Mind in the Media: How Accurate is The Depiction of Stalking in Netflix's You?

photo of Penn Badgely with original border around it

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first three seasons of the TV show, You, now streaming on Netflix.

Joe Goldberg wants you. Joe wants to know you, to protect you, to love you. And he's not willing to leave your romance to chance, so even though you don't know it, he follows you, he manipulates you, he controls you. Over time, the you Joe obsesses over changes but his belief in true love—and what he has to do to ensure it happens—never does.

Joe Goldberg is the main character of You, the extremely popular TV series based on a series of novels by Caroline Kepnes. Even though Joe, unsettlingly played by Penn Badgley, is fictional, his patterns of behavior toward the latest object of his desire come across as frighteningly realistic. As a result, you may have found yourself wondering how accurate the series' depiction of stalking is.

One in six American women and one in 17 American men are victims of stalking in their lifetimes, making this an important question, especially since Joe's stalking goes far beyond the man in a trench coat lurking in the bushes we often imagine. Here, we delve into what scholars and mental health professionals know about stalking to discover just how realistic You is.

What's Realistic About the Depiction of Stalking in You?

Throughout You's first three seasons, Joe engages in a repeated pattern of behavior toward the characters he's become infatuated with: he meets a woman he finds attractive and fixates on her, he sifts through her social media profiles and other online activity, he starts to follow her in real life, he engineers "chance" meetings, and slowly insinuates himself into her life by presenting himself as the ideal man based on what he's learned about her.

If someone threatens what he considers true love, he's willing to trap and kill them, leaving numerous characters in the series vulnerable, from Benji, the on-again, off-again boyfriend of his first victim Beck, to Ryan, the ex-husband of his most recent victim Marienne. And no matter what he's doing to win the heart of his latest obsession, including theft and murder, he sees all of his behavior as justified because it is done to help her and their relationship.

According to Susan Hatters Friedman, MD, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, Joe's behavior is an accurate representation of stalking and falls into several categories in the stalker typology created by Mullen and colleagues, the classification system most commonly used in stalking research. This typology is made up of five stalker types:

Incompetent Stalkers

Incompetent stalkers want to establish an intimate relationship with the individual they're stalking but recognize that their affections are not reciprocated. These individuals often have a poor understanding of dating rituals as well as a sense of entitlement to a relationship.

Intimacy-seeking Stalkers

The goal of intimacy-seeking stalkers is to enter into a relationship with the person they're stalking, who they believe is meant to be with them. While the target of stalking is certainly in danger from the intimacy-seeking stalker, Hatters Friedman adds that if "someone's seen as getting in the way [of the relationship between the stalker and their target], they may be at risk from the stalker [too]."

Predatory Stalkers

Predatory stalkers are planning to attack their victims and enjoy the sense of power the act of stalking gave them.

Rejected Stalkers

Rejected stalkers stalk their victims in response to the dissolution of a former relationship, most often a former partner but sometimes a parent or friend. Rejected stalkers want both revenge for the rejection and reconciliation with the person who rejected them, with their inclination toward both impulses changing on a regular basis.

Resentful Stalkers

A resentful stalkers' goal is to intimidate and frighten. Some choose specific victims while others choose random victims based on a general sense of injustice and grievance with the world.

It's easy to see how Joe's pursuit of his love object would fit the definition of an intimacy-seeking stalker given the way he pursues Beck, then Love, then Marienne throughout You's first three seasons. However, at different times Joe also demonstrates behavior consistent with the rejected stalker, the resentful stalker, and the predatory stalker (although he's never the incompetent stalker).

For example, when he continues to pursue Beck and Marienne after they've had a change of heart about him, he becomes the rejected stalker, who seems to believe he can reconcile with both women if he can just make them understand his perspective. Moreover, when he stalks Beck's wealthy friend Peach, who believes he's not good enough for Beck in season 1, or the comedian Henderson, who may have predatory intentions toward underage Ellie in season 2, he becomes the resentful stalker who sees himself as defending the downtrodden against these entitled, underserving individuals.

Finally, his violent tendencies make him a predatory stalker, especially when it comes to characters like Benji and Ryan. Although he knows better than to project his intentions to hurt or kill, he lures or sneaks up on his victims in order to more easily enact his brutal plans.

Does Joe Have a Mental Health Condition?

In You, Joe Goldberg exhibits "psychopathic traits and narcissistic traits," says Hatters Friedman. Cognitive behavioral therapist Dr. Avigail Lev, director of Bay Area CBT Center and founder of CBT Online, gets more specific, diagnosing Joe with covert malignant narcissism.

Hatters Friedman notes there's no single mental health condition associated with stalking. People who engage in stalking behaviors can suffer from many issues, such as personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, delusional disorder, or attachment disorders.

Narcissism varies in severity from person to person. While individuals who seem excessively self-absorbed or have an inflated sense of self-importance are often referred to as narcissists, those with narcissistic traits don't necessarily qualify for the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. Furthermore, only some people with narcissistic personality disorder reach the level of malignant narcissism, the most severe form of the condition. Malignant narcissists exhibit the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder, including grandiosity, entitlement and lack of empathy, but also have antisocial tendencies, including a lack of remorse and blaming others for their actions.

"It's very obvious from the beginning of [You] that [Joe] has narcissistic personality disorder," Lev observes. "We can see that he's more of a covert narcissist than an overt because covert narcissists seem really shy and sweet. Their grandiosity and entitlement are not so visible…. but as the show progresses, the more dangerous he becomes, it's clear that he's a sociopath, because… now he's moved into antisocial behaviors."

According to Lev, "Stalking is seen in the full spectrum of narcissism." And for a malignant narcissist like Joe, "Their aim is to fully possess [their victim].... Stalking is a good way to get there. You're getting to know this person's weaknesses and their strengths and their needs and their desires. And you're more able to control them and possess them."

In fact, both Hatters Friedman and Lev point out that even though Joe may seem like he truly loves Beck, Love, or the other women he obsesses over, the show subtly demonstrates that, like a real-life malignant narcissist, he doesn't see these characters as human beings with strengths and weaknesses of their own. "These [are] projections of what a perfect, ideal… woman to be in love with [is] to him," Hatters Friedman explains.

Moreover, Joe's tragic backstory, which includes a mother who abandoned him after he shot and killed her abusive boyfriend and a foster father who locked him in a glass book cage for extended periods of time, establishes the roots of an attachment disorder that make it challenging for Joe to bond with or trust others.

As a result, Lev says that the depiction of Joe throughout You, from the voice-overs that detail his thought-process to the fixation on his latest love object, are "very accurate."

What's Not Realistic About Joe's Behavior in You

However, You's characterization of Joe Goldberg isn't flawless. Hatters Friedman and Lev particularly cited Joe's behavior toward his newborn son in the third season of the series as unrealistic. "[In season 3]," Hatters Friedman says, "he's trying hard to do the right thing and to be a good dad…, which implies some ability to attach to others and to have empathy for the child…."

Yet, while the third season may be the least successful at portraying Joe's pathology, there are hints of him feeling remorse and empathy in the first two seasons as well, especially in season 2 when he expresses a great deal of guilt about what he did to Beck at the end of season 1.

Lev cautions that despite the way it comes across in the series, "people with [narcissistic personality disorder], they don't really have much remorse and they don't really feel guilt. They feel shame, and shame may look like guilt… When we feel guilt we feel some sort of empathy for the impact we've had on the other person, when we feel shame we just feel like we are bad. It's actually very self-absorbed."

Although You's depiction of Joe as someone who can feel guilt and empathy toward his victims brings humanity to the character, it's also led some fans to romanticize him. This is something that's dismayed his portrayer Badgley and that Lev believes is dangerous because people with malignant narcissism won't improve even if they seek out treatment.

Hollywood vs. reality

While You often accurately depicts stalking, it continues to perpetuate pop culture tropes that instill hope that Joe Goldberg will change in ways that aren't possible for a malignant narcissist in real life. As Lev put it, "Hollywood wants the happy ending, and in reality, when women are in this relationship [with a malignant narcissist], they do not have a happy ending. Ever."

"The higher you are on the narcissistic spectrum, the less capable you are of changing…," says Lev. So although some people with narcissistic traits can benefit from therapy, malignant narcissists "actually get worse with therapy. They become more manipulative and they're more likely to commit crimes…." This is at least in part because, as Hatters Friedman points out, "Therapy requires honesty and I'm not sure Joe's been honest with anyone in the series" – including himself.

Yet, the series doesn't acknowledge this reality. "The show... has this false layering of hope that [Joe] can get better or that [he] can have remorse or that [he] can change," Lev observes, "…and [he can't]." Instead, the best hope for anyone in a relationship with a malignant narcissist in real life is to get out.

Of course, Joe is fictional and You is entertainment, so the TV show's portrayal of the character, and the hope that's built into the story could be seen as taking the romance narrative trope of the man seeking redemption through love to the extreme, Furthermore, Hatters Friedman notes that You and some fans' attraction to Joe could be seen as the continuation of a trend that’s long been part of popular culture.

Movies, TV shows, and even Joe's beloved books depict men pursuing romance by "accidentally" bumping into their love interest or continuing to pursue her even after she's said she isn't interested. Stalkers who fall into the "intimacy-seeking group or even the incompetent group, they've watched rom-coms and TV shows [that suggest] 'this is how you get the girl,'" Hatters Friedman says, "and so [You's] a little bit about, too, what as society we tell people is appropriate suitor-type behavior."

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Intimate Partner And Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief.

  2. Mullen PE, Pathé M, Purcell R, Stuart GW. Study of stalkers. Am J Psychiatry. 1999;156(8):1244-1249.

  3. Rosenbaum KB, Hatters Friedman S. You (the novel and the television series). J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2019;47(2):267-268. doi:10.29158/JAAPL.003849-19

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.