As a victim of stalking, I don't blame Millie Bobby Brown for her comments on You – I blame Netflix

Why do so many fans want to be kidnapped and stalked by Penn Badgley? Selecting an attractive male actor with a big Gossip Girl fan base to play the main character was likely the wrong decision

Anna Fearon
Friday 18 January 2019 13:55 GMT
Millie Bobby Brown backtracks after defending Penn Badgley's You character

After watching Netflix’s You – in short, the story of a student called Joe Goldberg who is obsessed with a woman called Guinevere Beck and stalks her – the British actress Millie Bobby Brown shared with her Instagram followers: “He’s not creepy, he’s in love with her”. Brown has since retracted her statement and apologised, and we can forgive her for her naivety at the tender age of 14. Who of us would ever want our 14-year-old opinions put under internet scrutiny, after all?

However, the reason what she said provoked so much debate was because so many other commentators had already echoed it. After You was released, a lot of people confessed to feeling sorry for the character of Joe, even finding him attractive and sympathetic.

To me, it was clear from the outset that the character of Joe is a stalker. After meeting Guinevere in the bookshop he works in, he traces her online and turns up at places that she frequents. Locating her home address, he lurks outside her apartment for hours at a time and watches her masturbating through a window. And that’s just episode one.

So why have so many fans of the series taken to Twitter to express how they want to be kidnapped and stalked by Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe Goldberg?

“Kidnap me pls,” one girl tweeted, to which Badgley replied, “No thx”. After a deluge of similar tweets, he was forced to enter the conversation and condemn his own character in no uncertain terms.

Some of these tweets from fans are probably intended to be tongue-in-cheek. But as a victim of stalking, I feel dismayed that women are actually asking to be stalked online, whether or not it’s intended in jest.

I can tell you now that stalking is the last thing you would wish for. It’s the sort of thing that can haunt you for the rest of your life. In the aftermath, it leaves you paranoid that someone’s following you – and if, like me, your former stalker isn’t behind bars, then you’re left constantly fearful that you’ll bump into them again.

What You has done is to inadvertently romanticise stalking. Selecting an attractive male actor with a big Gossip Girl fan base to play the main character was likely the wrong decision. Now young people might misunderstand what stalking is and think, like Brown did momentarily, that the character’s actions are acts of love.

It’s worth noting, however, that some of the questions raised by such fans are important. How can someone that good-looking be a stalker? Aren’t stalkers normally ugly losers with no jobs? Aren’t they quiet and unattractive, living in their parents’ basements, the kinds of people who might be described by their neighbours as “oddballs” when something terrible happens? If only it were so simple to differentiate stalkers from the rest of the population.

Netflix has a young demographic, with the BBC revealing last year that teens tune into it more often than any other kind of television. They therefore have a heightened responsibility to treat the issue of stalking with nuance and to challenge ingrained assumptions. At the moment, the questions viewers ask online signal they have been shown a programme which confuses and obfuscates the issue.

Across social media, some ask why a white, plain, blonde girl with no discernible talent is being stalked. Another paints Beck as no angel, implying that she’s a liar. Like when people claim that someone is “too ugly to rape”, this misses the point entirely about the power dynamic behind stalking and assault – a dynamic which deserves more exploration in You than it’s given.

Thankfully, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the British charity for personal safety, tweeted a video on Wednesday explaining what stalking is, in light of the series’ popularity. It’s a shame that Netflix didn’t reach out to the charity pre-emptively when they knew their controversial new drama would air on our screens.

At the end of the day, stalking has been presented as light entertainment, and you can’t imagine how that makes real victims feel. Netflix was quick to nip the dangerous Bird Box challenge in the bud, issuing a statement after a girl was involved in a car crash (while blindfolded).

Stalking is never funny or sexy. It doesn't matter how good-looking the person involved is, and it can happen to men and women alike. Considering so many teens have clearly gotten the wrong end of the stick, I’d like to see Netflix similarly acknowledge and challenge this, before we send a very dangerous social message to people in the most vulnerable stages of their lives.

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