Netflix's You and the #10YearChallenge: Love in the time of social media validation
What does Netflix's popular show You have in common with the #10yearchallenge? (The pitfalls of) social media validation.
How can you resist a social media "challenge" that lets you soak in nostalgia for a better part of your day?
I admit when I first started seeing influencers and my Facebook brethren post side-by-side images of how they looked like in 2009 versus 2019, I was tempted. You could use this indulgent exercise to prove to yourself that things have looked up in 10 years — that you have grown, you've achieved something, and even though you've gained kilos and frown lines, you have the memories and experiences to justify them. So obviously posts with #10yearchallenge started to flow online by the minute (I took the bait too).
And then came the memes. The most common one doing the rounds (apart from reactions like "nobody cares how you looked like 10 years ago bro" and the relevant "the only #10yearchallenge we should care about is climate change") is a side-by-side image of Zuckerberg that claims this whole shindig was a way for Facebook to amplify their facial recognition tool. This was followed by "can you really trust anything on Facebook these days" (I posted on my Instagram, and not Facebook, if anyone cares).
It made me wonder: is it more dangerous to be on social media or to be off it? Does being off social media guarantee you're smarter than those of us who succumb to superficial "challenges"?
All of this scarily reminded me of Joe, the thrillingly savage character from Netflix's recent series You.
Played by Penn Badgley, Joe is a bonafide stalker, and a creepy one at that. He's also a bookstore manager in New York City, and he meets Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a liberal arts student and aspiring poet, on a random afternoon. But nothing that follows is random. Enter Joe, the creepy stalker. The next few episodes tell us in excruciating detail how he follows, shadows and stalks Beck to become a guy she'd want to date. He steals her phone and clones it so he can keep a check on all her communication. He obsessively scrolls through her social media to get hints about who she is, what she likes and where she's going to be. Just 15 minutes on her social media is enough for him to learn a lot about Beck. Enough to know he's in love with her. Enough to justify his borderline psychotic behaviour. He then uses this information to infiltrate her life, dominate and manipulate her thoughts, and basically do whatever he wants in the name of 'being in love' (you can go ahead and assume the worst when I say "whatever he wants").
In his delusion, he claims he's doing all this for Beck's own good. He wants what's best for her. He cares about her, therefore he stalks her. He claims to be the only one who really "gets her". Typical saviour mentality (with a dash of sociopathy).
Joe Goldberg is not on social media. When Beck asks him why, he shrugs it off and says something to the effect of wanting to experience the real world as it is. She doesn't get it (and neither do I).
Netflix's 10-part series has everyone talking: You is a typical TV-thriller; it's insightful while still being sensational. It points out the issues with modern day reliance on social media, and millennial culture, but still gives you the tropes of a meaty show. Having Penn Badgley as the protagonist/anti-hero doesn't help. He's a delicious man, with delicious acting chops, and his stalker-y ways can sometime take the backseat. The show is well-constructed enough to make you root for the "couple".
You're I'm so used to watching rom-coms, all I needed were some moments of chemistry between the lead pair and I was sold. Every now and then I had to reel back and remind myself that this is a bad guy, who has murderous tendencies.
After the show premiered on 26 December last year, many viewers said they were tempted to delete their social media. This was also the case in March in 2018 when the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal broke out. The irony of posting about quitting social media on social media isn't lost on anyone. And yet, we succumb. We emote online, but claim to be socially awkward in real life. (I could write an essay on why I prefer Instagram stories to the Instagram feed, but I've cancelled almost all drinking plans in the last 3 weeks, because I'm "busy"). We stalk the people behind bylines we read. We stalk our crushes, potential partners, heck, even current partners sometimes. We stalk our partner's exes, hoping they aren't getting prettier or smarter. We look up our old classmates in a bid to reinforce our opinions about them. We stalk potential employers in the hope that an opening might sneak up in the midst.
Don't get me wrong: we aren't literally stalking these people (Joe did, but we don't). But the conflicting obsession around a character like Joe stems from the fact that we get him. We may not condone his morally compromised behaviour on the face of it, but we secretly understand it.
It's also why there are many think pieces about the romanticisation of Joe and the show's morally ambiguous rom-com like tropes. Viewers know he is messed up, but they find his actions to be rooted in love and his ability to really care for Beck. Badgley himself has spoken about how his character is deeply problematic. When one Twitter user tweeted to him saying "kidnap me", he said "no thanks".
I can't imagine what it would be like if Joe were actually on social media.
Would he drop hints about his dangerous capabilities? Would he take the 10-year challenge? Chances are nothing he posted on Facebook would be a hint about how much creepiness he's capable of. What if he posted a cat video a day? What if he was the guy who liked every status of yours and promptly wished you a happy birthday every year? Would it be possible that he shares the same political ideology as you? He could have the most progressive views about feminism or homosexuality. Would that make you like Joe? Would he be socially acceptable then? Social-media acceptable?
You is based on a book by author Caroline Kepnes, it was her debut novel. I scoured through her book the minute I finished the show, in the hope that I will find more insight into why I was thinking about Joe so much. I knew it was deliberate. But what was it about this character that stuck with me weeks after I watched the full season (in one night, FYI)? Similarly, what is it that makes us seek validation from dubious place like social media? Where online likes can never really guarantee a person likes you for real; where you can have 1000 online friends but no social life; where you can pretend your life has flourished in the last years with merely two images.
I finally found it. I found my thoughts echoed in Kepnes' words.
“The only thing crueler than a cage so
small that a bird can’t fly is a cage so
large that a bird thinks it can fly.”
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