‘You’ star Penn Badgley and how concepts like the Nice Guy and the Friendzone are sexist

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Penn Badgley at a ‘You’ fan event held on Jan. 15 at Greenbelt 5, Makati. In the Netflix Original Series, Badgley plays bookshop manager and stalker Joe Goldberg. Photo from NETFLIX

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For as long as the romance genre has been around, so have tales of men going through hell or high water for love. In many works of fiction, he who is torpe gets nowhere, and he who is relentless and persuasive is rewarded aplenty. He who sends a hundred handwritten letters despite receiving none in return, who dashes to the airport in the rain and makes a scene at the gate, who gets rejected multiple times and still shows up outside her window with a boombox in hand — he gets the girl.

Netflix’s “You” aims to critique this trope by taking it to the extreme. The show stars Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager who stalks and manipulates one of his customers, Guinevere Beck, into falling in love with him. As Joe narrates his innermost thoughts and desires, we’re taken into the mind of a man willing to justify his obsession and boundary-stepping behavior as acts of love. Joe stalks Beck online, finds out where she lives, breaks into her house, steals her clothes, her phone, and later, her friends, all while repeatedly saying she’s “the one,” and that he’s willing to do anything to protect, or rather, keep her.

“What this show is doing is taking every romantic trope, every stereotype, every cliché, and it's basically ... following that logic all the way to its end,” says Badgley in a roundtable interview at the show’s Philippine press tour. “[But as you see in the show,] that's not really love. That's obsession, that's lust, that's infatuation, that's possession, that's abuse, it's manipulation.”

“I think what this show is trying to say, or the conversation it's entering into, is how are we defining love?”

“What this show is doing is taking every romantic trope, every stereotype, every cliché, and it's basically ... following that logic all the way to its end,” says Badgley. Photo from NETFLIX

More than that, “You” enters the conversation on the sexism of concepts like the Nice Guy and the Friendzone — the idea that a man deserves a woman’s love because he’s good to her; that “love” is transactional, and that women owe nice men their bodies and their affection; and that if a woman does not reciprocate, she deserves to be vilified.

To attempt to dive into such testy waters and highlight this problem, that exists not only in television and fiction, but in real life as well, is commendable. Here and across the world, there are countless stories of women who have been obsessively stalked and murdered by jilted ex-lovers and abusive husbands. And as a truly entertaining and binge-worthy show, there’s something to be said about its reach. “You” is addicting — I watched six whole episodes in one sitting — and it blends together all the things that make a successful psychological thriller while maintaining a unique dark humor.

But with the writing of Joe’s character and Badgley’s portrayal as a disarmingly charming and at times deeply sympathetic person — one who, seemingly un-sociopathically cares about his neighbors too — it’s easy to see why the show struggles now with fans misunderstanding the message and romanticizing the stalking, murderous lead. In fact, throughout his entire press tour for the show, Badgley has had to remind viewers to reevaluate how they feel about his character.

In the interview, Badgley shared how he wished to have been able to make Joe a little creepier in certain scenes, and how he and his co-star, Elizabeth Lail, constantly juggled with whether it was responsible to make their characters “feel as good together as they do.”

“At one point, I was thinking, I don't want to make him human at all. I want to make him just an ugly monster,” he says. “But then I realized maybe the most responsible thing to do is make him human. So that people are troubled by how much they can identify and forgive him. [You might initially think] ‘Well, she deserved it.’ No! There’s no world where she deserved it.”

“At one point, I was thinking, I don't want to make him human at all. I want to make him just an ugly monster,” says Badgley on portraying Joe. Photo from NETFLIX

Though Badgley may admit that he isn’t quite sure if he succeeded in striking a balance between making Joe likable and despicable, he says, “[I like that,] because of how likable he is, he's inspiring, I think, a deeper conversation around the themes of the show.”

“I think we all can identify with the way he's thinking. That's the point.”

There have also been critiques on the value of such a show in this #MeToo era, and whether there remains any merit to portraying the torture, rape, and killing of women in fictional television. Joe doesn’t just stalk Beck, [SPOILER ALERT] he ends up locking her in a glass cage and eventually kills her when she tries to escape.

What do portrayals like these add to the conversation? What does it do to the psyches of young girls to see themselves portrayed in media under a singular, dark, and hopeless narrative? This is a debate that cannot be easily answered, and though the show delves into these waters, it seems that its cast and creators know that they don’t have the answers either.

“I was always questioning and concerned, like, what are we doing? I think for good reason, I don't have a definitive answer,” says Badgley. “I think this is an ongoing conversation. I think if we cross the line, people will tell us. I hope. I hope people will hold us accountable.”