Say no to Joe! The danger of romanticizing fictional stalkers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, the main character of the Netflix Original show “You.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, the main character of the Netflix Original show “You.”

BY SRISHTI MUKHERJEE ’21

Many of us have already squandered a couple of hours in the past month to binge on Netflix’s latest viral offering: the original thriller “You.” In true American fashion, “You” features an exceedingly attractive cast. Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley, “Gossip Girl”), is a stalker who incessantly pursues his blonde love interest, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail, “Once Upon a Time”). Joe’s peculiar and distasteful personality is made apparent to viewers from the get-go. And yet, an alarming number of people seem to be attracted to his character.

Only 10 minutes into the show, after Joe meets Beck at the bookstore where he works, the eeriness of his character is officially confirmed: he follows Beck and her friends into a bar and eavesdrops on their conversations, making judgments on who he thinks is good for Beck and who isn’t in the process. Twenty minutes into the episode, he peers into her apartment and masturbates while watching her masturbate. By the end of the episode, he has kidnapped her boyfriend and locked him in a basement.

Joe’s character is framed as predatory in the very first episode of the series, so you can imagine my confusion when 14-year-old actress Millie Bobby Brown took to Instagram to defend him, claiming, “He’s not creepy, he’s in love with her and that’s okay.” Later, she said that she had only watched the first two episodes when she made that comment — but, again, he was already a kidnapper in the first episode.

At first, I was baffled at the sheer number of young girls and grown women on the internet who seemed to be attracted to this stalker and murderer — who seemed to be were confusing his insidious obsession with a form of love. However, after taking a moment to critically think of all the romantic heroes that I had fantasized over when I was 14, I came to the conclusion that movies, television and literature have been grooming young girls into enjoying Joe’s idea of romance for a while. His idea of romance is celebrated throughout popular culture, from movies like “Beauty and the Beast,” in which Belle falls in love with the Beast after he kidnaps her, to books like “Twilight,” in which Edward is drawn to Bella because of his urge to suck her blood.

That being said, while the shows I watched growing up wanted us to romanticize those heroes, “You” gives Joe the same characteristics but asks us to see them for what they are: frightening. In many ways, the show uses Joe’s character to critique all these “romantic” characters with creepy tendencies. Yet it doesn’t seem to have worked, as some women still find Joe Goldberg attractive. I would argue that it isn’t particularly unusual to feel a soft spot towards antagonists on screen, but there is a difference between relating to particular aspects of them and believing their love is something to aspire for.

I am no exception to the many women who have been groomed to feel sympathetic towards men who lack emotional intelligence and possess some violent tendencies. I personally have a freakish fondness for Heath Ledger’s Joker and Draco Malfoy of “Harry Potter” (who I can’t help but feel had his parents to blame for his shortcomings). My theory is that sometimes women view these seemingly immutable character flaws as proof of the fact that when these characters end up loving someone, their love is even deeper than that of a person without sociopathic tendencies: they have to overcome their own emotional deficit to find it within themselves to fall in love and deeply care for someone. This is, of course, terrible logic.

A potential reason for being sympathetic towards these characters is that they are often humanized on screen. While protagonists are typically perfect, antagonists are caricatures of the worst tendencies that all human beings possess. With regard to Joe, his judgmental nature towards the people he is surrounded by is a characteristic that many of us may possess — in moderation. While his judgments of people’s characters with regard to how they dress or what they read or what they post on Instagram seems a bit high-handed and presumptuous when you watch it on screen, there is also a part of us that is guilty of judging the people we are surrounded by in similar ways. So I understand that it is natural to enjoy watching Joe’s character on screen and sympathize with particular aspects of him.

Perceiving his actions as the product of true love, however, is dangerous. While some feel that the writers of the show are guilty of romanticizing Joe Goldberg, I don’t believe this is true. Some have argued that if the writers of this show really wanted Joe’s character to be unambiguously bad, they would have taken greater care to make him less likeable. But many villains in the real world are dangerous because they are not immediately recognizable as being particularly villainous, so I would argue that Joe’s character is handled responsibly. To the women that romanticized him despite clear warning signs, I would say that if you excuse the behaviour of the Joe Goldbergs on screen, chances are that you are in danger of excusing the actions of the Joe Goldberg that may walk into your life.