feature image via NBC
This piece contains spoilers for all four seasons of The Good Place, so if you haven’t seen it all yet (and I recommend you do), go watch that and come back. I promise this piece will be right here, waiting for you.
I get misgendered a lot. Everywhere except in the places where everyone knows me already. Ma’am, ladies, she and her — it cocoons me in a linguistic invisibility familiar to many who are often sorted into the incorrect buckets, crammed into molds that don’t fit their own self-concept in myriad tiny ways until we walk back into our houses feeling very cramped and tired from all that contortion. Feeling like strange paper dolls dressed by other people’s expectations or weird ghosts haunting the a random store or coffee shop or library waving our hand in front of this poor person who is only trying to do her job saying, silently and ethereally, ladies? Really? How do you figure that? I don’t understand that at all. In the moment after my face makes a strange expression, as though I have been surprise-fed a lemon warhead straight out of 1999, I sometimes whisper a few lines under my breath. Depending on how ornery I am that day or how many times it’s happened, I might even say it loudly. Not a girl, and then I crack a smile. I’m luggage. Two thumbs up.
In these thousand tiny moments when I am looking for a small way to heal the pin-prick such that I might take a thousand more inevitable pin-pricks, I am of course quoting The Good Place, which is a sitcom on NBC that is currently in its fourth and final season. Janet, played by D’Arcy Carden, is described in the first episode as the “informational assistant,” a “walking-database.” She is all-knowing, can make anything, can answer any question except anything to do with the Bad Place. It’s the break out role on the show — Janet can create entire human beings and learn more and more emotional depth and range with each instance of being rebooted (which happens quite a bit). She lives in a void and pops in and out of existence. She wears a skirt and an ascot and there’s probably an entire other piece of cultural critique about the conflation of femininity and servitude.
Janet is also continuously and profoundly misunderstood. She’s called a “front desk lady,” a “magical slave robot.” And she is often called a girl. Calmly and with a smile, Janet often corrects those around her. “Not a girl,” “not a robot,” “not a person.” In season two, episode ten, she does offer two thumbs up and the phrase “I’m luggage!” to explain that she counts as a carry-on when it comes to traveling through a portal to the neutral zone. Thus the character of Janet lent me a minuscule-but-fun way to defuse, respond, chuckle my way through a constant annoyance. If The Good Place had given me only this, it would still have given me more relating to my gender than most other television shows.
In season four, however, The Good Place gave me even more than that. In episode four, the most recent episode to have aired at the time of this writing, it’s revealed that the group of humans, fighting to prove that people can still grow and change in the afterlife and therefore the system of “Good Place and “Bad Place” should be abolished, have a traitor in their midst. Everyone mistrusts Michael because he’d recently lied. Also, he’s a known demon. That too. Jason (Janet’s sometimes-boyfriend), realizes that their Janet has been kidnapped and replaced with a Bad Janet when she doesn’t correct his misgendering. I caught it right away. I chalked it up to bad writing, to a fundamental misunderstanding of Janet, because I am having a bad, cynical day.
“If you ever want to talk,” he says, “just know that I’m here for you, girl.” She simply smiles and says “Thanks, Jason.” Later, as Michael is about to blow himself up to make sure the experiment continues in the most uncontaminated way possible because the group no longer trusts him, Jason leaps into frame and handcuffs Janet with a pair of feathered pink sex handcuffs. Because the cuffs are made for incapacitating inter-dimensional beings, Bad Janet is immediately revealed.
Jason is a character known almost entirely for his lack of intelligence. When asked how he knew Janet had been kidnapped and replaced, he answers, “Michael said there’s nothing he could say that would make you realize he’s really him, but Janet does have a thing she can say that does make me realize she is really not her… I called Janet ‘girl,’ but she didn’t say ‘not a girl.’ The real Janet always says, ‘not a girl.’”
That Janet is recognized and seen by her closest friends as her true self would have been enough to send tears rolling down my cheeks. That not correcting someone when they fundamentally misunderstand your whole jam is coded as “bad” while a friendly, firm and sometimes frustrated assertion of one’s own identity is coded as — well, not good exactly. Janet isn’t a Good Janet anymore. Jason calls her Real Janet. She’s been through too much ambiguity to be, simply, a Good Janet. Rather she is Complicated Janet. Humanity’s Champion Janet. Janet beyond the binary. That this the moral framework for responding to misgendering on a mainstream television show made my breath catch in my throat. And when Jason, for the first time, corrects someone else for Janet in her absence (the closing lines of the episode are “Not a girl”), I was sobbing with my mouth open. I love Janet. I fucking love Janet and everything the writers are doing with her, in this and all seasons of The Good Place.
My absolute love for Janet doesn’t encompass the wholeness of my feelings about non-binary representation in pop culture, however. Often when we see characters experience a queerness of gender, there’s a “reason” for it. For instance, they’re an all-knowing informational portal able to both describe and embody everything in the known universe. What use for gender would such a being have? Or they’re animal or beast — outside of a human context, what would a rigid gender binary even look like? How would it be enforced? Or they’re ageless, or a shapeshifter — a dragon ruling a desert kingdom for a thousand years in an androgynous human form. Who would care? In any of those circumstances, gender makes no sense and so it is used as the narrative scaffolding, an excuse, to show us genderless and genderful representation. I often long for characters who fall somewhere outside the gender binary simply because they do. They are gloriously, blessedly human and still defy the contextual categories of the society that has raised them. Such characters are few and far between.
And yet, and yet. Is it truly only me who identifies with these alien characters? Who wails in their therapist’s office, “How fucking different from everyone else do I have to be, exactly?” while knowing it’s a shitty, problematic way to feel about anyone, especially myself? Who sometimes feels that the experience outside of a binary gender with no maps or clues to speak of gives me more in common with a strange Janet who has to iterate her way forward, hands out in front of her, feeling her way into what it means to be human, than with any other character on the show? It is a cycle — drawn to othered characters, simultaneously othered because most cultural mirrors represent “not a girl” as “not a person,” drawn to othered characters again.
I imagine I am not the only such person. This is an ode to Janet and to everyone who feels like Janet sometimes, and everyone who wishes for representation beyond Janet. Like so much of storytelling and art-making, it is not neat. It is not pretty. Flawed and human, it is our luggage, something we will spend a lifetime unpacking.