What Netflix’s “You” Teaches Us About Romance
When I was in high school, I had my own ideas of what a romantic relationship looked like. I daydreamed of my then-boyfriend appearing in my bedroom like Edward Cullen or “coincidentally” showing up to rescue me from any inconvenience. What I wanted the most was a grand, public gesture of love like a promposal or a stereo blasting outside my window. Years of romantic movies, TV shows, and books taught me and so many other girls what’s considered charming and sweet from a significant other. Though we don’t think much of it, these types of behaviors are accepted and expected for many young children and even adults.
Joe Goldberg, the protagonist of the show, would have seemed like my and so many other girls’ soulmate. He has the storybook charm and allure of a rom-com love interest. He’s smart, dedicated, supportive, willing to do anything to keep the relationship alive, and can predict what his lady love wants or needs before she does. He’s perfect…right? Well, Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, the show’s creators, show us what having our teenage dream would truly be like.
Synopsis of “You” Season 1
The story takes places in modern day New York. Joe is a handsome, deep-voiced bookstore manager pining for his one true love. One day while working, Guinevere Beck, a grad student and aspiring author, floats into the store in slow motion. Immediately, Cupid strikes and Joe succumbs to limerence.
After meeting her, Joe goes on a mission to discover everything about her by any means necessary. While perusing her social media, he decodes her schedule and then cyber and physically stalks her. And that’s just episode one. Throughout the first season, with information obtained through a host of violent and illegal means, Joe successfully woos Beck and they become an actual couple while the viewer is, unnervingly, conflicted the entire time.
The story is told through Joe’s inner thoughts. We see his low points and just how much he cares for Beck. Joe’s kindness for a young boy in his building, Paco, and his quick wit paint the picture of a put together man. But Mr. Wonderful isn’t as amazing as he appears.
Knowing what she wants without her having to say anything
During their first encounter, Joe studies Beck attentively. He notes her loose blouse, jangling bangles, and non-existent bra and determines she’s a student who wants to be noticed by him. When she pays for her book, Joe assumes she has enough cash to pay but chooses to pay with a card so he can see her full name.
Using this information, he scours the internet looking for her. All of her social media profiles are set to public and Joe interprets this to mean she wants to be seen, to be found, to be pursued. He happily obliges rather than letting her pursue him.
Saving the Damsel in Distress
Several times throughout their relationship, Joe takes it upon himself to rescue Beck from her circumstances. She has an unsatisfying off-and-on relationship with an artisanal soda maker named Benji. When they have sex, it’s disappointing and when she wants him to support her, Benji isn’t there for her. As Joe observes them interacting with each other, he deduces that Beck believes she deserves someone as douchey as Benji. He says she’s interested in bad men, and so he gets rid of him. Permanently.
After Beck bombs her poetry reading, she drunkenly stumbles into the subway station. Joe “just so happens” to be there and he watches her fall onto the tracks. When he pulls her out, there’s a split second shot of her completely on top of him and, for a moment, it seems like a love story. That is until you remember Joe followed Beck to her reading in the first place.
In Beck’s eyes, this seems like fate and how could it not? Especially after Joe steals her phone and knows who she’s talking to and where she is. In Joe’s mind, he has to know what she’s doing in order to protect her. It’s a necessary evil done out of pure love.
Pushing someone to be a better person
Unlike Beck’s friends, she has to work for a living. She works two jobs: one as a yoga teacher and the other as a full-time TA for her pervy advisor. Though Beck despises his sexual advances, she pretends she likes them in order to keep her job. One night over drinks, she finally asserts herself and her advisor fires her. When she tells Joe about it, something he already knows, he tells her to “show a little teeth.” This inspires her to collect other stories of women he’s harassed and expose her boss’s pattern of behavior. Her plan works and she keeps her job thanks to Joe.
Beck is also an aspiring poet who, despite needing to, never actually writes. Every time she sits down on the computer to type, she allows herself to get distracted. He notices this right away and gently nudges her to keep writing. Because of Beck’s insecurities, she resists, and she doesn’t really get into it until she loses someone very close to her, at the hands of Joe. Following that death, Beck writes a spectacular and heartbreaking essay that catches the eye of a book publisher. Though Joe’s methods are unethical, they ultimately help her. What’s more romantic than that?
Being willing to do anything for someone you love
“I would do anything for you” is something everyone wants to hear; however, it’s not something that’s meant to be taken literally. No one truly wants what that entails. For Joe, that’s the ultimate expression of love and he shows it every chance he gets. If anyone or anything threatens to come in between them, Joe will do whatever it takes to remove it which typically includes murder.
He takes the good boyfriend archetype to the extreme. Though he calls himself a feminist, he constantly believes he knows what’s best for Beck. He thinks he knows who her real friends are and commits crimes in order to stack up proof against them to her. He puts up with her friends only because he knows if he doesn’t, Beck wouldn’t want to talk to him. He considers his longsuffering a toll he has to pay.
You are the reward for all my suffering. -Joe, S1 E5
All the violence, manipulation, and pain are all in Beck’s interest. At least that’s what he tells himself. She’s lucky to have someone so doting. Another thing he tells himself. She’s also worth it because not only does he get a perfect girl in Beck, he gets to feel like he’s doing something good in this world. He believes in her and intends to help her achieve her dreams.
What writer Caroline Kepnes, author of You the novel, does with the series is take our culture’s idea of romance and applies them to the letter. She also applies Ted Mosby’s Dobler-Dahmer Theory:
If both people are into each other, then a big romantic gesture works: Dobler. But if one person isn’t into the other, the same gesture comes off serial-killer crazy: Dahmer.
Brilliantly, Kepnes charms both the audience and Beck into falling for Joe. He’s not just a cold-blooded killer; he’s also a hopeless romantic. If someone, a man in particular, is handsome, somewhat kind, and in love with love, he can be forgiven and lovable even if he’s a monster. Or so we tell ourselves.
Despite the ugly side of love, there is another lesson You can teach us. Courtship isn’t in and of itself wrong, but it needs to be consensual and substantive. In done properly, romance can be and is wonderful. If Kepnes has taught us anything it’s that romance is the most alluring, but not the most important part of any relationship. Who cares if someone has a chocolate covered coating but is a rotten strawberry underneath?
What women can take from this is to redefine romantic love for themselves. Other female authors are already doing this with books like Dumplin’ with the adorable Bo who likes Willowdean as she is and never once thinks of her as fat. Or The Hate U Give as Chris strives to support Starr despite not being able to truly understand what it’s like to be black. Romance is really what you make it. You teaches us what it isn’t but we can always and should define what it is for ourselves.