Anyone who knows anything about Netflix’s You can agree on one thing: it spins a terrifying tale of mania, obsession, stalking and fear. And Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg – aka the murderous man at the story’s centre – is the ultimate example of male toxicity.
Joe might put on all the airs of a perfect boyfriend – he’s interested in what she has to say, he makes her breakfast in bed, he treats her to more oral sex than she can shake a stick at – but he also employs all the techniques of a textbook abuser. He researches the women he falls for incessantly online, learns everything there is to know about them, catfishes them. He works hard to cut them off from their friends, gaslight them, and manipulate them.
And, as we learned in the first two seasons of the TV series (adapted from Caroline Kepnes’ book of the same name), he will stop at nothing – including horribly brutal violence and other unspeakably evil criminal acts – to get what he wants.
Despite all of this, though, there was seemingly some confusion around how we were supposed to feel about Joe when the first season of Netflix’s You hit our screens. Indeed, so many people declared their undying affection for him via Twitter that Badgley felt compelled to spend a good chunk of his free time reminding them just how dangerous his onscreen persona really is.
“He’s a murderer,” the actor tweeted bluntly at one fan.
Since then, of course, there’s been something of a turnaround; now, everyone knows that Joe is a bad guy. Now, everyone’s got something to say about Netflix’s “problematic” series. Now, everyone is seemingly on the same page when it comes to understanding the difference between romance and toxicity.
Except… well, except they aren’t.
Joe, you see, hasn’t just sprung out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to cause misery to any woman unlucky enough to catch his eye. Oh no. Instead, he’s the natural evolution of the many, many, many dubious love interests we’ve been treated to in romcoms over the years.
Cast your mind back through the world of cinema; Love Actually gave us Andrew Lincoln’s Mark, a man so thoroughly obsessed with his best friend’s fiancé that he a) filmed her without her knowledge, b) strung the footage together into a creepy little video he kept for his own nefarious purposes, and c) turned up on her doorstep toting cards littered with love declarations – and photographs of dead women. Seriously.
The Notebook, meanwhile, gave us Ryan Gosling’s Noah, who, when the girl of his dreams turns him down, takes it upon himself to hang from a ferris wheel and threaten suicide until she agrees to go out with him.
Beauty And The Beast saw the latter lock the former up in a castle against her will, scream at her to have dinner with him, shower her with gifts, and basically bully her into falling in love with him.
And Twilight’s Edward – played by an eerily pale Robert Pattinson – wins fair lady’s heart via a potent cocktail of gaslighting, stalking, and watching her sleep (oh, and repeatedly pointing out how much he desires to suck her blood).
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Over on the small screen, we have David Schwimmer’s Ross Geller in Friends, who not only obsesses over his kid sister’s best friend for years, but goes on to sabotage her career, prevent her from receiving any messages from men who fancy her, and lie to her about securing an annulment after she begs him to undo their drunken mistake of a wedding.
And let’s not forget Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Angel (David Boreanaz), who loves the show’s eponymous character from the very moment he first claps eyes upon her… which is cute, until you remember that she’s 15 at the time and he’s an undead 26-year-old with a penchant for hanging around in dark corners and watching her incessantly.
The list goes on, forever and ever. Perhaps the most damning example of toxic romantic behaviour, though, is the most unexpected.
I’m talking, of course, about Tom Hanks’ character in You’ve Got Mail.
Just like You’s Joe, the love interest of the popular film uses the internet to learn everything there is to know about the woman of his dreams. He asks insightful questions, learns her daily routine and key details about her, such as the fact that her favourite flowers are daisies, and then uses them to make himself seem more like her type on paper. He accidentally-on-purpose runs into her as she goes about her day-to-day life. And, in the process, he pretty much presents stalking as a romantic aid. Go figure.
Over the years, romcoms have repeatedly hammered home this idea that an overly persistent man is something to be flattered by, not fearful of. Which is why You’s Joe triggered so many confused emotions and reactions when we first met him on screen.
After all, here was a guy employing the language and tropes we’ve been fed about romance for years. Here was a guy who, for all intents and purposes, was behaving in a remarkably similar way to the Edward Cullens, the Ross Gellers, the Noah Calhouns we’ve met before. And, sure, while these men didn’t lock women in cages and murder them in cold blood, they did romanticise male toxicity.
In doing so, our favourite romcom boyfriends have taught men that behaviour of this kind is somehow acceptable. That women, in turn, should accept it as normal. And thus You’s Joe was created via a thousand tiny increments. He is not the problem to be dealt with; rather, he is indicative of a much wider problem in the world of film and TV. He is, I stress once again for those in the back, the natural evolution of all the romcom heroes we’ve met before.
It should come as no surprise, all things considered, that Netflix has announced a Christmas romcom all about the joys of catfishing will be hitting streaming platforms this festive season. That films like 365 Days – which sees a man kidnap a woman and hold her hostage for a year – has been described as one of the “sexiest” movies to date. That we still hold some of TV’s most toxic couples up as #relationshipgoals, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I guess what I’m saying is this: yes, it’s a good thing that we can all finally agree that You’s Joe is an abusive and toxic asshole. It’s not so brilliant, though, that it takes a male character literally murdering his love interest for us to realise that there’s a problem in the first place.
Season 3 of You is streaming on Netflix now.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.