Christian Grey. Chuck Bass. Edward Cullen. And now, Joe Goldberg. We, as consumers of pop culture, have a troubling partiality to abusive male characters in movies and TV. Latest to join this list is Joe, deliciously portrayed by Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley on the much-hyped Netflix series, You.
If you've been living under a rock, here's the 411 on You. Based on Caroline Kepnes' novel of the same name, the show follows Joe Goldberg — an attractive, charming, lit-loving bookstore manager — and Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a girl he meets at the store. His attraction to Beck quickly turns into an obsession, and he stalks her online and IRL to learn more about her life. Joe hacks into her laptop and phone, follows her to the spots she frequents, visits her apartment without her knowledge — you know, the whole stalker shebang. At one point, he even masturbates outside her flat (unfortunately, this is not the creepiest thing he's done). He uses all the information he gathers to seduce Beck and make her as equally as obsessed with him.
The show is told via Joe's perspective, and as time goes on, viewers realizes he sees nothing wrong with his behavior — no matter how violent it gets. He's smart and cute, and he's able to justify it all. He fools himself into thinking he's doing Beck a favor and that he's making himself available to her because she's someone who needs saving. He rationalizes this invasion of privacy, implicit predatory behaviors, and overall disgusting lifestyle as necessary in order to take care of Beck.
Even though the show makes you feel complicit in his litany of offenses, a lot of viewers can't help but root for Joe. So what if he breaks into her apartment and steals her underwear? So what if he literally murders her best friend, Peach (who, by the way, was perhaps the show's only character with a functioning brain)? So what if he poisons Beck's boyfriend in his creepy basement cage? He's conventionally attractive and he knows what makes women tick... surely that forgives every creepy thing he's done, right?
Nope. Absolutely not.
Joe's status as an emotional and physical abuser is not lost on Penn Badgley. As a veteran portrayer of creepy characters (see also: Lonely boy Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl), Badgley is doing his best to warn viewers against thirsting over Joe.
Badley is aware of pop culture's dangerous depictions of romance and sees viewers' tendencies to romanticize abusive characters, but he also has a complicated relationship with the role of Joe.
"I personally was troubled..." he told E! News ahead of the show's premiere. "I understood the appeal, but I was really ambivalent. I was really troubled, and that was also what [executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble] said was appropriate about me playing him. I remain ambivalent. I'm really questioning why people like Joe so much."
He pointed out Joe is not a romantic, but a troll. "He's like a troll, like a real troll, like an internet troll," he said.
Badgley also acknowledged the fact that You is nowhere close to a love story — and if you think it is, you may want to rethink your definition of love.
"Yeah, but he loves her, but he's sweet, but it's a love story!" he quipped. "In what world?! I don't believe that's love. I don't think that love equals this, so I think we have to question, what is love, and if we think this is love, where are we mistaken?"
"I disagree with Joe possibly more than anyone," he shared. "And I disagree that it's a love story. I don't see it the same way as anyone else, I think because of the things I had to do to play Joe."
Now that You Season 2 is on the way, Badgley seems to consider it his personal responsibility to show viewers who Joe really is: a thief, abuser, and murderer.
If you're still shipping Joe with Beck (or worse, yourself), you're kind of missing the point.