I Can Fix YOU: Why We Love Joe Goldberg and Hate Guinevere Beck

Spoiler warning for the Netflix show YOU and the books it’s based on, YOU and Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes, ahead.

 

This article will talk about sensitive and triggering topics such as domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, and murder. Reader discretion is advised.      

The second season of YOU, a show originally premiering on the Lifetime network before being handed off to Netflix, was released on December 26th and has since become a phenomenon. Netflix, which keeps viewing data top secret, recently released that 40 million people had tuned into YOU in under a month of it being on the platform. It seems the primary reason for this is the likability of its main character, Joe Goldberg. Joe, a serial killer who stalks the women he becomes obsessed with and keeps people in a plexi-glass box, has amassed a wide range of fans who make tweets, memes, and all sorts of posts about him. Surprisingly, many of these tweets are in favor of Joe, with people willing to be kidnapped and held in his glass box or even help him with his crimes. Despite his abuse and murder, the internet seems to still be attracted to him and relate to his character. 

In contrast, many of the tweets or posts about Joe’s season one love interest, Guinevere Beck (just known as “Beck”), who he stalks, controls, manipulates, and eventually strangles to death, are extremely negative. Regularly, Beck is mocked or even downright reviled for being promiscuous, having a shallow personality, lying about her father being dead, refusing her best friend, Peach’s, or Joe’s advances, and starting an affair with her married therapist in the show, Dr. Nicky. Some even praise Beck’s death or say they would have done the same as Joe had. Beck does not actively commit any crimes in the show, yet still, the wide opinion of her seems to be hatred.

 A staple of YOU is Joe’s inner monologue, informing the audience in 2nd person POV (where the title of the book comes from) of his thoughts on his love interest and the world around him. The main meme on social media from the show comes from this format, using ellipses to convey the calculating and analytical nature of his thought pattern, and always ending with “I can fix this...I can fix...you.” Although not all of Joe’s voice-over in the show ends with this phrase, still, it has been isolated by and large as a signature of how he views what he is doing, “helping” and “fixing”. This is not a coincidence, and in fact, is what I would argue is precisely the reason we seem to love Joe and hate women like Beck. It also mimics the pattern of real life domestic abuse situations, in which a partner or care-giver’s intentions of trying to help the person they are abusing are valued over the autonomy of their victims. In looking at why Joe’s behavior is seen as acceptable and Beck’s is not, we see in the real world why victims of domestic abuse don’t often want to come forward. As Beck’s motivations, intentions, and decisions are complicated which makes moral judgement ambiguous, so are real life victims’. 

One of the concepts introduced in the first season of YOU is precisely domestic abuse and violence. Although they do not exist in the book, Joe’s neighbor, Claudia, and her son, Paco, are victims of this by Claudia’s boyfriend, Ron. Ron’s abuse is both verbal and physical, with shouting matches between the two being heard from Joe’s apartment and Claudia ending up visibly injured time and time again. Towards the end of the season, Ron eventually puts Claudia in the hospital, and yet still, Claudia refuses to report him. Being in the hospital, Claudia is unable to account for or take care of her son, to which Joe shames her for, along with exposing Paco to violence. However, Claudia makes it perfectly clear why leaving Ron is not as easy as Joe seems to think: not only is Ron a probation officer, but Claudia is an addict whose drug use is something Ron could easily report and get Paco taken away from her for. This drug use is often spurred on by Ron’s abuse though, making it a never-ending cycle. In order to keep her son, she must give into Ron’s abuse, which triggers her to use drugs to cope, which in turn endangers her ability to keep Paco. Claudia is also a single mother and woman of color, making accessing services and higher opportunities even more of a challenge. Claudia’s life is messy, fragmented, and imperfect, and the decisions she makes not to report or put her son in harm’s way are hard to reconcile with, even knowing her reasoning. 

However, Claudia’s situation also relates to Beck’s in a different way. Claudia’s abuse by Ron is clear-cut and visible, along with audible. The bruises Ron gives Claudia, along with being able to hear him shouting at her, are recognizable signs of domestic abuse. This abuse is familiar to us as an audience as specifically “domestic abuse”, and Ron can be clearly labeled as a “wife beater” or “domestic abuser”, which Joe along with Claudia’s sister in the show, Karen, do. At the root of all domestic abuse is control and power over the victim, to which Claudia clearly identifies to us when she gives her motives for staying. 

Why, then, does Joe not get this same label? His actions function for the same purpose: to control his relationship with Beck, and in his second season love interest, Love. Joe’s actions of following Beck, breaking into her home, stealing her belongings and gaining access to her personal devices all work so he can keep tabs on her activities and judge her own behavior to make decisions about how he should manage it for her. With Love, he moves into the apartment across from her and sets up a telescope to watch her from his window, along with getting a job at the same store she works in. Joe’s inner monologue is also in constant judgement of the women he claims to love, railing against big things like choices in friends or even miniscule ones, like why they wore a specific blouse, all leading back to something having to do with him or their relationship. These are things Joe seeks to change about them, inherently wishing to mold them into the people he wants them to be. In all of these cases, Joe decides to take care of things through violence and/or death, including with both Beck and Love. Yet, Joe’s behavior is not judged the same as Ron’s, even when the outcome of them is the same. 

Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe, seems to understand why this might be, “There are times where Joe is so impossibly sympathetic and even honest and brave." The differences between Ron and Joe, and their depiction, are miles apart. As Penn rightly points out, a part of the reason we are able to see this quality in Joe is because we are constantly in his head. In the first book, Joe introduces Beck to a new word, “solipsistic.” In literary theory, when a book is solipsistic, it is one in which we are essentially trapped in the main character’s head, who seems to ramble on and draw us deeper into their world. Their thoughts mesh with our own as we read because we cannot escape their train of thought, and in order to continue to read, we must eventually reconcile their justifications for their behavior with our own. In short, in order to read a solipsistic book, we have to sympathize with the main character. In order to sympathize with the main character, they have to have qualities we can relate to. Joe’s negative analysis of the people around his love interests is usually correct, and even aside from that, Joe’s inner monologue has bits of thinking that we all do, whether it be completely hopeful or completely pessimistic, serious or silly, and absolutely sure or very confused. The violent conclusions and harsh choices he makes to “fix” those around him are overshadowed by a justification that appeals to the humanity we all have inside us, making the solipsism of the show and book work in his favor. 

Joe is presented to us as, simply, a human. A conventionally attractive, young human as well, which also influences how we view his primary motivator he gives for his actions: love. Joe’s wish to be in love fuels all his desires for the women he’s with. Being in love is a unique human experience, like a fingerprint, that touches us all in different ways but also can appeal to us all similarly. Being in love is being seen by another human being, a primal social drive ingrained in us for survival. Joe states this freely at the beginning of the second book, Hidden Bodies, “She gets it. All of it. I am known.” (Kepnes 35). What is to be in love if not to be known by the object of your affection? To know another human being on this planet understands who you are and still loves you? Primarily, in Hidden Bodies, this concept fully comes through when Joe admits to his crimes to Love, who accepts this and gets rid of evidence he left from a previous kill for him. Even at the end of the novel, as Joe sits in jail being held for the murder of Beck and Peach, he says clearly why it doesn’t matter to him, “I smile. We exist. We are both on a journey and we are both in love and that’s all anyone can hope for in life.” (Kepnes 687). This line alone demonstrates Joe’s value to those who admire him and make tweets wishing to be kidnapped by him or help with his crimes, because even though he abused the women he loved, he is right. There is nothing more that a human being can hope for in life than to find that love during their journey. 

 

But why, still, do we hate Beck, the object of Joe’s affection? If Joe’s love is so relatable and refined, then why is the person he loves, Beck, seen as so opposite? Sentiment between those who’ve read the book and seen the show seem to remain the same about disliking Beck (and full disclosure, I did not like her either), even though her character is portrayed more sympathetically within the show than the book. However, Beck’s motivations and decisions are judged more harshly. Beck chooses Benji, a trust-fund sustained drug addict who uses her for sex, over Joe in the beginning. Beck hangs around friends who are superficial, with her friend, Annika, literally being an instagram influencer whose platform mostly consists of promoting detox teas and protein shakes. She lies about many different things, to the point of cheating on Joe with her therapist, Dr. Nicky, who is married and has two children. Beck’s own social media shows how little she seems to think about anything but herself, as Benji describes “branding the ever-loving shit out of herself” for the world so that she doesn’t have to actually analyze anything more insightful. Despite being in a Masters program for English, she seems to be more concerned with social endeavours than her studies. Unlike Joe, we cannot see into Beck’s inner thoughts other than for a few seldom moments in the show or through her social media and email that Joe has access to. 

Beck’s character is simultaneously crucified and idolized by Joe right up until she freely admits to her own actions at the end of the first book, ““You don’t want me, Joe,” [...] “You think I’m this dreamy writer girl but I’m not. Nicky has every right to hate me. I fully admit it. I didn’t really want him. I just wanted him to leave his wife for me. I wanted to fuck up his kids, and yes, Joe. I do know how sick that sounds.”” (Kepnes 663). This, the crux of her character, is finally revealed, and it is not the person we believe she “should” be. Like Claudia admitting to putting her child in harm’s way and letting a man who beats her get away with it, Beck admits to being a woman with complications and harmful intentions. She admits to her faults and issues, and by doing this, she shatters the view of “innocent domestic abuse victim” that society seems to accept for those wishing to report their abusers. She did not do what we deem as “right” for a victim, and therefore, her death is justified to us. She takes away her own ability to be seen as a victim by virtue of being a human, the exact opposite of Joe, who takes away his ability to be seen as an abuser for being human. The hatred of Beck is for her humanity, as the love for Joe is for his. 

What, then, does any of this mean? Why does it matter when they are fictional characters? It matters because this is real life. Most cases of domestic violence, of which all of what Joe does to Beck and Love constitutes, are never reported in the real world despite 1 in 3 women being victims of it, as reported by the CDC. The Becks, Claudias, and Loves of the real world are all complicated humans who make mistakes or do things that may not be in their best interest. But that is because, like those who are not victims, they are human. If we allow the subtle kinds of abuse like Joe does to continue to go untalked about and underreported, we allow the type of backwards “I can fix you” patterns of abuse to continue to flourish. While the memes and posts about Joe are funny, the wide reception of both the show and book prove Kepnes’s exact point in writing them, which is that the way we view the Joe Goldbergs of society continues to let them get away with it. It is only until we acknowledge this that we can begin to make progress in helping the women they hurt.