The actor, who stars as Joe in the Netflix show returning for a second series today, wants you to stop obsessing over his stalker role.
Like all good romantic comedies, the first season of You starts with a meet cute.
Joe (Penn Badgley) helps Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a hopeful writer, buy a book from his shop. Later, he saves her when she stumbles on the subway. In the second season of the series, which returns to Netflix today (26 December), Joe meets a prospective partner while flirting in the produce aisle of a Los Angeles supermarket. So far, so Notting Hill.
But You is not a romantic comedy, even (and especially despite) employing the language and tropes of romcoms at times. The Netflix series is a tale of mania, obsession, stalking and fear. After that chance meeting Joe becomes obsessed with Guinevere and begins to stalk her on social media and later in real life, attempting to worm his way into her bed and her heart. He puts on all the airs of a perfect boyfriend – pancakes, thoughtful gifts, lots of oral sex – all while trying to cut Guinevere off from her suspecting friends.
Badgley’s unnervingly calm performance has won him plaudits from critics and social media alike, who have praised the Gossip Girl actor for taking everything people found troubling about his most famous character Dan Humphrey and spectacularly doubling down on it with You’s Joe.
Here is a man whose devotion isn’t an indication of true love but of something much, much darker. Here is a man with full-blown erotomania who will stop at nothing – including horrific, violent crime – to get what he wants.
It’s this that makes You into the compelling psychological thriller that it is, with echoes of Dexter and Gone Girl. Badgley manages to infuse Joe with enough terrifying charm that the character serves as a reminder of just how abusive behavior from men can be excused when it is couched in the vocabulary of romance.
But despite all of Joe’s abhorrent behavior, there are a myriad of fans fawning over Joe on social media. And Badgley isn’t here for it. Back when the first season premiered on Netflix in January 2019, Badgley spent days responding to anyone praising Joe on Twitter with counter-evidence of just how dangerous the man really is.
You, like the bestselling Caroline Kepnes book that the series is based on, deliberately wants to start conversations about what constitutes romantic behavior. The setup of the story is straight from the romcom playbook and many of Joe’s outlandish stunts are things that you will find in romantic stories.
But You twists them back themselves as a reminder of just how toxic some romantic comedy antics can be in real life. Filming someone without their consent? It seems cute in Love Actually, but it’s actually an example of stalking. Hiring a private investigator to track down the person you’re in love with? It’s lovely in Sleepless in Seattle, but terrifying in real life. Manipulating someone online without giving them your real identity? We all swooned over it in You’ve Got Mail, but that’s straight-up catfishing.
In 2015, a study from the University of Michigan revealed that “romanticized pursuit-behaviors” as seen in movies and television shows such as oh, being so enamored of someone that you follow them around on the street, “can lead to stalker-supporting beliefs.”
The idea is that popular culture, particularly romantic comedies, present stalking as not only a romantic aid but a romantic necessity, which warps the way we perceive of these behaviors in the real world.
As a headline on the satirical website The Onion so perfectly put it: “Romantic Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested.” The underlying problem, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, is twofold. Firstly, that women accept this kind of behaviour as romantic but secondly – and more disturbingly – that men believe that this is the correct way to behave.
“Men are socialised to be persistent and women are socialised to be flattered by it,” head researcher Lippman told The Huffington Post. “And nine times out of 10 it’s not a problem and it’s not abuse… We’re taught that we should want this from men. That it means we’re desirable. And who doesn’t want to be desirable?”
You wants to start conversations about exactly how the internalisation of these attitudes has damaged the way we look at romance and relationships over the years. Unfortunately, some fans seem to have missed the point, which is why Badgley is stepping in to remind them.
We can’t wait to see how much further Badgley will push the conversation in season two.
You season one and two are streaming on Netflix now.