A brown woman lays unconscious on the sidewalk. Blood pools beautifully from her head. In the corner of the shot, you can see the green foliage from the park she was running in. In the next season, a different, once beautiful woman lies on the ground. She’s surrounded by her own blood with a gash on her neck running from one side to the other. You see one close shot after another of this carnage.
What is the point of these visuals in Netflix’s You? What are they telling us about Joe Goldberg, the world he inhabits and our own? Does their beauty or cruelty help you excuse his behavior? Are you rooting for him? And if so, is it because or in spite of them? That’s the question at the center of Netflix’s You, the psychological thriller told from the stalker’s perspective.
Joe seems created to confuse. He is, after all, a certain type of female fantasy — the rare man who reads (and loves!) books portrayed by Penn Badgley of Gossip Girl fame. He’s the type of guy who’d do anything — and I do mean anything — for the girl.
The question is — do you want such a guy? After two seasons, the characters on You are split. Joe spends the first season in pursuit of one Guinevere Beck, a blond MFA student played by Elizabeth Lail. Beck, as she’s called, falls in love with Joe, unaware that he’s not only stalked her but he’s also killing the people in her life that could keep them apart. When she finds out, she wholly rejects him, to the point where he kills her for fear of getting caught.
In the second season, Joe meets his match in Love Quinn, a Los Angeles health-food heiress played by Victoria Pedretti. Love is a stalker/serial killer in her own right and doubles down on Joe when she finds out he has the same predilections. Her season ends with the two moving in together, with a baby on the way. Nevermind that the fantasy of a female serial killer sets up a false equivalency between the genders, pretending that men and women hurt their partners equally (when men do so more often and more severely).
What these white girls have in common is the shared understanding of the preciousness of their feminity. They both see themselves as something to be protected, particularly by the men in their lives. You see this in Beck’s rejection of her father — when his addiction made him unable to protect her, she pretends he’s dead. When Joe shows up in her life and all sorts of strange things start happening, she remains oblivious. Love is not so naive but she continues to use her femininity as a shield — both to avoid becoming a murder suspect as a teen and later to avoid Joe’s violence, thanks to the embryo growing inside her.
The women of color don’t enjoy any such delusions. Natalie Paul’s Karen Minty escapes her relationship with Joe unscathed but she knows something is up. She tells Beck “Turns out, you’re my ‘get out of Joe free’ card” and “maybe he’ll do whatever the hell he did to Candace” (he buried her alive). Karen doesn’t become an object of Joe’s violent obsession but she still knows that something’s wrong with him. Beck doesn’t or at least, not until it’s too late.
Likewise, Carmela Zumbado as Delilah Alves and Jenna Ortega as her sister Ellie turn out to be more reliable judges of character. Delilah starts out suspicious of Joe but eventually ignores her suspicions and sleeps with him. It’s not long though before she finds out the truth and dies for her trouble. Ellie, meanwhile, is the only one who even comes close to holding Joe accountable. It (at least) stings when she tells him “I hate you. You brought the Quinns into our lives, and you’re the reason Delilah’s gone. Dead, right? She’s dead… you ruined my life.”
There are multiple lenses to see Joe, the white girl way that says he’s desirable as the ultimate caring boyfriend and the WOC way that sees him as charming but ultimately knows something’s not right. So where do you fall and does the show invite you there? The thing is, You is told from Joe’s perspective, so you could argue that its white gaze (and the patriarchal, racist nonsense that comes with it) is purposefully problematic. Joe may think he’s feminist because he calls out “toxic masculinity” but stalking and killing women certainly disqualifies him, right?
If you take this view, you have to admit that Joe isn’t just sexist but racist too. Just compare how different the violence is presented depending upon the race of the woman. We never see Joe murder Beck, despite it being a major plot point. His violence against Candace is similarly hidden for a long time. However, we see the blood spill artistically out of Peach Salinger’s head after Joe attacks her. The camera zooms in on the brutally murdered body of Delilah more than once. Why do we need to see the gash on her neck, the blood around her body so many times? The white women are afforded more dignity because, in the land of You, theirs is the only womanhood that is to be sought after and protected.
It’s the typical treatment of black and brown bodies and it reveals Joe’s bias. The show’s white creators have said they’re interested in the way Joe’s whiteness gives him a pass. It allows him to go undetected and perhaps for white audiences to remain sympathetic. If you saw him brutally murder Beck could you stay on his side? If the camera panned slowly over her murdered body multiple times, would you still root for him? It’s hard to watch You as a Latina and not feel like the show, whether told from Joe’s point of view or not, is discounting my personhood. Like it doesn’t take the violence against the Candaces and Becks more seriously than the Delilahs and the Peaches. That it doesn’t believe that Love is more valuable than Karen.
In the end, inhabiting Joe’s mind and world view is not a useful exercise. We get too much media from the white devil’s perspective — we don’t need more. You’s been renewed for a third (and hopefully final) season. In it, I hope Ellie exacts some revenge on Joe and Love and all their glorious whiteness. Next, I hope the Ellies and Delilahs, the Karens and Peachs get the story told from their perspective. And then, we’ll get to see something truly transgressive.