hypocrisy. His fulminations about Jezebels and Whores of Babylon are just a screen masking his own fascination with them. Madame Tracy is constantly disappointing Shadwell’s misogynist fantasies; in her interactions with him, she’s very mild-mannered, caring for him in very 50s-housewife ways while ignoring his hellfire and brimstone fulminations. What makes Shadwell funny–or at least what was meant to make Shadwell funny–is that his Puritanism is so absurdly anachronistic. The deterioration of the Witchfinder Army–the fact that the last of its officers is just barely staving off poverty by scamming an angel and a demon into paying his phantom operatives–is supposed to reassure us that Shadwell’s misogyny can no longer command the femicidal power that it did in Agnes Nutter’s day. This man is so hapless, so out of step, so utterly mistaken about everything, that we can’t be afraid of him; and the novel, at least, expects us to feel real affection for him, and does its best to redeem him. In the novel, the reason given for Newt’s staying in the army is that he is genuinely attached to Shadwell’s belief in this ridiculous battle and its ridiculous tactics. The novel has a lot of sympathy for Shadwell’s desire to believe in the fantastic and the magical, and is frankly envious of his collection of historical documents. He just needs to direct those desires toward something more productive.

So here’s one problem with that, for modern readers: we know that, in fact, this brand of misogyny is still alive and still, at its extremes, femicidal. The Puritan take on women is essentially the incel take on women, the only difference being that Puritans hated women for both inciting and gratifying male sexual desire (and thus damning the desiring man to hell), whereas incels hate women for inciting and then frustrating male desire (and thus damning them to celibacy). The witch hunts continue, with the difference that women no longer have to be accused of having special powers to be targeted for extermination. It’s enough, now, that they’re women. Pratchett and Gaiman simply failed to grasp something that I see a lot of cultural commentators failing to grasp now vis a vis our current president. Just because something’s stupid, mockable, and easily exposed as absurd, that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous; and just because a vicious and bigoted ideology is currently being kept down, that doesn’t mean it won’t rise again.

Another problem is that the Witchfinder arc actually seems to endorse the Puritan idea that the best way to defeat a Witchfinder is to get him laid. It’s an ironic endorsement–we are, of course, supposed to be glad to see both Witchfinders ‘defeated’ through their incorporation into the mundane world–but it’s still a problem for the human women of Good Omens. The price of defeating the Witchfinder Army is that each has to be saddled with a male partner that she probably wouldn’t have freely chosen. Newt’s getting together with Anathema extricates him from the Witchfinder Army, and therefore stops him from being recruited into Puritan misogyny the way today’s generation of young misfits is being recruited via Reddit et al. into its contemporary descendents. It also enables Anathema to extricate herself from the Nutter legacy. But it does not allow her to extricate herself from Newt. Shadwell is ultimately vanquished by Madame Tracy’s determined if somewhat inexplicable attempts to nurture him, and is rewarded with her hand in marriage. 

Again, these problems were not the result of bad authorial intentions.  The Witchfinder arc is the product of good intentions–let’s drag the Church for its misogyny and hatred of sex!–combined with a limited understanding of the problem they were tackling, and a rather naive belief in the power of sex to heal the male psyche. Beneath the satire I think you can see, in the way the novel handles its human characters, genuine conflict–perhaps internal, perhaps interpersonal–about what sex is and what it can or can’t do. 

So…Aziraphale and Crowley’s Thing That They Have plays out in the context of, but most of the time not really interacting with, this uneven and conflicted representation of heterosexuality. Don’t know exactly what that means, but I figure it must mean something.