Netflix’s 'You' promotes a dangerously appealing protagonist

The popular drama romanticizes its stalker lead

You's hero is also its villain.
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Netflix’s latest thriller-drama, You, is smart, bizarrely compelling, and wildly popular. But the show’s excellence doesn’t excuse how it romanticizes stalking women, whether intended or not. 
 
You excels in subverting traditional rom-com expectations while exposing the pitfalls of dating in the age of social media. It does so with enough humour and suspense to have viewers bingeing all 10 episodes in the span of a weekend. 
 
On one hand, the show’s cynical take on the horrors of modern dating is nothing short of praiseworthy. On the other, its portrayal of romantic obsession toes the line of danger. 
 
You follows Joe (Penn Badgley), a bookstore manager, whose chance encounter with customer Beck (Elizabeth Lail) marks the beginning of his unhealthy obsession. Convinced their playful flirting is an invitation into her life, Joe gleans Beck’s name from her credit card and proceeds to stalk her online and in person. 
 
Once he steals her phone, Joe gets the unrestricted ability to keep tabs on Beck’s whereabouts, follow her around New York City, and lay claim to her deepest thoughts—and does so while convincing her he’s a real-life prince charming. 
 
Since both characters are literary-minded—Joe being a bookworm, Beck an MFA student and aspiring poet—the nature of storytelling remains an important theme throughout the show. That said, Joe’s immediately given total power over the narrative, as he exerts control not only over Beck’s life but also what the viewer sees and hears.  
 
Whereas Joe’s role as Beck’s stalker allows him to decide where she goes and who she sees, his function as You’s narrator means everything the audience encounters is filtered through his perspective. 
 
During his all-consuming fascination with Beck, Joe’s incessant narration gives us access to his every thought, desire, and intention. As viewers, we’re constantly in Joe’s head. And that’s part of the problem.
 
While Beck remains Joe’s sole focus throughout You, in many ways, Joe’s our focus. Forced to follow him through his twisted quest for love, viewers see how he justifies violent actions, experiences remorse, and plays unofficial guardian to his neighbour’s neglected son, Paco (Luca Padovan).
 
Early on in the series, Joe lends Paco a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story of a monster who, in Joe’s words, is “not really the monster.” As he reads it, Paco agrees—the monster’s point of view allows readers to understand why he does what he does. The scene ends with the dangerous conclusion that while Frankenstein’s monster is problematic, he’s “not all bad [because] maybe Dr. Frankenstein’s the bad one for even making him.”  
 
In the same episode, Joe’s given the benefit of tragic flashbacks, which show him as the victim of repeated psychological abuse. No longer is he portrayed as a manipulative and violent stalker—he appears as an emotionally neglected man trying to give Paco the support Joe never had. 
 
The series tries to create empathy for an otherwise destructive predator. And, in a lot of ways, it works. 
 
Whether Joe is sneaking into Beck’s apartment to access her laptop or trailing her trip to Connecticut, viewers are bound to instinctually root for his safe getaway. This is in part thanks to the fact he plays the perfect boyfriend.
  
In the end, Beck’s shown to benefit from Joe’s constant intervention. The friend he wants her to lose proves shallow and manipulative, while the former fling she’s hooked on is, in fact, toxic. While Joe becomes the root of a lot of her problems, he’s simultaneously pegged as her saviour and improves her life in ways she couldn’t on her own.
 
While You manages to expose the grim reality of unwanted attention, it also betrays the dangerous ambiguity surrounding the culpability of stalkers. This has been evidenced by recent online controversy: Since the show’s release on Netflix, Badgley has taken to Twitter to remind infatuated fans not to romanticize or defend his morally corrupt character.
 
You is ultimately worth the watch so long as viewers maintain the right mindset. While bingeing, it’s important to remember the hero of this story is also the villain.
 

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