Editor's note: Potential spoilers for "You" ahead.
When I broke up with a former boyfriend a few years ago, the first question my mom asked was whether he had hit me. At the time, I was shocked. Of course he hadn’t! What kind of question was that? It wasn't until after some time in therapy that I realized why she’d asked the question: I’d been in an emotionally abusive relationship without realizing it, and she was terrified that things had escalated.
The thing with emotional abuse—which the advocacy organization OneLove says "may include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, and humiliation, which most often unfolds as a pattern of behavior over time that aims to diminish another person's sense of identity, dignity and self worth"—is that, unlike physical abuse, it can be incredibly difficult to spot, even when you’re the one experiencing it. So if you’re one of the thousands of people who spent the weekend binge-watching You on Netflix and thirsting after Penn Badgley's character, you likely missed a number of telltale red flags.
Emotional abuse gaslights those who experience it—including the You audience
For the uninitiated: You (which originally aired on Lifetime in September, but picked up mainstream attention once it hit Netflix in late December) follows Badgley’s character, Joe, as he pursues a relationship with Elizabeth Lail’s Guinevere Beck. From the get-go, his interest in her is is clearly far more obsession than “affection” (case in point: he masturbates outside of her window hours after meeting her). To Beck's face, Joe wears the mask of the perfect boyfriend, while simultaneously isolating her from her world and threatening anyone who gets in his way. But the struggle with You—and why so many Twitter users are more than willing to overlook Joe’s dangerous behaviors—is that at times, it makes his emotional abuse seem romantic.
Problematic? Hell, yes. According to Jane Greer, PhD, author of How Could You Do This to Me, that misleading sense of romance and love is often one of the cornerstones of emotionally abusive relationships—and what can make them so difficult to identify. Abusers tend to present themselves as wolves in sheep's clothing, she says, building up their victims with affection and compliments before subtly breaking them down with things like gaslighting and condescending remarks.
“The affection and the compliments...you don't recognize as abuse at all because it feels so good," she says. "You feel like you're so important and you're so loved and you're so desired." This, Dr. Greer explains, is the first way an abuser can hook their victim in order to begin to manipulate them. "[They] elevate you enough that you feel so wonderful, and so that when they start to devalue you and criticize you, you take a hard fall in order to bring back the approval.”
Throughout the first season of You, you can see this swing between seemingly-sweet and abusive behaviors. Joe builds Beck a bed...then kills her best friend. He recreates her first kiss...then breaks into her therapist’s office to listen to her recorded sessions. He hacks her phone and stalks her...then apologizes profusely in order to win her back. Obviously, these specific instances are sensationalized and extreme—but the pattern itself is extremely realistic. “They're doing all this nice-seeming stuff to establish control and then flipping the switch,” says Dr. Greer. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that can make it easier for viewers to forgive Joe for his shortcomings (or overlook them altogether), the same way that women in IRL abusive relationships might be compelled to forgive their own partners.
The effectiveness of Joe's manipulation on the audience is abundantly clear on Twitter, where fans have begun glorifying him as a dream boyfriend instead of vilifying him for his abuse. And to his credit, Penn Badgley has actively worked to shut down these affections:
What You does differently
This of course isn’t the first time we’ve seen stalking and emotionally abusive tendencies shown hand-in-hand with romance. Ten years ago, Edward Cullen watching Bella Swan sleep seemed the pinnacle of romance; more recently, Anastasia Steele signing her life away to Christian Grey was portrayed as a sign of devotion, not control. In the case of You, Joe is portrayed as a hot Brooklyn hipster who, I'll admit, I probably would have swiped right for at first glance.
Some people dismiss this pop culture romanticization as harmless fiction, but experts disagree. “It's dangerous to make stalking sexy,” says Gretchen Shaw, the deputy director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It’s psychotic and, really, the reality of that is that those that do stalk people actually go on to victimize those people further.” Their behavior can escalate quickly; 76 percent of female intimate partner homicide victims had been stalked by their partner before their death, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. If you’ve made it to the season finale of You, you know that holds true with Joe and Beck.
You does have moments where it makes an emotionally abusive relationships look glamorous—every steamy sex scene between Joe and Beck, for example. What's different about the show is that it takes viewers inside Joe’s twisted mind, making them privy to the motivations behind his “perfect boyfriend” persona. At times, this narrative choice makes it easier to sympathize with the character, particularly because he rationalizes everything he does in terrifyingly convincing detail. But it's also a study in how abusers justify their quest for control. "If they're depicting his thinking...if there's an undercurrent of his intention, it can be helpful," says Dr. Greer (who says she has not watched the show). She adds that seeing a smooth-talking, polished character on-screen doing abusive, manipulative things could help show women what to look out for in real life—since there is no one "type" of abusive person. Yes, Joe seems like a "good" guy. That's the point.
Seeing that on-screen portrayal—even one with some mixed messages—can be a powerful thing, says Shaw (who also has not watched the show). "When this issue's thrusted to the forefront, it serves as a trigger for people who have been victims of abuse, or sexual assault, or stalking," she explains. "And service providers often become overwhelmed trying to keep up with the response from people coming out to say, 'Hey, I saw this show... and that happened to me. And I'm realizing that I need help as well.' So we often see a surge in people reaching out for help."
Like most Hollywood depictions of abusive behavior, You isn't perfect. But seeing it may be the catalyst for some women to get the help and support they need.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-899-7323 or thehotline.org.
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