‘You’ teaches us to look beyond our raving romanticism

Penn Badgley stars in the Netflix series “You” as New York bookstore manager Joe Goldberg. Courtesy: Alatele fr from Flickr

This article contains spoilers.

Imagine this: a warm, glowing morning in Brooklyn. In a cozy niche bookstore, Joe is doing his job, dusting off antique novels and rearranging titles on the shelves. Joe, endearingly sheepish in a light-blue button-up, is an intellectual with a boyish face and dreamy eyes. He is your average Joe — until she walks in.

Beck, with her wispy golden hair and carefree nature, enters looking for a Paula Fox novel. Beck and Joe meet when she asks where to find the book, and from there it’s all gleaming eyes and witty banter. They both enjoy wry humor, and it’s refreshing for both of them to meet someone with genuine taste in literature. She slyly clues him into her name by paying with credit, and as she leaves, Joe casts a longing glance.

They absolutely belong together, don’t they?

“You,” a Netflix series based on the best-selling novel by Caroline Kepnes, attempts to answer this question.

For the raving romantic, the answer might be a “yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes!” And I too, would be lying if I said I wasn’t a sucker for the “two unassuming people stumble upon each other and have fleeting connection” trope. Why shouldn’t we root for them?

“You” employs all the rom-com stereotypes: sunshine girl meets brooding boy and colors his life with meaning, nice guy “selflessly” supports girl as she chooses trashy men, nice guy is the only one who truly sees girl for who she is and more. Then it confronts us with how flawed our romanticizations are.

At first, Joe seems like the ideal leading man. He is charming, seeks genuine companionship and, in the pilot, literally rescues Beck after she falls on the subway tracks. In the rom-com universe, that type of heroic timing equals true love forever.

But the exposition of these scenes is crucial to the seductive horror of “You.” Each seemingly fated, meet-cute moment is meticulously calculated by Joe as his infatuation grows obsessive. And we have to watch as Beck unwittingly falls in love with him.

What’s even more chilling is that at some points, we want her to. There are compelling aspects of Joe that warrant empathy, and the show even adds a character named Paco to paint Joe in a chivalrous light. Paco is a vulnerable, young boy who endures abuse from his mom’s drunkard boyfriend. After long days at work, Joe nurtures him. Throughout the show, the tone of “You” vacillates from wicked to wholesome, and the lines that define Joe’s morality seem to blur.

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The strange cognitive dissonance I felt while watching the show was what made it so addictive. I hated seeing parts of myself in Joe, because at other times I detested him.

I’m sure it’s not uncommon for one to desperately love the idea of love, to filter through a crush’s social media, check their Snapchat location or mysteriously appear in said crush’s line of sight at a dining hall.

But Joe manipulates the story to portray himself as a misunderstood romantic with good intentions. He’s not stalking Beck — he’s just getting to know her so he doesn’t get hurt. His behavior isn’t controlling and neurotic — to him, it’s earnest and born from concern for her wellbeing.

Luckily, “You” makes it clear that its misogynistic positioning and weak justifications are intentional. It gives credit to the power of miseducation. Joe’s strict adherence to his personal code, one that was undoubtedly shaped by his father’s abuse, is a testament to unhealthy cycles.

It is often stressed that Joe grew up and came to understand life only through books — cliché books about white male triumph. His own romanticizations are shown to be a product of the old-school chivalry he grew up on.

When Beck gushes, “you take care of me; no one has ever taken care of me” to Joe as a way of escaping, she plays on Joe’s sensibility to think of himself as her benevolent savior. “You” then tackles the idea of how men are conditioned to believe they know what’s best for women, and how “protection” is used to excuse stripping autonomy.

It is no accident that in the finale, as Beck flees, she encounters Paco. When he refuses to open the door and release her from Joe’s torture chamber, “You” creates powerful symbolism for the passing of toxic masculinity.

The reality is that, for as long as we propagate the narrative that love is obsessive, that it doesn’t give up, that it requires men to persist despite all “obstacles,” women will continue to be silenced and oppressed, their stories framed within the caricature of male desire.

Is controlling, coercive behavior still abuse if it’s in the name of love? “You” hopes that by the end of its 10-episode arc, we can all give a resounding yes.

And to the initial “don’t they belong together?” The answer is “hell no.”

Amber Chong SC ’22 probably spends too much time daydreaming. She’ll come back to Earth to fight you for the last slice of cake, though.

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