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Joe Goldberg, ‘You’ Can Keep Your Clothes On

Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in episode 6 of season 4 of "You."
Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in episode 6 of season 4 of "You." By Courtesy of Netflix
By Taylor S. Johnson, Contributing Writer

Considering it’s a show about a serial killer’s boundless obsession with romance, “You” practically begs for the inclusion of intimate scenes, and while not completely void of them, season four represents a significant shift in what the show aims to represent.

Penn Badgley, the lead actor in the series, speaks about his aversion to sex scenes and the process he undertook to remove them slowly from the spotlight of “You” in an interview with Variety Magazine. There are several reasons why he advocates for this shift — in both number and importance — of these scenes. He describes concerns about the “fidelity in [his] relationship,” his age in respect to his co-stars, and also how televised intimacy “has always been disturbing” to him, as reasons for this new perspective. Also during the interview, he specifically states that he has never wanted to affiliate himself “at all” with what he calls “that mercurial boundary” but has unfortunately found himself in the middle of it since the beginning of his career.

One of his first roles, at age 12, was in “The Fluffer,” where he plays a younger version of Michael Cunio’s character, Sean. Yes, 12-year-old Badgley placed adjacent to the job of keeping male pornography actors aroused. He says this — the accelerated aging of children in the industry and in the audience — is “the microcosm of the whole thing!”

Let’s take the raunchy TV series “Euphoria” as an example. Though they play highschoolers, the average cast member, the exception being 19-year-old Storm Reid, is above the age of 24, with the oldest member, Alexa Demie, being 32. Hollywood would not even dream of having real, underaged teenagers play high schoolers on television, and that says something about the content that is being produced. It is a problem that sex is so prominent in popular media today. This prevalence is the fault of creators, of course, but also the people that choose to give it a platform.

Even more convincing, and unfortunate is the fact that Badgley is far from the only star to experience this discomfort. In an interview she did with W Magazine in 2017, Nicole Kidman spoke up about her sex scenes in “Big Little Lies,” claiming that she felt “very exposed and vulnerable and deeply humiliated at times.” She recalls the experience: “I was just lying there, sort of broken and crying, and I remember at one point Jean-Marc coming over and just sort of placing a towel over me because I was just lying there in half-torn underwear and just basically on the ground with nothing on and I was just, like [gasps].” Yet, she still felt as though she had to push through for the sake of the show. It is horrifying that this mode of practice was considered permissible.

An important aspect of this conversation is the obvious, yet often overlooked, fact that actors are human beings. They have lives and feelings outside of their work, despite the industry’s dedication to ignoring that. Charlie Hunnam, also an actor in a relationship, had communicated his hatred for sex scenes around the same time Kidman expressed her discomfort. His main reason was also because of his relationship, and the fact that fans would harass him and insult his girlfriend after scenes were released. More recently, in 2021, Keira Knightley vocalized her commitment to stop doing sex scenes directed by men, due to the exploitative nature of the male gaze. Whether it be related to an added strain on a relationship, or because of one’s personal image and wellbeing, a multitude of actors have spoken up about the negative impact of sex scenes on their personal lives.

Though actors do generally agree to do these scenes ahead of time, new actors and actors that have become associated with their sex scenes often feel as though they cannot turn down a role even though they’re uncomfortable. No one should be subjected to doing something they don’t want to, and furthermore, very publicly deal with the repercussions. With actors, this additional burden of publicity is an even bigger issue — all eyes are on them, always. Sex scenes can lead to online and physical harassment, and invasive interviews, and repetitive, revealing tabloids.

Penn Badgley’s sex scenes in “You” are especially significant because of his fanbase, and even more importantly, the character he plays. Joe Goldberg is a serial killer, and the sex scenes in earlier seasons contributed to a dangerous romanticization of this vile character. Fans of “You,” along with fans of other shows like “Dahmer” and “Dexter,” often forget that the actions of these murderers should not be excused or justified. No amount of beauty or wrongfully-placed admiration should mask the evilness of the deeds portrayed on screen, but to some degree, the sex scenes in “You” did exactly that. Instead of Joe Goldberg, the murderous stalker, it was Joe Goldberg, the passionate and obsessively loyal lover. Sex scenes helped make him more admirable, more human, when really he was committing terribly inhuman crimes. Now, that season four features fewer sex scenes — all of which are fully clothed — there is less opportunity for this romanticization.

This change is a positive move for actor autonomy, boundaries, and the role of sex scenes in TV. This decision to cut back on the sex scenes refocuses the show, could help reduce the concerning idolization of serial killers, but most importantly, it makes Badgley more comfortable, and more eager to continue acting. And actors should feel comfortable coming to work and doing their job, just like any other workplace.

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