culture

Penn Badgley Is Hot on You and That’s the Point

Photo: Netflix

Penn Badgley doesn’t want you to think he’s hot. On the show You, which is based on a 2014 novel by Caroline Kepnes, Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, a sociopathic bookstore clerk who develops an obsession with a winsome MFA candidate, Beck (Elizabeth Lail).

It’s established fairly early on that Joe is a violent, obsessive weirdo — he stalks Beck, reads her text messages, and kidnaps and murders a start-up bro she sporadically hooks up with. But none of this behavior has stopped fans from actively thirsting after the character. Badgley finds this creepy, as evidenced a series of tweets he posted on Wednesday:

When I first saw Badgley’s tweets telling fans not to get too horny over him, honestly my first thought was: “Welp, too late.” As Joe, Badgley exudes the rumpled, self-effacing charm of a young John Cusack, or a pre-Esquire profile Miles Teller. (The fact that Joe is prone to wearing shirts that show off his chest hair doesn’t hurt, either.) He’s undeniably sexy, and that’s precisely the point: were he even slightly homelier, it’s unlikely that Beck would look past the myriad red flags that pop up like Whack-a-Moles during their first few dates together. Hot, charming people have a hell of a lot more privilege than bumbling, non-charismatic fuggos.

Badgley’s incontrovertible sexiness aside, You takes great pains to get us to root for Joe and Beck, whether we want to or not. It depicts the couple in the throes of the adorable limerence stage, intermingling sweet shots of the two kissing over coffee and a newspaper with glimpses of toned torsos and sweaty pelvis-banging. It’s hard not to watch these scenes without feeling a twinge of hope that these two crazy kids make it after all, and that’s precisely what makes You so good: it forces us to reconsider our notions of what is and isn’t considered sexy, romantic behavior, and to conclude how deeply fucked-up these notions are.

Although You has been marketed as a soapy psychological thriller, it actually has some things in common with an entirely different genre: rom-coms. Joe’s repeated insistence that he’s a “nice guy” who exists purely to take care of Beck and protect her is eerily similar to the behavior of rom-com heroes like Richard Gere’s Edward in Pretty Woman, who hires a sex worker off the streets in order to “save her”; or Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything, who stands outside Diane Court (Ione Skye)’s window, blaring a boombox win her back after she dumps him.

This behavior teaches women that stalking is a sign of true devotion, and it teaches men that “persistence will be, and should be, rewarded — that if you really want something, you’ll work hard and overcome all the obstacles until you get it,” said Chloe Angyal, a deputy opinion editor at HuffPost whose doctoral thesis focused on gender, sex, and power in romantic comedies. “[In] this case, the thing is a person, and the obstacle is her free will and right to self-determination.” This trope has a demonstrably toxic effect on the women who watch these films, Angyal said, citing a 2016 study suggesting that women who watch movies that promote stalking behavior are more likely to condone that behavior in real life.

You is intended as a direct counterpoint to this narrative, according to show co-creator Sera Gamble. “You’re watching a lot of the visual cues of the love stories you were hardwired to root for from the beginning,” she said in an interview with Vulture. “We all saw those from very early in our lives, I think. So, part of what we’re playing with is the idea that this is completely acceptable storytelling. This is not just acceptable — it’s peak romance in a lot of ways.” Men who watch You are supposed to empathize with Joe’s motives, even if they are horrified by his actions; women are supposed to envy Beck for having snagged such a devoted, sensitive dude, even as they are well aware of the chilling extent of his devotion. And both parties are supposed to feel intensely uncomfortable about these impulses.

In a twisted way, this dynamic makes You one of the first great romance stories of the post-#MeToo era. In light of the cultural conversation we’re having about consent and boundaries, we’re slowly coming to terms with the idea that obsession isn’t the same as infatuation, harassment isn’t the same as persistence, and wanting to save someone isn’t the same as loving them. And if Penn Badgley showing his chest hair is enough to help us do away with these problematic ideals once and for all, then so much the better.