‘You’ and ‘Barry’ are quiet commentaries on white male privilege

How far will we go to forgive these straight white male protagonists?

Image by: Shelby Talbot
Joe Goldberg and Barry Berkman are oddly sympathetic characters.

Joe Goldberg, the protagonist of the television show You, and Barry Berkman, the titular character from HBO’s Barry, have a lot in common: they both want nothing more than to fit in and feel loved, they’re both striving to become better people, and they’re both self-centred killers.

Part of what makes these series so compelling is how they manage to keep audiences rooting for their protagonists who are transparently bad people—Joe and Barry are well-loved by fans despite their worst tendencies. This phenomenon raises a vital question: just how far are we willing to go to forgive straight white men?

Joe’s a bookstore employee and serial murder who’s killed eight people on-screen during the first two seasons of You—including his girlfriend—but his good looks, charming personality, and self-heroizing narration have many viewers nursing a soft spot for him. When Joe has a run-in with law enforcement, you don’t want him to face the repercussions he justly deserves; when he’s confronted with the emotional fallout from his murderous actions, you feel bad for him. 

Barry’s a violent assassin who’s self-interests propel his killing—by the show’s second season, it’s obvious the Marine-turned-contract-killer-turned-actor doesn’t just kill people when he’s being manipulated by his handler into thinking it serves the greater good. But his own belief that he’s a fundamentally good person seeps into the audience, and you want Barry to find the sense of belonging he so desperately wants out of life, even though he should be owning up to his actions instead.

It goes beyond thinking the characters make for interesting television—there’s a nagging part of me that actually likes Joe and Barry, even though I can objectively recognize that they’re awful people. It’s an uncomfortable sensation to say the least.

Both shows do an excellent job of making their antihero protagonists sympathetic characters, and a lot of that success can be attributed to clever writing and skilled portrayals from Penn Badgley (Joe) and Bill Hader (Barry). However, another significant factor that makes viewers reluctantly taken with these characters is the shows’ leveraging of the well-established trope of maybe-redeemable, definitely irredeemable white men. 

We’ve seen this white male privilege reflected in television time and time again: Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother is fatphobic and terrible to women, yet he’s a fan-favourite; Michael Scott from The Office gets the benefit of being redeemed from his ignorant and harmful season one self, while characters like Kelly Kapoor remain, for the most part, stagnant and unlikeable.

I’d go as far as to say that Joe and Barry are generally better liked than their women character counterparts. Beck (You) and Sally Reed (Barry) are condemned for being imperfect and a little self-absorbed—which they absolutely are—but their boyfriends are so obviously worse that their flaws should pale in comparison. If you walk away from an episode of You thinking Beck is awful but Joe is likeable, this may be a good opportunity to reflect on internalized misogyny. 

We probably don’t need more television that angles to have us forgive deeply flawed, violent men over and over, but to lump You and Barry in with shows that leave their characters’ straight white male privilege entirely unaddressed would be a mistake. 

Both shows could be more explicit in this messaging—because they depend on sympathy for their characters, they still use Joe and Barry’s male whiteness to their advantage—but the deliberate way these series make their viewers uncomfortable for liking their protagonists calls some attention to their privilege.

There are valid criticisms levelled against both Barry and You—namely, their propensity for violence against women—and it’s difficult to say whether or not their subtle messaging about our biases towards straight white male characters outweighs the fact that the shows still cast these bad men in a forgiving light. If you don’t stop to think about why you root for Joe and Barry, their positive effect is lost. 

You and Barry are far from a solution to the plague of questionable to downright deplorable white male protagonists on television, but they do spawn important conversation. The shows demonstrate a refreshing element of self-awareness, and it’s contagious—when I find myself hoping for the best for Joe and Barry, I’m left to confront my own internal biases. 


Commentary, Television

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