The Good Place’s Chidi Gives Me Stomachaches, Too (But Not Always from Laughing)
**Spoilers ahead for the season 3 mid-season finale.**
I want to start by saying I really enjoy The Good Place. I think it’s one of the smartest shows in the past few years. I love the fun tongue-in-cheek jokes (see Upproxx’s 2017 ranking of the show’s Fake Restaurant Names, for instance), and the censored language of the “Good Place” is too forking sweet. Beyond that, the actors themselves bring a lot of vitality to the not-always-admirable characters.
The show continues to charm viewers in its third season (ratings are a bit lower than last season’s premiere, but still pretty good according to TV by the Numbers), as the main cast tries to escape the Bad-Place-Disguised-as-the-Good-Place plot.
This season found the four humans brought back to life in a bid by reformed-devil Michael (Ted Danson) and the app made not-quite-human Janet (D’Arcy Carden) as they try to prove that people can change for the better, even after death. Michael bases his bet upon the relationship between Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who consistently found and learned from each other in all of the fake Good Place simulations that Michael and the other devils ran to torture the humans. After saving each of their lives before the moments of their initial deaths, Michael and Janet collude to help the now sort-of-living Chidi, Eleanor, and their comrades-in-post-death-living Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) figure out the truth behind why no one has made it to the Good Place in 521 years.
What happens next might help people like Doug Forcett who aren’t yet making it to the Good Place even after following all of the “rules” (even when they don’t make a lot of sense). But this doesn’t necessarily deal with the fact that Chidi has already been sent to the Bad Place because of his anxiety.
“Janet(s)” cliffhanger that no one was getting into the Good Place no matter what they did (even poor Doug) offers a fun commentary on Chidi’s subject of moral philosophy — which I suppose none of us should have expected from demons, anyway. Despite that hiccup, the season’s twisting takes on how to be “Good” have been a fun distraction in a time when being, well, less-than-Good seems to work out great for some people. You might even say that the illusion of money and power trumps any need to be Good. (Sorry, I’ll see myself out.) The show’s take on morals and Chidi’s belief in them as an essential goodness, really, is somewhat of a balm for audiences while much of the world keeps reminding us that goodness isn’t always rewarded.
That might be why the show’s portrayal of Chidi’s moral “failings” is so uncomfortable.
All of the characters ended up in the Bad Place because of some particularly bad or unethical qualities (Eleanor’s selfishness, Jason’s — also somewhat problematic — silly immorality, and Tahani’s corrupt charity work). When the four learn in the season one finale that they’re in the Bad Place, Chidi is endearingly convinced that he’s in the Bad Place because he continues to drink almond milk even after learning it’s bad for the environment. Michael interrupts him saying, “No, dingus! You hurt everyone in your life with your rigidity and your indecisiveness.”
Again over the second season, Chidi’s “indecisiveness” is a method of torture for the devils and a joke for viewers.
One of Chidi’s trademarks is getting a stomachache from his anxiety. I mean, it happens a lot. See this Tumblr user’s collection of some of Chidi’s stomachache moments if you don’t believe me.
“You once had a panic attack at a make-your-own-sundae bar.”
“There were too many toppings. And very early in the process you had to commit to a chocolate palate or a fruit palate, and if you couldn’t decide, you would up with kiwi-Junior-Mint-raisin, and it just ruins everyone’s night.” (s2e1, “Everything Is Great!”).
Watching The Good Place as someone with anxiety is a weird experience. Harper’s Chidi makes light of some of the more awkward and truly comical experiences of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and likely those of other mad individuals. And they are admittedly pretty funny (Chidi’s line “Why do I always have a stomach ache?” in “Jeremy Bearimy” got a loud “YES” from me.) Seeing characters like Chidi who are likeable — even if “everyone hates moral philosophy professors” — and successful is still exciting, especially given the way distress and madness are portrayed in other shows and films.
People with supposedly “abnormal” mental and emotional experiences are otherwise played as exceptional. The mad in popular culture fall into several generic types:
- those whose supposedly madness hides their wisdom (a la Rafiki in The Lion King who’s “so crazy, he’s a genius”);
- the villains who are violent because they are “mentally ill” (thus, the many, many articles about Harley Quinn and the Joker’s abusive romance);
- the superhero whose powers come from being mentally and emotionally “messed up” (like Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven in Stranger Things); and
- the smartypants character whose neurodivergence makes them extraordinarily intelligent but unable to interact with others (see Jacqueline Koyanagi’s take on Sheldon Cooper, for instance).
Taken together, these characters stand out as pretty unkind (and unimaginative) tropes. And when we see them all bunched together like this it’s easy to say their characters are just used to make a point or to get a few laughs.
But these ideas about disability and distress have real effects for real people. Being mad, or crazy, mentally disabled, distressed, cognitively disabled, neuroatypical, insane, unhinged, emotionally unstable, unwell, or mentally ill, has long been a reason to be cast out from society — never mind sent to hell.
Perceptions of emotional “instability” regularly affect the job prospects of mentally disabled people.
Margaret Price, an Associate Professor of English and the Program Director of Disability Studies at the Ohio State University, writes in her book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life that
What research does exist seems to indicate that employees fear asking for accommodation, and when they do ask, report being further stigmatized…. In fact, employers may avoid hiring people with mental disabilities in the first place.
Several studies show that assumptions about the mental or emotional disabilities of children of color lead to much higher numbers of African American and Latinx children being assigned to special education classes, disciplined in the classroom, and ultimately suspended or expelled from classes — much more often than their white classmates.
And that doesn’t include long histories of attempted euthanizing and compulsory sterilization of mentally “defective” people. As Matthew Wills reminds readers in his “When Forced Sterilization Was Legal in the U.S.,” the Supreme Court voted in favor in Buck v. Bell to sterilize the Virginian, “feeble minded white woman” Carrie Buck. The decision was put forth by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (you know, the son of the “Old Ironsides” poet), who said “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Sterilization continued in Buck’s state of Virginia through 1979 — less than forty years ago.
“It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
(And sterilization is still a big issue today, as demonstrated by growing reports of the forced sterilization of indigenous women in Canada, reported by the Alberta Native News. Writing about these cases on The Conversation, Erika Dyck said that “Indigenous women were not initially the main targets of the program,” since on paper, the program focused on “people with diagnoses that today we might call intellectual disabilities, and IQ tests were used to assess whether or not someone was considered fit enough to parent.” There are great depths to be plumbed here about the treatment of indigenous peoples and people seen as “mad,” which aren’t always two distinct groups.)
All of this “history” seemed a lot closer for my American Literature students this spring when we discussed Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ever-popular “The Yellow Wall-Paper” alongside the continuing history of surveilling and incarcerating mad people (especially those identified as BIPoC, LGBTQ, and/or women).
We talked about the fraught histories of this on the land that our university occupies, including the university-owned buildings collectively known as Depot Campus — which includes a former “school”/“hospital”/institution for “the care, custody, education and employment of mental defective (feeble minded) and epileptic persons.”
[H/t to Michael Gill and Nirmala Erevelles for their fantastic article which provided the germs for these conversations in our classroom.]
Gill wrote that his students shared rumors that the old building is haunted now, and my class did the same. Our own classroom, several miles away from the old hospital, felt pretty eerie as the class processed that several of us in the room would have been institutionalized in a place like that.
Or instead, trying like Gilman’s narrator to convince our families that it really is okay to let us live in more space than one, horribly decorated room.
So when I see Chidi “going insane and eating Peeps chili” I’m definitely laughing (and a little grossed out). But I’m also uncomfortably aware that Chidi is able to hold lecture while eating Peeps chili for all sort of reasons — he’s a male professor, has some career stability despite still working on his doctoral thesis, technically has already died, is fictional, etc. — while around 22,000 people are forcibly institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals, according to prisonpolicy.org. And people seen as “insane” are more likely to face serious jail time, health issues, homelessness, and suicide.
All of which is to say, when Carden’s “Chidi Janet” was identifiable because of Harper’s character’s stomachaches, panic, and needing to lie down in last week’s finale, I felt a bit weird. I know the show needed to exaggerate stereotypical parts of the characters for the audience to know which Janet was which. (And let it not go overlooked that Carden’s acting here was, as always, wonderful.) Now that the show seems to be asking some bigger questions about how to get into the Good Place — whether anyone is good enough to get in or if the Bad Place demons have rigged the game — I’m eager to see how the show talks about Chidi’s fate.
I don’t feel comfortable about making an argument about who should get into the Good Place, fictionally or otherwise, but I would like to see the show think about how they have painted Chidi as a “bad person” because of his anxiety. I continue to hope that Chidi is more than a stand-in for a crazy, anxious, Peeps-chili-eating, nutty professor. I think the show can do better than that.
After all, there’s a whole lot more to being mad than sweater vests and bad cooking.