Be warned, spoilers for Lifetime’s “You” await.
Social media provides a huge opportunity to form meaningful connections and engage in conversation, allowing an entire world to co-exist and interact within seconds. Most people know how easy it is to stumble upon a person’s Instagram profile and quickly scope out their interests and personal life, finding the cracks in the illusion of privacy.
Often, in the world of Tinder and Grindr, you learn a person far better by scouring their Facebook. It seems like harmless investigation, checking up on a previous relationship and exploring the details of their life.
Except, it really isn’t.
Stalking has been transformed because of the internet. A person’s entire life can be captured across different social media platforms and exposed to search engines, allowing for someone to easily gain access to their information. Privacy settings often don’t protect anyone either, as it doesn’t take much for a person to create a fake profile under a fake name. Internet stalking has become socially acceptable, a common pastime to engage in. More often it's common to have a second social media account to engage others with, using an alias to provide anonymity to the action.
Stalking is a relatively new concept. While it has existed for decades now, it only became recognized as a criminal offense in the early 1990s, where it suddenly became illegal to lurk in the bushes outside of a house or harass a person against their wishes. The 21st century provides a digital frontier for stalking, turning it into a huge arena for invasion with data stealing and catfishing.
Welcome to your world, exposed.
Crime fiction is known for taking common fears and transforming them into something so incredibly real. Caroline Kepnes, author of You, took the question of what is harmless obsession and revealed the darkness of our constant need to fill our social media with every detail of our lives.
By inventing a relatively charming narrator, You is constantly focused on describing the dangers of loving just a little too much, and turning something sweet into something much darker. Everything is just a matter of escalation. By learning his love interest’s name, the narrator is able to find and dissect his victim online. He is able to locate her address, her place of employment, and much more, thus transitioning from harmless online stalking to invasive breaking and entering, and eventual murder.
Turned into a Lifetime series in 2018, You does not spare the viewer a single moment. Actor Penn Badgley lends his voice to Joe Goldberg and manages to turn a singular encounter into deadly devotion. Everything is a simple calculation, by learning Beck’s routine, installing himself into her life through run-ins, and demolishing any person who might stand in the way of his obsession.
Most romantic comedies play up the harmlessness of stalking, turning it into a punchline and a quirky characteristic. It creates harmless tension that is swiftly diffused, and does an extreme disservice to the audience. There’s Something About Mary is just one classic example that features the subject as an element to true love, despite the fact that a male lead is using a private investigator to track down a woman from high school. With a tidy ending, the audience is meant to leave under the assumption that stalking can be seen as a grand gesture. Passionate love cannot simply conform to basic privacy.
Friends uses it as a punchline in the episode “The One With the Jam”, letting it wrap the episode up with a few jokes about the situation. Nothing is said about the victim’s anxiety, or how disturbing it was for a stranger to invade her life so thoroughly that she had to change her entire routine. Instead, it is merely an inconvenience set to the tune of a laugh track. One of the more modern uses of stalking as a theme in in literature-turned-movie is Fifty Shades of Grey. The entire series aims to make stalking less of an issue, but more of a symbol of romantic endeavours and protection. Stalking is becoming less of an issue in books and movies, and instead greatly misrepresenting actual victims.
You does not sugarcoat the issue. By throwing the viewer in a front row seat in Joe’s mind, the intentions are not concealed and there is nothing simple about the situation. The victim is nothing more than a victim, stalked and cornered. Lacking any real humour, the show is equipped with a soundtrack to convey some scenes as traditionally romantic scenes. However, it is also matched with the increasingly anxious and obsessive monologue of the narrator. There are no happy endings in the world created by Kepnes.
What is the grand gesture in You? Is it the scene where he murders her casual lover? Or is it the moment where he justifies murdering her best friend, as she was also engaged in similar dangerous stalking behaviours that also targeted Beck? Perhaps it is where he invades the realm of mental health, engaging in counselling sessions with her therapist secretly, to pry out more details of her life.
Many myths surround the topic of stalking and alter our perception of the issue. However, the reality is that 3 in 4 stalking victims are targeted by someone they know. This has a massive impact on the mental health of their victims. Women are far more victimized by the men in their lives than by strangers.
Instead of conveying the traditional ‘boys will be boys’ tagline that frequently accompanies literature and media that uses stalking as a punchline, Kepnes creates an unforgettable narrator who is slowly becoming more and more obsessive, drawing his victim into a literal cage to keep her trapped.
Did Kepnes design a handy guide for potential stalkers with her work? Arguably, no. The common methods of stalking are radically normalized in the 21st century, through applications designed for monitoring conversations and constant scouring of social media updates. We’ve become guilty of stalking and obsession far more than even we are aware of. Instead, Kepnes has delivered the dangers and consequences of fanatical love and ‘grand gestures’, revealing the hazards of our digital lives.
Have you ever been catfished? Has your boyfriend’s weird ex-girlfriend ever stalked your instagram? You can tell me all the gory details at @rahel_taller (just, like, don’t actually stalk me and murder my best friend, please?)
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.