The new Netflix show You is all about obsession. A creepy book store clerk named Joe (Penn Badgley) is obsessed with an aspiring poet named Beck (Elizabeth Lail). He stalks her. He kills for her. He idolizes her. He puts Beck on an infallible pedestal. Beck’s best friend, Peach (Pretty Little Liars' Shay Mitchell), a cunning socialite, is also infatuated with her to the point of unhealthy fixation. In You, Beck is supposed to be the object of everyone’s affection. She’s the It Girl — so smart and funny and a bit of a mess in a way that makes her relatable. You should want to date her and be her friend — except there’s one big plot hole: Beck is basic AF. She’s so basic she probably still says “basic AF.”
You is full of implausible storylines, like how Joe keeps getting away with murder without wearing gloves or planning ahead at ALL, but the most incredulous thing about You is Beck’s outstanding mediocrity. She’s not a great poet. People are constantly telling her this, and the examples of her work that the show provides are so laughable to call them mediocre is generous. She’s bad at every job she gets, but not so terrible that her work failures make her interesting. She’s an average friend at best who brings the dude she’s dating (Joe again) to girls’ nights. A recurring question for the viewer becomes, “How are this many people fascinated by the human equivalent of an unseasoned chicken breast?” The most interesting thing about Beck is that she chooses to go by her last name. “Call me Beck” is literally her personality.
Beck isn’t the first mediocre white woman to take up more screen time than she deserves. In fact, Hollywood has had a Joe-esque fixation on bland Caucasian women since, well, forever. Blake Lively owes her entire career to it. I can rattle off many unexceptional white lead characters like Rory Gilmore, Joey Potter, Torrance Shipman, Bella Swan, or Marissa Cooper, just to name a few. Most of them are from shows or movies I quite enjoyed, but they have a few things in common: They’re pretty, they’re there, and other characters gravitate toward them despite their lack of unique personas or individuality. Straight up: They’re boring.
These characters are revered by those around them and propped up for the audience to admire while women of color play their sidekicks or rivals, or worse, they don’t exist in their worlds at all. And if they do, they’re not nearly as important as the mediocre white women who are #1 on the call sheet. Orange is the New Black is full of awesome women of color and yet, ultimately, the story revolves around Piper Chapman, the most lackluster of the bunch. Women of color have to be exceptional just to be included, and they are still overshadowed by lead characters who are presented as stimulating just because they showed up.
Not only have these kinds of women overwhelmingly been centered in storytelling, they’re also frequently chosen as romantic love interests over more dynamic women of color who are RIGHT THERE in these stories. As I was working on this piece, I stumbled across this tweet by writer Bolu Babalola that drives home my point:
Lol @ shows introducing great, vivacious, gorgeous female black characters only for the protagonist to ultimately choose a white girl loool pls don't bother honestly ur not doing us a favour ??— bolu babalola (@BeeBabs) January 15, 2019
Serena van der Woodsen is a perfect example of mediocre white women failing upwards on screen to the detriment of the romantic advancement of women of color. Dan Humphrey (also played by Penn Badgley) chooses Blake Lively’s Serena over Jessica Szhor’s much more smart, stylish, and considerate Vanessa repeatedly. Badgley has an on-screen type apparently. Then there are the examples that other Twitter users pointed out in Babalola’s mentions. There’s Aisha Tyler’s Dr. Charlie Wheeler in Friends, whom Ross essentially breaks up with because she’s not Rachel. There’s The Good Place’s Simone, played by Kirby Howell Baptiste, who was hot, hilarious, and charming but, spoiler alert, William Jackson Harper’s Chidi ends up with Kristen Bell’s Eleanor. Full disclosure: I love Kristen Bell and The Good Place but Chidi and Simone were perfect for each other. In Master Of None, Clare-Hope Ashitey plays Sara, an intriguing potential love interest who lasts one episode and is never to be heard of again. In these cases, Black women are just pawns used in the plot advancement of white protagonists.
In You, Joe leaves Karen, straightforward, sincere and interesting Karen (also the only reasonable person who first wonders aloud about Joe’s missing ex-girlfriend, proving you should always LISTEN TO BLACK WOMEN) for Beck. It’s not like we wanted Karen to end up with Joe. He’s a psychotic stalking murdering, remember? But she’s just the latest example of a Black woman being pushed aside for an underwhelming white character. If we’re being really real about You, Shay Mitchell’s Peach is also far worthier of just about everything, especially stalking, than Beck. She delivers the best quips, stands up to the creepy guy messing with her best friend and, well, look at her!
You might be thinking, Sure, Hollywood continually places the focus on white women but so does REAL LIFE! Trust me, I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be cast aside in a relationship for a whiter, blonder person. I know what it’s like to watch less-capable white women rise at work. The world is very kind to white mediocrity (see: The White House), but that doesn’t mean the pop culture we consume has to be. In a piece for The Globe and Mail last year, Denise Balkissoon pointed out that, “the myth that monolithic white maleness is the only path to success is dissolving,” albeit slowly. In other words, people are finally starting to realize that, “a lot of supposedly spectacular men are in fact not that special.” The conversation surrounding mediocrity has focused on white men but let’s not leave white women out of the conversation. They’ve also benefited from the privilege of being “mediocrity hires,” and the lazy assumption that there is an inherent superiority to whiteness.
“Diversity” has become a buzzword in an industry that still disproportionately features white stories. During the 2017/2018 TV season, only 19% of all female characters in speaking roles were Black. Latina and Asian female characters made up about 12% combined. How many of these characters were romantic leads? How many of these characters got to be the object of anyone’s affections? How many of the women playing those roles got to be #1 on their call sheets or got paid higher than their white peers? My guess is that the answers to those questions are as embarrassing as Beck’s poetry.
The tales of basic blondes getting all the attention are as tired as Joe must be after all that disturbing peeping. I think it’s time Hollywood, and Joe, move on to a healthier obsession.