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I’m watching ‘YOU’

Cora Wilson examines our fascination with sexy male anti-heroes.

When its second series aired in December 2019, the Netflix hit YOU managed to take trashy TV to new levels. Complete with sex, violence, dubious acting, it’s guaranteed to fulfil your very wildest binge-watching dreams. However, public reception of the show has highlighted a cultural issue that transcends its frivolous content: why is it that our society romanticises dangerous misogynists as legitimate love interests?

For those who haven’t experienced the compulsive pleasure of watching the show yet, here’s a quick summary. Joe Goldberg is a serial stalker, a seemingly ordinary man who falls obsessively in love with his female victims and then proceeds to do absolutely anything to have and keep them. In the first series his muse is a vapid poetry student named Beck who he murders in the final episode, before moving on to the unfortunately named Love in series two, while he is simultaneously pursued by a vengeful girlfriend from his past who he buried alive in the woods after she attempted to leave him. Joe Goldberg is, in short, a monster.

But on social media something strange started to happen. Many people began professing their attraction to Joe. In some cases, the tone was jovial, “kidnap me pls x”, wrote one viewer in reference to the show’s main character. However, other messages seemed disturbingly genuine, with another tweeting, “Said this already but @PennBadgley is breaking my heart once again as Joe. What is it about him?”.

Penn Badgley, who plays Joe, has recognised and engaged with this unnerving phenomenon extensively since the show came to prominence. Badgley is keen to remind these viewers (predominantly young women) that Joe is – news-flash – a lying, stalking, murdering creep who hides women’s underwear and the teeth of their ex-boyfriends in cubby holes around his apartment. Perturbed by the audience response to his character, Badgley commented, “He’s not actually a person who needs somebody who loves him. He’s a murderer. He’s a sociopath. He’s abusive. He’s delusional. And he’s self-obsessed.”   

Joe may be a particularly striking example of our romanticization of the troubled and abusive protagonist, but what is more disturbing is the subtler romanticization of problematic characters that we tend to take for granted when we consume fiction.

A few years ago, it was Twilight’s Edward Cullen that had young people wishing they too had a murderous 120-year-old boyfriend who would break into their home in the middle of the night and gaze furiously at them while they slept. Emotionally and, at times on the precipice of being physically abusive, Edward Cullen is a prime example of how coercive control is veiled as admirable protectiveness. What made matters worse is that the author of the series, Stephanie Meyer, wasn’t trying to produce a thought-provoking antihero. On the contrary, she was aiming to create a commercially desirable romantic lead, playing into the mindset of yet another generation of girls who associated male dominion with true love. No wonder that it was only after the books rose to fame that Meyer recognised, “I think there are many feminists who would say that I am not a feminist”.

And the trope not exclusive to, nor even more popular within, modern popular culture. The orthodox literary canon is rife with abusive yet romantically desirable men, perhaps nowhere more so than in gothic literature. Take, for example, the heroes written by the Brontë sisters. Charlotte Brontë’s Mr Rochester is the type of guy who thinks it’s morally justified to lock up a female love interest in a confined space if and when he deems her out of her right mind: the only difference between him and YOU’s Joe Goldberg, is that Joe chooses a soundproof glass box rather than an attic as his prison. Often described as a proto-feminist work, readers have long been baffled by Jane Eyre’s ending, which sees Jane marry the ghastly individual who dehumanised his last wife for so many years.

And the problem doesn’t just lie in the literature itself. Subsequent adaptations of Jane Eyre, and indeed of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, tend to cast Mr Rochester and Heathcliff respectively as conventionally attractive, relatively young men, whose problematic behaviour is often acted more like troubled angst than abuse. The way in which these texts are retold needs to change radically in order to break the dangerous cycle of romanticising the abuser.

Another important question to ask is whether the idolisation of abusive love interests applies to male characters alone. Recently, Phoebe Waller Bridge’s ingenious Killing Eve came to our screens, and along with it, came the demand for a radical reassessment of female love interests and the ethics of attraction in fiction. Villanelle is a psychopathic murderess for hire, over whom the other main character, Eve Polastri, develops an intellectual obsession that quickly takes on a personal and sexual dimension. Swathes of viewers, like those of YOU, have confessed to the strange attraction they feel towards the Villanelle and a fascination about her relationship with Eve.

The difference, however, between Villanelle and comparable male abusers, is that Villanelle could never be confused for a hero: as her name suggests, she is a villain through and through, and thus her abuse and cruelty are never veiled in the guise of protectiveness or extreme compassion. Moreover, when people describe their attraction for a character like Villanelle, the language used is not that of romanticization but fetishization. As hard as Waller-Bridge tried to avoid writing a series that panders to the male gaze, the predominant attitude of male viewers appears to be one of prurient fascination in the abnormality of Villanelle’s sexuality as a departure from the traditional female love interest. Unlike Joe Goldberg, Edward Cullen and Mr Rochester, Villanelle is the antithesis of the norms we associate with her gender in the relationship dynamic.

YOU, for all its triviality, sheds light on what we consider acceptable behaviour by male characters in fiction. By taking common abusive tropes to their extreme, the show may ultimately serve a beneficial social purpose: teaching us to question why, time and time again, we tend to find abusive behaviour by men not only normal but attractive.

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