When we grow up, there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. It’s a simple binary that informs almost every single piece of child-focussed media – one that, in theory, helps teach right from wrong; a simple, but essential, moral compass. It’s a narrative trope that, sadly, doesn’t last all that long – as we grow and develop, and the art we consume follows suit; we’re soon opened up to a far wider range of character types. Enter: the anti-hero.
On first glance, the anti-hero is someone to idolise. After all, we’re raised to believe a main character’s intentions are good – if a narrative centres around their actions, thoughts and feelings, we instinctively want to side with them. It’s that belief that Netflix’s smash-hit series You, like so much art before it, plays upon.
You follows one Joe Goldberg (played by Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley) in his incessant pursuit of – and subsequent relationship with –Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). It’s been a runaway success over the festive period, eclipsing even Black Mirror: Bandersnatch in the post-Christmas telly Twitter conversation. But there’s a clear divide in that discussion.
As You progresses, Joe presents himself as increasingly sociopathic character (spoilers ahead). While he’s hardly a desirable fella to begin with, the show’s opening scene presenting him as the kind of man who’ll willingly ogle a customer in his book shop, as the series moves on his actions become even more horrifying. From masturbating in bushes across the street from Beck’s apartment, right up to murdering her friends, who he believes are corrupting the object of his affections, there are precious few lines Joe won’t cross in his pursuit of Beck – or, rather, the idealised, fictional version of her that he’s built up in his mind.
Through it all, the audience is planted right inside Joe’s head. We hear his every thought, from painting endless guesswork backstories to Beck’s life, to his justification for every questionable – even criminal – move he makes. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic, to say the least.
Given how unusual such a set-up is, it’s perhaps unsurprising that audience members have gone the same way as Beck, falling for Joe’s manipulative ‘charm’. Across the internet, there are Joe ‘stans’ declaring his actions romantic, and falling head over heels for the homicidal anti-hero. “Am I the only one who kinda wishes Joe Goldberg was stalking me?,” tweeted one fan. Another followed suit, writing, “If I had a stalker that looked like Penn Badgley, I wouldn’t be THAT upset.” A third viewer tweeted: “Have to appreciate Penn Badgley’s performance. One minute he’s charming and gorgeous and every girl’s dream guy and the next minute he’s the creepiest, scariest thing.”
It’s a reaction that’s even shaken Badgley himself, who recently took to Twitter to shoot down suggestions that Joe Goldberg is anything to desire.
“There’s no redemption for someone who is behaving that way. I think the only redemption is in death,” he also told PopBuzz in a 2018 interview. “Joe is not a real person. And I, as an actor portraying him—and as a person who really struggled along the way to understand whether or not it was even responsible to be doing this, and portraying him in the way that I did—to me, I’m not interested in Joe’s redemption. I’m interested in our redemption. I’m interested in us examining it in a responsible way. So I think I just want to see him change. And I want to see him progress. But it doesn’t mean for the better.”
Badgley’s not the first actor to contend with fans lusting after a less-than-savoury character. Robert Pattinson faced similar fandom post-Twilight, when the brooding, handsome and downright controlling vampire character Edward Cullen became a teenage sex symbol, and held up as a beacon of classical romance. Like Badgley, he tried to fight back against the view that his actions were anything other than abhorrent.
“Girls often say that Edward’s ‘sooo perfect,’ but he’s not,” he said in a 2011 Q&A, “I do not like people who try to exert control in a relationship, when there is an imbalance. This is very wrong and very strange.” He backed up that statement in numerous press interviews, too, telling Empire way back in 2008 that he “hated” the character from the off.
There’s a wider social issue at hand, here, too. For centuries, countless questionable behaviours – from pursuit, to possessiveness – have been re-sold to us as ‘romance’. Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff is another character too-often held up as romantic, when really his fanatical tendencies should have Cathy running a mile. We’re told to see these things as endearing, or hopelessly devotional – more often than not, these actions come almost entirely from men, too. When women exhibit similar traits, they’re painted as ‘crazy’, or ‘obsessive’.
The enduring popularity of You, however, should serve as something of a wake-up call. Badgley should be listened to by the fans declaring his character a dreamboat. Joe is not your everyday protagonist – and that’s what makes You so compelling. He’s the archetypal anti-hero – a possessive, murderous and unsavoury character in every sense, wrapped up in a chillingly persuasive, even charming, package. However confusing it may be to reject a series’ main character, he shouldn’t be idolised.