Obviously, you can interpret art however you want, that’s the nature of art. However, we should really be asking ourselves why we interpret certain themes in art the way we do. We should start asking ourselves this question in relation to You on Netflix.
On the 26th of December, Netflix released this psychological thriller based off the 2014 Caroline Kepnes novels. The first season follows stalker, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley. He falls in love with one of his customers, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and becomes utterly obsessed with her. When I finished watching the show, along with being a little bit fearful, I was angry. I really hated Joe Goldberg. However, the consensus wasn’t the same online. When I went on Twitter I saw that people had very different opinions to me. People loved Joe’s character. They were tweeting about how cute he is, how he reads books, and how he genuinely cared for Beck. The hatred and anger weren’t directed towards Joe at all, it was directed towards Beck, the victim. It’s shows that people are learning the wrong lessons from You, and highlights bigger issues about our generations relationship standards.
I’ve seen this kind of reaction to a good looking villain on TV before, and I’ve previously contributed to this narrative. Daredevil season three had a delicious villain, Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter played by Wilson Bethel. People made accounts online in dedication to him, calling him their “sweet baby” and lavishing in his good looks and muscular physique. As a society, we seriously need to check ourselves. We consistently participate in a culture that allows attractive white men to behave badly.
Characters like Dex and Joe are not boyfriend material. If you think they are, you need to redefine your view of relationships and love. Their stories aren’t true stories, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in them. Our generation is so afraid of being alone that we accept poor behaviour from our romantic partners. Our insecurities can be seen when we romanticise characters like Joe and Dex. It shows that we hold men to a very low standard, particularly white men in our desperate longing for love.
Men like Dex and Joe, are charming, and as a result of their obsession for their love interests, they appear to be giving them their undivided attention, and that’s something we want in a relationship, someone’s undivided love and attention. As soon as this happens, the other characters and, we, as the viewers seem to ignore the red flags. For example, in You, Beck realises that Joe is following her, not once but twice. Even with this knowledge she still stays with him. Similarly, even after Dex reveals to Julie that he’s been stalking her though she is reluctant to talk to him at first, there is still a reconciliation between them.
In these shows we see the female characters forgiving the male characters for their toxic tendencies. Even as the omniscient viewers, who know better than the characters, we too forgive them. The only reason their behaviour is acceptable is because they are good looking white men. We seem to be constantly coddling these men at the expense of someone else. Most of the time it’s at the expense of women, like Beck and Julie.
I remember when I was watching Daredevil and Julie was killed at the hands of Wilson Fisk. She was barely mentioned online, like at all. In contrast Beck wasn’t forgotten, instead, she was hated. Now, Beck wasn’t a likeable character, no character in You was, apart from Ethan (Zach Cherry). Beck was flawed. She was annoying, she didn’t work very hard, and she was a cheater. But, surely that doesn’t mean she deserved to die? In the end, even when Joe killed her, there was very little sympathy for her online.
The comments read “Beck from You is a thot”, “Beck from You is punchable” and, “Beck from You got what was coming to her.” A lot of the comments made about her were about her sexual liberation, and how that makes her a “whore”. Firstly, she can fuck who she wants. Secondly, this kind of attitude is misogynistic. We seem more stressed about a woman who has a lot of sex than a man who is stalking and killing people.The scary thing is that our response to these fictional women is very telling of how we treat real women in the same position.
“On average two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales” in 2018, but how many times did we see these stories in the news? On searching the key words “domestic abuse” on the Daily Mail website the first article which mentioned abuse in the title was eleven articles down. That’s not even close to headlining news. It shows that such stories aren’t seen as important.
When a MMA fighter could “avoid prison time in spite of an audio recording of him threatening to ‘f*****g murder‘“ his wife, we might consider how leniency for good looking men coupled with the victim blaming of women is a deadly combination. I can’t help but think that had this story hit the headlines there would have been people saying it was inevitable because she married a fighter. Or, people justifying his violence because of the type of pictures she puts on Instagram just as Joe does in You. Mostly, I think people wouldn’t care. They’d continue to tweet about the Kardashians as if nothing had happened because it didn’t happen to them.
Penn Badgley mentioned in an interview with Alex Di Trolio that You, isn’t meant to be a cautionary tale for women, but perhaps should be a cautionary tale for men. Especially in the first few episodes, where Joe’s behaviour is still bad, but less extreme. He says “some men might really identify with Joe.” And if you find yourself doing that, you might want to take a step back and reflect upon yourself and your actions towards women.
You blurs the lines between love and obsession, and we should be aware that what Dex and Joe are doing is not what love is. We can be so blinded by a good looking white man, that we allow them to do whatever they want without consequences, and that is the definition of white privilege. We degrade and insult the women in these shows while praising their abusers. As Badgley asks at the end of his interview with Di Trolio, “how far are you willing to go for an evil- ass white man?”
By Halima Jibril