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The candlelit underbelly of romance 


Those who enjoy romantic comedies revel in the comfort and familiarity of the phrase “and they all lived happily ever after.” Gazing wistfully among the happy couple on the screen incites feelings of elation and somberness, as they wish for unadulterated bliss. However, behind the image of perfection lies malice and bone-chilling horror. In the dark underbelly of romance lies an amalgamation of toxic narratives: Joe Goldberg from “YOU.”

Netflix’s “YOU” took the world by storm with its dark comedy and narration. With a third season underway, it is imperative to understand the implications of Joe, how this relates to preexisting romance media and the effect those implications have on the social perception of love.

One of people’s deepest desires is unconditional love and affection. From birth, people are predisposed to intimacy with others. One can assume this is why romance media is widely loved. This media specializes in reproducing gender and social narratives that people replicate in their lives. There is a strong link between popular representations of love and romance and acceptance of violence in intimate relationships. The controlling and violent behaviors of men who batter are synonymous with portrayals of love in popular romance novels and other media. The peddling of these narratives often leads to women trying to rationalize the simultaneity of professed love and enacted violence, adoring embraces and broken bones, especially when increased intimacy follows those violent episodes. 

A cursory overview of romance media shows infatuation, endless chasing and happiness. However, the seemingly harmless infatuation causes the man to engage in behavior that, as a society, is deemed romantic, when in actuality it is quite sinister. The idea of “the one” justifies the borderline stalker behavior these men engage in, just like in “YOU.” 

When Joe sees Beck, he automatically determines that she is the one for him and begins to fixate on her. He inserts himself into her life and stalks her in order to become a version of himself that she will find most favorable. Following her to school to outings with her friends, this one-sided courtship underscores the dissonance between the pursuer and the pursued. 

Such romance media inadvertently calls into question how the line between courtship and stalking is blurred. The courter is controlled by infatuation which festers into obsessiveness leading to violent adjacent behaviors (intimidation, threats of aggression, spying, and stalking) during courtship to ensure that the person of their affections is mutually smitten with them. According to Davis et al. (2000), male pursuers perceived their acts as “noble” or “romantic” and argued that they were trying to obtain a new relationship or preserve an old one. 

One might argue that Joe is a subversive version of romance tropes; however, he is acting based on the foundation that the forefathers of romance have laid down. In one episode, Joe says, “I bet Harry never had to do this for Sally,” one of many odes to his romance predecessors. He is not inherently creepier than preexisting romance leads; yes, he is murderous, but perhaps “YOU” is just what happens when the male lead does not get the girl or there is a major hindrance that prevents her from committing solely to him. It serves as a cautionary tale.

Society has legitimized romance media which in turn, has seeped into the real lives of men and women. According to a study conducted by Leanna Papp in 2017, romantic beliefs were related to the romanticization of controlling behavior and linked to intimate partner violence. It was also discovered that many people believed jealousy to be a sign of love and commitment. 

When the media glamorizes these values it imbues them with power and endurance, hindering individuals from prescribing to a different set of narratives regarding love. Men are taught to be commanding, domineering and disregard female agency; women are taught to be meek, accommodating and to seek pleasure in men. Love should be reciprocal and equal; however, when adhering to these traits it is impossible to maintain this balance.

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