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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Hit Series 'You' problematizes media's cliché romantic lead

A promotional poster for 'You' (2018–) is shown.

The hit series “You,” which premiered on Lifetime, follows Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley)’s relationship from its twisted inception to its tragic ending through the lens of Joe’s demented mind. From the show’s first encounter between Beck and Joe, the viewer can quickly tell that Joe is bad news. However, as the show's popularity spread, many alarmingly found Joe to be charming, even going so far as to say he was desirable. What the show does so well is show that the men we should fear most are not just wallowing away in their basements. They can be romantic, charming and charismatic, and are manipulative enough to convince their romantic partners that what they are doing is not only healthy, but also necessary, in their counterpart’s lives.

“You" often feels very much like any other romantic comedy set in New York City. Beck is an inexperienced girl from outside the city, and Joe is the handsome New Yorker set to sweep her off her feet. After Beck and Joe interact for the first time in the bookstore where he works, Joe goes on Beck’s social media to find out what kind of person she “pretends to be.” Joe figures out where Beck lives by depositing an Instagram photo into a Google image search. He figures out that Beck is working on an MFA in writing from Columbia University and proceeds to stalk her there.

He finds out that Beck went to Brown University and that she tries her best to keep up with her wealthier friends while struggling to stay afloat in New York. After stalking her on a night out, Joe has that pivotal moment where he actually interacts with Beck and saves her life after she drunkenly falls onto the subway tracks. Through this interaction, he gets ahold of Beck’s phone and consistently checks it throughout the series. In a series of murders that continue throughout the series, Joe targets anyone close to Beck.

Joe plays the classic role of knight in shining armor here, and that is all that Beck sees. However, the viewer is aware of Joe’s stalking. His manipulation worsens after the two share a cab home together, and the viewer knows how carefully Joe is phrasing his sentences. He even slips up at one point, exposing that he knows more than he should but somehow manages to cover it up with ease.

The first episode foreshadows the rest of the show and Joe and Beck’s relationship. Just as Joe is losing his grip, she becomes more interested and more convinced of his total love for her. Beck ignores all of the red flags until it is too late. Beck is convinced that Joe makes her a better writer, a better person even. She is horrifically unaware of the people Joe has murdered in order to get closer to her. When she does find out, to say it does not go well is an understatement.

When Joe rescues Beck from the tracks, Beck hesitates for a moment, wondering whether she should take her phone with her. This trope is a bit overdone as a classic millennial dilemma — no phone or death. The show’s Lifetime production often gets in the way to be over dramatic, especially later on in the show as Joe gets more and more murderous. For Season 2, Netflix will be taking over the drama’s production, which will hopefully result in an emphasis on what makes the show meaningful instead of cheesy.

Critics have pointed out that Joe is not all too different from famous rom-com characters like John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything” (1989) and Zack Siler as Freddie Prinze Jr. in “She’s All That" (1999). The show begins to complicate the narratives of these stories. There are many times in “You” where the viewer might feel compelled to yell at Beck for her ignorance, and other times where the viewer is also caught up in Joe’s charms. It illustrates how social media has made stalking easy and undetectable. That truly is a frightening reality that runs through the show. Even Penn Badgley had to say on Twitter that people should not lust after Joe, and that people’s misinterpretation of the show fuels him to do it even more. “You” demonstrates how rom-coms and novels push this problematic narrative of the chivalrous knight-in-shining-armor character who is set to woo the main female character and fix everything in her life. In his demented mindset, Joe justifies murdering others and stalking Beck as if these behaviors are in her own self-interest. The show demonstrates how very real and dangerous these tropes are and how they can manifest themselves in violent ways in real life.