‘You’, Romcoms, And The Culture Of Toxic Hetero Relationships
Warning: this article contains spoilers of the season 1 of the Netflix series ‘You’. Season 2 will not be discussed here.
Patriarchy is hurting women, episode 563725436423: why are we still defending Joe?
If you have had a Netflix account for a little while, chances are you have heard of the series ‘You’ – I will give it that, even if you do not have a Netflix account, you have probably heard about it too. Launched in September 2018, the show is based on a novel by Caroline Kepnes, that tells the story of Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), bookstore employee and serial killer. Yes, you read that correctly.
If you go on the show’s Wikipedia page, the first two things you learn about Joe Goldberg are that 1) he works in a bookstore and 2) he is a serial killer. I found that striking, because that is not how I remember Joe. Super creepy, stalker, threatening, supposedly prince charming, killer, even, yes. Serial killer, no. There is just a thing about the concept of serial killer as it is presented in movies that does not seem to fit with Joe, you know? After all, we are in his head. We can see why he is forced to commit murder. It is not really his fault, is it?
I must confess that I caught myself worrying over Joe getting caught a few times throughout the first season. And I know that I am not the only one. When the show first came out, I remember young girls expressing feelings of love for Joe’s character, excusing his murders on the basis of his love for Beck. Because a young, intelligent and beautiful young man who is in love cannot really be a villain, right?
It has actually become an overused critic, especially among young cis het men. That women excuse creepy behaviors in handsome and rich men, but are merciless with not-so-handsome and not-so-wealthy men. What if this highly misogynistic take was actually right? Not because women are superficial or any other sexist bullshit, but because we have been taught to equate handsome and wealthy men with Princes Charming, no matter how creepy/dangerous they are? What if we are culturally trained to not recognize red flags and toxic relationships, so that when we finally realize, it is too late?
Romcoms and the prince not so charming
The figure of the Prince Charming has existed in our society for a long, long time. It is a classical and well-known figure of fairy tales, the hero that must accomplish a quest to deliver his princess. It often involves hard, life-threatening challenges and battles against monsters – remember this part, we will go back to it later on in this article.
In recent years, this trope has been criticized, especially because it puts the agency on men and never on women. It also reinforces society’s heteronormativity by teaching all little girls that they should dream of being rescued by a Prince Charming, and every little boy to be strong, in order to protect their princess. And for those who do not fit into the above-mentioned categories, well, the message is clear: you do not fit in our society. More and more voices are speaking against this being taught to children as the only valid and desirable model.
There is no ‘consent’ in ‘romantic comedy’, only ‘oy I don’t care’ (yes, literally)
However, I would like to raise another issue here: the fact that the figure of the Prince Charming in romcom is actively preventing women from recognizing toxic behaviors. Do not believe me? Let me quickly go through classical romcom tropes.
The hero is madly in love with a girl. He asks her out, but she says no. The movie should stop here. Because consent does not only apply to sex, and you are supposed to respect other people’s nos. But the movie never stops here. The hero is so convinced they belong together, he does not care what the girl wants, and he starts harassing her until she finally says yes. Red flag 1.
The hero is madly in love with a girl. Tough luck, she is marrying someone else, because he has never voiced his feelings before. But no matter her feelings or who she loves, he is convinced they are made for each other. So, he will try to use his knowledge of her to his advantage, trying to become someone else to manipulate her into falling in love with him and ruin her marriage. Red flag 2.
The hero is madly in love with a girl, and is convinced they belong together (I know, it is starting to sound a little repetitive). So much so, that he disrupts the date she has with another man and threatens to jump from the top of the Ferris Wheel if she does not say yes. Threatening to kill yourself if the girl does not do what you want? Yeah, red flag 3 (and in case you were wondering, yes, I am referring to a scene from ‘The Notebook’).
The hero is madly in love with a girl. It unfortunately happens that the girl is getting married to his best friend. Life is tough. But, instead of letting it go, as it is an unrequited crush and, also, she is getting married to his best friend, he spends the entire wedding filming exclusively the bride. And when she realizes this (which is both creepy and disappointing, to be honest), instead of apologizing, he shows up to the door of the newly wedded couple, exhibiting a series of signs when he says he will love her forever. Remember, she has not expressed interest in him once and, also, she is married. Red flag 4.
The hero is madly in love with a girl, except he does not actually know her. He has never really talked to her. All he knows is her name, and that she looks good. But that does not prevent him from projecting an entire personality, based on nothing, on her. Which then prompts him to follow one of the four previous scenarios. Red flag 5.
I could go on and on with this. Guy meets girl and follows her across the whole country, catching a flight and showing up unannounced to her door to declare his love. Guy meets girl and follows her, because he thinks she attracts danger like a magnet and cannot take care of herself (hi, Edward Cullen). You get my point. In all of the stories, the guys do not stop to listen or respect the girls’ boundaries – they seem to think that they are just playing hard to get.
Why saying ‘they’re just movies it doesn’t matter’ is bullshit
So, at this point, I have made my point that some tropes of romcoms tend to depict toxic and dangerous behaviors and mask them as grand romantic gestures. And you might ask: why should it matter? We all know it is just fiction anyway.
Well, yes and no. We do know these movies are fiction. But sometimes, reality informs fiction and fiction informs reality. We all know that culture has a huge impact on how we construct ourselves. It helps us understand human interactions and assimilates society’s cultural codes. Fairy tales, for instance, have long been used to teach children what they should and should not do: do not talk to strangers, do not wander alone in the woods, be good and listen to your parents, etc.
Canadian studies have also found out that, for instance, certain programs might encourage young people to engage in irresponsible sexual behaviors or that violent programs can lead to increased violence in children’s behaviors. That is not to say, of course, that violent programs should be forbidden or that video games are dangerous. Simply, what you see can have an influence on how you perceive reality.
Directly related to our topic, a study of the University of Michigan, conducted by Julia Lippman, has shown that women exposed to romcoms (and who buy the movies) are more likely to adhere to stalking myths. Among such myths, we can list ‘alleged stalking victims are just people who were playing hard to get and changed their mind afterwards’ and ‘people who stalk are just really in love with the person they are harassing’ (The Atlantic, February 2016). In other words, romcoms train us to identify stalking behaviors as demonstrations of love, perpetuating the victim blaming culture.
If you want to find out more about the study, you can read the article here.
So, what about ‘You’? What about me, what about us? (no, I am just kidding with this one)
Yes, romcoms excuse dangerous behaviors and yes, it has a direct impact on how we perceive such behaviors in real life. But why exactly am I associating ‘You’ with romcoms? After all, it is listed under ‘dark’ and ‘suspenseful’ on Netflix’. You could tell me that ‘You’ is not marketed as a romcom, so there is no point in me drawing this whole comparison.
Well, it might not be advertised explicitly as a romcom, but it sure does share a lot of its codes. This, added to misconceptions about murders and serial killers, contribute to another reading of ‘You’; that it is not a thriller but a romcom and that Joe is not a serial killer but a Prince Charming, ready to kill monsters in his quest to save the princess (here we go).
And there was light
Have you ever watched ‘Isn’t It Romantic’? It is the story of an Australian architect who does not believe in romcoms and wakes up into one after having hit her head. There is an immediate change in the light when she switches to the romcom’s world. She actually notices it herself, exclaiming that ‘someone put a beauty filter over New York’.
Romantic scenes are often given a very specific lighting, that you can find over and over in your favorite movies. It is determined by two important elements: color temperature and lighting intensity. The light should be in warm tones and rather soft. A good example of this is the emblematic ‘Titanic’ scene, where Jake holds Rose at the bow of the boat:
Well, if you look at the trailer of ‘You’, season 1, or at the scene where Joe first meets Beck, the lighting is exactly the same. This immediately and instinctively makes us associate ‘You’ with romcom and gives a romantic feel to the scene. Even if Joe starts stalking Beck straight away.
‘But I’m one of the good guys’
On top of the lighting, and not mentioning the soft music, another very important element is making us associate Joe with the hero in romcoms: the way he presents himself. Throughout the season, and especially in the beginning, Joe is depicted as humane, ready to help, vulnerable, highly intelligent, protective and ready to sacrifice everything for his loved ones.
But that is also partly due to the fact that he is the narrator of his own story. We are inside his head the whole time. So, while we see all the horrific acts he commits, we also have direct access to his self-justifications. If you think about it, in most films and series, we focus on the heroes, following his character development. We are not used to being inside the head of the villain or to access their point of view – I mean, aside from the classic villain soliloquy when their master plan is revealed. There are only a few movies that put us inside of the villain’s head, but usually, those switch perspectives at some point, allowing us to realize that the good folk might not be who we think.
It thus seems logical, when we start watching ‘You’, that we identify Joe as the good guy. Especially as we have direct access to his thoughts, point of view and explanation. And that guy has got a damn good explanation for pretty much everything he does. Stalking someone, stealing their phones, attempting to kill their best friend. We obviously know this is wrong. But Joe is extremely good at making us believe his reasons are valid.
'Kepnes has mastered the likable villain with Joe, crafting an affable character with rock-solid reasoning behind all of his horrific actions — at least in his own mind.' (Rolling Stones, April 2021)
It is easy to look like a Prince if everyone else looks like a villain
What contributes to making us see Joe as a good guy, is also the way other characters romantically or sexually interested in Beck are portrayed. As the show starts, she is pictured to be in a relationship with Benji, who cheats on her. So, not really a good guy, then. Beck is also harassed by her professor, who threatens to fire her from her teaching assistant job, if she does not sleep with her - cannot really talk about a good guy here, either. Joe seems like the best (and only other) option.
'You open You Love Me and you are, as always in a You novel, lodged in Joe’s mind. You are with him, in him. (...) He’s the new guy in your life and he seems great and he knows that he seems great and if you think he’s great—and you are smart, a good judge of character, of books—well, you’re the one who was so nice to him when he got there. So, whatever comes next, that’s on you, isn’t it? And wait, are you with him or against him?' (Booktopia, April 2021)
But cue to Peach’s appearance in the show. Peach is Beck’s best friend, and she is depicted as an entitled and rich prick who requests all of Beck’s attention. Joe immediately identifies her as a rival and seeks to get rid of her. To this end, he discovers that Peach has saved tons of pictures of Beck on her computer, because she is in love with her. This secret love is depicted as creepy and unnatural, so Joe has to save Beck from her cunning best friend. Again, the best option here remains Joe – because, let us not forget that, but we see everything through Joe’s perspective. And the people around him seem so bad, that, in comparison, he starts to seem really good for Beck. And, if he kills Peach and Benji, is it not just to protect Beck? Like the Prince slays the dragon to save the princess’ life?
But there is serial killers and serial killers
At this point, Joe really does start to seem like a hero. There is, however, a small detail preventing us from completely adhering to that: his body count. And I mean that literally: Joe is a serial killer.
However, it is kind of hard to reconcile the idea of a serial killer with what we see of Joe. Indeed, when we think serial killers, we think Ted Bundy. Someone with a motive and a type of victims. Someone who kills for the thrill of it. A monster. Someone not really humane, someone whose whole life revolves around killing.
But the character of Joe is pretty good at making us think that his murders are sort of accidental; that he did not have any other choice; that he was forced to do it by circumstances, but did not really want to kill. He does not fit the pattern.
On top of that, there is a persisting myth that serial killers, murders, or rapists are not ‘normal’. That there is something wrong in them, they must be crazy. Because it is terrifying to admit that regular people can wake up and kill someone. But the vast majority of killers and rapists are not crazier than the rest of the population; they ‘just’ have been educated in a patriarchal society that has taught them that women are worth less than them and that they are entitled to do what they want with them. To believe that every murder and rapist is clinically insane is actually harmful and stigmatizing for people who live with a mental illness. So, because Joe is presented as a rational, well-thinking guy, we cannot help but think he is normal and that there is no way he is a serial killer. And this is dangerous.
We can do better than creepy, murderous stalkers as role models
All of these elements have conducted people, and especially young girls, to take Joe’s side. Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven in ‘Stranger Things’) had notoriously posted about her love for Joe on Instagram, before deleting the story.
Other watchers have also expressed admiration for Joe and the fact that he was willing to do everything (even stalk, kill and manipulate) to fulfil his obsession with Beck.
Let us be clear: I do not blame them for that, nor do I feel superior. They are, after all, only buying what we are selling them. But I think it is urgent to question the link between young girls targeted fictions focusing on heterosexual love story and promoting unhealthy and toxic relationship, and the number of adult women who find themselves imprisoned in unhealthy and toxic relationship by abusers. PSA: every bit of this is the abuser’s fault and never the victim’s, and we should have lengthy discussions on the problematic consequences of toxic masculinity.
We all know being a woman in a relationship with cis het men can be dangerous. Did you know that, in a lot of countries, as a woman, you have a higher risk of being killed by your male companion than of dying of cancer or in a car crash? Chilling, right.
So, maybe, we should stop trying to sell unhealthy relationship models to young girls. Maybe, we should start teaching them their worth. Maybe, we should tell them that no, someone who disrespects you, does not listen to your ‘no’ and makes decisions for you, is not normal. Maybe, we should teach them to recognize toxic relationships and red flags. Maybe, we should give them tools to help them survive.
In conclusion: toxic masculinity is hurting everybody so it would be a good thing to stop, abuse is never the victim’s fault but always the abuser’s, and stop selling young girls unhealthy and dangerous relationship’s models. Thank you.
And if you are interested in the topic of ending toxic masculinity (you know, as it leads to physical violence and psychological abuse and we do not think it is that great), you can have a look at these incredible projects as well:
· Men Can Be Straight And Still Intimate With Each Other: That Is Mark Yang's Message
· Challenging The Stereotypes Of Black Masculinity: A Sneak Peek At Wani Le Frere's Art
· Gabriel Novo Is Working To Amplify The Voices Of Bisexual Men