I initially followed YOU at a distance, not directly engaging with the show for some time, but found it addicting to refresh my feed and watch new tweets trickle in. Looking back, my behavior mirrored Joe’s. At the time, I thought of myself as a scrupulous hater, pacing back and forth over the internet for bad takes—but I resisted responding to supporters of the show online. The Internet felt like a minefield for me, a place of danger. The reason I never used social media and I stalked YOU was the same: I had been stalked personally.
I justified my contempt for the series after seeing the initial response. Judging by the trailers and the fan response, YOU appeared to spin a false narrative of intimate partner violence: it could be scary, but more so sexy. For audiences watching the teaser, the trailer operates as a feisty love bite. Shots of Joe (Penn Badgley) perpetrating crimes meet sultry moments of him with Beck (Elizabeth Lail) engaging in risque (even public!) sex acts. Without a trained eye, YOU seemed par for the course, a “sex sells” TV show. In one respect, YOU’s sultriness rings as an inevitability for a show conceived on Lifetime. But as I resolved to watch it further, troubled by the treatment of its central conceit—even more disturbed by what the show got right about stalking—I realized that YOU’s classification as a B-list TV show was connected to what made it infuriating and also, occasionally, calculatingly effective.
It took a considerable amount of time for me to complete the first season of YOU. Early on, I’d force myself to watch single episodes at a time, waiting for a painful amount of cortisol to flood my body as the plot plucked away at my triggers. I’d stall. I’d push deadlines back. But as I fully committed to watching the first season in its entirety, I noticed the most uncomfortable aspect of viewing YOU was this: Joe still inexplicably felt attractive. Even cutting through YOU’s satirical veneer—Joe’s embarrassing inepititude at sex, even murder—he had charm. This ate at me. I knew better than anyone that I should direct my ire at someone like Joe. Yet once I started to tug at the narrative strings that gave Joe this power, YOU’s truth-telling capacity snapped into place.
Is YOU a master document for understanding our own time? Yes, in that YOU acts as a blacklight in a filthy hotel room: it only shows under different lighting what was already there. YOU doesn’t pretend to put on the fancy airs of a prestige show, marketing its intelligence or panache. Instead, it simply winds up the premise of the show and sets it in motion. The audience’s reaction to YOU’s storyline simply reflects American culture’s valuation of romance, love, and sex. As Joshua Rivera from The Verge eloquently comments, Joe “benefits from decades of cultural attitudes that have worn away at the agency of women, of romance tropes that valorize the persistence of men in pursuit of a woman, and the gendered head games that give men the upper hand in most every interaction they have.” Viewers are primed to view relentless suitors as the romantic ideal. Decades of popular love stories’ male leads engage in similar dubious behavior as Joe: Twilight’s Edward Cullen looms over unaware Bella nightly in her bedroom, The Notebook’s Noah sends copious letters to no response, You Got Mail’s Joe negs his indie bookstore rival into a relationship. While I felt guilty about my reaction to Joe, it made sense. Our sympathies flow downstream in direction with the current of social power. Joe wins by playing the role of the house.
Through this vantage point, YOU has the potential to be a biting critique of gender relations. And in the same breath, YOU’s B-list exterior grants it the scope to explore this terrain. Blair McClendon at New York Times Magazine argues a similar point for “The Purge” franchise’s capacity to speak to American class and race hierarchies: “They are cheap and willing to wallow in the muck.” In a way, I agree that YOU engages in a similar soothsaying potential. Taken a few steps back, YOU reveals its absurdities, the ease with which Beck loses it all, and how easily unbalanced the gender relations can become. The gut punch remains Joe’s ineptitude: good stalker or bad, you don’t have to be talented to destroy a woman. The show itself alludes to this power at a meta layer, splicing in scenes of Joe restoring and crafting physical books in his lair during his megalomaniacal voiceovers. Joe literally creates the narrative—the physical material of the story—for the viewer to consume.
Still, I worry. YOU wants to be a financial success and it has succeeded: It’s a popular show heading into an upcoming third season, moving networks from Lifetime to Netflix where it exploded thanks to binge watching. And while I’m not a huge believer in making TV conduct itself as a morality play, YOU happily pumps up the eroticism within stalking to lure viewers. The sexualization of intimate partner violence hooks viewers by the cheek from the trailer to pressing play on the first episode. This casual trauma and haunting way women’s abuse has been sold back to them as erotic stings. The next generation of girls then watch and absorb the cultural toxins already in the water.
In January of 2019, Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown took to Instagram Live to shout her praises of Joe, “So I just started that new show You. [Joe’s] not creepy, he’s in love with her and it’s OK. I’m obsessed with it, I’m binge-watching it – absolutely banging, Netflix.” I remember flinching at her take. Even the obsessions sold to girls to obsess over are pre-packaged and dangerous. I think about the persistent rumors of older male celebrities, like Drake, sliding into her DMs and how Brown’s defense of them. The blueprint for abuse writes itself.
Mostly with YOU, I think about myself at 18. The two years I lost hiding on campus. The memorization of his shoes and clothes to know when to run at the flash of a certain shade of blue. My inability to use social media, which would only drive a barrage of abuse. At the end of it, I heard footsteps outside my door after suspicions I had been followed. After waiting a beat, I swung the door open, defiant. Two years after the end, I finally felt the anger, instead of the fault, of my own stalking. Looking down the bricked corridors, I saw the quickly scurrying feet of someone caught but on the run. Watching YOU, I thought back on these memories. I shifted from thinking “How could I have been so stupid?” to “How easy it is to become a survivor?” within a few episodes. It’s not my fault. But as YOU signposts, it’s you. The collection of yous makes us. So is YOU swinging the door open on this issue, chasing down the culprit for us? Or is YOU the footsteps on the brick, following any hot story to the gallows? When we watch ourselves in YOU, is there any pride in what we see?
Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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