In a world where Tumblr is now forever PG, where would we be without thirst tweets? If you need a quick definition, consider it the Generation Z equivalent to drooling over posters of McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy or putting ‘Mrs Robert Pattison 4Efva!! <3’ as your MSN name. It is essentially a modern way to express your, ahem… ‘appreciation’ for celebrities and fictional characters in this social media age. Thirst tweets can happen to anyone, from Chris Pratt to Jeff Goldblum who seems to have recently acclaimed ‘daddy’ status. However, applying this cult trend to murderous stalkers and sociopathic necrophiliacs might just be a step too far. So, let’s dive right in and look at our sensitive sweetheart Joe from Netflix’s You. Although I was never a huge fan of the actor Penn Badgley in Gossip Girl, I did understand his position as a teen idol, and in a racy show about attractive high schoolers at the top of society, I guess it would be a bit weird if we weren’t rooting for Badgley’s character, despite Dan Humphrey having numerous faults and inconsistences. After all, they probably wouldn’t have hired him if they didn’t deem him attractive enough to fawn over (note: this is also extremely problematic, but I will leave that rant for another day).
The context of Gossip Girl means that it makes sense for us to like Badgley’s character: he was designed and written to be likeable. But, for any of you who have watched his latest outing as a sinister stalker in You, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t written to be likeable. Alongside the brutal string of murders and kidnappings he committed through the series, we were also shown the depths of some downright disturbing and grotesque behaviour, such as obsessive online stalking and masturbating in the bushes to an unassuming Beck. These scenes made for uncomfortable viewing, and it’s clear that they were designed by the writers to be that way. Because I myself felt so disturbed by this character and his behaviour, I assumed everyone else felt the same way. Instead, when I logged on to Twitter, I saw comments such as ‘Joe can stalk me anytime’ or ‘I wish he could kidnap me’. More disturbingly, I saw comments that appeared to emphasize with poor Joe’s predicament whilst blame and irritation was being directed towards Beck, the stalkee and eventual murder victim of this guy. Joe might be a murderer but it’s okay because he’s hot and Beck didn’t have curtains. Does that not sound completely ludicrous to you?
As someone who spends a bit too much time on the internet, Joe seems like one of those ‘nice guys’ you’ll find lurking in the ‘incel’ forums on Reddit. These men believe they are entitled to women because they are ‘sensitive’ and ‘not like the others’. And I guess, in a way, they’re right. They aren’t like other men because not all men turn into raging killers when the girl he likes practises her free will and rejects him. Although these men are usually characterised as sweaty goblins with patchy sideburns and a fedora, they can be good looking, too. But that doesn’t make them any less of a psycho or their behaviour any less excusable. It’s similar to the whole ‘I want a relationship like the Joker and Harley Quinn’ phase where, if I remember correctly, he literally dumped her in a pool of acid and burnt off her skin so she looked like him. If an ideal relationship means being stalked, murdered or abused then I’m quite happy to be single. But people overlooked the most transparently abusive relationship in fiction because Jared Leto had ‘damaged’ tattooed on his head and, you know, we all like a bad boy.
Subsequently, what makes the sexualisation of Joe so deeply troubling is the fact that people appear willing to overlook this dangerous and abusive behaviour due to him being attractive: it’s as if Joe’s attractiveness is a kind of ‘get out of jail free’ card: it makes it somehow more acceptable for him to do these abhorrent things, and more easy for us to humanise him. Consider Badgley’s former co-star Ed Westwick, for example. The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ narrative was constantly reinforced to us during his various rape allegations because surely, if someone is that handsome, he can get any girl he wants and doesn’t need to resort to violence and force. People were more concerned about the impact on Westwick’s career and season 2 of White Gold than they were about the impact on those women who came forward and had to relive serious trauma. Netflix seems to be on a roll with the attractive murderers lately, as we’re also getting to know notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in a whole new way with these ‘tapes’. Despite the ludicrous of lusting after a fictional murderer online making the headlines, it seems as if we haven’t learnt our lesson, as that same pattern of being blindsided to abhorrent actions because of one’s looks is being repeated in online reactions to Bundy. If reactions to Joe were bad, this is worse. We aren’t normalising hypothetical and fictional behaviour, we are talking about a man who sadistically murdered, raped and mutilated countless women. And honestly, I don’t care if his looks are part of the deep psychological fascination people have with him. By obsessing over people like Bundy and glorifying him in any way, we are losing sight of how so many women’s lives were cut short in such a brutal and horrifying way. Glorifying people like that is what they want, and by doing that you’re letting them win.
Ultimately, the trouble is not so much the fact that we are lusting over a fictional character, it is more the fact that it leads us to normalise all kinds of toxic behaviour ranging from abuse to serial killing. No matter how cute the face might be, the actions behind it are deeply and objectively ugly.
You and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes are both streaming on Netflix now.