Editor’s note: this story contains spoilers for You
The Netflix drama You – in short a story of a good looking, well-mannered low key guy becoming obsessed with a beautiful woman he met in the bookshop that he works in – romanticises stalking and shows stalking behaviour being rewarded.
Leading man Joe, played by Penn Badgely, commits four serious crimes in the first episode as part of his stalking campaign (spoiler alert) but all in the name of getting the beautiful woman of his dreams. So it’s ok, right? Some people appear to think so - they see him as a hapless romantic, desperate for the affection of Guinevere (Elizabeth Lail), and after all, most Hollywood movies of the ’80s and ’90s have shown us that tenacity pays off – wear the woman down, the war of attrition – and she will eventually submit.
Well, let’s jump back into 2019 in the wake of the #MeToo movement – Joe may be good-looking and Dexter-esque, we hear his rationale and thought process, and he does some good stuff like helping a kid from a domestic violence home - but I am definitely not sympathising with him or cheering him on, no matter how cute the actor (subjective I know!).
Stalking is a serious crime. It was criminalised in England and Wales in 2012 following our successful All-Party Parliamentary Stalking Law Reform campaign. Stalking is insidious and terrifying when it happens to you. However, if there is anything good to come from You, it’s that the show highlights just how easy it is to stalk someone at the touch of a button, and how freely people give up personal data online and when looking for love. Social media and technology are the stalker’s friend, after all.
And here’s another thing that You does well. We hear Joe’s rationalisation and minimisation for everything he does – to him, it’s all in the best interests of his prey. Joe, of course, knows what is best for her – I mean, how could she possibly have any idea being a blonde, beautiful woman? We hear the thought process of the stalker and how he justifies it. Some of it may sound plausible, if you are not trained and if you don’t ask further questions in order to understand the full context and pattern of behaviour - and if you dismiss the victim and do not believe their version and how it impacts their life. It’s the reason why 80% of stalkers currently do not face a charge in England and Wales.
You also highlights the nature of serial offending. We are teased across the first few episodes about Joe’s previous relationships. There’s a drip-drip-drip of information. Nothing major to alarm us at first about his history. But we do learn there were other women that he had to ‘push hard for’. Surely you didn’t think that this was Joe’s first rodeo? Certainly not when he is so good at stalking, or as Joe describes it, ‘checking in’ with Guinevere. There was Candace, who we learn from a friend in episode two, disappears ‘suddenly’ – big, big warning sign. Well, I know this is fiction, but when women disappear ‘suddenly,’ and they had a previous relationship with someone who was coercively controlling, it never ends well.
A stalker does not just wake up one day and start behaving like this. It is a pattern of behaviour and one that continues, if it gets them what they want and/or they do not fear the consequence of their actions. This is why we have been campaigning for serial abusers and stalkers to be included on Violent and Sexual Offender’s Register (ViSOR) and managed by the Multi-agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).
Sadly, I have reviewed far too many domestic homicide cases and worked with bereaved families where it became known far too late that the perpetrator was a serial abuser. Victim’s families have often said to me if only they had known about the abuser’s past, their daughter would not have dated him. However, too often the police focus on the victim, asking questions of them, telling them to change their phone number, name and home address, attempting to manage the victim’s behaviour and move them around the country totally missing the point – that this will have zero impact on changing or stopping the perpetrator’s behaviour. If anything, it will just make them more committed, determined and angry.
Laura Richards is the founder and director of national stalking advisory service, Paladin