YOU: Taking Stalking to Your Home Screen

If you know any teens or young adults, it is likely that they have watched, or at least heard of, a new Netflix’s show called YOU. A tense, drama-filled psychological thriller, YOU centers on the mind and obsessive behavior of one “nice guy,” Joe. Throughout the show, the viewer hears Joe’s increasingly erratic and fevered inner monologue, which contrasts with his deceptively “normal” behavior that he uses to get closer to the object of his fascination. That object: Beck, a girl he meets in passing at the bookstore where he works. After this brief encounter, he takes her name from her credit card payment information, and proceeds to deep-dive on her public social media accounts. He justifies this invasion of her privacy by claiming that her use of public social media encourages his unhealthy interest and pursuit. From there ensues a string of Joe’s increasingly obsessive stalking behaviors, from following her directly, eavesdropping on her conversations, breaking into her home, observing her from outside her window, and making concerted efforts to isolate her from her friends. 

All of this behavior takes the viewers on a conflicted journey. The shows takes us back and forth from Joe’s good-looking and charming public face to his frightening inner thoughts. (The alternating sinister and upbeat musical score only encourages this back and forth.) At times it is difficult to decide if he really is “all that bad,” despite having witnessed him stalk and scheme. Maybe he really does have good intentions, but he is simply damaged by a dark past and is therefore unable to express his romantic interests in a healthy way? Other reviews of the show also reflect this conflicted feeling. This is no doubt the point that the creators of the show are trying to convey: the world is not black and white and people who do evil things or display unhealthy or dangerous behaviors may not be entirely unsympathetic. Or maybe the creators were trying to warn people to be careful, and to not be fooled by a perfect, pretty face. Rather than intending to cause sympathy, they mean to cause suspicion.

Regardless of the creators’ intentions, the fan response to the show is somewhat worrisome in itself. Professions of sympathy, obsession, and even “love” regarding Joe in the show have begun popping up from those who claim to be part of the show’s fandom, exhibiting a clear disregard, or implied forgiveness, of his chilling behavior in favor of his outward charm and appeal. Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe, has even taken to his own social media to carefully remind viewers not to romanticize his unhinged and dangerous character. The romanticization of things like stalking, inadvertent or not, is not new in entertainment. Not only does this normalize stalking and violence by making is casual and familiar, it creates a link between love and obsession, between expression of caring and a willingness to go to extreme, unsafe lengths to “win” or “keep” someone else. This equation is plainly wrong, clearly dangerous, and serves to reinforce existing gendered structural violence on a broader cultural level. 

January is stalking awareness month, and while shows like YOU may be entertaining, and to make positive, thoughtful statements about dangerous behaviors and relationships, they still pose a potential risk for normalizing or encouraging those same behaviors and relationships. One of the most immediate ways you can combat the impact of these influences is by educating yourself about the warning signs of stalking or power-based violence, learning about the resources that are available to victims, and sharing this information with those in your network or community.  For more information about stalking and its warning signs click on the in-text links or visit any of the websites listed below.

General FAQs: (The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC)):

Reference Sheets (Coercive Control):

Stalking and Harassment Assessment & Risk Profile (SHARP) (Coercive Control):

Criminal Stalking Laws by State (Stalking Resource Center):

Civil Stalking Laws by State (Stalking Resource Center):

Legal Resources and Information (U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women):

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