Many people I know are binging “You,” the Lifetime series that premiered on Netflix on Dec. 26 and will be taken over in Season 2 by the streaming giant. And why not? It’s a twisty, addictive thriller that has a lot to say about how we can’t seem to live our lives off of social media.
Co-executive producer and writer Sera Gamble recently said, “One thing we were very, very clear on is that Joe Goldberg is ... the opposite of that cold-blooded, psychopathic killer. He’s a romantic, he’s thoughtful, he’s even a little bit shy, and he’s genuinely really sensitive and emotional.”
Of course we know he’s delusional — he’s a creepy stalker who has already killed his love interest Beck’s (Elizabeth Lail) sometimes-boyfriend to get him out of the way. In his voice overs, we hear him complain and criticize her friends. There’s a kernel of truth in what he says, because not one of them are written as complex human beings.
Given the ways the writers redeem Joe despite his murderous actions — Badgley actually felt the need to take to Twitter to discourage women from crushing on his character — it’s curious that the female characters are so thinly drawn that most feel like caricatures. This is especially worrisome because Gamble is a woman.
Let’s look at the trio of female friends. First, Annika (Kathryn Gallagher): She’s a “body-positive” social media influencer and the “fat” and “busty” friend of the group, which is laughable. She couldn’t possibly be bigger than a size 6, which, for the record, is far thinner than the average American woman, who wears at least a size 14.
Then there’s Lynn (Nicole Kang), Beck’s no-nonsense Asian friend who feels like a token character. We never get any backstory. All she seems to get in this script is clever one-liners that tell us nothing about her.
There’s Peach (Shay Mitchell), a fan favorite because she’s the only one who is aware that Joe is bad news. Painting her as a feminist icon glosses over a lot of problematic writing for her character. She’s a closeted lesbian (perhaps bisexual, though her sexual encounter with a man in episode six suggests she doesn’t enjoy sex with men). Her internalized homophobia is never dealt with beyond a suggestion that coming out would mean that her father would withdraw his financial support. She’s also an elitist ice queen who’s pining after Beck, and she uses her wealth and privilege to manipulate her best friend. Finally, despite not being white, the writing for her is color-blind, which is a missed opportunity to provide some depth to a character of color.
Now let’s turn to Beck. She’s a one-dimensional character up until episode four, when the narrative perspective is temporarily switched up to allow the audience to get inside her head. She’s idealized by Joe as a scrappy but ethereal ingenue who consistently chooses toxic, selfish male partners who don’t really care about her. Joe has a strong savior complex and her naivete makes her a perfect target of his stalking.
She parades around naked, has sex in front of curtain-less windows and doesn’t password-protect her phone.
The writers portray Beck as a woman who makes terrible decisions time and time again, which allows Joe to come to the rescue. This is not a well-rounded female character. She is weak, naive, often confused, and ripe for manipulation.
Late in the show’s season we meet Karen (Natalie Paul), a black woman who serves as a foil to Beck. After Joe is condescending toward Karen — assuming she doesn’t know who Ernest Hemingway is — they end up hooking up after Beck dumps him. When they embark on a real relationship, Joe recognizes it as much healthier than the one he had with Beck. And yet, he still obsesses over Beck, juxtaposing her supposed depth with Karen’s “simplicity” (read: she’s not deep because she enjoys network TV, doesn’t like podcasts, and calls him “babe,” an “unimaginative” term).
It’s hard to ignore the ways that Joe’s comparison of the two women is tinged with racism and classism. Even though Beck is supposedly poor, the way she carelessly conducts her life screams “privilege.”
The reason Joe never completely falls for Karen is because she doesn’t need him. She is a fully realized woman who knows what she wants (she’s the one who initiates sex with him). This leads him back to Beck.
When Joe inexplicably (from Karen’s point of view) breaks up with her, within minutes she accepts his decision, collects her things, and leaves. There’s something to be said for a strong female character whose existence doesn’t revolve around a man, but we know Karen was invested in this relationship, so it’s strange to see her react with no emotion.
The female representation in “You” is disappointing. None of the female characters are fully developed or allowed to be as complex as Joe is. One could argue that the target of affection (Beck) is far from perfect and is part of the writers’ larger goal of challenging rom-com tropes. However, when almost all of the women on a show are either manipulative (Peach), tokenized (Lynn), or lacking self-awareness (Beck and Annika), it stops mattering what the writers’ intentions were.
In the end, all we’re left with is women who aren’t written with the nuance or depth given to the male protagonist.