When Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in the Good Place after she dies, she’s relieved. That is, until she starts to notice how not-good certain aspects of her life in her neighborhood in the Good Place are. One of the most annoying parts for her is interacting with and after-living next door to British socialite and philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil.
Tahani is the picture of perfection. She loves helping people, she’s a natural at making connections with fellow residents of Neighborhood 12358W, she’s gorgeous, and she lives in a giant, gilded mansion. Eleanor is a selfish misanthrope who lives in a tiny, clown-filled apartment. Oh, and Eleanor is not supposed to be in the Good Place.
Over the course of events within the series, which more or less reinvents itself each season, it becomes clear that Tahani is not so perfect, Eleanor is not so bad, and the Good Place was really just an inventive form of torture designed to hurt Eleanor, Tahani, and their respective soul mates, Chidi Anagonye and Jason Mendoza — all four of whom actually belong in, and are in, the Bad Place. As they learn about themselves and each other, Eleanor and Tahani move away from their tired rivalry and become unlikely (but really all along quite likely) friends — their friendship even survives a brief love triangle with Chidi.
Fans immediately took to Eleanor and Tahani’s chemistry and started shipping Telenor hardcore. There exists many a fan tribute video, some more masterfully edited than others, dedicated to examining every major and minor interaction and conversation between the two. And if you’ve seen The Good Place, you probably understand why.
Not only are the two characters delightful, hysterical, headstrong women, but both are also comfortable in their bodies and open with both their compliments and physical touch. What develops between the two is an at times tender, loving friendship.
Up until recently, though, the possible more-than-friends relationship between Eleanor and Tahani, and more to my point, Eleanor’s bisexuality, have been implied and much debated, yet unrealized, potentialities. That all changed when William Jackson Harper, who plays Chidi, recently went on the record with Metro UK to canonize Eleanor’s bisexuality and tease the potential for a Telenor relationship onscreen.
“There’s a million different possibilities, and one of the things I think the show does well… is the fact that Eleanor is super bisexual,” said Harper. In his mind, Eleanor’s bisexuality was already a given, an obvious aspect of the show, yet to many a lovesick shipper, including yours truly, the matter of Eleanor’s sexuality has been anything but settled.
Harper explained why he thought that was the case: “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 buzzworthy thing in the show or potentially buzzworthy thing on the show.”
Record scratch. Wait. What?
First off, Mr. Harper, you might want to reconsider how you talk about other folks’ sexualities. Calling bisexuality “buzzworthy” is callous, given the fact that many a bisexual+ person has experienced the reality of being told they’re only claiming their sexuality to “get attention.” (Look it up. It’s a real stereotype of bisexual+ folks.)
Furthermore, let’s not pooh-pooh queer fans for wanting to see queer characters on TV and getting excited about shows that do so in ways that may still be subtle, but are clear and proud. (There’s a reason we queers love Wynonna Earp so damn much.) For much of the history of television, queer characters were considered to be “no-gos.” And just because we’re getting more representation now doesn’t mean it’s all good representation. Don’t underestimate the effect it would have for a complex, relatable character like Eleanor, on a major TV show, to be recognized as bisexual within the narrative. Just look at the impact Michael Schur’s other prime-time show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and major character Rosa Diaz’s coming out has had on the bisexual+ community.
Second, up to this point, Eleanor’s attraction to women, namely Tahani, has primarily been used for comedic effect. For instance, when someone describes Eleanor’s ideal person to be Stone Cold Steve Austin’s head on Tahani’s body, Eleanor replies, “Or vice versa.” Similar moments are riddled through the series, and there’s no better example of this than what occurs as part of the phenomenon of the soul mate, a requirement of the Good Place, or at least the Bad Place’s parody of the Good Place.
After the first time Eleanor discovers she was actually in the Bad Place, the demon architect of the neighborhood, Michael, reboots the timeline hundreds of times. In a montage of these timelines, Eleanor is introduced to a barrage of different soul mates, unique to each timeline. And what do you know? Episode 2 of Season 2, after all the summer shipping of Telenor, what angel floats into Eleanor’s doorway in Attempt #218 except Tahani, Eleanor’s soul mate in one very short timeline we never again see. During Attempt #333, she opens the door and her soul mate is a golden retriever.
All of these timelines end with Eleanor—and, one time, Jason—discovering that they are actually in the Bad Place. So why am I supposed to assume that Tahani and Eleanor are actually attracted to one another? This. Is. The. Bad. Place. It’s being designed by demons to make people miserable. How is a demon pairing Eleanor with Tahani a good thing? More importantly, how is it confirmation of anything about either character’s sexuality? I mean, we’re not expecting her to be attracted to the dog, are we?
Even worse than being a punchline is the fact that much of the relationship between Eleanor and Tahani reads like queerbaiting. The example above can be seen as a carrot at the end of a very long stick, meant to entice and engage queer audiences without delivering on the promise. (In reality, the only onscreen romances Eleanor engages in are with Chidi and a past boyfriend.) Instead of getting to see LGBTQ characters live full afterlives, we are left wondering, postulating, and hoping for queerness.
The relationship between Eleanor and Tahani, or lack thereof, is definitely part of the problem, particularly as we’re given it as the main “evidence” of Eleanor’s bisexuality. In reality, no one has to provide evidence that they’re bisexual. Eleanor never has to come out, nor do I think she ever has to have a relationship with a woman to be bisexual. Bisexuality can take many forms, and every form is valid. Eleanor and her sexuality are not the issue. How her sexuality is treated and its most frequent use being to titillate or amuse is the issue.
There’s actually a lot to love about Eleanor and her unremarkable bisexuality. In one particularly compelling moment, Eleanor figures out they’re in the Bad Place for the first time. She’s rattling off why their Good Place actually sucks and how Michael suckered them into being tortured. “You saw us all on Earth... a selfish ass, an idiot DJ, a tortured academic, a hot, rich fraud with legs for days,” Eleanor pauses. “Side note, I might legit be into Tahani.”
While it’s still a punchline moment, and a very funny one at that, it’s also a moment that shows Eleanor possibly beginning to realize something about herself. Her bisexuality could be something she’s still discovering in the afterlife, hence the “might.” Of course, Eleanor may have had relationships with women during her life, or now that she’s been given another shot at life, who’s to say she still can’t? Or, by using the word “might,” the case could be that Eleanor is not attracted to Tahani specifically or women generally and was just making a funny joke.
That’s the real rub. We don’t know anything about Eleanor’s bisexuality or her relationship to her own sexuality because The Good Place hasn’t taken us there, yet.
While I certainly hear Harper’s point regarding treating Eleanor’s bisexuality as an unremarkable component of her life, it’s hard to know how to feel about this representation of a deeply vulnerable population. Bisexual+ folks are subject to double discrimination from queer and straight communities, resulting in our being more likely to experience poor mental health outcomes. Additionally, bisexual+ women are more likely to be sexual assault survivors than lesbian and gay or straight individuals. So, while I will probably always love The Good Place and Eleanor, it’s time to stop forking up and do better by bisexual+ folks.