One Of Netflix’s Biggest Series Slammed For Promoting Domestic Abuse

Netflix's hit series, You, is about to launch its final season and is facing a fresh-round of criticism over allegedly romanticizing stalking.

By Sean Thiessen | Published

Penn Badgely in You

Netflix users are obsessed with You. Based on the books by Caroline Kepnes, the series follows Gossip Girl alum Penn Badgley as a stalker named Joe whose obsessions with women culminate in murder. Ahead of the February 9 release of the show’s fourth season, an article in Newsweek detailed the dangers of normalizing stalking, citing a real world example as proof.

Netflix found another mega hit in You. Starring Badgley alongside powerhouses like Victoria Pedretti, Ambyr Childers, Jenna Ortega, and more, the phenomenon’s third season broke streaming records on Netflix. Critics have praised the show alongside its passionate fans, but people like Amy Bonami of Social Justice Associates say that passion is a problem.

Of You’s portrayal of stalking, Bonami said: “When such behaviors are cast as romantic, they signal problematic controlling dynamics that instill fear, threat, entrapment, and disempowerment in those being targeted.” The Netflix series is rated TV-MA and is geared toward adults, but social media activity suggests the show’s fans may be missing the point.

The You Reddit page is full of users criticizing the women Joe stalks instead of indicting the stalker himself. Users on TikTok commonly express a desire for Joe to stalk them. Made in earnest or not, these types of statements are alarming, and they often come from fans of the Netflix show swept up in the charisma of You’s lead actor, Penn Badgley.

Badgley has publicly appealed to fans not to idolize or normalize Joe’s behavior. “Joe is one of the worst people ever,” Badgely told Netflix. “Don’t aspire to be like him, don’t defend him. Ever.” Netflix placing a beloved, good-looking actor at the center of You caused concern at the outset, and those fears have manifested in the form of a toxic fanbase.

Joe’s likability is alarming, but that is the show’s point: stalkers are more common than most may think, and they can take unexpected, even attractive forms. According to Bonami, shows like You cross a line and lead viewers to interpret problematic behavior as romantic. Netflix is far from the first to cross that line, but the massive popularity of You has inspired some stalking victims to speak out.

penn badgley
Penn Badgley as Joe in You

Author Jeanette Oppenheim shared her experience of being stalked by a college classmate. The pattern began with incessant texts from her stalker, then escalated to phone calls, him showing up in the same places as Oppenheim “by chance,” and the incident culminated with a threat of suicide and police involvement.

Oppenheim’s harrowing account doesn’t make her hate Netflix, You, or its viewers, but the show inspired her to speak words of caution. “I don’t blame people for feeding into the sexiness that You portrays. What I’m not OK with, is that a potential stalker might be watching that and use it to justify their actions and think it’s something to aspire to.” 

She added, “One person actually said to me, ‘Your story reminds me of the show You, I love that show.’ Often, people just don’t understand.”

Oppenheim does not condemn You or lobby for its cancellation. She does encourage Netflix to take greater responsibility for You and supply helplines and other resources for stalking victims to go along with the episodes.

The debate about whether or not TV and movies promote violence in society has been going on for decades. The subject warrants further discussion, especially as the pervasiveness of social media continues to shape the culture. Netflix users will likely give season four of You billions of hours of viewing time, and as the story sinks in, hopefully it will be regarded as the cautionary tale it was intended to be.