The hit Netflix series frighteningly subverts a host of romantic-comedy cliches to bring us a powerful point: our culture needs to stop romanticizing abusive men.
The TV series You, an adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s addicting 2014 novel of the same name, premiered on Lifetime in September 2018. But it really caught fire once it moved to Netflix in December.
You follows the perspective of New York bookstore manager Joe Goldberg (Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgley), who meets an aspiring writer named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) when she walks into his store one afternoon. He instantly becomes obsessed with her, and it all goes completely downhill from there. You takes all of the common tropes we’ve all seen in a million romantic comedies — such as conveniently staged “meet-cute” moments — and asks a very sincere question: what would feel like if someone did this to me in real life?
The answer should be unsurprising: creepy as hell.
The fact that Joe kills people is not a spoiler; we, the audience, know this from the start and just really, really wish was it a spoiler. Joe is the physical embodiment of a top tier quote-unquote “nice guy,” who holds the door open for you at Starbucks, then goes into full rage mode when you don’t offer to give him your phone number ten minutes later. Except instead of calling you a slur and leaving it at that, Joe just kills you, or everyone you love.
However, it’s even more unsurprising that many fans of the series have posted comments romanticizing Joe. It fits right in with a pattern romantic fiction fans have been showing for years: obsessing over abusive men. From You‘s Joe Goldberg, it’s only a short leap to the controlling abuse of Christian Grey of Fifty Shades of Grey fame. It’s an even shorter leap to infamous serial killer Ted Bundy — who is portrayed by grown-up teen heartthrob Zac Efron in upcoming Netflix film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, And Vile.
Regardless, the subreddit forum for You has found fans going above and beyond to defend Joe; question why “Beck is the worst” (This redditor specifically wants Joe to kill Beck? Wow), and complain about how “terrible” of a person Peach Salinger, Beck’s best friend and Joe’s unofficial rival for her affections, is. Peach might be a terrible person (spoiler alert), but she still isn’t quite on Joe’s level. Peach is just an entitled rich girl, but Joe actually kills people.
There is a massive difference, Reddit.
Even the cast of You has taken notice of the dangerous trend, voicing their concerns and feelings on fans’ obsessions with Joe. Penn Badgley in particular has tweeted responses to fans who have asked Joe to “kidnap them” (oh god), reminding everyone enjoying the show that the character is far beyond problematic.
The show’s central premise, to tell the story of an obsessive stalker from the stalker’s perspective, is unsurprisingly successful in winning viewers over. By warping the POV this way, it not only shows us Joe’s perspective, but allows us to rationalize his actions along with him. And that alone is terrifying.
And yet, it seems, way too few viewers are actually terrified. Which raises an inevitable question: Why are romanticized portrayals of abusive men so perennially popular? The trend has become so common in mainstream entertainment that it makes sense how little attention we’ve paid to it. But that fact is in its own way concerning.
The prime example everyone cites when they discuss this problem is, of course, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the series that launched a thousand terrible fanfictions (including the one that eventually became the Fifty Shades Of Grey series). In Meyer’s popular YA novel, teenager Bella Swan move to Forks, Washington where she meets forever-teenager Edward Cullen. Surprise! He’s a vampire. Naturally, the duo fall in love and get married and have a child that almost kills Bella in childbirth and yadda yadda yadda.
Edward shows his problematic nature immediately and in various ways, from sneaking in Bella’s window to watch her sleep to ripping the engine out of her truck to prevent her from seeing her friend (and rival for her affections), Jacob Black (Yes. This was a real plot device.). There is also a lot of general emotional manipulation, among other things. One of the most concerning aspects of Twilight’s plot is that no one, not even Bella’s police chief father, sees this relationship as dangerous.
Twilight’s film adaptation was a massive worldwide hit when it was released, and (as we can all doubtless remember) teen girls everywhere were obsessed with Edward Cullen. While I can’t say that no one pointed out the aforementioned problematic elements of the series, the main focus from critics was how genuinely bad the books were.
And look — the books were bad! But despite the fact that the series won’t win a Mark Twain Prize anytime soon, the real conversation we needed to have was about how dangerous Edward’s treatment of Bella was. Their fictional relationship could have been used as a bullet-point list of red flags pointing to an abusive relationship. Psychology Today even showed this in a detailed analysis of the series, published in 2011. Yet even today, in the post-#MeToo world, popular entertainment often depicts men’s abusive behavior as romantic.
Of course, we can never blame the media entirely for the bad things that happen in the world — of course not. It was not on anyone’s shoulders to turn our cultural obsession with Twilight into a milestone discussion that could have helped other people, especially the teenagers in Twilight’s audience, recognize signs of abuse. It’s still disappointing, though, that the discussion did not occur.
Then again, maybe that’s because our media ultimately reflects our culture. Regardless of recent social progress by the feminist movement, plenty of men still feel entitled to women’s love in return for tokens of affection and respect. The “nice guy” example from earlier was nowhere near on the level of Joe Goldberg’s obsessive, murderous behavior in You. But there are people out there behaving every bit as dangerously as Joe Goldberg — toward real-life women.
For example, in 2016, Connecticut teenager Maren Sanchez was murdered by classmate Christopher Plakson because she turned down his proposal to go to prom with him. And Plakson, who was 16 when he committed the murder, only received a 13-year sentence.
Whenever women come out years later and reveal that they were assaulted, people always roll their eyes and question why the women didn’t say something earlier. It’s a pattern that played out when Christine Blasey Ford spoke out about Brett Kavanaugh, and when Vanessa Tyson accused Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.
The answer, which the eye-rollers always seem to overlook, is simple: because we are genuinely terrified of dying. If we don’t smile correctly at the right time, or giggle flippantly at some “nice guy”‘s terrible joke, we are sincerely terrified that he will kill us. This is day to day real life.
A teenager turned down another teenager for a prom date. Maybe she was polite about it, maybe she was rude about it… to be honest, I couldn’t care less one way or the other. It still doesn’t justify killing her.
You‘s Joe Goldberg is yet another example of an entitled cis straight white man who doesn’t understand that the world does not revolve around him. Women are not sex machines that you pop friendship coins into for a half-hearted blow job in return. There is not such thing as the “friend zone.” There is no such thing as a “nice guy.”
You is extremely important for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s a rare example of a novel and a filmed adaptation being equally good. A more important reason, though, is its message: the message that, taken to its logical conclusion, our culture’s romanticizing of abusive, obsessive men can and will have deadly consequences.