Does ‘You’ Romanticise Stalking?


The Gryphon discusses the dangerous romanticisation of Penn Badgley’s character in the latest Netflix hit series, You.

At first glance, You, the recent Netflix hit drama, might seem like your average love story – boy meets girl, falls in love, and then attempts to win her over by figuring out her likes and dislikes. However, this is not your classic tale of romance.

This is a warning – if you don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now. The series is in fact about a psychopathic killer who sets out to win the female protagonist’s love, no matter what the cost. His efforts to win her over lead him to stalking, gaslighting, emotional abuse, stealing her valuables and eventually murdering her previous boyfriend and best friend.

When stated as bluntly as the above, we would immediately assume that the character of Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgley, would be seen as the villain and despised by the majority of viewers.

Yet, perplexingly, on the whole, this appears to not be the case. It seems quite the opposite phenomenon has occurred on social media, where users have taken to platforms such as Twitter to document their hate for Beck and love for Joe. But how can this be the case when the whole premise of the show is based on a murderous stalker? How can we hate the victim in all of this and romanticise the perpetrator? This raises a very interesting question: do shows such as You highlight the devastating threat of stalking in a social media age, or do they in fact glamourise this dangerous obsession?

The author of the book-turned Netflix show, Caroline Kepnes, has striven to avoid this narrative. Her aim was to satirise the commonly held view that men are the active participants in a relationship whilst the female counterpart is merely passive and awaits for him to demonstrate his love. The show attempts to fulfil Kepnes’ wishes. However, there is a fine line between what is considered romantic and what is seen as emotional abuse, and unfortunately, the predominant audience response to the show falls short of Kepnes’ intentions.

So, why is this the case? The use of Joe’s first-person narration, meaning that we largely hear his side of the story, is a clever cinematic device but one that may have had unintentional effects. It allows the audience to assess situations from his perspective, leading us into the trap of sympathising with him and even rationalising his actions. However, whilst Kepnes’ goal was to highlight how terrifyingly easy it is to become complicit with a killer when we are allowed insights into situations from his perspective (all the more so when they seem to be portrayed from an ordinary person), what the show failed to do was make this point explicitly obvious. It is all too easy to watch the series and fall victim to Joe’s charisma without sitting back and questioning what you have just watched.

Instead, the series shows numerous forms of stalking and emotional abuse, whilst at the same time normalising this behaviour due to Joe’s first-person narration and various internal monologues. This would have, and has had, some very serious effects on its audience, with numerous people blaming the victim on various social media platforms and viewing his actions as normal.

Furthermore, with the recent release of the new Ted Bundy trailer starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, it is evident that controversy is rife when dealing with this topic. This particular trailer and upcoming film are even more controversial as it is based on real-life events, throwing up numerous ethical concerns. People have been questioning if the trailer has accurately portrayed Bundy, or whether it seems to present him as more of an anti-hero due to the music choice for the trailer making it more like an action film rather than a thriller.

Once again, we have a clear-cut example where killers have become sexualised by the media. Whilst it is apparent that Bundy used his charisma and physical appearance to lure in his victims, thus it would be wrong for the film to undermine this aspect of his character, there is, however, a difference between portraying this and becoming victim to it. Rather than condemning this threatening nature and highlighting how killers can disguise themselves as ordinary civilians – which the media has failed to do in this trailer – it has instead simply glamourised an extremely violent criminal in an already over-commercialised age. Both the trailer and You fall victim to romanticising very real and serious threats, having far-reaching effects in a social media age where news and ideas can be passed instantly among thousands of people.

Despite many viewers failing to recognise the show’s true intentions, it is apparent that Badgley has been fighting back against those who advocate their sympathy for the character of Joe. Taking to Twitter, he has responded to numerous tweets to remind viewers of the character’s murderous tendencies and why we should not be lusting after him. Badgley has admitted that the terrifying romanticisation of his character has given him all the more motivation for season two of the series, meaning he will actively try to step up the creepiness of his character, hopefully resulting in the show finally achieving what it set out to do. Whilst You had a great potential to address the very real threat of stalking in a social media age, as well as the opportunity to increase awareness surrounding this concerning topic, it insteads normalises the same issue it sought to prevent. The worrying matters that the show aims to ignite a conversation about are something that anyone can use to examine how they use and manage their own social media accounts. Let’s hope season two does a better job at highlighting plainly the problem at hand.

The recent Netflix hit drama, ‘You’, might at first glance seem like your average romantic story – boy meets girl, falls in love and then attempts to win her over by figuring out what she likes, dislikes and adapts accordingly.

However, this is not your classic love story.

Spoiler alert, it is in fact about a psychopathic killer who sets out to win the character of Guinevere Beck’s love, no matter what the cost – even if that happens to involve the not so light matters of stalking, gaslighting, emotional abuse, stealing her valuables and eventually murdering her previous boyfriend and best friend.

When stated as bluntly as the above, we would immediately assume that the character of Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgley, would be seen as the villain and despised by the majority of viewers.

Yet most perplexingly, on the whole, this appears to not be the case. In fact, the opposite has seemed to arise on social media, where users have taken to platforms such as Twitter to document their hate for Beck and love for Joe. But how can this be when the whole premise of the show is based on a murderous stalker? How can we hate the victim in all of this and romanticise the perpetrator? Yet the main question that emerges from all of this is clear: do shows such as ‘You’ highlight the devastating threat of stalking in a social media age, or do they in fact facilitate and perpetuate this romanticism and expose media’s masculinity faults?

The author of the book-turned Netflix show, Caroline Kepnes, has striven to avoid this narrative. Her aim was to satirise the commonly held view that men are the active participants in a relationship whilst the female counterpart is merely passive and awaits for him to demonstrate his love. The show attempts to fulfil Kepnes’ wishes, however there is a fine line between what is considered romantic and what is seen as emotional abuse, and unfortunately, the predominant audience response to the show falls short of Kepnes’ intentions.

So why is this the case? The use of Joe’s first-person narration, meaning that we largely hear his side of the story, is a clever cinematic device but one that may have had unintentional effects. It allows the audience to assess situations from his perspective, leading us into the trap of sympathising with him and even rationalising his actions. However, whilst Kepnes’ goal was to highlight how terrifyingly easy it is to become complicit with a killer when we are allowed insights into situations from his perspective (all the more so when they seem to be portrayed from an ordinary person), what the show failed to do was make this point explicitly obvious. It is all too easy to watch the series and fall victim to Joe’s charisma without sitting back and questioning what you have just watched.

Instead, the series perpetuates and demonstrates various forms of stalking and emotional abuse, whilst at the same time normalising this behaviour due to Joe’s first-person narration and various internal monologues. This would have, and has had, some very serious effects on its audience, with numerous people blaming the victim on various social media platforms and viewing this behaviour as normal.

Furthermore, with the recent release of the new Ted Bundy trailer starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, it is evident that controversy is rife when dealing with this particular topic. The factors that make this particular trailer and the upcoming film even more controversial is due to the fact it is being based on real-life events, throwing up numerous ethical concerns. People have been questioning whether the trailer has accurately portrayed Bundy, or whether it seems to present him as more of an antihero due to the music choice for the trailer making it more like an action film rather than a thriller.

Once again, we have an instance where killers have become somewhat sexualised by the media. Whilst it is apparent that Bundy used his charisma and physical appearance to lure in his victims, thus it would be wrong for the film to undermine this aspect of his character, there is, however, a difference between portraying this and becoming victim to it. Rather than condemning this threatening nature and highlighting how killers can disguise themselves as ordinary civilians, which the media has failed to do in this trailer, it has instead simply glamorised an extremely violent criminal in an already over-commercialised age. Both the trailer and ‘You’ fall victim to romanticising very real and serious threats, thus having far-reaching effects in a social media age where news and ideas can be passed instantly among thousands of people.

Despite many viewers failing to recognise the show’s true intentions, it is apparent that actor Penn Badgley has been and continues to fight back against those who advocate their sympathy for the character of Joe. Taking to Twitter, Badgley has responded to numerous tweets to remind viewers of the character’s murderous tendencies and why we should not be lusting after him. Badgley has admitted that the terrifying romanticism of his character will give him all the more motivation for season two of the series. At least one positive that can be gleaned from all of this: Badgley will be stepping up the creepiness of his character, hopefully resulting in the show finally achieving what it set out to do.

Whilst ‘You’ had great potential to address the very real threat of stalking in a social media age and take steps towards combatting this issue, it instead however perpetuates and even in some cases facilitates the same issue it sought to prevent. The vital and worrying issues that the show aims to perpetuate is something that anyone can use to examine how they use and manage their own social media accounts. Let’s hope season two does a better job at highlighting plainly the issue at hand.

Meg Jacobs