While cold weather has the upper midwest in a vice grip, the Netflix series You is on a hot streak, trending among the most popular options currently on the streaming service. Though I had never heard of the series when it first debuted on Lifetime, I quickly picked up on the buzz surrounding it from friends, social media, and the very catchy promo video that seemed to pop up every time my Netflix account loaded. With the weather keeping things indoors for a few days, it seemed the perfect time to binge the show and see what all the hype was about. Truth be told, as a thriller it was highly entertaining, and you’ll definitely want to stream through it in a hurry! However, as a romance, and there are a lot of people out there that believe this is a romance, it leaves A LOT to be desired. At least, it should leave a lot to be desired, unless you desire the controlling, stalker, psychopath types.
And here’s the thing that’s kind of disturbing…I think there are actually quite a few people who find that fantasy appealing. We saw this first on a large-scale during the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Women swooned over the fantasy of Christian Grey and all the hot and kinky things that he did in his special red room. If whips, handcuffs, and chains are your thing, by all means enjoy, but women who got their panties all in a bunch on the floor over Christian Grey, overwhelmingly overlooked his controlling, manipulative tendencies. He micromanages Anastasia’s life, controls her diet and exercise routine, stalks her at work and at home, and threatens violence at every turn…which is supposed to be sexy and “dominant” at best, but comes off abusive at worst. And yet, the series got all kinds of attention, sold millions of copies, and was turned into movies that got Valentine’s Day releases.
You employs many of the same tactics with its leading man, Joe, and breaks away from the mold of traditional, psychopathic murderer, instead offering an attractive, shy, doting, helpless romantic who, to be clear, makes his stalker tendencies known early on in the first episode, but also seems to reveal a few redeeming qualities just when you might begin to detest him. Part of this comes from the narrative style of the series. The plot progresses not only through the interaction and dialogue between characters, but also through Joe’s internal monologue, and social media and text feeds. He has a destructive past; he’s been unlucky in love; he’s been used and manipulated by people throughout his life. But any fleeting moments of redemption aside, at the end of the series, Joe is a stalking, murdering, sociopathic, predator. And that should not be attractive!
Yet, I recently saw a tweet from Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe Goldberg, imploring women not to crush on his character.
And there are hundreds of other examples of women lusting over a stalker like Joe, or asking Badgley to “protect” or kidnap them. But why? (WARNING: A few spoilers for You ahead.)
One thought is that, as an antihero, Joe’s character is very compelling to female audiences. The antihero is a complex character trope with a long history of dividing readers and viewers. Antiheroic characters like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Montressor from A Cask of Amontillado, Dexter Morgan from Dexter, and Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, all do despicable things, but at one moment or another redeem themselves either through their own actions, or through the unjustified, reprehensible actions they suffer at the hands of others. Those characters don’t dabble in love however, and love is one of those areas in life where we’re especially prone to irrational thoughts and actions even before we introduce a psychopath!
Joe’s character is manipulative and controlling, but as a boy friend he is doting and attentive. He wants nothing more than to be perfect in the relationship. He also repeatedly saves the little boy next door from his mom’s abusive boyfriend, nurses his neighbor through drug withdrawal, and, at one point for two episodes, actually lets his relationship with Beck go in the name of true love. When they get back together, you’d almost believe that it was because they were meant to be together because of fate, rather than the truth that he obsessively checked her social media, stalked her therapist, and eventually cheated on his new girl friend so that he could hook up again with Beck (on the top deck of a NYC ferry).
Joe delivers such lines as, “We all get our hearts broken. We get fucked up and throw up and we cry and listen to sad songs and say we’re never doing that again. But to be alive is to do it again. To love is to risk everything,” and we, too, may find ourselves agreeing that we’d risk everything for love. Maybe that means risking our lives with a murdering psycho. Though it probably shouldn’t mean that at all!
The thing about fictional bad boys, even the sociopathic murdering type, is that they’re all the allure and mystery with none of the real life risk. Viewers can focus on the steamy intimacy, the romantic doting, the possessive protectiveness, the single-minded intensity, and frame it as sexy instead of dangerous because it’s fictional escapism that poses no real threat to their safety or wellbeing. The problem with that thinking, however, is that it trains the brain to overlook those redflags in real life. If we accept that some creepy behavior is OK as long as it comes with other sexy “perks,” the fantasies we harbor privately could turn in to real life nightmares.
So ladies, I implore you to stop crushing on fictional sociopaths! An oft quoted mantra reminds us to “Watch our thoughts because they become our actions; and watch our actions because they become our habits.” Be wary that what your mind will tolerate from a fictional bad boy does not become what you tolerate from a flesh and blood person. Watch the shows. Enjoy the intensity of the unwinding thriller. But root for the female protagonist to see the light and find a healthier relationship! Get excited when the male antihero is put in his place…not when he takes his shirt off. And please…please…please…hold the men in your own life to a higher standard than justifying manipulative and controlling behavior by bringing flowers at the right moment. The line between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one isn’t as narrow as some books and shows would have you believe, and when it comes to what you should expect from a partner, there shouldn’t be that many shades of grey as to what’s acceptable!