Janet (D’Arcy Carden) has become an icon for fans of The Good Place: She’s extremely intelligent, powerful, and, most notably, nonbinary. Every time a fellow character refers to Janet as a girl, she retorts with “not a girl.” “Janet has emerged as something of a wild card in The Good Place’s ensemble,” Taylor Beck wrote in a February 2019 article for The Spool. “Since starting out as a glorified Siri, she’s developed increased sentience, complex emotions, and the ability to create more ‘people’ like her. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about her: her sense of her own gender. Or, to be more accurate, her lack of gender.” Though Janet doesn’t identify as a single gender, she’s still coded by implicitly sexist stereotypes that dictates who gets to be “good,” who gets to be “bad,” and what that literally looks like.
Janet began the show as a sidekick to Michael (Ted Danson), who, in the show’s first two seasons, was its literal world-builder: As the “architect” of the Good Place, he decides what the afterlife looks like for its residents, among them Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Janet helps actualize that world for its new residents, as she knows absolutely everything that there is to know, and can provide citizens of the Good Place with anything and everything that they desire, from a cup of coffee to a boat to “a baby elephant made of pure light that tells you true secrets about the universe.” But despite her name and embodiment, Janet is not a person at all; instead, she’s part of the mainframe of the Good Place universe, and exists in many places at once. (For the sake of this piece, we will refer to the main Janet the show’s cast interacts with as Good Janet.)
And Janet doesn’t just exist in the Good Place; she also exists in the Bad Place, a space that many of us would recognize as a version of hell, as Bad Janet, whom we meet in Season One’s “Chapter 9: …Someone Like Me as a Member.” Bad Janet has all the skills and abilities of Good Janet, but in a very different package. Bad Janet sports a smoky eye, leather pants, a leather jacket, and—always—her cell phone. This Janet’s appearance aligns with what we are socialized to associate with “bad” women, starting with her every-present bedazzled phone. As Kuba Shand-Baptiste writes in the Independent, “to frame [cell phone dependency] as a uniquely female issue tied directly to our inherent vanity is ridiculous.” The rest of Bad Janet’s persona contrasts starkly with Good Janet’s, her leather outfit and heavy makeup suggesting nights out at a club rather than her “good” counterpart’s days of helpful service. Good Janet wears sensible heels with a rounded toe, a high-necked print blouse, and a purple skirt-and-vest set. Her makeup is light, with no especially contrasting colors, and her hair has the soft waves and side part indicative of a standard TV woman protagonist. Good Janet is a brunette; Bad Janet is a blonde and is heavily styled, with an early 2000s bump at her hair’s center.
To prove that an implicit bias exists in the character designs of Good and Bad Janet, meanwhile, there’s Neutral Janet. Her appearance acts almost as a control. In the middle of Good Janet and Bad Janet is Neutral Janet, who is most interesting because she looks exactly like Good Janet but her colors are lightened to a neutral palette of browns and taupe. Her silhouette mirrors Good Janet’s, leaving Bad Janet’s outfit as an anomaly. A neutral woman looks like Neutral Janet, and it’s Bad Janet with her leather jacket and heavy makeup who is, in fact, bad, visually and otherwise.
It’s Bad Janet with her leather jacket and heavy makeup who is, in fact, bad, visually and otherwise.
On screen, women’s appearances have long been used to signal good versus evil. On Scandal, the white coat worn by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) signaled her pure heart in the midst of chaos and at-times bad decisions. Sex and the City’s Charlotte (Kristin Davis) wore hyperfeminine dresses and soft colors to signal her naiveté and lack of experience in the real world, while Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) power suits marked her as overly serious and desexualized, and Samantha’s (Kim Cattrall) bright, tight outfits and low necklines proclaimed her the sexual rebel breaking all the good-girl rules. Such stereotypes offer viewers visual direction in who to root for and who to distrust. But, as with disfigured villains and dark-skinned “bad guys,” TV and film can do better than relying on ableist, racist, or—in the case of Good Janet vs. Bad Janet—sexist tropes to do this signaling.
In a June 2018 Vanity Fair article, writer Laura Bradley explains that The Good Place costume designer Kirston Mann “based Janet’s attire on the outfits worn by female airline staffers in the 1970s” and notes that Mann took inspiration for Bad Janet from Sandy’s bad-girl makeover at the end of Grease. On-screen and off, women have always been more than their outfits signal to their viewers, and The Good Place is smarter than leaning into these tropes, especially in its creation, on purpose or accidental, of a nonbinary icon. In The Spool, Beck writes, “Janet’s existence as an ungendered femme who uses she/her pronouns both elevates and condemns her as a character, both in the real world and in-universe.” The use of fashion to signify goodness is just another way the show misstepped in her creation.