Hello again, ‘You’

  • The role media plays in normalising unhealthy relationship behaviour

Last weekend, the Netflix psychological thriller “You” launched its third season. For those of you not in the know, “You” is a series that takes you into the mind of a stalker and serial killer, from the second he fixates on someone to how he finds his way into their life and manipulates them and the people around them to make himself their only refuge.

Season one of “You” was very well received, and, in many ways, groundbreaking because it takes you into the mind of the stalker, Joe Goldberg, and paints a harrowing (albeit exaggerated) picture of what goes through the mind of someone when they’re unhealthily obsessed with their partner.

Over the last three years, every time a season of “You” launched, we have seen Joe Goldberg (played by Penn Badgley) enjoy something of a cult following with his unhealthy, possessive, predatory, and stalkerish behaviour being romanticised by both genders, from memes on the internet lauding Joe’s perseverance (and looks) to TikToks mimicking Joe’s internal monologues where he convinces himself his next victim has to be into him because she “did something” (like say hello to him, for instance) that simply had to mean she was interested in him too. There is a very troubling glorification of unhealthy behaviour, not by the series “You” specifically, but by people’s reactions to the series.

Sri Lanka and unhealthy relationships are something of a treasure trove, should one want to dive down that rabbit hole, but a trend we see and hear about most frequently is that of unwanted – and often predatory – advances made by men. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are key women’s issues, and while women have been known to be abusers too, we overwhelmingly hear of men harassing and abusing women, from on the street and public transport to harassing them online, to sometimes physically harassing and stalking them as well.

We also see a great deal of victim-blaming, where the victim is told that she somehow encouraged her stalker or abusers (and is shamed for this as well). This mentality is rigidly enforced by our patriarchal social and systemic structure and causes untold harm and duress for any victim.

Raneesha De Silva

Against this backdrop, and especially against the backdrop of the latest release of “You”, Brunch decided to dive into how we as a society normalise stalking and other predatory and possessive behaviour in our relationships. To examine this, we reached out to forensic psychologist Raneesha De Silva for her thoughts.

Where does toxic behaviour in the Sri Lankan psyche stem from?

We’re all familiar with the tropes of the jealous boyfriend or the controlling partner, and being so in love with someone that we cannot control ourselves when someone pays attention to them. These tropes often have a dark side, especially when the relationship concerned fails.

A jealous boyfriend, for example, can become obsessive and isolate his partner, demanding that they only talk to people that they approve of, go only to places they deem appropriate, and even take to following their partner around (which is a form of stalking, actually, but never really seen as such). The controlling partner can take away their partner’s resources, financial or otherwise, to make their partner entirely dependent on them.

Now, these behaviours are forms of abuse, but our society has normalised these traits to such an extent that when victims speak out, they’re often rebuffed and sometimes even told that this is how relationships are and that they need to simply give in. So how have these behaviours become such an intrinsic part of how we think relationships work?

De Silva explained that the relationships and culture we are exposed to as children play an important role in what we deem healthy in our own relationships in adulthood. Our parents’ parenting styles, our family backgrounds, what we learn in school, see in the media, and what the people around us tell us is acceptable come into play when we form connections as adults, especially romantic ones.

Culture and religion play a huge part as well, because what we determine to be acceptable is heavily influenced by our cultural and religious values, and these values encourage, or, importantly, do not discourage unhealthy and toxic behaviour. As a society, we think it’s okay to behave like that, with even our laws being shaped to allow or disregard unhealthy behaviour. “Over time, culture gets written into law, whether it is healthy or not,” De Silva explained, adding: “For example, marital rape is culturally not frowned upon and therefore is not illegal, despite the fact that is not okay.”

Additionally, De Silva shared that people around us and the media we consume also contribute heavily to the behaviour we see as “okay” in our relationships – from what we see in our friends’ relationships, to behaviours we see glorified online, on TV, and on the radio. This is where the impact of things like the series “You” comes in.

Now, “You” is by no means the only example of toxic relationship behaviour being glorified, but it is a powerful example because it doesn’t hide the fact that its character is unhealthy. But still, audiences around the world have romanticised “You” and its main character, Joe Goldberg, though, for the most part, there is a strong recognition that Joe’s behaviour is downright dangerous.

Human nature and when it crosses the line

Memes are being shared glorifying toxic behaviour

As humans, it is in our nature to be protective of the things we value and the people we love. But when does being protective become unhealthy? To De Silva, it is when we become possessive and controlling. “Being possessive in itself is a toxic trait; it comes from a place of insecurity and a need to have control. The very first point of someone being possessive is toxic, and can gradually develop into dangerous behaviour. The meaning of dangerous is varied, from different types of physical harm to psychological harm to sexual harm to the less discussed harm of social isolation and loss of autonomy.”

Loss of autonomy, De Silva explained, is a key factor in deciding when someone being protective has crossed the line to being possessive and toxic. “When you’re possessive, you have to ensure the other person has no outside contact,” De Silva said, adding: “You take away any form of support they might have. It is easy for abuse to continue once someone has been isolated.”

A key red flag that indicates unhealthy behaviour is social isolation or demands that involve a loss of autonomy. De Silva stressed that there is a fine line between someone being protective versus someone being possessive, and a lot of the time, this can be subjective based on the people involved – for example, one partner constantly wanting to talk but another partner finding that need difficult to cater to – but in general, a relationship that sees you compromising a lot and losing your free will is an unhealthy one, and one that has potential to become dangerous should the relationship break down.

De Silva said: “You need to come back to yourself and check yourself. Is your free will still there? Is this what you actually want? Are the compromises you are making limiting your free will? Possessive and toxic behaviour can start very subtly, and are often masked by concern. A lot of toxic behaviour is also endorsed by our culture, our leaders, and legally as well, so you can often feel it makes sense and not see it as possessive behaviour or a red flag until the situation has become serious to the point where you can’t leave your house or don’t have financial independence, or are worried for your safety.”

Stalking and our digital culture

Memes are being shared glorifying toxic behaviour

The internet, of course, has changed many things. It has also normalised a lot of behaviour we would find very troubling in real life, and I don’t just mean the comment wars with random strangers. The internet, or rather, social media, has allowed us to be able to connect with just about anyone, anywhere, and more importantly, it allows us to keep tabs on people without their knowledge and gain access to a lot of information that we would consider quite personal.

One memorable quote that illustrates this is from the series “You(from the first few minutes of the very first episode) when Joe stalks his prey online seconds after their first meeting and says: “The first thing my beloved internet gave me was your address.”

Undeniably, we all harmlessly stalk people online for various reasons. “It’s a way of (getting) information,” De Silva said, when we asked her about online stalking. “When we meet someone we’re even remotely interested in, we put their name in to see if their profile pops up, and now, it’s even considered creepy if someone doesn’t have social media. This is how normalised stalking someone online has become.”

However, online stalking can also be unhealthy, with De Silva explaining that obsessive stalkers can sometimes use social media as a way of keeping tabs on their victims long before ever physically meeting them, if they ever even do physically meet them. By stalking you online, they can glean all kinds of personal information, from where you live to where you work to who your friends are, to even your finances depending on how careful you are with what you share online.

De Silva stressed the importance of being secure online, adding that it’s also important to remember that online stalkers are not always stalking for romantic purposes. Sometimes these stalkers are unscrupulous scammers looking for vulnerable victims.

Stalking and toxic behaviour in media: All that glitters?

Weighing in on representations of stalking and other toxic behaviour in media, and their role in normalising such behaviour, De Silva explained that media is like a double-edged sword. It captures the good and the bad. “The best way to attack this is through media itself,” she said, adding that media is a wonderful persuasive tool, and just as it has the power to normalise unhealthy and dangerous behaviour, it also has the ability to shift cultural patterns and thinking positively.

An awareness-building promotional strategy by Netflix

Another aspect of media that serves to normalise unhealthy behaviour is the fact that it uses attractive people, which lends a sense of fantasy to viewers. “Appearance and social status play a part in what we see as acceptable,” De Silva said. “If it’s a good-looking stalker who is well off, they have a higher chance of not being considered a stalker and their advances being accepted. It’s not politically correct, but it happens.”

“You” in itself is an example, with Joe Goldberg’s looks playing a key part in how his behaviour is received and romanticised. This was even recognised by Netflix, as they posted a promotional image for “You season three, reminding people that “Penn Badgley is hot, Joe Goldberg is not”.

Media portrayals of unhealthy behaviour have the power to hinder more than help based on how the representations of the behaviour are received by the public. It is, however, vital for such representations to portray balanced reactions to such behaviour, so that sensitive issues are not trivialised. However, De Silva said it is equally important for the media to address difficult issues, sharing that in some instances, the media’s approach of glamorising a situation can pay off, as in the case of “50 Shades of Grey”. One of the key themes of the book would not have been well received if Christian Grey, the main character, was not a swoon-worthy billionaire. This is not all bad, though, because BDSM, while unconventional, if practised properly with boundaries and consent, is not unhealthy sexual behaviour, and the popularity of “50 Shades of Grey” did a lot to build awareness and make BDSM a part of day-to-day sexual conversations, which highlights the power of media to drive cultural change.

While cult classics like “You” (not a classic yet, we know, but trust us on this) paint a picture of unhealthy behaviour that can be both desirable and dangerous, it is very important for us to remember that this is not real life. And a real-life Joe Goldberg may not stalk you and isolate you from your friends and family because of how much he loves you; his intentions might be, shall we say, less than ideal, and knowing to tell the difference between dangerous behaviour and endearing protectiveness might be just what keeps you safe.