Photo by Beth Dubber/Netflix
Caution: spoilers ahead!
“It’s not a clinical portrayal of a serial killer,” actor Penn Badgley shared in a recent interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Badgley continued by explaining, “it says something about how much we are willing to be patient and forgive someone who inhabits a body that looks something like mine – the color of my skin, my gender, these sorts of privileges, and how much less willing to forgive people who don’t fit those boxes.”
The show is intended to be a social commentary and maybe we are missing the point. It may not be a clinical portrayal of a serial killer but, if we look closely enough, it is a clinical portrayal of a psychopath.
Not all psychopaths are killers but almost all serial killers are psychopaths and for a very simple reason. It would take a great lack of empathy to run a dead body through a meat grinder. And empathy, is a trait psychopaths are sorely lacking.
Yeah, but he really is a serial killer
Peeling back the layers, You, does become a fairly classic tale of your average serial killer. In reviews, he is often termed as a stalker, pushed to the extreme. Or my personal favorite, a “murderous stalker.” Let’s call a spade a spade. He’s a serial killer plain and simple and although we are supposed to “feel for him,” he is what he is.
Let’s break it down. Most people are not actually able to distinguish psychopathic behavior from normal human behavior. This is why it is so hard to see Joe clearly for what he is. What appears to be remorse, sadness, or guilt are actually, not. Joe feels anger, he experiences sadness, he faces fear… but it is all for Joe. What or who, he feels for is himself. What he cares about is the potential stop to his illicit activities.
This is where protests of, “oh, but he is sometimes a nice guy” or “he doesn’t always do bad things” might come in. When he does “nice guy” things, he’s not doing them for other people. Yes, even when he looks out for Paco and Ellie. Paco and Ellie are manifestations of his younger self and the person he is really trying to save is, you guessed it, Joe.
Joe Forces us to Confront a Misogynistic Design of our Own Making
Remember all of those Disney movies we grew up watching? Try and think of a villain that did not have a physical giveaway. You can’t. We were taught that evil and monsters look like evil. A scar, a hook. We’ll know a monster when we see one. Joe is a monster like any other but the reality is, many of these individuals lead perfectly “normal” lives and fly completely under our radar. What we are trying to do is comfort ourselves. We think, “ah, I would never have been duped like Beck or Love.” I would know a serial killer if I met one. The reality, you probably wouldn’t. The unhappy truth: not all evil is prefaced with a physical manifestation.
In case you are still inclined to call Joe a “murderous stalker,” there is plenty more evidence that the writers have hidden in plain sight to label him a classic, serial killer. Joe has mommy issues. Many serial killers do. With that being said, generally speaking, psychopaths are born not made. It is most likely that Joe was born a psychopath (which is often hereditary and both of his parents reflect some of these attributes) and that his upbringing pushed him over the edge. In other words, he had the raw material and his childhood allowed him to act on those impulses. As a species, at our core, we reject being presented with something that is incurable but that does not make it any less true.
Digging deeper into his past, like many serial killers, Joe was isolated as a child. He was bullied and was the victim of domestic abuse. He more than likely began harboring aggressive fantasies at a young age. But because of his relationship with his mother, his ideas about women are totally warped. He is made to look like the hero, a protector of women, when in fact, Joe hates women. That is why they are the object of his wrath. He places women on an unrealistic pedestal because he knows no woman can live up to his idea of perfection. Joe has created an unending excuse for his actions. When they inevitably act contrary to his idea of them, he must end it. He also chooses very specific types of women. As Delilah reiterates in Season Two: “damaged finds damaged.”
Joe Doesn’t love women, he hates them
Joe, chooses his victims carefully. Joe’s mother was the dominant figure in his early life. Experts now say the first eight years are the most impactful so by the time he landed in Mr. Mooney’s orbit, the cake was already baked, ready for the icing. She was also a victim of domestic violence. In turn, she was also emotionally abusive and neglectful. The women Joe “falls in love with” represent his mother. His dysfunctional relationship with his mother is realized over and over as each of his love interests are unable to be fixed through his intervention.
Why doesn’t this hold up in the case of Love? Love is different. She is herself a killer but to say that Joe and Love are the same kind of killers would be a great folly. Joe not only acts out his childhood trauma with his victims, he seeks to exercise control over them. Like many serial killers, Joe always assumes that he is the smartest man in the room. He appreciates that Love is intelligent but is satisfied “knowing” he is always the more cunning.
When Love reveals her secret to Joe, why is he so repulsed? Joe realizes that Love, despite being broken, is someone that can “take care of herself,” making it more difficult to control both her and her environment. In fact, Joe realizes that he was a victim of similar manipulation and that, he absolutely cannot abide by. He wants his victims to put up a little bit of fight. He wants them to keep it interesting (notice how he chooses creative types with “baggage”) but not so interesting as to make it difficult on him. As his prey, Love removes that element for him which, is why she both gets to live and Joe no longer finds her worthy of his infatuation.
This is also why Joe kills “bystanders” like Benji and Peach. The hunt stems from his need to control all variables. Removing those variables helps him to better “care” for the women he has chosen. He is the master of their universe. This brings up another relevant point from Season 1. Once Joe gets rid of the distractions, he assumes that Beck will be better able to focus on their relationship and is mystified when instead, she struggles and falls into a depression. Joe’s lack of empathy does not allow him to foresee this outcome. He understands sadness, grief, etc. and while he can imitate these emotions, it is a reflection, completely lacking substance.
joe may be extreme but we’re conditioned to accept it
Need more proof that Joe is a “clinical serial killer?” He keeps trophies. He revisits the sites of his murders. He only cries for himself. He is charming. He gets arrested for non-related crimes or has run-ins with law enforcement and manages to wiggle out of them. He’s smart. He mistakenly believes he is always the smartest person in the room. He’s arrogant. He has periods of high intensity (multiple murders) followed by quiet episodes. He justifies everything he does and most importantly, he has no remorse.
So why are so many romanticizing his character? Badgley shared that he couldn’t really blame viewers because the show was designed that way. The staged “meet cutes” in both Season 1 and Season 2, lay a foundation for women to fantasize over the “affection” Joe pours over his victims. As one fan described, the attraction comes from “the effort he puts into liking a girl.” Shockingly, this is actually quite common too in the form of serial killer groupies or hybristophilia. Serial killers attracting women and even marrying their “fans” is a well-known phenomenon. Some believe they can change them, others idealize them as “alpha males,” and some just feel sorry for them.
But this is why You is actually so terrifying. Joe is obviously an extreme but women are subjected to Joe’s extreme behaviors on a daily basis from supposedly non-extreme men. As a society, we are conditioned to accept controlling, belittling, patronizing actions all while saying, “thank you.” We are made to believe that Joe is just so caring, so loving. He’s a psychopath. He’s an abuser. He’s a serial killer who in fact, hates women.
As a society, we are conditioned to accept controlling, belittling, patronizing actions all while saying, “thank you.”Tweet
I think the real question is not so much what is wrong with Joe but what is wrong with us that we are willing to normalize totally toxic behaviors? Why do we allow these small infractions in our everyday lives? Badgley has already highlighted why this might be and it stems from the white male patriarchy that dictates every facet of our society.
Maybe it’s that we are willing to forgive or maybe it’s that we have been so conditioned to forgive that we are unable to see what is so clearly right in front of us. Joe, like many members of the patriarchy assumes that each of the female characters make choices in order to attract men. “You want to be seen.” This is the commodification of women. Our choices are our own and do not represent a constant performance for the male psyche. Can you imagine how exhausting that would be? Maybe we are all trapped in a “human fishbowl thing.” I wonder if You doesn’t illuminate it for us then how do we escape?
Our choices are our own and do not represent a constant performance for the male psyche.Tweet