Penn Badgley does not want you to find him hot. Rather, he would like to actively discourage you, dear fangirls, from lusting after his character Joe Goldberg in the Lifetime/Netflix drama You. In the series, based on the thriller by Caroline Kepnes, Joe is a bookstore manager who has a habit of falling obsessively for women he then stalks and manipulates to fit his warped conception of romance. That involves the occasional bout of murder. All of this is told to the audience through Joe’s second person narration, a twisted explanation of his actions to his latest object of infatuation, Guinevere Beck, a grad student whose ambitions are easily toppled by her desire to please a douchebag boyfriend, placate a clinger best friend and live a Carrie Bradshaw style fantasy without doing any of the work. For those who only know Badgley through his work on Gossip Girl, it’s certainly a sharp change of pace to see him go full Murderous Nice Guy.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that You has become Netflix’s binge-watch du jour, nor does it shock me that there is a new fandom contingent of women who think Joe is the hottest thing ever. Last year, fandom went gaga for a sexy fish-man, a robot with a great ass, a genocidal purple giant, and Tom Hardy’s emotional support parasite. By those standards, a hipster who kills people is pretty normal. Hell, as a card carrying Fannibal, watching some of the moral panic over this fandom has been especially entertaining to me. Wait until your guy cooks Eddie Izzard’s leg and shoves an ear down his boyfriend’s throat!
But still, I have greatly appreciated Badgley’s willingness to shut down the romanticizing of his character. Patriarchy already does enough of a job in making rape culture seem ‘sexy’, euphemizing stalkers as ‘eager’ potential boyfriends and dismissing women’s fears for their safety as paranoia. So, in that aspect, it’s a comfort to know that the guy benefitting from this pop culture moment the most knows where his boundaries are and has no qualms in establishing them.
So what is it about Joe Goldberg in particular that has fans going all heart eyes? Bad boys are one thing, and magical cannibals are another, but Joe is so palpably real. His actions are eerily familiar to all too many of us, as are his justifications. Even if a lot of the fandom love is pure irony or exaggeration — and relax, dudes, plenty of it is because fandom loves to play with heightened emotions — there’s still a lot to unpack.
As Joe, Badgley is a familiar entity. He’s that hipster who you’re sure you’d be friends with until you heard him talking about someone you knew behind your back when he didn’t realize you were listening. He’s the guy who makes sure everyone on the subway can see that he’s ready a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, as per the best Onion article ever written. Joe is the kind of guy who likes to talk about how you’re not like all those girls because you’re special. One of the sharpest elements of both the book and the series is that the material keenly understands how, as terrifying as Joe can be, he’s ultimately an irritating little sh-t. In that sense, he’s an utterly unremarkable individual because we’ve seen his type in every story about disenfranchised 20-something New Yorkers who read short stories and drink out of mason jars. But the power of You, aside from its knowing campiness and understanding of where it sits in the ladder of Peak TV (somewhere between Riverdale and Dirty John), is in its subversion of familiarity.
It doesn’t take much to make You a romantic drama. Indeed, that’s kind of the point. Badgley is handsome, with cheekbones that could slice peaches, and when he is not shrouded in darkness, he is bathed in romantic light. He even has an adorable moppet with an abusive step-father to look after in the series, one who isn’t in the books, suggesting the show either wished to play up the avenging angel angle or show further layers to his Niceness. I’d hazard a guess that a less handsome Joe would attract less fandom interest, but then again, people wanted to bone Pennywise, so what do I know? But certainly, his looks are part of the equation. It’s easier to harness the toxic force of the Nice Guy when you look like the kind of guy everyone tells you is a Nice Guy.
Joe believes himself to be the hero of both his story and his romance. He’s an expert at gaslighting Beck and everyone around her so it’s no surprise that it rubs off onto the audience. What this reaction reminds me of the most is the way so many fans ended up rooting for Light Yagami in the anime Death Note. In that series - one of my all-time favourites - Light is the epitome of privilege: He’s an exceptionally handsome and intelligent teenage boy raised in a happy home who has had everything handed to him, and his narcissistic boredom almost immediately turns to godlike lust for murder once he is in possession of a notebook that allows him to kill people just by writing their names in it. By the end of the first episode, Light has declared that he will be the new god of this world, ridding it of criminals who have not received proper punishment in his book. Of course, it doesn’t take him long to just start killing people who get in his way, but to this day, I can go on any number of forums or fan communities and find countless people who say he’s either an anti-hero with genuinely good intentions or the true hero of the story who deserves to win. True, it is deliciously fun to watch Light go toe to toe with the enigmatic detective L in their intellectual battles and there’s satisfaction in watching a bad guy be very good at being a bad guy, but at the end of the day, Light is a genocidal maniac with a god complex. He’s so good at selling his case to the people of his world that the audiences in our world want to cheer him on.
Joe Goldberg may have less lofty intentions, but they’re similarly insidious in how they take root in our minds as being not all that bad. Joe Goldberg is the Gaston who actually reads, and yes, even Gaston’s been getting a fandom rewrite these days. The scariest Disney villain ever, the one who is so palpably real and represents the worst excesses of toxic masculinity, is now ‘not all that bad’, apparently. No wonder Joe is sexy.
Of course, the bad boy will always have its sexual allure. It’s one of the most primal attractions we have: the handsome brute we know is no good for us but the fiery passion is too much to ignore. As I’ve already said, I’m the Fannibal with t-shirts and tabs full of fan-fiction so I don’t get moral high-ground on this. We like to create fantasies where such men - because it’s almost always men, let’s be honest - are defanged for our pleasure. It’s fun to exaggerate and mock and tease at moral outrage. Give fandom credit, after all. We’re not that daft.
And yet, there’s something about the love for Joe that unnerves as much as it fascinates. Maybe because we’ve met too many men like him in our day to day lives. He is a mere step away from pop culture perfection, and the way that exposes the shakiness of those beloved tropes throws us off our rhythm. We want the safety of the rom-com back, especially during these dark times, but Joe denies us it. All the things we excuse in the search for a comforting love story that demands little beyond the cathartic rush of emotion are forced into our eyeline in ways we cannot ignore. But we still kind of want to. We want Penn Badgley to actually be the nice guy who reads books and extracts you from toxic relationships without wanting anything in return. But nice guys aren’t like that, and Nice Guys are the trap in the nest we always hope can change for the better.
Still, he’s no sexy cannibal.
Header Image Source: Netflix // Lifetime