The problem with Joe

I’d honestly have no objections if Penn Badgley wanted to follow me round Waterstones.

I am thoroughly enjoying the amount of commotion being generated by Netflix series You. Mostly because, in insufferable hipster fashion, I read the book when it came out in 2014 and was obsessed with it for a full summer. At the time, I hadn’t read anything like it – a novel about a creepy, obsessive, murderous loner that pulls off the feat of making you not only empathise with him, but also kind of fancy him a bit, too.

And that you feel that way about what should be a vile character is testament to author Caroline Kepnes’s writing talent – creepy Joe himself is the novel’s narrator, so you’re in his head, following his twisted logic to its various horrendous conclusions. Kepnes can really write a sex scene, too – rarer than it should be in contemporary fiction – and even though all such scenes are obviously told from Joe’s point of view, because it’s another woman who’s written them, you feel like you’re in good, erm, hands. And speaking of hands (sorry, sorry), we also see Beck, the object of Joe’s obsession, pleasuring herself. Which again, you don’t get much of in fiction. Hurrah for showing women having a good time by themselves.

What’s more, if I remember correctly, at no point do you get a complete physical description of Joe – because why would you? No-one ever actually says things like, “I ran my hands through my messy fair hair”, and this isn’t sub-par teen fiction. So you can picture Joe however you want – and this is fictionso the ‘Joe’ in your mind probably isn’t going to look like a creature that traditionally dwells under a bridge. You the novel ticks a lot of boxes. If you haven’t read it, I’d honestly recommend it – if nothing else, you’ll be in awe of the way Kepnes performs her trick of making you root for a deeply twisted character.

And so to the Netflix series, and the surrounding hoo-ha. People have responded to Penn Badgley’s Joe the way I responded to novel Joe – they’re hot for him and they know they shouldn’t be. This has resulted in a lot of chatter online about how problematic he is, and I’ve seen many an outraged comment running along the lines of “you know you shouldn’t fancy Joe, right? He’s abusive, he’s a criminal, he is a Very Bad example of a man and You shows a Very Bad example of a relationship”.

Well, yes, thank you for that, Captains Glaringly-Obvious and Hardly-Needs-Saying. Call off the dogs and the scaremongerers, everything’s fine. 

Firstly: this is the whole point of fiction. To experience things without really experiencing them. To go to dark, sad, twisted, ridiculous places without being harmed. I remember reading a piece that analysed precisely what it is about the Harry Potter books that makes them so staggeringly popular (I can’t find it now, but I’ll let you know if I track it down) and, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase from foggy memory, it’s because it hits so many touchpoints that children respond to. One: Harry’s an orphan – children like to read about orphans because it allows them to imagine what it’s like to not have parents while, in most cases, still having parents. Two: it’s a classic tale of good versus evil. Three: boarding school. Boarding school stories have always been popular with children, presumably because they allow them to imagine what it’s like to be with their friends all the time without actually being sent away from home for weeks on end. Four: magic, and the power over the world that magic brings. Children don’t have much power over their worlds, so give them a story about magic, and it’ll set their imaginations on fire.

Looking at point one on the above list, when even children like to read about dead parents, we can conclude that humans want to read about horrible things in fiction. It does not mean they want them to happen in real life.

Let’s get back to Joe. The series is considerably more glamorous than the book – for one thing, book Peach is odd-looking, weirder and even more unlikable than screen Peach – but that’s inevitable. And the fervour of viewers’ feelings for Joe can surely be explained for the most part by the casting of Penn Badgley. The man’s positively doe-eyed, with bone structure you could grate Parmesan on. If a less model-esque actor was in that role, not only would we feel differently about the character, but the spark that gives the plot its electricity would mostly be gone. And credit where credit’s due, Penn Badgley has been responding to a lot of the “Joe’s so hot” feedback very wisely indeed.

At the heart of the ‘Joe’ fuss is this inability to fully grasp that what people find hot very often has little to do with reality. Joe the character is sexy, but no, we don’t want to be stalked, or have our exes killed, or end up locked in a glass box. The kernel of truth in the conversation is this: the idea of someone wanting you so badly that they’ll break commonly-accepted rules, if not actual laws, to get you is… well, appealing. No-one has ever said, “God, his strong moral compass makes me lose my mind”. No-one has ever said, “Good lord, would you look at the ethics on her?!” The intrigue, joy and thrill of romance and sexuality is all packed into the space between what’s “right” and what you want.

The whole You thing reminds me a little of the Fifty Shades of Grey “controversy” from a few years ago. Looking back on that now, if you put aside how abysmally it was written, and how it misrepresented the BDSM community (and to park those two things is a big ask, I know), the Fifty Shades phenomenon was about huge numbers of women* publically enjoying a story about sex. You doesn’t quite fall into the same category, I’m aware, but there’s overlap.

*I’m generalising, sure, but I honestly don’t know any men who enjoyed the books, and I do know several women who did.

There’s a time and place for discussing what abusive relationships look like and how dangerous obsessive behaviour can be. And when books, film and television highlight these issues sensitively and cleverly, those discussions can bring about real change. However, You has enough gloss, humour and sheer knowingness to it that I really don’t think it’s trying to make a serious point.

As with so many hot, sexy things, it’s best not to analyse it too much once the screen’s gone dark.

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