By Gemma Murray
Netflix latest 10 part series highlights the danger of confusing chivalry and affection with stalking and control.
I binged watched You (2018) in a day and half (and then spent the rest of that day rewatching the first 3 episodes.) Even from the trailer, I was hooked — which is fitting, I suppose, for a show which focuses upon addiction and obsession of varying kinds. Season One follows the psychological path of book store manager Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a reserved and seemingly well mannered “hopeless romantic”, who, after a chance encounter with aspiring poet Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), begins a pattern of stalking, abuse and (spoiler alert) murder to make her believe that he is The One. By acknowledging and flipping tropes of standard rom-coms and “chick flicks”, You explores the troubling rhetoric of the male character who will stop at nothing to win over (or win back) “his” girl.
“Until recently, we’ve romanticised and idolised the male character who tries, tries and tries again to convince the girl of his dreams that he’s right for her, and it’s led us into a murky world where we’re unable to separate archaic ideas of romance and chivalry from the actuality of stalking, gaslighting and emotional abuse.” i-D’s Roisin Lanigan succinctly explains our complex relationship with characters like Joe.
What perhaps makes the show so compelling is the multi-faceted nature of its characters; no one, not even Joe, is painted as simply good or bad. Everyone is capable of caring for others, and hurting them in equal measure; Goldberg’s actions take this to both extremes. The show, based upon a novel by author Caroline Kepnes is careful to present Joe as this multi-dimensional character — it makes him all the most relatable and believable. It would be hard to imagine Beck falling for an upfront jerk, an idea Joe himself acknowledges when we are introduced to his neighbours, drug addicted nurse Claudia and drunken parole officer Ron — “you think she knew Ron was a shit bag when she fell in love?” he asks us, and it’s a truth universally applicable to all characters. If you knew who this person really was, would you have invested your time in them?
And yet, everyone seems doomed to repeat their mistakes. The show opens and draws to a close with the same lines from Joe; “well, hello there. Who are you?” he probes. Beck is frequently drawn back to her toxic ex Benji and her privileged college friends, much to the anger and frustration of Joe. Reiteration and repetition are key tools in You’s arsenal; the series’ use of intertextuality and nods to the tropes of romantic fiction frame and attempt to rework motifs and plot lines of the genre which are presented as sentimentally aspirational. Scenes that play out like standard rom-coms are elaborated upon by the scenes surrounding, and expand into a broader context of how we view “romance”, fate and love at first sight. Ideas we’ve all seen employed in New York City fiction such as When Harry Met Sally , Sex and the City, even Friends — the bookstore motif, the search for true love in the Big Apple, the romanticised myth of a “fairytale” dating narrative — are all juxtaposed with Joe’s inner monologue, showing a horrifying progression of thought leading him to believe he is just another man out there fighting for true love. In one later scene, after a temporary hiatus and brief affair, Joe races to Beck’s apartment, and throws a rock through window to announce his commitment to her. “This is it, this is that moment in the movie,” he announces to us, “this is when I run through the rain to win you back”.
“What I loved about that scene [in the shower] so much was, let’s say Beck had opened the curtain and found him. She would’ve freaked out. Then, she would’ve then gone out with her friends and told them the story. By then, it would already have been worked over in her mind: ‘Oh, well, look: I’m so special that this guy snuck in my house to try and see me.’ It would start to feel like, ‘He didn’t hurt me. He was completely apologetic. He was totally regretful and aware of what he did, which is the opposite of what we think of as a ‘stalker.’ I can imagine a world where a few days later Beck still walks back into that bookstore.” Caroline Kepnes speaking to Refinery29 on the dramatisation of her novel.
The scene described above is possibly one of the most uncomfortable to watch in the season; Joe, after breaking into Beck’s apartment, hides in her shower once she returns early from college. After a day in which her lecherous professor has made a thinly veiled pass at her and she is caught between letting him believe things may go further and risking losing her place on the course and thus her subsided housing, she stands inches away from a concealed Goldberg, sobbing in front of her bathroom mirror. “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know guys like me are always getting in jams like this” Joe professes, and he’s probably right.
Take 1999 high school classic 10 Things I Hate About You, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Cameron employs the help of Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to win over Katarina Stratford so that he can date her younger sister Bianca. In an effort to uncover what makes Kat tick, they scour her room for anything Patrick can use to help him in his quest to win her over — this search includes her underwear draw, where they uncover black panties. Her sister remarks their colour must mean she wants to have sex, as you don’t buy black lingerie “unless you want someone to see it”. The idea of violating a woman’s privacy and lying to seem like her “perfect match” is pretty insidious throughout the teen rom-com, and a scene in You when Joe steals Beck’s underwear is just as uneasy viewing. Just as when Patrick attempts to impress Kat with his knowledge of the Raincoats (garnered from a CD found in her room) ‘You’ makes more obvious reference when Beck flippant tells Joe that in listing his favourite poets “you’re describing my nightstand”. What they both share is an underlying connotation that women are puzzles to be cracked, and ‘You’ expands this into the social media age, with Joe commenting that he wants to know what is behind Beck’s instagram “collage” of her life.
Music helps not only to set the tone of the show, but to reflect its underlying themes. The trailer’s theme, a cover of I Want You to Want Me (notably, another cover also appears on the soundtrack of 10 Things…) is one of several songs which highlights the softer and slower cover trope through the series. Taking songs such as this and Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs and representing them reworks the familiar and makes it uncomfortable and sinister. Intentional juxtaposition between these haunting tracks and almost comedic scenes, such as when Joe dances around his room to a vinyl recording of He’s The Great Imposter before his and Beck’s first date, nods to a meta-narrative — a cheeky wink at the fourth wall — in which a subtle comment on the genre is made. Joe’s choice of books as given a metaphors for the characters, such as we he comments that he has a Sylvia Plath to restore, in a “fragile” condition— Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, a tale of a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, tracing their emotional states, or his ex’s favourite novel of Wuthering Heights, a story of doomed love and ultimately a tale of revenge situate the action not just within modern day dating, but a trajectory of how love is depicted in fiction.
“It’s cool how you get the monster’s POV, you understand why he does stuff. It’s weird because he’s bad, but not all bad.” Joe’s young neighbour Paco offers his interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and our possible reading of Joe.
Essentially, You enthralled me so much because of its familiarity; it’s a classic “boy meets girl” tale twisted, which in turns probes and questions how we are shown idealised love stories; in the final episode, Joe traps Beck in the glass chamber below the bookstore, a cage used to preserve the “collectables”. “The most vulnerable things in life are usually the most helpless” he tells us, and this view extends to his view of relationships. So much of the fiction I consumed as a teen presented women as trophies or prizes, objects to be won, and Goldberg’s character of the surface embodies a prince for the Tinder age. Just before Beck’s demise, she begins to write her story, speaking of fairytales — Snow White’s glass coffin and Sleeping Beauty, frozen in time allegories for her entrapment — an acknowledgment of the perilous dynamic in retelling tales of helpless women waiting to be rescued. You reminds us that perhaps a “prince” doesn’t want to free you from a glass coffin, but to lock you away in a glass cage.