Bisexuality in NBC's The Good Place

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Total disclosure: This essay includes spoilers for The Good Place up to the end of Season 2. If you haven’t seen that far ahead, then please don’t shout at me or say I didn’t warn you. We cool? Cool.


Now, I’m not here to argue the high art credentials of the NBC/ Netflix series. It’s a sitcom. Every twenty minute episode is crafted by people who know how to do their jobs—and they do them very well. When the outside world is burning like an out of control dumpster fire, it does one of the things that well-crafted tv shows can do—it provides a vital escape.

Except for one thing.

As the first two seasons rolled on, the itching turned into quiet alarm bells that almost every queer person is familiar with. It’s that thing where something that you enjoy, very very much, is about to be taken away from you because someone is going to do something crappy.

I’m talking about queer baiting.

The “will-they-won’t-they” of rom-coms has, in the sitcom age, turned into a kind of edgy attempt to trick people into thinking that maybe, just maybe, one of them might be a [*stage whisper*] queer.

And it’s not okay. In the year of our Lord 2018, we are hitting a time and place where it’s not ‘cool’ to suggest that maybe, just possibly, one of your characters isn’t a Kinsey 0. Back in 2015, a study found that 31% of young people did not identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual, and the GLAAD Where We Are On TV report for 2017 found that there was a record-breaking increase in LGBTQ characters on TV. The percentage of queer people on television? 6.4%.

6.4%

Which is why I was so upset with The Good Place. They portrayed a world of 802 different permutations, and in every single one of them, all of the characters are straighter than straight? After all, Michael Shur is one of people who brought us Brooklyn 99’s proud bisexual, Rosa Diaz. Surely they had to know better.

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Yet every time Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, looked at Tahani Al Jamil (Jameela Jamil), she couldn’t help but comment on her attractiveness. And every time a little piece of me died.

Until the final episode of Season 1:

Eleanor: You saw us all on Earth: a selfish ass, an idiot DJ, a tortured academic, a hot rich fraud with legs for days - side note, I might legit be into Tahani.
— Michael’s Gambit, S01E13

My heart actually skipped a beat.

There was no lingering tension, no heart-wrenching self-loathing or come to Jesus moments. Just a casual acceptance of oh, wow. And then the moment passed as an aside, because there were more urgent things to focus on (like avoiding eternal damnation).  This wasn’t just a gag, but was actually an integral part of character development, and that’s important.

It was, almost, perfect.

I say almost because these days, bisexual representation seems to be something people are trying to show on television without ever saying the word. It’s starting to feel like bisexuality has become the Voldemort of sexual orientations where, if you say the word on screen, suddenly Terrible Things Will Happen.

Which means that, to be honest, my standards for bi representation on television are low these days, and I was willing to take that as being enough. When little else was mentioned, but the jokes continued, it just seemed to be something we’d have to infer, rather than enjoy outright.

Bisexual erasure is a different kind of tactic to homophobia. It’s insidious, and exists both within the heterosexual and queer worlds.

So last week, while the outside world took a turn for the even more terrible, William Jackson Harper, who plays Chidi, told the Metro UK that Eleanor isn’t just bisexual, but that she’s  “super bisexual”.

There’s a million different possibilities and one of the things I think the show does well, and really kind of into, is the fact that Eleanor is super bisexual and it’s not something that we just focus on. ‘It’s not the reason for the show and it’s not a thing that is harped on, it’s just who she is. I think that’s great to not just completely focus on one aspect of a person’s character because it seems to be the most buzz worthy thing in the show, or potentially buzz worthy thing on the show.

Now there’s a lot to unpack here, and not least the fact that William Jackson Harper may not quite know the way to talk about how non-heterosexuality is portrayed, but in a way, that makes it even more satisfying. Harper, portraying a character not involved immediately with the pairing, feels comfortable saying that Eleanor is bisexual. From which there has been no scrambling, no Bert-and-Ernie fallout. (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/sep/18/sesame-street-bert-and-ernie-remain-puppets-and-do-not-have-a-sexual-orientation), no erasing.

Why does this matter so much to me?

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Bisexual erasure is a different kind of tactic to homophobia. It’s insidious, and exists both within the heterosexual and queer worlds. To outside observers it seems to be solely driven by desire, and the myths of the “greedy” bisexual are old, tired, and clichéd and yet still, in some circles, alive and well.

And while I would have absolutely no objection to watching Eleanor and Tahani enter a relationship (don’t go looking for my AO3 account), I also know that it doesn’t matter at all. Because the bisexual cat is firmly out of the bag now, and my super-bisexual soul is singing.

Even if Eleanor and Tahani never have a relationship on the show—even if Eleanor never has a relationship with anyone other than a cisgender man—she is going to continue to be a bisexual onscreen because that’s how bisexuality works.

Bisexual people are bisexual. Whether they are in relationships or not, and however those relationships play out, a bisexual person will continue to be bisexual for as long as they exist. Acknowledging that is powerful, and for a year which has given us aggressively little, it’s nice to know that I still get to have my own Good Place.



CJ Atkinson is a queer poet and essayist who lives in London with their French bulldog, Tiggy.