So I finally got around to watching You having heard the usual controversies about how it glamorises / fearlessly confronts toxic masculinity / incel culture / abusive relationships / whatever the reviewer wanted to read into it. I think my big takeaway, which is my takeaway from most prestige TV series, is that it could have been half the length and stopped at one season.
I should probably say, I quite enjoyed Season 1. It’s definitely binge-worthy in a not unproblematic “well, I’m interested to see how he ends up murdering this woman” way. Season 2 sort of lost me at two episodes because it felt like it was re-treading old ground with an undertone “oh help we have to escalate” and there was clearly only one way it could possibly go and Dexter already went there eighty million years ago.
But I think what bothers me about You—and let’s be clear, there a lot of things that bother people about You and they are all things it is legitimate to be bothered by—is that the show, and a reasonable number of critics, seem to feel that it’s deconstructing the harmful tropes of genre romance and romantic comedy in particular. There’s even a quote from the showrunner in a article, the title of which explicitly states that these how ‘exposes and subverts romcom misogyny’ that reads like this:
We re-watched all the great romantic comedies when we were making this show; the most famous TV episodes, and then certainly all of the great ’80s and ’90s movies. I grew up watching those and they are deep, deep in my psyche. Generally speaking, the men in those stories cross lines that would be considered unhealthy – if not illegal – in real life, and [viewers] romanticise that. Part of what makes a romantic hero in our kinda collective watcher mind is that he’s persistent; he sees beyond what [the female character] says, into what she feels. He doesn’t necessarily take no for an answer, and he might slay the beast for her. I don’t have a problem with people having a fantasy life, it just seems that this is such a promiscuous archetype for us that it does actually confuse us in real life.
And, obviously, I’m on shaky ground here because this is very much out of my lane but I kind of really, really want to know what these films they watched were in which the hero “cross lines that would be considered unhealthy – if not illegal – in real life” because I honestly can’t thing of a single example, at least not within the genre I would consider to be “romantic comedy.” I should probably also say before I go on that I’m going to be using some deeply gendered language here, which is a bit messed up for someone who writes LGBTQ+ romance. But because You is a series that takes a very gendered approach to a very gendered narrative it’s hard not to. So when I’m talking about heroines and heroes, and women and men, what I’m mostly talking about You’s perception of those archetypes in the context of its response to what it thinks the romance genre is. I’m not making broad generalisation about women and men in real life, and I’m not reducing the romance genre to books about heterosexual relationships. And finally I should probably add that, as an author of kissing books, I have a non-zero number of horses in this race, and tend to get slightly peeved when people rag on the genre for traits its assumed to have but often doesn’t.
The thing is, I just don’t think the elements You thinks its critiquing are elements of the things it think they’re elements of. I suspect part of the problem here is that I understand (and by ‘understand’ I mean ‘read on Wikipedia’) that the original book was intended as a critique on social media, which is spectacularly not worth doing in a post Black Mirror world. So the showrunners clearly felt they had to find something else to critique and they seem to have made the (and I’m going to be saying not unproblematic a lot in this article) not unproblematic decision to turn the series into a critique of a genre that everyone assumes they know everything about but few people actually pay much attention to.
So anyway (spoilers ho) the central premise here is that Lonely Boy from Gossip Girl has grown up to be a bookseller in New York City. While bookselling he meets Guinevere Beck (Beck to her friends) who he fancies and immediately starts stalking. Stalking that is facilitated, by the way, not so much by social media as by the fact, like a lot of people on this kind of TV show, she never closes her curtains, turns around or locks her doors. Via stalking, he quickly leans she’s an aspiring writer with bad taste in men and similarly poor taste in friends, and sets about inserting himself into her life by any means possible, many of them murderous.
I think the single biggest gap to me between the narrative presented in You and the narrative presented in the genres it seems to think it’s deconstructing is that, by and large, the heroine of a romance or a romantic comedy is attracted to the hero from the start. Even if it’s an enemies-to-lovers or friends-to-lovers situation there’s always an undertone of mutual desire: it’s just been subsumed into the enmity or friendship, delete as applicable. The dynamic in You isn’t as much from genre romance (in dead tree or moving celluloid format) as it is from 80s teen comedies pitched at a primarily male audience or 90s skater-punk songs about how unjust it is that hot girls don’t like alternative guys. And, in a sense, that’s kind of a pissy nitpick because it’s not like those things don’t really exist and aren’t worth deconstructing but I find it, well, telling is a loaded word, but at least interesting that those aren’t the comparisons everyone goes to, even though they’re (I would argue) the most applicable ones.
I mean, hell you can make a reasonable case that Lonely Boy’s worldview, if it’s grounded in any cinematic genre, is grounded in action movies. The way the events of the series are presented, the idea that he and Beck have a “meet-cute” when he manages to save her from falling onto a subway track while he’s stalking her and then he does a number of “romantic gestures” in order to construct a “love story” certainly superficially resemble genre romance. But, from another point of view (and I would not totally objectively argue a more accurate one) you can frame it as him saving her life, killing a bunch of people, and then getting the girl. That’s not a Hugh Grant movie, that’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
To put it another way, and I’m conscious I’m yet further out of my lane here, the thing that most bothered me about You is that it often felt like it was blaming toxic male behaviour on female-centric narratives. And, obviously, romance has its share of problems but they’re not the problems that You identifies. You works really, really well as a deconstruction of Nice Guy Syndrome: the belief held deeply by a lot of shy men that women are innately attracted to people who treat them badly and need to be shown the error of their ways. This is probably best summed up in the Bill Hicks song, Chicks Dig Jerks (if you haven’t heard it, it’s, spoiler, about how chicks dig jerks, and it’s kind of an anthem for a certain kind of guy who likes to blame women for his failure to get laid).
The thing is, Nice Guy Syndrome (and its regular drinking buddy, The Friend Zone) aren’t things that romance as a genre is especially interested in for the simple (although I will admit reductive) reason that romances and romcoms tend to be written from a female perspective, while chicks digging jerks and the friend zone are very much male preoccupations. The whole point of a genre romance, even if you make mistakes along the way, is that you end up with the person you want to be with. Not with someone who decided for himself that you were going out with the wrong sort of people and set out to change that. Of course, romance heroines will sometimes start a book bemoaning the fact that they seem to always date jerks who treat them badly, but that’s generally a problem they fix themselves by finding someone who is willing to treat them well, no questions asked, on their own terms. And even when romance heroines wind up with guys whose behaviours code as abusive to some people (and we’ve all got our examples here, I’m not going to go into specifics) that’s still generally something she has chosen, and a reflection of the book’s values (which is, I suspect, why books that code in that way provoke such strong reactions in people).
Okay, I said I wasn’t going to go into specifics but I should give at least one example. The central relationship in Twilight codes as somewhere between “get out now girl” and “toxic as balls” to many people, but you can’t deny that, for all its problems, Bella’s relationship with Edward is what Bella wants from day one. And that’s very different to a situation where a guy who a girl isn’t initially particularly interested in wears her down with a combination of persistence and big dramatic gestures until she agrees to go out with him.
And to be fair to the showrunners of You, in the actual quote I cite above they do talk about having watching romantic-type stuff more broadly and the tropes they’re talking about do exist, especially in sitcoms that have to get a certain amount of mileage out of a will-they-won’t-they and can play “he’s really into her, and she’s not really into him” for cheap laughs, knowing they’ll always be able to pop the audience with a kiss when that story’s finally got old. My objection is the unthinking way that these sort of ideas keep getting blamed on genre romance and romcoms, rather than on a much wider set of social trends. And, obviously, some of them do exist in some elements of romance as well (“not to taking no for an answer” is a thing in some types of romance, although a lot less so than people believe) but the way they’re used is profoundly different.
Take for example the big dramatic gesture which the showrunner seems to conflate with ‘slaying the beast’ which, again, is as much an action movie trope as a romcom one. From the perspective of the hero of the kind of story I think You is drawing on, the big dramatic gesture is a thing the man does to demonstrate almost in a vacuum that he is better than other men and, therefore, more worthy of sex. This can just mean “shooting a bunch of terrorists” or, to take an example from You, staging a re-enactment of the heroine’s failed first kiss. But in genre romance, or romantic comedy, a big romantic gesture doesn’t function like that at all. It’s usually something that happens late in the narrative and is a means by which the hero signals to the heroine his specific understanding of her as a person and—if it’s also an apology, which it often is—as a way a demonstrating that he gets what he did wrong.
In Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant stands in front of a room full of press photographers and tells Julia Roberts he’s been a total prick he partly just apologising for, well, having been a total prick but his romantic gesture is essentially a mirror of hers. She comes to his bookshop to try and make him understand that she’s “just a girl standing in front of a boy”, and thus has a place in his world which, in a moment of panic, he rejects. And then he exposes himself to public rejection as a way showing her that he’s no longer afraid of her celebrity, accepting her thesis that they are, in fact, both just people who love each other. Even the bleacher scene in Ten Things I Hate About You which is, arguably, itself a deconstruction of the big romantic gesture (in that it occurs during the phase of Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles’ relationship where he’s still at least ostensibly only dating her for the money) is very centred around her needs and her value system: it’s playful, it’s silly, it’s ironic because she’d see through anything that wasn’t, and it’s got a real no-fucks-given daring to it. It’s exactly what she wants, and will enjoy it. Not what he think she should want. He’s proving he gets her not that he’s worthy of her.
In a sense, part of the problem with You as a deconstruction of romance or romantic comedy is that they’re genres that can’t really exist only from the perspective of the hero. Obviously, Notting Hill is told primarily from the perspective of Hugh Grant, but you could also make a case that Hugh Grant is the heroine of that story (in the sense that he fulfils he the role that a heroine normally fills in a genre romance, not in the sense that there’s anything emasculating in earning less than Julia Roberts). Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is that when a genre romance or romantic comedy is seen as abusive to some readers, the red flags its seen as raising are generally things that the heroine observes and is fine with or into. In paranormal romance in particular, it’s fairly common for the hero to represent a real physical danger to the heroine and for this to be waived off as something that’s just a bit cool and sexy. And, obviously, some people don’t think that’s okay. But others are willing to accept it as part of a fantasy. And that’s fine on both sides. But in You, from Beck’s point of view, her relationship with Lonely Boy falls somewhere between “fine” and “extremely healthy.” When they first meet, he literally saves her life and, yes, he’s only able to save her life because he was stalking her but she doesn’t know about the stalking part. Yes, he murders her ex-boyfriend and her best friend, but, again, she doesn’t find out about that until the end and, also, both of them are genuinely harming her in quite direct ways. Obviously, he does a lot behind the scenes because he’s cloning her phone and manipulating her, but because it’s invisible to her it’s hard to tell what, as a romance reader or romcom fan, you can take away from that. Or what tropes it think it’s deconstructing.
For example, the “he only saves her life because he was stalking her” thing seems to be intended as a deconstruction of meet-cutes but, while you can argue that the meet-cute trope has issues (notably that how interesting or quirky your first meeting with someone is clearly bears no relationship to how romantically compatible you are), there’s nothing inherently stalkery about them.You could write an effective deconstruction of a meet-cute but you’d wind up with something like Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch where these two characters have a significant initial encounter that, spoiler, it turns out at the end only one of them can remember or cares about. To put it another way, there are reasonable concerns you could raise about the core tropes of romance, but the “guy who’s doing these romantic things might, completely independently of his doing these romantic things, turn out to be a serial killer” isn’t one of them.
The other problem with You’s only occasionally broken focus on Lonely Boy’s POV (apart from the fact that it makes the story of a woman’s murder primarily about the guy who murdered her, an issue that gets much as we move onto series 2 and forget about Beck entirely) is that if there is a case to be made that romantic comedies give people unrealistic expectations about romance I really think it’s stretching a point to suggest that the people it gives those unrealistic expectations to are men. I should stress, I’m not saying male entitlement isn’t a problem. I’m certainly not suggesting, in a post metoo world, that men don’t think they have right to control of women’s rights and bodies because they clearly do (see reams of evidence passim ad nauseam). What I am saying is that if a guy like Lonely Boy was going to have the kind of fucked up attitude to romance he has he wouldn’t have got it from watching romcoms (and he certainly wouldn’t have got it from reading romance novels). He might have picked it up from adventures stories, fantasy novels, video games, or for that matter from a PUA manual, but, assuming we’re talking about a relatively ordinarily socialised heterosexual man who has imbibed the “promiscuous archetypes” of his culture his attitude to romantic comedy is far more likely to be a patronising tolerance than an inability to distinguish them for reality.
I can just about see (though do not necessarily agree with) the argument that the presentation of problematic behaviour patterns and their portrayal as romantic in fiction primarily aimed at women might encourage women to be attracted to relationships that are harmful to them. Although I think even that argument skirts the edge of being a little bit victim-blamey in places. It should be perfectly possible to enjoy bodice rippers, but fully understand that you should be able to control what happens to your own bodice. Where I really have to get off the bus is where you start (or, rather, when You starts) making the case that the presentation of problematic behaviour patterns and their portrayal as romantic in fiction primarily aimed at women is responsible for problematic behaviours by men. That, to me, goes from a little bit victim-blamey round the edges to really, really victim-blamey. I personally am not a huge fan of alpha heroes, but I don’t think the fact that some women are is a proximal cause of murders committed by men.
I think the final thing I would say about You, and especially about the quote I’ve been looping back to throughout this post, is that perhaps the most telling part of it is the bit about how for research they watched “the most famous TV episodes, and then certainly all of the great ’80s and ’90s movies”. Because, the thing is, the 90s ended twenty years ago and the 80s started forty years ago, and that is a long arse time. And this happens a lot when people try to deconstruct stuff–because most people don’t pay attention to most genres and they forget that what they remember from their childhood in a previous century isn’t necessarily the current state of the art.
Because, yes, when you go back and watch 80s or 90s movies there’s a bunch of stuff in there that you couldn’t really get away with today. I briefly tried to re-watch Ally McBeal before Christmas and, at first, it was really good fun in a VHS and shoulderpads kind of way, but then there were two episodes in a row in which Ally represents a client (one of them her best friend) who has been the victim of a sexual assault and responds by getting angry at the client for reacting to being sexually assaulted in an insufficiently romantic way. So it stopped being fun and I stopped watching it. And, obviously, problematic things continue to be made, but they’re usually problematic in different ways than they were nearly half a century ago. TV still doesn’t handle LGBTQ+ issues brilliantly but we’re well past the days where you could have an entire episode of Friends in which the only joke is people pretending Chandler is gay.
So I do have to question the value in making a TV show in 2019 with the primary aim of taking a valiant stand again tropes that had their heyday in sitcoms three decades ago. I think I find it particularly weird because it’s hard for me to look at a modern show about a socially marginalised nerdy white man whose actions are, on some level, driven by a deep and abiding misogyny without thinking about GamerGate and the incel movement. Those are real social problems that exist right now, and which this show could have confronted. But it decided instead that what we, as a culture, really needed to challenge were meet-cutes and running through the rain to tell someone you love them.