Eleanor Shellstrop is dead. When she was alive, she littered her way to work, where she was a pharmaceutical sales associate who peddled fake drugs to old sick people; she often hung out with colleagues drinking (even when she was assigned to be the designated driver).
After her death, Eleanor doesn’t deserve to be in “the good place”, but she inadvertently makes it there at the cost of the other “good” Eleanor Shellstrop (who used to be a defence lawyer for innocent death row victims). But “the bad place” sounds horrible, and so Eleanor continues to lie her way through the good place for a long time, even when her presence there causes catastrophic grievances: think giant sinkholes, puppies getting kicked into the sun, gigantic shrimp, trash everywhere etc.
When her lie is revealed, she unashamedly states: “I was a medium person. I should spend eternity in a medium place. Like Cincinnati.”
Then there’s Letty Raines: a thief and a con artist, who’s out of prison on good behaviour. Before long, Letty is embroiled in her old, kinda bad behaviour: a trap that’s difficult for her to resist falling into. In the late ’60s, Patti Robinson and her fellow female reporters at “News of the Week” decide to stop being the stereotypical “good girls” and instead revolt against the patriarchal system with a discrimination suit against their employers.
The Good Place, Good Behaviour, and Good Girls Revolt: there’s more in common with these three new TV shows this fall than the word “good” in their titles. With characters like Eleanor, Letty, Patti and her friends, they are among the many TV shows that are creating a new, complex female trope: the not-so-good girl. And we’re totally loving it!
From Audrey Hepburn to Christina Aguilera, we’ve all heard about, seen or even been the “good girl”. It’s very often the default setting for women: they’re supposed to be good, at all times. This nomenclature has been so all-pervasive in society, it’s kind of ridiculous: an “ultra-feminine” scent, according to Carolina Herrera, should obviously be called 'Good Girl'. Which is why, when a not-so-good Amy, in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, explained and narrated with obvious snide (some might even call it “bitchiness”) the “cool girl” trope, it felt like a welcome, empowering moment. A new type of character was speaking to women: not the cool girl (who’s been around forever, long before Jennifer Lawrence made it her thing), but the other one, the not-so-good girl, as embodied by Amy.
Who is the not-so-good girl exactly?
Think of the anti-hero, and how Tom Cruise (in the Jack Reacher movies), Matt Damon (in the Bourne Trilogy), and Johnny Depp (in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) have made insanely high-earning careers out of these roles. On television, think of Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on 24, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White on Breaking Bad, or Michael C Hall as Dexter Morgan on Dexter.
The not-so-good girls are their female counterparts: enchanting, conspicuously imperfect anti-heroines; they aren’t necessarily bad, but they can be if they need to!
The not-so-good girl isn’t completely new: over a decade before fall 2016’s crop of TV shows, we had Katee Sackhoff’s portrayal of Kara Thrace aka Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica (BSG), kicking ass as the poster-girl of not-so-goodness. The female reincarnation of Lieutenant Starbuck from the original series, she was (like him) hot-headed and a cocky fighter pilot (the last Commander, Air Group (CAG) of Galactica), considered the best in the fleet, but with a tendency to challenge authorities and get into trouble. As a Viper pilot, we see Starbuck evolve from being an army brat who doesn’t value her own life to someone who’s willing to sacrifice herself for others because she learns to value all human life. The character arc was terrific, Starbuck’s foul-mouthed (“frak” this and “frak” that, remember?) altercations with everyone were television gold, and watching a not-so-good female character be the best in a male-dominated profession on a sci-fi series made her one of the most empowering TV characters of the ’00s.
Before she was jockeying for a place in The Good Place, Kristen Bell embodied the not-so-good girl in her titular role as the awesomely snarky Veronica Mars. As a high-school detective with an ex-sheriff-turned-private-investigator for a father, Veronica never hesitated to bend the rules to get what she wanted, which was usually something she needed to help somebody else out. But altruistic motives aside, very rarely has there been a lead actor on a TV show who gets drugged and raped, contracts an STD, makes a bunch of fake IDs to enable underage drinking, all while continuing to be admirably witty, efficient and inspirational.
Then there was Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl: the ultimate not-so-good girl, who connived, charmed, and alpha-girled her way to the top of New York’s elite prep school social ladder. The original Queen B, before Beyoncé trademarked it!
All of these women have baggage, substantial baggage: Starbuck had an abused childhood; Veronica has her mother’s alcoholism, her best friend Lily’s brutal murder, and her own rape to come to terms with; Blair has bulimia and a broken family (with an unsparingly under-appreciative mother) to contend with. Carrie Mathison on Homeland suffers from a bipolar disorder, which makes her obsessive about her suspects and extremely difficult to work with (she even gets kicked off the CIA), but boy, is she good at what she does! To a lesser extent, there’s Hannah Horvath on Girls; she’s a not-so-good girl too, although her baggage is less tangible and more existential (like any typical millennial!). I mean, just read her character’s synopsis through the five seasons (and this has been put together by fans!) to understand her not-so-goodness.
These characters have, until now, been few and far in between, but the number of new TV shows that have added this complex nuance to female characters (there’s also Divorce and Pitch, to add to The Good Place, Good Behaviour, and Good Girls Revolt) means the “not-so-good girl” is now a proper TV trope — which is great! More importantly, like Eleanor perfectly demonstrates in The Good Place, women do sometimes find “goodness” to be a drag. Eleanor wasn’t a good girl when she was alive. She didn’t see any inherent value in being good, and was selfish when it suited her. In comparison to the metal-screeching, people-screaming sounds of “the bad place”, the limitless supply of frozen yoghurt in “the good place” seems infinitely more agreeable: which is why Eleanor is trying to be “good” (with some dread and a lot of reluctance). That makes for great comedy, but it also tells female viewers that the imperative to be “good” needn’t be a woman’s; that the burden to always be “good” isn’t a woman’s.
You can be not-so-good. It’s okay.
You can have a “resting bitch face”. It’s okay.
It’s even okay to be a nasty woman!