He stands at the cash register, silent. “Thinking my parents would come back for me…was a mistake.” A little later, he stands before his girlfriend, who he’s locked up in a glass cage. “I used to spend a lot of time in here!”
You, the viral Lifetime-turned-Netflix series that began airing on the streaming service on December 26, chronicles creepy bookstore manager Joe Goldberg’s (Penn Badgley) dangerous obsession with aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). His stalking, carefully hidden behind anonymous internet accounts and “nice guy” charm, turns their chance encounter at a Manhattan bookstore into a legitimate relationship. When Beck learns that Joe is a liar, stalker, and murderer, he locks her in the glass enclosure in the bookstore’s basement where he keeps hard-to-find and rare books.
Critics haven’t decided if You exposes hallowed, archetypal rom-com plots as creepy and unhealthy, or if the show just reproduces those stereotypes without successfully critiquing them. The answer is probably both. Joe’s delusions drive the show, and audiences must decide what’s real and what he’s invented in his own mind. And yet, some people can’t grasp that Joe is a bad guy, as evidenced by Badgley reminding people on Twitter that his character isn’t some misunderstood romantic. The viewers’ confusion is not entirely their fault; misplaced arousal or annoyed chastising of Beck as a dumb girl who should have just put up some damn curtains is a symptom of our diseased cultural perception of romance, where we can fault a victim without ever condemning her attacker.
Pop culture is littered with many variations of the messed-up man whose dark past somehow makes him deserving of a lovely girlfriend. Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights’ Byronic hero, is quite the entrepreneur of male personality, parlaying his difficult childhood and behavioral problems into a roaringly successful romantic strategy–if his dominant progeny can be considered proof. There are other examples in extremely successful franchises, like Star Wars’s Kylo Ren, a charismatic murderer whose fans have fantasized about a romance with the female protagonist Rey, and Edward, the mysterious and brooding Twilight vampire who lost his family in a Spanish influenza outbreak, engages in truly unsettling behavior with Bella.
That might be the reason You spends so much time on Joe’s traumatic childhood—as if to explain his unhinged behavior. “Joe’s flashbacks, with [his ex-girlfriend] Candace and with [his childhood guardian] Mr. Mooney, take up a considerable amount of screen-time,” Vulture writer Jessica Goldstein writes in her recap of the finale. “These scenes are comically vague, and not in a “good art doesn’t give you all the answers” way, just in an ‘Okay, but seriously, who the fuck is this person and how did he become a serial killer?’ way.” While Goldstein finds these flashbacks unsatisfying, I don’t think it matters if Joe’s backstory is poorly conveyed. Any excuse is good enough when we’ve been taught to empathize with men who’ve endured abuse.
Joe Goldberg, with all his deadbeat dad-inflicted burns and memories of living on the streets of New York, is a special kind of fiction, but he has real-life brethren the world over. Many men experience trauma that informs their behavior toward romantic partners. Unfortunately, that trauma is used to minimize the harm they’ve caused. For example, Junot Díaz’s shattering New Yorker essay about the damaging effect his childhood rape has had on his ability to effectively communicate with former girlfriends and cope with his past was initially hailed as a brave, tragic, and necessary contribution to the flood of stories being shared by sexual-assault survivors. Then, courageous women, such as Zinzi Clemmons and Alisa Rivera, publicly accused him of harassing and assaulting them. Their stories should not have surprised those who closely read Díaz’s essay, and noticed how he describes his tortuous actions.
Still, many people were momentarily willing to pretend that an abusive man’s acknowledgement of patriarchy and toxic masculinity is enough to wave away the harsh reality of his own behavior. Shreerekha, a scholar and poet reduced to a single letter in Díaz’s recounting of their relationship, reflected cogently on this paradox in her response to his essay:
“How does trauma shape who you are and what you do? Trauma repeats, is cyclical by nature, and so on and so forth. Hurt people hurt people. However, and perhaps because of the nature of the crimes and the fact that this substrata of humanity is paying for whatever it doled out, the men present a certain dignity and resolute opposition to justify trauma they enacted due to trauma they experienced.”
If trauma were an equal opportunity enabler, our world would look very different. Studies about intimate partner violence in immigrant communities show that the traumatic experiences immigrant men encounter both before and after migrating factors into how they treat their female partners—whether it’s added stress eventually exploding into violence or anxieties about women in their family becoming increasingly independent snowballing into abuse. Díaz draws on his cultural experience of generational trauma and silencing when he writes, “Very few people ever noticed what was written between the lines in my fiction—that Afro-Latinx brothers are often sexually imperilled.” Yet women and gender nonconforming folks face similarly harrowing challenges as they immigrate but don’t get to easily say, “I hurt you because I’m hurt too.”
Consider the following statistic from a 2005 study about the impact of domestic violence on children: “Boys who have witnessed abuse of their mothers are 10 times more likely to abuse their female partners as adults whereas females who grow up in a home where the father assaults the mother are 651 percent more likely to be sexually abused than girls in non-abusive homes.” To make matters worse, according to a 2015 study, girl offenders experience sexual abuse at a rate 4.4 times higher than their male peers. Girls made up 40 percent of arrests for adolescent domestic battery, and they were more likely than boys to be defending themselves against family violence when arrested.
Both children experience trauma, but only one child grows up to inflict it. That is a practice of boundary enforcement, not an accident of science or a product of biology. Witnessing domestic violence doesn’t activate an “abuser gene” in young boys, but it does socialize them into a culture where men displace their trauma on others. And unfortunately, abused children who become abusers can find their experiences normalized in pop culture, whether it’s a massively popular character like Christopher Nolan’s Batman—who responds to his parents’ murder by beating up people and being an all-around crappy boyfriend—or the classic literature assigned in high school, where brooding, troubled, and controlling men like Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester always win the object of their affections.
You plays into the differences between how male and female abuse survivors are perceived. Beck’s best friend Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell) is Joe’s female foil. She’s an assertive, obsessive woman who invades Beck’s privacy and tries to shame her for making disagreeable choices—just as Joe does. Though Peach is extremely wealthy, she’s also a woman of color struggling to deal with a famous and repressive family that will never accept her sexuality. However, unlike with Joe, we only get to examine Peach’s psyche at a distance, always mediated by Joe’s warped and negative opinions of her as a dangerous rival and hateful person. As a result, she comes across as less sympathetic because her motivations and internal struggles are subsumed by Joe’s perception of her as a threat. It’s clear that Peach is hurting, but we never get the opportunity to learn more; she is not a man whose trauma translates into a full story with rationalizations and justifications. She is a woman who, like so many real women, face terrible consequences because she’s had a difficult past.
Nonetheless, advocating for more violent women onscreen isn’t the solution for a show like You that depicts trauma as the catalyst for a man’s violence. The solution, or the closest we can get to one, is to recognize the clear bias in how media portrays men who’ve experienced childhood abuse. Trauma is used as a shield for abusive men while traumatized women are exposed, viewed through unsympathetic eyes, and dismissed. We must insist that this bias change, that we create a new culture that disrupts cycles of violence, and that men and women who’ve experienced childhood trauma are both treated with care onscreen.
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