Netflix’s Deeply Haunting ‘You’ Is About Domestic Violence And America Can’t Stop Watching

Originally released on the Lifetime entertainment channel last September, You’s ten-episode series follows handsome Joe Goldberg (played by Penn Badgley) as he meets Guinevere Beck by chance in the bookstore he manages, before obsessively pursuing her. 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 a young woman totally dependent on him.

Joe has a habit of falling obsessively for women he then stalks and manipulates (and also, murders). Using social media and the internet, he uses every tool at his disposal to become close to her, even going so far as to remove any obstacle (including people) that stands in his way of getting to her. His “charming” yet awkward crush quickly becomes sinister when he follows her, steals her phone, murders her fling, best friend, therapist, and then eventually, her.

The most chilling part of the psychological thriller is the murky world where we’re unable to separate the ideas of romance and chivalry from stalking, gaslighting and emotional abuse. Joe’s behavior is insidious, it escalates over time and rationalizes each new leap — exactly the way a real life abuser might behave. The show invites us into his mind and shows us just how easy it is to be drawn in by toxicity.

All of this is told to the audience through Joe’s second person narration, a twisted explanation of his actions to his latest object of infatuation. Telling the story from the point of view of Joe, the homicidal stalker boyfriend, whose newest obsession Beck knows nothing of his past or his possessive behavior makes for a storyline that’s full of horror and ultimately implicates the viewer (who unwittingly gets charmed by Joe).

The decision to narrate You mostly from the abuser’s perspective is hauntingly clever — it invites the viewer into Joe’s mind from the beginning, showing the viewer how he can rationalize his awful behavior and to make you complicit with it too. And that’s deliberate.

The horror and suspense of the show really takes on another layer when it puts you, the viewer, on the same proverbial side as a killer. As you watched the show, I know you were thinking, “well, yeah, Beck should have installed curtains,” or “that girl Peach was such a bitch.” Then there you are, thinking “Wait, this guy SUCKS… but I like him?” You’re rationalizing his behavior. You’re rationalizing a sociopath’s behavior.

Against a socioeconomic and political culture of constant abuse, online stalking, emotional blackmail, gaslighting consistently being dismissed or glamorized as romantic, and victims being blamed for their abusers’ toxic behavior, it’s easy to see why the reaction to You has played out the way it has.

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. Perhaps because of how familiar Joe is to us, the reaction to You online has seen some viewers defending him, romanticizing him, and, perhaps most worryingly, displaying some serious victim blaming. 

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 armor. He has good taste in literature, he’s funny, he shuns social media. He despises the inauthentic upper class socialites Beck associates with.  He’s also really handsome. He even has an adorable little brother figure to protect from an abusive step-father to look after. There’s an honest and vulnerable human side of Joe (or so we think). From most angles, Joe looks like a ‘Good Dude’. But then (spoiler alert), he kills three people in the show’s 10 episode arch.

Of course, we’ve seen this many times in media. The bad boy will always have its sexual allure. It’s not a new thing for a handsome ‘nice dude’ to actually be a fucking crazy person. If you like this show, you might try Dexter or American Psycho

We even see this in real life… especially with white men who are often forgiven for their horrible behavior.

Is Joe Goldberg Supposed To Remind Viewers of Gossip Girl‘s Dan Humphery, both played by Penn Badgley?

The casting of Penn Badgley and Shay Mitchell (best known for her role as Emily on Pretty Little Liars) feels intentional given that they are both wildly known for their roles in YA television dramas. Perhaps this casting encouraged fans (like myself) of both GG and PLL to want to watch You, but also to use their love of Gossip Girl to make them fall in love with Joe, too.

Penn Badgley, who plays Joe Goldberg in the Lifetime/Netflix drama, is most known by viewers for his role on Gossip Girl. Both characters played by Badgley have striking similarities: mysterious, shady, book-loving, hipster outsiders with an affinity for social media and blondes.

In Gossip Girl, Dan regularly gaslit, put down, judged, stalked, humiliated and damaged the reputation of Serena… along with creating the most infamous blog on the Upper West Side.

It’s easy to see the similarities. Is Joe simply Dan gone bad but with a pick axe instead of an anonymous blog? What if Dan went crazy after everyone found out he was Gossip Girl and assumed a new identity as Joe Goldberg?

There’s a Twitter fan theory floating around that the original book, released in 2014, was actually a fan fiction for Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. But I digress.

You uses social media and the internet in a similar way as GG did; to intimidate. So, imagine Gossip Girl, but instead of a ‘Lonely Boy’ blogging about his high school crush, he’s a full-blown violent psychopath. That’s You.

Is Joe Goldberg A Cold-Hearted Psychopath or A Hot-Headed Sociopath?

A key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice inside that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong. A psychopath has no conscience. A sociopath has a conscience but has no regard about the ramifications of their actions. A psychopath sees others as objects they can use for their own benefit.

Psychopaths are extremely charming and confident, often with deep narcissism. Psychopaths are incapable of feeling empathy and have little to no qualms about lying and manipulating situations to suit their needs. It’s an extremely powerful powerful weapon.

While I’m not qualified to diagnosis his psychosis, I’m pretty sure Joe is a psychopath. He projects his persona so eloquently to be likable, like psychopath do, that the viewer (you), and Beck, are unable to see what’s really happening.

Gaslighting, emotional manipulation, stalking, digital harassment, blackmail, doxing…

Sometimes it’s easy just to think of tv shows as something we put on in the background or half-ass watch while we scroll mindless through feeds of people doing way cooler shit than sitting on their couch, but often, it’s a mirror of our own lives. You deals with a very important subject matter: domestic violence.

What Joe does to Beck prior to murdering her is ABUSIVE. But why can’t we look away? Helen Donahue explores this topic in her Playboy article on Ted Bundy fandom.

Unfortunately, popular culture has conditioned women since childhood into believing if we put enough emotional labor into men, we’ll be rewarded when suddenly, by the end of the movie, our quintessential bad boy who initially either stalked us, acted aggressively, rejected our rejections entirely (or all of the above) transforms into a man worth loving, and treats us all like the princesses we are. 

You is both unsettlingly creepy and binge worthy and its surprise ending leaves viewers ready for season two.

Watch Season 1 of You on Netflix now. Season 2 of You is currently in production.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this show! Did you watch it? Did you find yourself rooting for Joe? Beck? Peach?

Author: Becca Risa Luna

Seattle-based fashion writer and personal essayist. Likes designer handbags, glaring openness, and subtle vulgarity.

One thought

  1. I was completely immersed in it from the first episode. Like you described, I was rationalizing alongside Joe throughout the season! You did such a great job of touching on all of those manipulative and psychotic tendencies. Will definitely be watching Season 2.

    Liked by 1 person

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