She’s Gay Because We Say Ain’t Okay

Near the end of bisexual awareness week, one of the actors told Metro.co.uk that Eleanor, from The Good Place is bisexual.

William Jackson Harper, who plays Chidi Anagonye, said:

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.

I think it’s great. It’s not something we don’t talk about, she talks about it, and we all kind of accept it instead of, you know, go “hey let’s unpack that, let’s talk about it.”

Metro.co.uk  — The Good Place’s Eleanor is ‘super bisexual’ and a romance with Tahani is not off the table

And here’s the thing. That’s awesome, but it sucks and I feel like fans and bisexual are being cheated, because hinting at it, making it a wink-wink thing, isn’t good enough.

Is it Subtext Or …?

One day, we won’t have to declare a character is queer. One day we won’t have to have clunky, expository lines that state people are bisexual or lesbian or transgender. That is, indeed, where I would love us to be. We aren’t there yet, and in fact we’re now in a curious place where people will tell the news “Oh, Valkyrie is totally bisexual in Thor: Ragnarok, but the scene didn’t make the final cut.”

Those things leave us feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. We know there is a different between saying “all Senseates are pansexual”, “Xena and Gabrielle were married”, and saying “Eleanor’s clearly bisexual.” The first is obvious and backed up in-universe, the second is implied and clearly hampered by the times, and the last …

I played a game when I was at TGIF/F – is it queerbaiting or subtext. I didn’t phrase it in that way, mind you. Instead I asked “Do you watch The Good Place? Is it really queer?” And the game was that I would guess in my head if someone would say yes or no.

So is what The Good Place is doing is queerbaiting or subtext?

What’s The Difference?

My base example for this is that Rizzoli & Isles is queerbaiting, Xena is subtext. The difference being intent. Xena very clearly pushed as far as they could and made it as clear as they could that the show was hella gay. On the other hand, Rizzoli & Isles gave us gay looks and photoshoots with the principles handcuffed together, and always in bed together … but they were very clear they were never going to get together.

It’s obvious, in retrospect, when a show means to do this. If you look at The Facts of Life, it was absolutely not trying to be gay. Neither was Charlie’s Angels. And yet when we look back at it, we see clearly homoerotic subtext. There was just too much love for friendship to handle, and because of that, it overflowed into the queer.

We also do have to consider the restrictions placed on shows in certain eras. Everyone can tell Xena wanted to be gay. They had to sneak in kisses to get past network restrictions, they had to have a drag queen kiss Xena, and they had to send reporters to Ancient Greece just to interview the duo and ask them. They pushed and tried so hard, that we do award them with a subtext flag.

And Rizzoli & Isles? They get queerbaiting. Because certain actors and producers made it very clear that they were not comfortable with the lesbian fan base. To the point that they pulled out of a convention mere hours before it started.

Why Does It Matter?

Representation matters. We can all agree to that. And while the end goal is to not have TV shackled by heteronormativity, with the base assumption that everyone is cis and straight, we simply are not there yet. We are not so rich in television that we can assume everyone is queer. I wish we were.

That we’re not means that, with things like Bert and Ernie or The Good Place, when statements are made that obviously characters are queer, it’s just not enough. It doesn’t matter how queer coded a show is, if they won’t take that step beyond saying it’s queer and actually give us on-screen proof that someone’s homophobic parent can’t dismiss, nothing will change.

Because that’s the reality of having an actor or a show runner say “This character is bisexual.” It’s easy to dismiss or ignore unless it’s backed up by something more. When we look at The Good Place, we see a show that dropped in hints where Eleanor makes quips about how much she finds Tahani attractive, or that her ideal man would be …

“Stone Cold Steve Austin’s head on Tahani’s body.”

“Or vice-versa”

They’ve even had them be ‘soulmates’ in a simulation.

But is it enough?

No.

It’s not enough. It’s not enough to have Susie be coded lesbian on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s not enough to have Xena and Gabrielle wink at the camera. It’s not enough to have Eleanor imply her sexuality.

We aren’t secure enough, we have not yet broken out of the confines of compulsive heterosexuality, to make that sufficient.

We need more characters saying it or showing it outright. It sucks, I’d like to not have to, but we aren’t there yet. And until we do get there, the road to acceptance is going to have to be like characters showing they’re not Christian. Have a menorah. Have a passing comment about an ex-girlfriend. Have someone try to set their coworker up with their cousin, who happens to be the same gender.

But say it loud and proud until we’re there.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.

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