Why is our generation obsessed with romanticising TV murderers?

(Image credit: Netflix)

Trigger warning: this article contains themes of violence.

Netflix’s You has returned for the second instalment of its highly-anticipated fourth season, seeing Joe Goldberg “back to his old tricks”. And by “tricks”, I mean stalking and capturing women, and murdering anyone who gets in his way - talk about desensitisation!

At my count, from the show's beginning to the end of season four, Joe has killed a staggering 18 people, and of the six women he has compulsively stalked, four are dead.

Yes, reader, this is the gist of You. Joe’s an obsessive stalker and serial killer - I get it. And contrary to how it seems, I actually am a fan of the Netflix show. The problem I have is with Goldberg’s sexualisation - much of which is done by us viewers.

"Joe Goldberg is the sexiest man alive", reads one tweet about You's fourth season. While another states: "I need to date a Joe Goldberg in my life". 

This lust for the show's antagonist is a recurring theme when each season drops. In fact Penn Badgley himself has previously even weighed in, responding to one viewer’s post “Penn Badgley is breaking my heart once again as Joe. What is it about him?” with the statement: “He is a murderer.”

Concerningly, this doesn't seem to be a deterrent, with more posts focusing on Goldberg's "sexy voice" and "clean shave", than the fact that he has killed 18 people, and habitually keeps women captive in a large glass box in his basement.

And of the few posts that do mention his violent behaviour, many are actually sexualising it. "Joe Goldberg is so hot I'd let him kill me", reads one viewer's post, still live on Twitter. While another declares: "Wish Joe Goldberg would fixate on me and murder me in my sleep".

Of course this isn’t Badgley’s fault or even the show’s creators, when we the public seem to be obsessed with the idea of a 'sexy psychopath'. 

We've seen it time and again. From the thirst for Jamie Dornan as serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall, to Patrick Bateman (AKA Christian Bale) in American Psycho being named one of the sexiest characters in film. 

So where does this sexualisation of fictional killers come from, and why do educated, empowered and feminist women feel compelled to the Joe Goldbergs of the world, even if only in our fantasies? 


(Image credit: Netflix)

One theory is that we've been programmed by society to seek love and protectiveness - two qualities that Goldberg's obsession and control can be mistaken for. This is especially true for "those of us who have been brought up on Disney and rom-coms practically IV-dripped into our consciousness" according to psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, via Mind Body Green Relationships. "Joe love bombs his victims, and he makes himself your world."

As a result, viewers “focus on the actions Joe displays that make him seem loving and as if he truly cares about the women he’s dating”, explained Berman Center clinician, Amira Johnson, LMSW, via Indy100. “Actions such as killing his love interest, Beck, his partner in season one in order to eliminate any obstacles that keep him from being able to have her to himself.”


(Image credit: Netflix)

Another theory relates to empathy, with psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, via Mind Body Green Relationships, explaining how viewers are compelled to root for the tortured character of Goldberg. 

"When we have empathy for someone, it hooks us in,” Neo explained to Mind Body Green Relationships. “The thing about Joe and the way he narrates it, it's really a story that triggers our love for redemption. He wants to change, he wants to do things better, and we root for a person who wants to change and transform."


(Image credit: Netflix)

According to Dr Melanie Haughton, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby, it could also have something to do with the layers and depth applied when portraying serial killers. 

“By depicting serial killers as complex, intelligent and interesting, and choosing attractive actors to play them, [it] gives them a sense of appeal,” Dr Haughton explained in an interview with Dazed.

This has certainly been true in the past, from the buzz around Zac Efron's portrayal of US serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, to the sexualisation of Evan Peters as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer story.

Netflix even had to step in to address the wave of posts lusting after the very real footage of Ted Bundy in its documentary about the serial killer, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.

“[We've] seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service - almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers", read the statement.

“We’ve been born and raised into societies that desensitise inhumane treatment,” explained Berman Center clinician, Amira Johnson, LMSW, to Indy100. “From the acceptance of war and corporate greed to the illusion that men are superior to women, we’ve all accepted societal norms that subconsciously make us believe that such actions as those Joe Goldberg displays are enticing and derive from a place of power and love.”

This appears to be a theory that even Badgley backs, telling the New York Times: “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.”


(Image credit: Netflix)

These theories certainly help to explain our generation's sexualisation of TV psychopaths, but to be honest, it still doesn’t sit right with me. And I can't help but feel that lusting after killers - even fictional ones - must be subliminally harming us on some level. Particularly in the current news cycle of missing women, femicides and systemic sexual misconduct.

I’m not suggesting anyone stop watching You - I for one will definitely be tuning in for season five. But at a time when violence against women is at an epidemic level, I do think we viewers need to separate love and romance from control and abuse. And we definitely need to stop tweeting, "Joe Goldberg could murder me any day".  

Jenny Proudfoot
Features Editor

Jenny Proudfoot is an award-winning journalist, specialising in lifestyle, culture, entertainment, international development and politics. She has worked at Marie Claire UK for seven years, rising from intern to Features Editor and is now the most published Marie Claire writer of all time. She was made a 30 under 30 award-winner last year and named a rising star in journalism by the Professional Publishers Association.