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It’s 2021 and sexist stalkers on screen are going nowhere

Season 3 of the web-series ‘You’, with its classic anti-hero lead, drops on Netflix on Friday, feeding our appetite for violent, misogynist content

A still from You, Season 3, streaming on Netflix.
A still from You, Season 3, streaming on Netflix.

Many of us are already familiar with the figure of the antihero—those twisted, unstable and often downright abhorrent individuals who play the role of unlikely protagonists. From Travis Bickle to The Joker to Fleabag, they appear everywhere, from comedy to social drama. But the line between hero and antihero is often fickle, seeing viewers siding with on-screen outcasts they would never want at a dinner party in real life. And, of course, this blurring of lines has consequences.

The hit US series You, streaming on Netflix since 2018 with its third season coming up on Friday, plays on the trope of the antihero deftly, portraying a manipulative stalker set upon claiming a romance that he believes only he is worthy of attaining. And despite its problematic themes, fans have been lapping up both the bingeable series and its attractive star.

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The first 30 minutes of You thrust viewers into an uncomfortable place. The protagonist, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), is at once nauseatingly predatory and the best of a bad batch. After a customer, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), asks for his help at the book shop where he works, he jumps to a flurry of assumptions. He assumes she wanted him to be aware of her physique as she reached for a book and, worse still, hoped to present him with her identity card when handing over her credit card to pay.

Encouraged by a colleague with a similar mindset, Goldberg decides to stalk Beck online. This leads to him painting a distorted picture of her life as a damsel in distress, caught between friends she doesn’t like, responsibilities she fails to make time for and male acquaintances who are consistently sexually overbearing. It’s a version entirely fabricated by Goldberg’s overactive imagination.

It’s this dissonance between reality and fantasy that makes You so disturbing, with Goldberg subtly gaslighting us into accepting his bizarre beliefs. After a while, his repeated self-descriptions as “the last true romantic” or a “nice straight-edged guy” are likely to start floating past viewers. Worse, his stalkerish behaviour is offset against his seemingly altruistic acts to the neighbours’ child, who finds himself left out in the cold, hungry while his parents argue and fight. Thus, when he mouths lines like, “The most valuable things in life are usually the most helpless, so they need people like us to help them,” we almost willingly accept the mosaic-like persona of this stalker-cum-vigilante social worker. While Goldberg aligns with the traditional antihero, we struggle to truly hate him as we spend more and more time hoping there is a shred of humanity left in him.

Badgley has astutely spoken about how the audience’s admiration for his psychopathic on-screen character “says something about how much we are willing to be patient and forgive someone who inhabits a body that looks something like mine—the color of my skin, my gender, these sorts of privileges, and how much less (they are) willing to forgive people who don't fit those boxes.” What if Goldberg were to play a character from a minority community or different sexual orientation? Would he still receive such adulation from fans? Unlikely.

A scene from You, streaming on Netflix.
A scene from You, streaming on Netflix.

Beyond being simply “titillating” as an action- and sex-packed show, You, Badgley goes on to claim, is steered by a team that is “purposefully creating a device that is meant to be provocative (and) hopefully thought-provoking”. While this argument certainly holds weight and would be appreciated by a thoughtful audience, presenting such ideas in a package as consumable, plot-heavy and seemingly uncritical as You likely leaves a lot to chance.

Portrayals of aggressive, toxic masculinity are rife in popular culture. From the Polish film 365 Days to India’s Highway and Arjun Reddy, it’s a ubiquitous plot line in showbiz. If you strip these shows of their cinematography, style, and captivating plots, they simply appear to be pandering to a certain kind of male ego. It becomes even more problematic when on-screen characters become revered by a generation of male admirers for the very same traits that make them nightmarish predators—as in the case of Arjun Reddy.

In 2019, months after the release of Arjun Reddy, actor Parvathy Thiruvothu pointed out that while Arjun Reddy and Joker both depicted tragedies, Arjun was glorified for his bad behaviour, but the Joker wasn’t. She went on to say, “There is a fine line in showing the misogyny of the society and glorifying it. When a man is being misogynistic and if that incites applause, then that’s glorification.”

While her comment was met with applause, Vijay Deverakonda cleared his stand on choosing to portray the character Arjun Reddy and stated in an interview that, “...if I feel I should cut down because of the social responsibility, I will do that too. I don’t want to justify it, but it is completely possible that a couple is in love, and they hit each other, but they completely understand.” Arjun Reddy and, later, Kabir Singh—another movie with a problematic male lead—went on to become massive hits.

Vijay Deverakonda in and as ‘Arjun Reddy’. 
Vijay Deverakonda in and as ‘Arjun Reddy’. 

“We are living in the times where web series, web shorts and brand-ads are moving towards depicting a more gender-just society,” says Isha Yadav, a PhD candidate at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University and a feminist activist who recently created a social art project on Instagram called Museum of Rape Threats & Sexism. “In the 'sharing the load' messaging in a detergent ad, or in all the memes re-imagining the age-old gender laterals, I want to know why the stereotypical idea of a man forcing himself on a woman is still appealing. Is it a reaction to new-age cinematic adaptations by brighter, younger actors, and wonderful new-age film aesthetics, or just a continuation of an age-old idea passed on by writers?”

For too long, Bollywood has portrayed wooing in stalker-lover style, with guaranteed success in the end: winning the heroine’s heart. From Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin, to Darr, to newer releases like Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya and Raanjhanaa, this trope is depicted rather casually, oftentimes with song and dance thrown in, making it all the more ‘entertaining’. It’s worse when actors like Bhumi Pednekar seek to defend the portrayal of stalking, in the song “Hans Mat Pagli” from Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, by saying, “It’s not stalking if the girl in question does not object.” Unfortunately, in real life, stalking does not end when the director screams, “Cut!”

In 2015, an Indian man called Sandesh Baliga, was accused of stalking two women in Tasmania. He successfully argued that “he believed the patient pursuit of a woman would make her fall in love with him since that’s what he’d seen in Bollywood films”. In 2017, a woman called Riya Gautam was brutally stabbed to death in New Delhi by her stalker who she had earlier registered a police complaint against. In January 2020, a 19-year-old was killed by her stalker at her home in Kerala and on the same day, a 17-year-old was repeatedly stabbed by a man whose advances she had rejected.

“There are certain perceptions about stalking cases—they are not taken seriously by the society or police,” said Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research, based in New Delhi. “These perceptions are further reinforced in popular culture where romantic relationships often begin with stalking.”

Which begs the question, as an audience, should we condone such shows because of their potential to open debates, or condemn them for their unwillingness to overtly dissect the socially important questions of sexual predation and misconduct? And what happens to this argument when popular actors are leveraged to make this behaviour look cool, and possibly, socially acceptable?

While you think over these questions, I’ll leave you with one statistic recorded by the data platform IndiaSpend: every 55 minutes, 1 stalking case is reported in India, and this is while a majority of such cases remain underreported.

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