Warning: The following includes descriptions of stalking and violence against women which some readers may find upsetting.
It’s hibernation season. The earlier it gets darker, the occasions for which we’d even consider putting on our shoes to leave the house are dropping exponentially. On the flip side, this also means we can have zero guilt spending our evenings slack-jawed in a blanket burrito pressing play on any number of the bingeable offerings that are on our screens right now. Squid Game, Maid, Great British Bake Off, Scenes From A Marriage – it’s a TV deluge, and that’s not even taking into account the highly-anticipated shows that were pushed back because of the pandemic. Both returning to our screens with new seasons after two-year hiatuses are Succession and Netflix’s hugely popular psychological thriller series You.
First airing back in 2018, You initially piqued our curiosity due to the casting of its handsome and bookish lead, Gossip Girl alumnus Penn Badgley. Later, as viewers tuned in, it raised eyebrows because of its enforcement of the problematic notion of the sexy sociopath, but for the most part landed comfortably in the realm of “it’s so bad, it’s good!” or “it’s so unrealistic, it’s harmless!”
While it’s an American show, it’s hard to watch it without thinking about the horrific news cycle in the UK of violence against women over the last few months.
In season one, we were introduced to Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a loner New York bookstore manager who falls in love at first sight with unsuspecting poet and aspiring author Guinevere Beck, a woman with the misfortune of perusing his store one afternoon. He swiftly develops an obsession with her, stalking her, infiltrating her friendship group, wooing her, kidnapping her and eventually murdering her. And she is not the only one. This cycle generally repeats itself throughout the duration of the show. Every time Joe meets a new woman who unwittingly becomes the object of his affections, he dons his laughably minimal disguise of a black baseball hat as he stalks them for the first time. It’s nearly always accompanied by an inner monologue telling the viewer he just wants to “save them” or “keep them safe” – whether it’s from terrible friends or exes or even themselves. We’re force fed through his singular narration that love is the driving factor. It’s for their own good, we’re told.
Set in glossy US locations, with an all-American romcom-attractive cast, and in ludicrous plot-driven circumstances (a glass kidnapper’s box in the basement of a creaky New York bookstore was the pinnacle), it felt so far-removed from my realm of reality to even make me register the feelings of discomfort creeping in when first watching the show. So, like so many others, I’d mentally earmarked the date of the return of the third season, and when the day came, I sat in front of my TV ready to mindlessly consume yet another 10 episodes.
TV channels would never put out shows that were deemed to be racist or homophobic, but shows that are misogynistic are rife. It seems no one actually cares about the abuse of women and men gain financially and otherwise from perpetuating it.
Rachel Horman, CHAIR OF STalking advocacy service PALADIN
At the start of Season 3, we see newlywed Joe Goldberg upping sticks to the suburbs, this time with wife and a baby in tow, but his obsessive compulsions are predictably insatiable, and within the first 15 minutes we see him hone in on a new woman: his poor unsuspecting neighbour. At first he eyes her through gaps in the garden fence, then follows her to the library – his baby despicably strapped to him – using the guise of fatherhood as an added layer of innocence. Finally, he sits in an empty carpark in the darkness waiting for her to leave the grocery store, and whilst his inner-monologue falsely fabricates in his mind that she “feels the same” as him, he masturbates while fantasising about them having sex. I made it to 22 minutes before I turned the show off. My stomach was well and truly turned.
Admittedly the show hasn’t veered from its format since its inception. It’s still as audacious and awful as ever and never purported to be a righteous beacon of morality. But the world is changing around it, and not only am I finding I can’t stomach these instances of ‘violence against women for entertainment’, I can’t shake the belief that they have a huge role in enforcing dangerous narratives and harmful romantic ideologies. The show’s decision alone to cast an objectively attractive actor such as Penn Badgley as the sociopath, is damaging in itself.
“Shows such as You perpetuate the problem of stalking and male violence against women by normalising it and even making it seem glamorous or attractive,” explains Rachel Horman, Chair of Paladin and a solicitor specialising in stalking and domestic abuse. “It emboldens perpetrators and contributes to their belief that women deserve this abuse. It also means that women may be less likely to report incidents as they see this behaviour portrayed as normal in the pursuit of love/romance and men and boys start to believe that this type of aggressive pursuit of women is expected and welcomed by women.”
While it’s an American show, it’s hard to watch it without thinking about the horrific news cycle in the UK of violence against women over the last few months: the kidnap, rape and murder of marketing executive Sarah Everard and the brutal killing of primary school teacher Sabina Nessa. However satirical or outlandish these shows may seem, their storylines are triggering given the parallels between them and what we see in the news.
One of the most disturbing scenes in You is from the first season, when Joe turns his violent tendencies on Beck’s friend Peach. Incognito in his baseball cap, he stalks her while she is jogging alone, and in a particularly isolated part of the park, bludgeons her on the back of the head with a rock. While he runs, the racing words in his mind incite a shudder: “She gave me no choice. It’s brave what I do for you. It’s hard, sometimes it makes me sick. How many guys are willing to do anything they need to for love?” To give us the inner monologue and reasoning of a killer – to give them any voice at all and to humanise them – while they commit their crimes against a woman is truly disturbing.
The only positive from shows like [You] is that there is occasionally discussion like this about how wrong it is but the shows keep on being commissioned because the abuse of women sells.
RACHEL HORMAN, CHAIR OF STALKING ADVOCACY SERVICE PALADIN
This new season, like the others before, also features flashbacks into Joe’s childhood in which we see he was violently abused. In the first episode, we see him as a frightened and bullied school boy taking a sigh of relief as he manages to lock himself in a cupboard away from a group of children who wish to do him harm. It’s a plot vehicle designed to make the viewer empathise with him, perhaps to even justify his sociopathic tendencies. It mirrors the way, all too often, we are made to sympathise with violent men in the press, and given the context of “recent stresses”, “breakups” or “abusive childhoods” as the trigger for their crimes.
“It’s just an excuse made up when violent or abusive men are caught out,” says Horman. “Having a history of abuse should mean that your eyes are open to the damage it causes and should make them less likely to carry it out themselves. This phenomenon remarkably only seems to affect men. Women who have been abused as girls (which is on a far greater scale than boys) don’t find themselves unable to stop sexually assaulting and murdering people. The amount of excuses men make for their behaviour is sickening. England lose at football; men assault their partners. England win at football; men assault their partners. Hot weather, losing their jobs, Covid, Christmas, alcohol, drugs, childhood, women nagging them, feeling sexually under-confident etc – they are all given as excuses for male violence against women. They need to take responsibility for their behaviour and stop abusing women. That’s the key.”
Recently, following the mounting controversy surrounding Dave Chapelle and transphobic comments made on his latest comedy special, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos doubled down on his defence stating: “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” But when there was fear that Netflix’s teen show 13 Reasons Why was supposedly linked to a spike in teenage self-harm and youth suicide, the series was edited to include suicide warnings and PSAs, as well as the full removal of certain scenes two years after it had aired.
“I do think that the media has a responsibility in terms of the content of its programming,” adds Horman. “TV channels would never put out shows that were deemed to be racist or homophobic, but shows that are misogynistic are rife. It seems no one actually cares about the abuse of women and men gain financially and otherwise from perpetuating it. The only positive from shows like [You] is that there is occasionally discussion like this about how wrong it is but the shows keep on being commissioned because the abuse of women sells.”
The third season of You barely has started and news has already circulated that season 4 has been confirmed. We have known for the longest time that what we see on our screens directly influences the world around us, and even the show’s title – You – is an identity-stripping reference to the homogenous women that fall victim to men like Joe everyday. Yes, it’s a trashy American show designed to shock and entertain, and it never purported to take the moral high ground in reprimanding abusers – but with violence against women as rife as it’s always been and happening in the streets around us, surely it’s time for TV shows to take more responsibility when it comes to these disturbing narratives against women they glamorise and the voices they give time to. For that reason, I’ve called time on my relationship with You.
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