From The L Word to Pose, there are now more representations of LGBTQ+ characters in television than ever before. In 2019 alone,  10.2% of television characters were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer with 30 new recurring LGBTQ characters.[1] But what sorts of stories are being told about these individuals? Do they have a personality and interests outside their sexuality? Are they repeating the ever popular “coming out” narrative? Who is represented? Is it just cis white men or are there people of color, varrient gender identities, and other representations that fall through the cracks? And importantly, what sorts of lives are they leading? Do they experience healthy, supportive relationships? Do they have happy endings? Beyond that, how do representations influence our utopian dreaming? What lessons and values do we take away, and what criteria do we judge that information with? When asking if a show is queer or not, it is important to outline the criteria by which we are defining it. The Good Place isn’t just queer for its representation of individuals, but rather how closely it aligns with queer theory and queer experiences and ways of being in the world.  On this site, I use Jack Halberstam as the primary theoretician to evaluate the series and point out the ways in which The Good Place embraces queer experiences and values and what we can learn from them.

Now, this might all sound very confusing or counter-intuitive but just stick with me.  I know learning the theory behind this project isn’t as fun as watching TV clips, but hey, at least I’m not trying to teach you moral philosophy, right?

Anyway, the theories I will be using primarily come from The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), both by Jack (Judith) Halberstam.

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam defines a new genre of film called Pixarvolt which uses CGI animation to pit “two groups against each other in settings that closely resemble what used to be called ‘class struggle,’ and…offer numerous scenarios of revolt and alternatives to the grim, mechanical, industrial cycles of production and consumption.”[2]  The Good Place, although not an animated children’s film, uses a similar mode of revolt against the Bad Place throughout the show.  As Halberstam explains,

“the Pixarvolt films often proceed by way of fairly conventional narratives about individual struggle against the automated process of innovation, and they often pit an individual, independent, and original character against the conformist sensibilities of the masses.  But this summary is somewhat misleading, because more often than not the individual character actually serves as a gateway to intricate stories of collective action, anticapitalistic critique, group bonding, and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment, and responsibility.  Often the animal or creatures that stands apart from the community is not a heroic individual, but a symbol of selfishness who must be taught how to think collectively.”[3]

The Good Place is the innovation in the show—a new, more effective method to torture humans.  The four humans struggle individually as they are tortured by the devils and by each other. The main character in season one, Eleanor Shellstrop, is the non-conformist since she believes she is the only one who doesn’t belong in the Good Place, therefore pitting her against the masses.  However, Eleanor also “serves as a gateway to intricate stories of collective action” when she asks Chidi for help and invites others to join their ethics study group.[4] The Bad Place (or the experiment of “the Good Place”) is a metaphor for capitalism where the goal is to create the most tortured human beings while the devils have the most fun, or in capitalist terms “maximize utility” for the devils. By trying to escape the Bad Place, the four humans plus Michael and Janet are trying to escape capitalism for the utopia of the true “Good Place.”  The group bonds over their shared circumstances of struggle and resistance, especially in season two when Michael explains he has been torturing humans for over 1000 years but needs their help in order not to be “retired,” or killed. They could choose not to help him, but instead, do so hoping that they will make it to the real Good Place in return. The characters then imagine a new space together where they can live their best lives as the best versions of themselves—essentially a queer socialist utopia.

The selfish individual that stands apart is Eleanor.  While portrayed as the main heroine, she is also constantly causing hardship for the rest of the group through her individualism and narcissism.

Okay, so that kinda covers the basics with The Queer Art of Failure, what’s next?

Well, let’s get into an explanation of time and space of course!

Let’s look at some of Halberstam’s definitions:

Queer: “Nonnormative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in space and time”[5]

Postmodernism: “In relation to new forms of cultural production that emerge both in sync with and running counter to what Jameson has called the ‘logic’ of late capitalism.  Simultaneously a crisis and an opportunity – a crisis in the stability of form and meaning, and an opportunity to rethink the practice of cultural production, its hierarchies and power dynamics, its tendency to resist or capitulate.” [6]

Queer Time: “Specific models of temporality that emerge within postmodernism once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” [7]

Queer Space: “Place-making practices within postmodernism in which queer people engage and it also describes the new understandings of space enabled by the production of queer counterpublics” [8]

Okay, so what do those actually mean?

Queer: Halberstam is referring to alternative and nonheteronormative/respectable creations of family (often without marriage, children, or blood relations), identity, and uses of time and space.

Postmodernism: According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Postmodernism is “a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” [9]  They go on to explain that the theory rejects the idea that “There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism. Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language.” [10]  When used in queer theory, Postmodernism can be used to explain that white, bourgeoisie, cisgender, heteronormative culture is not, in fact, natural, but rather a construction designed to help maintain class differences and social hierarchies.

Queer Time: Queer time is a disruption of what some consider the “reality” of time for alternative modes.  For example, time can take on a different meaning and feeling when on drugs. But not only is the experience when on drugs different, the respectability of and value for “adulthood” and longevity are brought into question.  This disrupts bourgeoisie expectation of and desire for a theoretical endless future.

Queer Space: This too challenges respectability.  For example, Halberstam talks about triple X theaters in downtown New York City.  By abandoning the concept of public versus private by creating a place for public sex, a queer place is created with cross-class interactions.  Other examples of queer placemaking include kiss-ins held at malls with queer couples which challenge again the assumed heteronormativity of a location and the idea of public/private and respectability.

So what do these concepts have to do with The Good Place?  Because it takes place in the afterlife, many of the concerns of hetero time don’t exist and the characters inhabit queer time.  There is no future or longevity or the possibility of children.  In addition, the humans are constantly getting their memories erased and starting again.  Because of this, they have no future or past because they are continually reliving the same time.  Instead, their present becomes their reality as they try over and over again to improve themselves.  Within this pattern, a cyclical time frame emerges rather than linear, or in the spirit of the show a “jeremy bearimy” timeline, where things loop around, cross over, and repeat.

A more concrete example is Eleanor and Chidi being rebooted.  In doing so, they disrupt cause and effect temporality.  They stop the accumulation of the past into the present by restarting and offering a radical reimagining of the future.  This is because every time they are rebooted, they are freed from traumas and relationships of the past.  What this allows is multiple different timelines in which they can recreate their relationship in different ways.  For instance, in some of the reboots they fall in love, but in others, they are friends, or even just teacher and student.  In season 2, when Eleanor discovers that in a previous reboot they were in love, she jokes around that perhaps they should be rebooted so that she can forget about it since Chidi does not love her in this reboot.  In fact, at the end of season 3, Chidi is rebooted on his own so that he can interact with his ex-girlfriend without their relationship interfering with the present.  Therefore, cause and effect is replaced with an endless opportunity for reinvention and exploration.

One problem with the reboots is that they don’t allow the humans (or Janet) to learn from the past.  This is a problem in queer culture as well, due to erasure of queer history and the very real loss of an entire generation of elders due to the AIDS crisis.  Because of this, new generations of queer individuals cannot learn from the mistakes of previous generations.  In the context of the show, the humans repeatedly make the same mistakes and have to figure out again and again that they are actually in the bad place, making their journey to the actual good place difficult.

Ultimately, though, having multiple timelines (or another way to see it is chances) allows the characters to explore themselves more fully and broadly, giving way to a fluidity that is not often seen in television.  This includes sexual fluidity.  For example in one scene, Chidi is allowed to practice different ways of breaking up with Simone.  While this clip cut those parts out, what it does show the timeline which gives Simone a chance to express her attraction to Eleanor in a way she wouldn’t in a heteronormative timeline (where the ultimate goal is coupling, monogamy, and childbearing).

Okay, so what about queer space?  Well, the great thing about “the good place” is that is inherently queer due to the potential for unlimited exploration.  This includes “cross-class interactions” such as Tahani and Jason.  In season 2, Tahani and Jason start a relationship, challenging respectability (at least Tahani’s idea of respectability) because of their different experiences in life.  This relationship only becomes possible in the restructuring of time to become queer and without future.  As Tahani explains, “I wouldn’t shag Jason if he were the last man on earth.  But, well, he sort of is.  And I am.”  She struggles with this, unwilling to talk about their relationship with her friends until she realizes the negative effects her elitism causes for Jason.

While there are still so many things I could talk about in The Good Place, I would like to wrap up with a discussion of Janet.  While gender politics are brought up occasionally (remember this:)

Janet is the person who most complicates the concept of gender at a fundamental level.  Part of the fun of Janet is that, while she looks like a wommon, in fact, she is “a vessel containing all of the knowledge in the universe.”  As she constantly reiterates:

This is very similar to the concept of gender fluidity.  People are constantly misunderstanding what and who she is because they think in binary terms (human/robot, man/wommon, dead/alive).  What is even more beautiful about her (or should I say “their?”) character is that she is allowed to evolve into something that experiences emotion, attraction, and the desire to be loved and love in return.

Okay, are you still with me?  If so,

I think the most important thing to take from this is that The Good Place creates space for exploration, fluidity, and just “being” in a uniquely queer way which has thus far been unexplored in television.  It encourages all of us to think creatively about what we consider reality, and suggests that self-improvement and utopia can only be achieved by collective action and acceptance.  I truly believe that The Good Place demonstrates how to queerly approach problems, relationships, and identities while normalizing queerness and sexual fluidity.  This queer representation is more than just refreshing and normalizing, it is a path towards a queer socialist revolution with community building and support at its core.  I can’t wait to see where it leads us.

Anyway, I know this was a long crash course, but hopefully, you come out of it feeling like this:

[1] Glaad, Where We Are on TV Report – 2019 https://www.glaad.org/whereweareontv19

[2] Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 29.

[3] Halberstam, 43-44.

[4] Halberstam, 43-44.

[5] Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. 6.

[6] Halberstam, 6.

[7] Halberstam, 6.

[8] Halberstam, 6.

[9] Duignan, Brian. “Postmodernism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. October 25, 2018. Accessed May 01, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy.

[10] Duignan