Netflix’s new show “you” is genius
Recently, Netflix released a new show entitled “You” starring Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley. The show follows the story of a bookstore manager’s turbulent relationship with an aspiring writer. If you intend to watch this show and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading here! (and come back later)
If you need a summary/need me to jog your memory, here’s a little run through of the story.
So basically, what happens in the story is Badgley’s character Joe meets Lail’s character Beck in his bookstore and immediately is taken with her. What seems like love at first sight quickly escalates to an obsessive infatuation with Beck, eventually ending with her death after a very spiteful Joe realizes Beck would never love him.
This show was truly chilling to watch and I haven’t been left so affected by a show in a very long time. Often with thrillers and similar style shows, the villain is clearly established at the beginning and is obviously hateable in nearly every way, yet “You” takes an entirely different approach when approaching Joe’s character development.
At the very beginning of the show, Joe is quite likable; he’s intelligent, well-spoken, and seems like an overall good guy. In fact, Joe constantly goes out of his way to help his young neighbor Paco, who’s mother has an extremely abusive boyfriend. Additionally, because the first few episodes take place through Joe’s perspective, the audience gets the idea that Joe is a nice guy that just wants to love and protect the beautiful “damsel in distress”, Beck.
As the show continues, Joe’s true colors are shown more and more, and yet, the audience can still empathize with him. Joe takes Beck’s phone, tracks her, reads her texts, and constantly says emotionally manipulative things to her, yet many people watching might write this off as a guy who is hopelessly in love with a clueless girl trying his best to protect and care for her. Joe even goes as far as murdering two of Beck’s friends, which he rationalizes by claiming that they were bad for her, and therefore he was protecting her.
Of course when you read about Joe and consider his personality in retrospect, he’s grossly and completely a disgusting human being. However, watching the show develop before your eyes is a completely different story. Joe is so skilled at making people like him that, in spite of everything he’s done, he even fooled the audience.The most chilling part of this is that this type of person is not as fictitious as to might seem; coming across a Joe is entirely feasible. Joe is the epitome of a realistic real-life villain.
Joe is attractive enough to be approachable, but not attractive to the point that you’d expect arrogance or narcissism. He fades into the background as an unremarkable bookstore manager, so the audience almost feels bad for him when seeing how much he wants to fit in Beck’s elite life. His internal monologue constantly reassures that everything he does, he does for love and to do the right thing. These factors all lead the audience to think, “oh, he’s not so bad.” But that’s exactly what he would want you to think, and that’s exactly what he wanted Beck to believe in the final moments of her life.
If you fell victim to Joe manipulation, you’re not a fool and you’re definitely not the only one. Many people who have watched the show, especially teenage girls, find Joe redeemable and even place the blame on Beck for not appreciating all he did for her.
To me, this reveals the bigger issue of society’s understanding of toxic masculinity and toxic relationships in general. Toxic masculinity is not always going to be as obvious as a troglodytic athlete harassing a peer for opting to take a dance class. Toxic relationships will not always be as obvious as apparent domestic abuse.
Joe’s constant assertion that he needs to protect Beck from the work perfectly exemplifies the subtleties of toxic masculinity. Even though Joe is a geeky, self-proclaimed intellectual, the basis for his actions in relation to Beck are that Beck is a clueless woman (correction: he uses the word “girl” as if he wasn’t being demeaning enough) that needs him all the time to protect her because she’s too dumb to take care of herself. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not; Joe says this verbatim on multiple occasions.
Additionally, in terms of relationships, Joe reveals the subtleties of a toxic relationship. Joe encourages Beck to write, which is good, because who you’re in a relationship with should encourage you to move towards your goals. However, Joe encourages Beck to write by forcing her to confront trauma she obviously wasn’t ready to confront, isolating her from her friends, and bossing her around like a parent would a child. Joe does this all under the guise of trying to help Beck be her best self, which sometimes had positive outcomes, but that does not mean his behavior was not abusive. Joe constantly controls aspects of Beck’s life, then expects her to be appreciative of it and makes her feel guilty if she isn’t.
An obviously toxic relationship with a man who adhered to obvious toxic masculinity was present in the show, so many people watching did not see how these factors played a role in Joe and Beck’s relationship until thinking about the show in retrospect.
These things in mind, it’s extremely troubling that people still like Joe. Yes, this show is fictional, but it’s real enough to make me wonder; will the people who accept this behavior from Joe through a screen accept this from people they see on a day to day basis?
Joe is definitely not the first character to stimulate this kind of thought: following the release of the final Harry Potter movies, many had much to say about Snape’s redemption. Snape put Harry and other students through endless stress and was unnecessarily emotionally insensitive, but it was all suddenly cool because his toxic masculinity could be covered by the fact that he was in love with Harry’s mother and was bullied as a teen. Many people even believe that Snape’s one-sided obsession with Harry’s mother is romantic, which is reflected in the belief that Joe’s obsession with Beck is somehow romantic and justifiable.
Anyway, there’s been a history of “Joes” in a entertainment. While we’ve been harder to fool lately, there’s still too many people that like the Joes of the world. Next time someone like this pops up in fiction or in reality, we must ask ourselves, “when will we stop accepting this behavior and when will we stop teaching it?” And maybe some of us need to ask ourselves, “am I the Joe in someone’s life?”