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Does Netflix’s ‘You’ romanticize toxic relationships?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Queen's U chapter.


In today’s society, there is already a special fascination with stories that involve serial killers, stalkers and tragic events. Unlike other shows that paint these people and events as gruesome, sadistic and animalistic, Netflix’s latest show, You, takes this fascination and combines it with another of society’s favourite story type; romance. This combination has led to You rising in popularity, with an estimated 40 million viewers of season one in the first month alone. But is the show actually normalizing unhealthy and toxic relationships? 

What is You about?

You shows the typical nice guy, Joe (played by Penn Badgely), in a big quest to find true love. He’s a self-identified romantic, who believes and desperately wants to find “true love”. While his goals – to find his one true love and be with her forever – are many people’s dream, he takes his journey a bit too far by involving a lot of illegal activities in order to get his happily ever after. Despite these questionable behaviours and actions, the character Joe has received a lot of praise and admiration by viewers who think his actions are purely romantic instead of creepy and therefore totally okay. These actions include; manipulation, stalking, abuse and even murder, all which Joe claims to be “for the woman he loves”. This positive response to this leads to the question; is the way the show is made actually normalizing toxic relationships? While his “I’ll do anything for you” attitude is romantic at first glance, in reality he displays some extremely toxic behaviour that should not be considered normal in a relationship. ​

Is his stalking meant to be considered a form of love?

Joe has an interesting tendency to fixate and obsess about a woman that he is convinced is “the one”. But does his newfound love make it okay for him to completely violate their privacy? In the show, Joe uses different methods to keep tabs on his target. He uses social media to learn more about her life, her friends, her family and her job. In season one he even goes so far as to find out addresses, so he can, as he puts it, “pop by and make sure she’s okay”. He spends countless hours watching his victims through their windows, breaking into their places and even taking some of their belongings as “tokens”. Despite his actions being completely illegal, not to mention creepy, the narration provides the audience with Joe’s justification for why he is doing it. This way, the audience focuses on Joe’s charismatic voice and romantic thoughts about how much he claims to loves these women, and this completely undermines the true disturbing nature of his actions; that he is stalking them. 

While most people would consider stalking a deal breaker, what about some of Joe’s behaviours that fall within a gray zone between acceptable vs. unacceptable? For example, his obsession with checking his partners phone. The character needs constant affirmation that his partners aren’t lying, cheating or hurting him. He reasons to himself that he does it because he needs to make sure that they are “safe” or trustworthy, but is that justification? In a real relationship, a partner who needs constant reassurance about the relationship to the point of privacy invasion should be considered a big red flag. 

The whole “I’ll do anything for you” bit: 

Another key aspect to Joe’s personality is that he, as he says, will do anything for the person he loves. While this may involve small things like doing their laundry, it also involves murdering ex boyfriends and friends. Through Joe’s narration in the show, the viewers are presented with the reasoning as to why he absolutely had to kill these people. He either considered them a threat to his relationship, a danger to his partner or he just deemed them a bad person. And while not all of these characters were saints, was it really Joe’s place to decide their punishment? The show justifies every violent act committed by Joe in some way that ultimately sends the message that what he is doing is okay. The show is promoting the message of a twisted “white knight”, like joe, who is allowed to do horrible things for romantic reasons. However romantic the whole “I would do anything for you” mentality is, the excuses, “it was for love”, or, “but they deserved it”, will never make these actions okay. 

The past: How much should it excuse the present: 

You not only provides insight into Joe’s current thoughts, but it also gives an insight into his past. Especially in the second season, a number of scenes are shown that illustrate his tumultuous childhood. From the violent and abusive bookstore owner that took care of Joe in his adolescence, to his abusive father and flakey mother, the audience gets a real view into why Joe is the way he is. At first it makes us sympathize and realize where Joe’s behaviour stems from, almost making us want to shift all blame for his actions from him to his childhood. However, further thought makes us beg the question; is the past a valid excuse for current behaviour? Everyone has experienced rough times in life, but it doesn’t serve as an excuse for any type of inappropriate and especially violent behaviour towards others. A person shouldn’t let their partners past serve as an excuse for any type of inappropriate, manipulative or abusive behaviour in the present. 

While the show itself is entertaining, audiences should take an objective look at Joe’s actions within his relationships. Even though the intentions behind his behaviour almost seem to make his actions justifiable, they should not be excused in real life. In a real-life relationship, audiences shouldn’t be wanting their own Joe Goldberg, but instead using him as a reference as what behaviours to avoid. 

Laura Wilson

Queen's U '21

Laura Wilson is an Art History and Psychology Major at Queen's University. She loves hiking, environmental sciences and wildlife with a special passion for writing.
HC Queen's U contributor