“Why Does Everyone Like Joe Goldberg?” – Strangership and Privilege in Netflix’s You
The popularity of the Netflix thriller You is garnering increasing media attention from critics, theorists, and fans alike after the second season was released at the beginning of January 2020. Falling under fire for the obsessive attention that the psychopathic protagonist, Joe Goldberg, has gotten from young fans, the depictions of stalking, violence, and murder from the narrative perspective of the perpetrator himself is an intriguing – if not a risky – narrative angle. Reactionary criticisms aside, I argue that the series proffers a wealth of subversive discourse critiquing the presentation and acceptance of violent behaviour by privileged folks in a platform easily accessible to a wide-ranging, diverse audience. The main question asked by critics and characters alike, ‘why does everyone have a blindspot for Joe Goldberg?’, despite being accompanied with exasperation and disbelief, is a surprisingly insightful question. Although embellished by the dramatism that so often accompanies film and television, he is able to navigate close-encounters with victims and authority figures alike by occupying the liminality between stranger and non-stranger (Sarah Ahmed) partly through his privilege as a white man in white spaces, and partly through his ability to manipulate peoples’ trust. By embodying the nature of stranger and non-stranger to characters and audience respectively, Joe foregrounds the duality of strangership – highlighting the realities of how we categorize ‘strangers’ by their race, class, and presentation – and demonstrates how those identifications can be manipulated by those aware of the status quo.
Joe’s characterization as someone who is objectively ‘bad’, but still likeable, foregrounds in no uncertain terms the ‘willingness we have as a society to forgive those of certain privileges’ for toxic behaviour. That willingness to forgive is a deciding factor in Joe’s ability to move through urban spaces recognized, not as a stranger, but as one who is not-yet-known. Joe’s creepy behaviour is apparent to the audience immediately, with the inaugural episode of the series opening with an inner monologue analyzing Guinevere Beck as she enters Joe’s bookshop for the first time. Obsessively analyzing her appearance and overthinking the meanings behind her actions, the audience is given a distressing juxtaposition as we are left to reconcile the flirty, charming, friendly visuals of the scene with the predatory dialogue we’re receiving through Joe’s monologues. Joe is seen by the audience as threatening, whereas Beck sees him as someone not-yet-known. Why, then, the distinction between ‘one not-yet-known’, and one who is known as a ‘stranger’?
How do you recognize a stranger? To ask such a question, is to challenge the assumption that the stranger is the one we simply fail to recognise, that the stranger is simply any-body whom we do not know. It is to suggest that the stranger is some-body whom we have already recognised in the very moment in which they are ‘seen’ or ‘faced’ as a stranger. The figure of the stranger is far from simply being strange; it is a figure that is painfully familiar in that very strange(r)ness. The stranger has already come too close; the stranger is ‘in my face’. The stranger then is not simply the one whom we have not yet encountered, but the one whom we have already encountered, or already faced. The stranger comes to be faced as a form of recognition: we recognise somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognise them.(Ahmed 22)
To recognize one as a stranger depends on a variety of interlocking subtexts – many visual, especially in a medium like film – that effectively communicate one as a subject who is recognized as a ‘stranger’. Those subtexts, according to Ahmed, are often signifiers of race, class, ability, and gender – categories in which Joe is a very privileged individual. His obsession with Beck – online stalking, physical stalking, breaking into her home to glean more information about her and using that information to coerce her into trusting him are undeniably predatory actions – but we as the audience are patient with him because of his privilege. He’s likeable – funny, charming, and attractive, and despite us knowing the potential for danger that lurks in his psyche, we continue to root for him. He is not visually identified as anything but the ‘expected norm’, and so despite the signs, we continue to know him as an acceptable subject. Just as he is permitted to move as an acceptable subject, and not a stranger, in the narrative, he is permitted to move as a non-stranger, and that movement grants him a patience from both audience and narrative that would most likely not be awarded to someone of a different class, race, ability, or presentation.
The use of dramatic irony to build and develop Joe’s character foregrounds ‘strangership’ using the screen as a sort of Lacanian mirror – Joe holds a mirror to the audience and puts the audience in the role as the voyeur, the bystander. ‘This is you, and you are just like all of them – willing to let me go.’ Deconstructing strangership through Joe’s character forces a re-understanding of subjectivity and acceptability, one that the audience must reckon with as the show progresses. When we ask ourselves, ‘how does no one recognize this person as a threat, a danger, a stranger?’, we’re really asking ourselves, ‘why does no one care that this person is a threat, a danger, a stranger?’. Ahmed states that ‘Strangers are not simply those who are not known in this dwelling, but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognized as not belonging, as being out of place.’ (22), and Joe is rarely, if ever, seen as ‘out of place’. Urban, wealthy spaces are often occupied by white, upper-class individuals that do not register as subjects in a space, but rather become the backdrop of a place itself. It is only those individuals who ‘break the norm’, who are foregrounded from the ‘place’, that register as ‘strange’ or a ‘stranger’. This acknowledgement of predation – and the active choice to ignore it – is demonstrated by the initial encounter of Joe and Love in the first episode of the second season:
Love: Were you following me?
Joe: […Truth! That is what will shut this down – Truth!] Not initially but then yes, I was, completely. I am sorry… if I seem skeevy.
Love: No, I mean you might’ve, if you looked like a skeev…(You, S2. E1. 15:00.)
Love’s statement definitely states the crux of the issue, why Joe’s behaviour goes unchecked. He doesn’t look like a skeev, meaning he isn’t ugly, disabled, or poor. He is handsome, well-dressed, well-clothed and moves as a white subject in a white space (in this case, a gentrified upper-class organic grocer in Los Angeles). Even when Joe is recognized as one not-yet-known, he is contextualized through his privilege within the backdrop of the place he exists in, and is therefore disregarded as a ‘stranger’. Furthermore, we, the audience, are drawn into Love’s bold statement. In a way, the narrative coerces us to agree: Joe’s behaviour would be skeevy, but he doesn’t look like a skeev. It is implied that the marker of difference between acceptable and unacceptable is presentation and appearance, and in subtler subtext, race.
Joe blends into his surroundings as a body that is expected to be in the spaces he inhabits. He’s handsome, white, clean-cut, charming, able-bodied and looks middle-class, and as such, occupies spaces as the perceived norm of society (Ahmed, 15). Even more insidious – he knows this, and he uses it to his advantage. Joe operates with an advantage in committing crime, particularly when encountering law enforcement. As a white subject, he is immediately less likely to face dire consequences from a mere encounter with police, and he acknowledges (and uses) this privilege, along with his looks and his charm, to manipulate those around him into perceiving him as a realized subject, and not a ‘stranger’. This is demonstrated specifically in an encounter in season one, in which Joe is investigated by local police for procuring items ‘straight out of Body Disposal for Dummies’, and plays it off as items needed for his city garden. Sweet-talking his way out of the encounter, and then successfully throwing suspicion onto the abusive ex-parole officer who lives next door to him, Badgley successfully foregrounds the nature of white, male privilege and how it aids those who are aware of it in committing violence. “People are easy to fool,” he states in an aside, “like these cops. I’m the nice, straight-edge guy, so there’s nothing to worry about. People believe whatever supports their worldview.” (S1. E3. 26:28) Manipulating the initial encounter, strangership, and the gaze of the police, this scene definitely demonstrates Ahmed’s conceptualization racial dynamics and recognition in initial encounters with law enforcement.
If we think of the constitution of subjects as implicated in the uncertainties of public life, then we could imagine how such differentiation might work; the address of the policeman shifts according to whether individuals are already recognizable as, ‘wandering homeless people, aggressive beggars, muggers, anonymous black youths, and drug addicts’.(Ahmed 23)
The gaze of the police do not identify Joe as a threat, just as society – both intra- and extra-textually – do not recognize him as a stranger. He is not visually identifiable as someone who does not belong, and, if one were to remove the use of dramatic irony as a device that frames the narrative, the audience would not be able to recognize him as anything but an accepted subject, either.
The precarious balance of signs and symptoms that cause one to be recognized as a ‘stranger’ are steeped in privilege, bias, and assumptions, and the narrative devices in You demonstrate the subtleties and problems with this knowledge of strangership through the disturbing nature of the show’s premise. The foregrounding of strangership, predation, and acceptability that the narrative offers is, I argue, an important one to analyze and understand in the current social climate, particularly as instances of abuse, sexual assault, colonialism, and racism are being brought to the attention of the masses and assumptions of trust and properity are being challenged. There will always be those who romanticize problematic figures, but that risk does not discount the merits of a controversial narrative that successfully foregrounds issues of privilege and violence in dialogue, subtext, structure, and narrative framework.
Ahmed, Sarah. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Routledge, 2000.
Mock, Brentin, and CityLab. “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings.” CityLab, 7 Aug. 2019.
You. Created by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, performances by Penn Badgley et al, A+E Studios, 2018, Netflix.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “Penn Badgley can go from Creepy to Charming Without Changing his Expression”. Online Video Clip. YouTube, 10th January 2020. Web. 20th January 2020.
Thompson, Sophie. “Penn Badgley Has a Video Message for Fans of His Serial Killer Character in Netflix’s ‘You’.” Glamour, Glamour UK, 1 Feb. 2019, www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/gallery/you-netflix-season-one.
“Alone, Walking, Night, People, City” via Pixabay. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.
You never see Joe kill a woman on camera, thus removing any voice from their suffering and keeping us sympathetic to him as a character. This is classic audience manipulation, practiced all over dark serial killer movies to keep the audience from sympathizing with the victims, from Split, to the Bundy story, to Perfume, all sorts of movies do this, knowing full well it is a cheap Hollywood trope.
We have no problem watching Joe kill men, but the women must be done off camera, lest we admit to ourselves what he really is: a monster.