Hollywood has always had a way with making viewers fall in love with the most dislikable characters. From Loki in the Marvel universe to Tate Langdon in American Horror Story, television writers are blurring the lines between heroes and villains. The newest method of allowing the “villain” to narrate portions of the show has sparked a debate over the power of empathy in the entertainment industry. Is it ok to empathize with the villian? What about falling in love with them? At what point does the antagonist become the protagonist? In the Netflix series “You,” the main character Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) makes viewers completely question their moral beliefs.
“You” follows Joe Goldberg, a psychopathic bookstore manager, through his endeavor to find love in very unconventional ways (unconventional meaning essentially stalking women until he can maneuver his way into a relationship with them). At first glance, his character is a charming guy exploring his early 20’s working in New York. Before you know it, he’s changing his identity and moving cities to run away from his various crimes to get the girl he wanted. The most alarming part about it all is that viewers barely get a chance to question all Joe did — and further why it was bad.
Goldberg’s “good” bad guy characterization has opened up a conversation concerning a television trope of a main character being the surrounding characters’ worst enemy, but the viewer’s “best friend“.
Just in the last 10 years, there has been a significant influx in villain apologists. With the 2011 release of “American Horror Story,” audiences found themselves rooting for the bad guy, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters). It became so extreme that fans all over the world were dismissing his manic behavior because of his appearance, “I don’t know whether to fear Tate Langdon or feel bad before him,” says Twitter user @xbayleaf.
Clearly, nothing has changed since then. After “You” was released, very little was discussed about Joe’s activities; it was all about how attractive he was. Considering that the actor that portrays him, Penn Badgley, has a history in the entertainment industry, there was no question that he already had a following going into this character. Yet, even in his past roles he has always played somewhat of a dislikeable character. So, when he began his journey as a serial killer, a lot of fans decided to dismiss his actions and empathize with him because of his appearance. This is all strategic.
Junior Megan Schneider, a You viewer, understands how people can let themselves become sympathetic about alarming traits just because of appearance.
“Casting attractive men is strategic because it makes people question themselves. It also creates a lot of discussion about what a psychopath is ‘supposed to look like.’”
Due to the overwhelming response the show gathered, the psychology behind why these villains were so lovable became more apparent.
A study done by Carleton University in Canada in 2019 put this ideology to the test by asking 100 women to arrange a group of 10 men based on not only physical appearance but personality and presentation. The men that had the strongest psychopathic traits ended up being the highest ranked overall. They found that those with these traits appear more confident, at ease, likable and socially gifted.
But, wait — aren’t these the traits of a perfect protagonist?
It’s clear that lines are constantly being blurred the more these characters are formed. As more “killer” TV shows are created, the desensitization to harmful traits will become more common, and less questions will be asked about mental stability. When we normalize dangerous behaviors in the media, we normalize these behaviors in real life — and that’s much scarier than Joe Goldberg.