Who’s on First? (or, Anyone for Seconds?)
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The premiere episode of the Lifetime series You offers a study in “firstness” and “secondness.” To briefly define these terms, I am referring to fundamental constructed hierarchies of social existence: the “firstness” of the bourgeoisie, men (male), heterosexual, white versus the “secondness” of the proletariat, women (female), LGBTQ, black and other ethnic “not-white” minorities. In this respect, the firstness of the man and the secondness of the women is “the given” on You. As Simone de Beauvoir contended in The Second Sex, “A man is in his right by virtue of being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong...Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.”
Moreover, firstness and secondness is manifest in a multiplicity of ways in modern societies. This essay considers how the firstness of men vs. the secondness of women on You is reinforced in two inherently related ways: 1) – the firstness of the voice and the secondness of writing and 2) –the firstness of high culture and the secondness of mass culture.
The main character of You is Joe Goldberg, a bookstore employee who becomes obsessed with aspiring poet Guinevere Beck immediately upon their first encounter. However, Joe is represented by firstness of the voice and Beck by secondness of writing. This is a phonocentric order predicated on the idea that, as Jacques Derrida argued, “The voice is closest to the signified... All signifiers, and first and foremost the written signifier, are derivative with regard to which would wed the voice indissolubly to the mind ”(emphasis added).
Joe’s voiceover narration dominates the proceedings of You. He tosses out ongoing commentary as quippy, seemingly stream-of-consciousness observations about Beck (“you majored in Lit and minored in douchebags”); her friends (“pointless...disloyal...Instagram-able lives”); and women in general (“the dead-eyed bulimic housewives of Soho”). Underneath the glib nonchalance, Joe’s narration is barely-controlled misogynist ranting, a highly-vulgar “mansplaining” about everything wrong with women and, by extension, the world at large. Joe’s voiceover does not so much function as an unreliable narrator akin to Patrick Bateman in the novel American Psycho and the distinct possibility much of what is being recounted are figments of the imagination produced by Bateman’s immensely-troubled psyche. Instead, Joe’s inevitable comparison is the voiceover of vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan on Showtime’s Dexter where the viewer is given access to the inner thoughts of Dexter infused with the sardonic panache of the titular anti-superhero in the Deadpool franchise – Joe as a meta-commentator as well as narrator who is simply “telling it like it is.”
While Joe orates with a pathological profundity, Beck’s “counter-narration” appears as a flow of written subtitles through on-screen pop-ups of her inane text messages: “Follow your dreams –in the meantime mac and cheese!” Joe contemptuously refers to Beck (in voiceover, of course) as “a broke poetry student” and she divides her time with writing angst-ridden poetry and reading Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. As touched on, Beck’s female circle of friends are depicted as unremittingly gossipy, immature, self-obsessed, and vacuous: idle-rich shrews obsessed with corresponding on social media. The only moment in You when Beck “would wed the voice indissolubly to the mind” is an open stage night at a bar giving a drunken performance by using her cell-phone to recite her already-written turgid poetry aloud. It becomes an embarrassing ordeal for everyone until ended by a male heckler in the audience.
To be sure, Joe and Beck are both connected to writing in the form of books but for Joe this is a gateway to link him to the firstness of high culture and consign Beck to the secondness of mass culture, a relationship Andreas Huyssen argued is itself gendered: “mass culture as woman.” The bookstore where Joe works is the realm of literary product Joe despises; the regime of “Dan Brown chasers” and the popular canon like Catcher in the Rye which patrons merely buy to establish some credibility as literature consumers. The irony is that You is adapted from You: A Novel, a best-selling thriller by Caroline Kepnes that garnered accolades from the likes of Stephen King and Lena Dunham. Joe Goldberg would probably consider You: A Novel a waste of paper and time.
Joe’s passion is his rare book collection, early editions of the literary classics housed in a glass-walled room with controlled light and temperature to ensure their preservation. Don Quixote is one of Joe’s favored texts. In one scene, he explains the significance to Paco (the Sancho Panza to Joe’s Don Quixote): a boy living in an abusive family at the same apartment building as Joe. As Joe waxes philosophical and Paco intently listens in the library-sanctum as if engaged in rarified Socratic dialog, Joe claims the simple message of Don Quixote is “Chivalry...treating people with respect: especially women.”
To be sure, one can grant that this is a moment of intentional macabre irony. Joe’s gross misinterpretation of Don Quixote is oblivious to the novel’s underlying mockery of the codes and conduct of chivalry, gallantry, and nobility Joe takes at face value. Don Quixote was insane and believed he was a knight-errant saving the world; Joe Goldberg is insane and believes he is Beck’s proverbial knight in shining armor saving her from herself.
This is the point You becomes extremely problematic, a juggling act between Joe-as-Quixotic figure and Joe-as-deviant stalker. His actions like masturbating outside Beck’s window or breaking into her apartment to access her laptop computer take on the air of a perverted yet noble quest for true love in which Joe is not only Buck’s romantic suitor but ordained protector. Indeed, the finale of the premiere episode of You is Joe drastically escalating his “quest” by luring Beck’s drug-abusing, cheating boyfriend Benji to his basement lair where Joe savagely assaults him and holds him hostage.
This is especially problematic; You is the show into which Lifetime has invested heavily to propel its fall 2108 schedule. In terms of network TV, firstness can be assigned to HBO with shows like Game of Thrones or True Blood and AMC with shows like Mad Men (the questionable gender politics of those shows will be left aside for another debate). Lifetime is often designated TV network “secondness” for its oft-critically lambasted programming: reality shows like Dance Moms and the Little Women franchises; the plethora of interchangeable Lifetime movies (i.e., romantic thrillers and Christmas films). Indeed, Lifetime exemplifies supposed “mass culture as woman.” In recent years, Lifetime original programming gained degrees of respectability as its content producers upped the ante as far as provocative content and self-aware irony: the trajectory from Army Wives to Drop Dead Diva to The Client List to Devious Maids to The Lizzie Borden Chronicles to Unreal to Mary Kills People. You was renewed for a second season prior to the debut episode airing on Lifetime which in turn entered heavy rotation by being rerun no less than dozen times in various time slots from its Sunday evening debut through Wednesday evening (September 9-12, 2018).
One could suggest You has also assumed firstness in terms of Lifetime’s drive towards an ever-edgier brand identity leaving the secondness of traditional Lifetime programming in its wake. Ultimately, You is another “first” in Lifetime original programing in that it features a man as the protagonist after years of numerous shows that revolved around women as the main characters. This pivotal shift entails a TV show that designates firstness to a dangerous Quixotic stalker through the power trio of the man, the voice, and high culture. It assigns secondness to a dysfunctional object of desire through the triad of the woman, writing, and mass culture.
Doyle (Mickey) Greene is an independent scholar who has written several books and articles on film, television, and popular music; his primary focus is ideology critique of American popular culture. He currently serves as a co-editor for Film Criticism.