Why Does the Entertainment Industry Like to Romanticize Toxic Qualities? The New Netflix Series That Left Me Seriously Creeped Out and Conflicted

*Warning* Spoilers Ahead


I first saw trailers for the Netflix thriller/dramaYou earlier in the fall on some Instagram account and was immediately turned off to the idea of watching it. Why? Well to start, it looked kind of cheesy and the acting seemed subpar. The other reason was: Penn Badgley. No offense to him as a person, it’s just that his last character – Dan Humphrey from the hit show Gossip Girl – was not a favorite of mine. I found him clingy, whiny, selfish, and overall just annoying. So after seeing him in a trailer for a show where he would play a stalker (exhibiting those same qualities, and worse), I wasn’t too eager to log on and start binging. Eventually I came to the realization that I was out of shows to watch, and a friend suggested I give You a try… so I did. And let me just say, it did a number on me.

Everyone warns you about stalkers – they warn you about people who begin to exhibit red flags and toxic qualities in relationships and how to look out for them. What immediately struck me about this show was how Badgley’s character, Joe, exhibited two personalities throughout the episodes: an outward one and the one in his head. His opening internal monologue was terrifying, talking about Beck (the female protagonist) and analyzing all of her decisions, words, and gestures. We hear him think to himself about how she reaches for a book, and he notices she’s not wearing a bra – and therefore she wanted him to see that. It’s the same messed up idea that if a girl dresses a certain way, one can assume her motives and what she wants out of an interaction. Overall, his mental analysis gives a viewer goosebumps. Even worse, scattered throughout his thought process, an actual conversation between the two takes place, and he seems like a perfectly nice and normal guy. When Beck buys her book, Joe’s coworker suggests he look her up online since he knows her name, to which he laughs and replies that doing something like that would be “aggressive.” Yet, that’s exactly what he does.


Somehow, Joe manages to actually date Beck (and by somehow, I mean stealing her phone so he can monitor her entire life and plan his move). Throughout their relationship, we continue to see Joe’s internal and external personalities work to manipulate Beck’s affection; but to him, it’s all out of love for her. Joe kills her ex-fling Benji because he was causing her pain and also her best friend Peach because she was competition – and he feels one hundred percent justified. He did it all for her! That’s not crazy, right? That’s love! But then he… killed her… too. That is, after she discovered his true nature and all of the horrible acts he carried out.


Fans took to Twitter to respond to the show, and some of those tweets seemed a little problematic for Badgley, prompting his reply:


On the Today show, however, Badgley did backtrack a bit to explain his feelings regarding the character:


“That was partly disingenuous on my part because the whole point is he’s meant to garner a conflicted reaction,” he said. “I don’t see him as a portrayal of a real person, I see him as a representation of the part of us that identifies with him. The part of us that is a troll; that part of us that is victim blaming; the part of us that is privileged and blind. We’re meant to identify with him.”


He has a point. As much as I hate to admit it, by the end of the show I realized I was subconsciously rooting for him! I didn’t want Beck to out him, and when she almost escaped, I found myself thinking, Oh shoot no, Joe get her! and then I thought, hold up, WHY am I thinking this? I don’t know if it was because we got to see a glimpse into the abuse in his past, or the simple fact that he was the protagonist. One of the first things I learned as a Film major was to create a protagonist that an audience can sympathize with, someone that people will want to root for. The creators of You did a damn good job with that part. I also agree that the reason some of us take a certain liking to the character has to do with the embedded parts of his toxicity that we can find within ourselves as a society – even though we don’t always realize it.


I appreciate how You makes a person step back and actually think about what they’re watching and how they’re reacting to it. Too often we sit staring mindlessly at screens and subconsciously absorbing whatever messages that are being thrown at us. While I look back and realize my thoughts and opinions were all over the place, one thing remained constant: I was thoroughly creeped out, thoroughly conflicted, and thoroughly entertained.


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