“How do I know you aren't a murderer?” Eva Marie-Saint’s character asks Cary Grant’s character, flirtily, in the classic 1959 film North By Northwest. “Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight.”
Fifty-six years later on The CW’s Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom sings to a guy she brings home from a bar, “Please don’t be a murderer. Pl-pl-pl-please don’t be a murderer.”
“He’s cute,” your friend tells you, after a promising date with a guy from an app/a grungy bar/a parking lot meet-cute. “And I don’t think he’s a murderer.”
Dating men is risky—not just because putting yourself out there is hard, but because of the possibility of violence. Statistics prove that we aren’t just being paranoid: A third of women who are murdered in the U.S. are killed by their partner, according to the most recent available data from the Center for Disease Control, and one in six women experience stalking in their life. We’re reminded of these stats thanks to Hollywood’s love of dead female bodies, as well as daily headlines about intimate partner violence.
So when some women express enthusiasm for dating a literal murderous stalker, it’s…complicated.
You probably already know the murderous stalker in question: Penn Badgley’s exquisitely sculpted, hot-even-for-TV character, Joe Goldberg. He’s the protagonist of You, Netflix’s surprise streaming success based on books of the same name by Caroline Kepnes. Joe fixates on beautiful (white, mostly) women, murdering everyone who gets in his way and—in the first season—he murders the woman he “loves” too.
“We all know Joe’s a bad guy, on paper,” says Holly, a 35-year-old guest experience manager and fan of You. “But there’s something about his desire to just love and be loved that I think people relate to.” (For the record, Holly wouldn’t go out with Joe: “Although he’d be hard to turn down.”)
People do seem to relate to Joe. After the first season—which originally aired on Lifetime and then moved to Netflix—the streaming service reported that 40 million viewers watched at least 70% of an episode. The second season was released on December 26 and has already been renewed for a third season. A You fan group I joined on Facebook has just under 40,000 members. They trade theories, share You memes, and collectively wait for season three to arrive. On January 14, one user posted a discussion question: “Who here would date a Joe?”
The nearly 600 responses came mostly from women. Many of them—at least a few hundred—said yes. I asked them why.
“Because he is so attentive, loving, and caring,” Kisha, a 44-year-old writer, tells me. “Joe wanted love in return, but I would be fully aware that if I did not appreciate him, I was going to end up in a cage or dead...lol,” she says.
“He has a backstory,” she adds. “And like they say hurt people hurt people.”
“I would definitely go out with him,” says Shymaa, a 21-year-old business student. “He’s my type…without the murdering part.” The show, she says, “fulfills my fantasies.” A hot person becoming obsessed with you is a fantasy that has, probably, equal purchase with people of all genders. Even though You attempts a stark presentation of how dangerous that fantasy can be in reality, some women weren’t fooled—there’s no denying elements of fantasy in the hot actor, gleaming Los Angeles scenery, and even the idea that somebody is always thinking about you.
Badgley himself has made a habit over the past year of railing against the idea that his character is lovable, or that Joe’s better qualities can be separated from “the murderer part.”
“Joe is not actually looking for true love,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “He’s not actually a person who just needs somebody who loves him. He’s a murderer! He’s a sociopath. He’s abusive. He’s delusional. And he’s self-obsessed. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that he just needs somebody who’s right for him. Nobody’s right for him!”
But not everyone sees his character that way.
“Joe is a murderer, but everything is complicated,” said Alexandra, a 32-year-old artist and the owner of an art studio. If she didn’t know about his “deep secrets and obsessions,” she says, “I would definitely stay with him forever.”
“Who will reject unconditional love?” she adds.
On the show, Joe’s “unconditional love” has him following women, masturbating outside their windows, breaking into their homes, hiding in their showers, attempting to bury them alive, killing their friends and family members, cleaning blood out of a Roomba, and yes, gazing adoringly at them. Sure, plenty of women who commented saying they would date Joe are at least half joking, but they were also describing a kind of fantasy. The women I talked to didn’t seem confused about whether or not dating a murderer would be fun—obviously, nobody wants to be murdered. They just seemed willing to evaluate his character holistically, and to selectively examine his more positive traits.
Brittani, a 30-year-old nurse, says she would “absolutely not” go out with Joe. (“He murders people at the drop of a hat. No thank you.”) But she says she enjoys hearing his inner monologue and “brutally honest” opinions. “I also admire how smart and organized he can be,” she says. Other women describe Joe as “sexy” and “ready to do anything for loved ones,” even knowing what they know about the character.
And many women say that Joe reminds them of men they’ve already dated, who they describe as stalkers and abusers. One woman I spoke to said of Joe, “Knowing what I know, I wouldn't even look [Joe’s] way. I wouldn't even want to associate with him for fear of not only my life but anyone I know as well.”
“I've had many men become obsessed with me in my lifetime and it's not fun,” she says. “In fact, it can turn scary real quick!” These men, she says, “go to extreme lengths” to keep other people from being close to you. “Maybe [they haven’t] killed anyone in a literal sense, but they slowly kill who you are and your other relationships,” she says.
Another You fan I interviewed spoke about how she’s currently reconsidering her relationship with her husband, who she says exhibited “similar behavioral traits” to Joe at the beginning of their relationship.
“The writer was brilliant in making the character Joe,” she says. “They made him exhibit loyal behaviors most women—or men, for that matter—long for in a self-absorbed world. People justify Joe's wrongdoing because it’s morally intertwined with a justified feeling from their perspective.”
Shymaa agrees. “The writer gave people what they wanna see in themselves,” she says. “It’s a criminal reflection of most people’s true selves...especially women. I mean, don’t we just love ‘light stalking’ our partners sometimes?” To many people, identifying with the characters on the show, and particularly lusting after Joe, is crazy. But a lot of female fans made it clear that they are able to see even the bloodiest storylines as allegorical, even while acknowledging that those same storylines (stalking, killing, sex crimes), however dramatized on You, are very real threats in their lives.
Watching their own worst nightmares come true onscreen—the same way huge numbers of women devour true-crime podcasts and binge SVU episodes—is how women have always experienced entertainment. At least, many seem to be saying, let the made up perpetrator be really, really hot.
Badgley has claimed that interest in Joe, interest even in You, is a sign of our own moral corruption. “In a more just society, we would all see Joe as problematic and not be interested in the show, but that’s not the society we live in,” he said.
But the women who professed love and desire for Joe seem perfectly aware that he’s problematic. They’re used to problematic men. They’re used to risking violence when they go on dates.
They’re chasing desire in an unjust world. An anavrin, as the show puts it—a twisted, backward, nirvana.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. Follow her on Twitter @JeanValjenny.
Originally Appeared on Glamour