netflix’s ‘you’ shows the problem we still have separating romance from emotional abuse
Hey guys, Penn Badgley’s character is literally a stalker you are not supposed be rooting for him to prevail.
Still from Netflix's 'You'
Everyone thought it would be Bird Box’s crown, but actually Netflix’s first triumph of 2019 is the bingeable, creepy, Gossip-Girl-gone-wrong series, You.
Originally released on the Lifetime entertainment channel last September, You’s 10-episode series follows handsome Joe Goldberg as he meets Guinevere Beck by chance in the bookstore he manages, before pursuing her and eventually falling in love. It sounds like your average indie-movie meet cute, but this one comes with a twist. Told from Joe’s perspective, You is actually the story of a psychopathic, emotionally abusive, murderous (sorry, spoilers) stalker, who will stop at nothing to make Guinevere totally dependent on him.
The decision to narrate You mostly from the abuser’s perspective is clever -- it invites the viewer into Joe’s mind from the beginning, showing us how he can rationalise his awful behaviour with inner monologues that sound increasingly like something you’d read on an incel subreddit or in 4chan’s darkest neckbeard corners. The result is part Gone Girl, part American Psycho, all horrifyingly disconcerting because of how easily it is to slip into Joe’s way of thinking and even to sympathise with him. Horror really takes on another layer when it makes you complicit with a killer, and that uncomfortable complicity is deliberate, according to author Caroline Kepnes, who wrote the novel on which You is based.
“We relate to [Joe’s thoughts] because we all get that way. We all feel like the world is against us. Unlike Joe, we don’t act on it,” the author told Refinery29 last year.
Caroline Kepnes’s monster is all the more terrifying -- and all the more realistic -- because she doesn’t present him as a monster. He’s someone you might meet on Tinder, someone who might slide into your DMs on Instagram, someone who just can’t take no for an answer at the bar and eventually tells you to fuck off because you’re ugly anyway. He’s all of those guys, but to the nth degree. Joe is familiar to us through real life experience, but he’s also familiar because of what we’ve been told our whole lives is “romantic”, in rom-coms and romance novels. Much has been made of how similar Joe Goldberg’s character is to Dan Humphrey, the unlucky in love outsider eventually unmasked as the titular Gossip Girl (again, sorry, spoilers) and also played by Penn Badgley. It’s easy to see the similarities. Joe is Dan gone sour, Serena Van Der Woodsen’s stalker but with a pick axe instead of an anonymous blog.
Perhaps because of how familiar Joe is to us, the reaction to You online has seen some viewers defending him, romanticising him, and, perhaps most worryingly, displaying some serious victim blaming. Some, it would seem, consider all of his bad behaviour the result of how unlikeable and unworthy of his love and obsession Beck’s character was. On the show’s subreddit threads, much of the discussion is focused on tearing down You’s female characters to defend Joe by proxy, with titles like “Beck is a TERRIBLE person” and “omg Peach, what a bitch”. Yesterday, Netflix’s Twitter account promptly shut down one fan who asked if it was “still okay that [she] shipped Beck and Joe together”. In the replies, another young female fan commented “I’m only halfway through so far and I’m not totally sure I even like Beck. I do however LOVE Joe -- is that totally wrong?”
The obviously answer is: yes, of course it is. He’s a stalker and a murderer. But scrape a little further and you can see where this problematic response comes from, and how clever the show is in pushing us to uncomfortable conclusions and sympathies.
Joe seems like a knight in shining armour. He has good taste in literature. He shuns social media. He despises the posturing, inauthentic upper class socialites Beck associates with. He projects the persona of the anti-fuckboi. Much of the sinister activities Joe participates in to isolate and control Beck -- hiding in her shower, saving her from a speeding train, following her to a family outing, even watching her from her window -- could just as easily be tropes we see in romantic comedies rather than thrillers. Until recently, we’ve romanticised and idolised the male character who tries, tries and tries again to convince the girl of his dreams that he’s right for her, and it’s led us into a murky world where we’re unable to separate archaic ideas of romance and chivalry from the actuality of stalking, gaslighting and emotional abuse.
Latterly, however, we’ve begun to remove the veneer of chivalry and romance from abuse and misogyny. In March 2017 SNL’s Girl At A Bar sketch lampooned performative wokeness and protective, pseudo-feminist men who revert to verbally abusive creeps when rejected for sex. And in September that same year, 34-year-old Luke Howard sparked a huge online debate on the boundary between romance and emotional blackmail when he responded to being dumped by his girlfriend of four months by playing piano constantly in a public display of “dude, seriously, chill out” in Bristol.
Even celebrities aren’t immune -- last month Offset ruined a Cardi B concert by storming her set with a public apology and plea for her to take him back, leaving the singer humiliated in front of thousands of fans. None of those things may be even half as extreme as the lengths Joe goes to get Beck to love him in You, but the mentality is the same: “let me try to convince you again that I’m the only one that’s right for you”. And when it goes to extremes, the consequences can be devastating. You is entertainment, fiction, but sadly the reality of women being murdered by their stalkers, partners or exes is all too real. In 2018, Broadly’s Unfollow Me campaign revealed 9% of people in the UK have been a victim of stalking, while over half think the authorities don’t take it seriously enough.
Against a backdrop of stalking, emotional blackmail and gaslighting consistently being dismissed or glamorised as romantic, and victims being blamed for their abusers’ toxic behaviour, it’s easy to see why the online reaction to You has played out the way it has. Joe’s character’s behaviour is insidious, it escalates over time and rationalises each new leap -- exactly the way a real life abuser might behave. The show invites us into his mind, but not to glamourise his behaviour or even to make us sympathetic. It does it to show us how easy it is to be drawn in by toxicity.
So no, you absolutely should not be shipping him with Beck. Jesus.