“You” and the Creepification of the 2nd-Person Voice

Thanks for letting me make up a word for this headline!

If you’re reading this, chances are you just let go of your knees and took your fingernails out of your mouth as you finished the show You. Every time you hear the word “Beck,” you cringe a little, mostly because the show’s narrative voice is written as an address to Guinevere Beck, the object of affection / obsession.

A sample line from the show usually goes something like this: “You see, Beck, if you hadn’t done that, everything would have been fine.” Or “I did it all for you, Beck.”

Bone-chilling.

I happened to watch this show just as I read a book written in a very similar style. An Anonymous Girl, like You, is partially written in the 2nd-person voice. One of its narrators, Dr. Shields, writes her chapters as notes addressed to her research subject, Jessica. I read the audiobook, so I could hear each icy syllable as she nails down every failing of the unfortunate Jessica.

As someone who pays a lot of attention to narrative voice—I help brands choose theirs for different platforms—it seemed noteworthy that the 2nd-person “you” has become so … scary. You might say that the show You was an announcement, to me in particular, that the word “you” may be taking on a dystopian new dimension.

The TLDR on the 2nd-person voice is that it addresses the reader directly as “you” as opposed to speaking in the 1st person (I / we) or 3rd person (he / she / they). For example, a majority of ad copy is written in this voice. “Find what you’ve been looking for.” “Jeans made for your body.” “Get ready for the wedding, with a diet plan you’ll love!” Etc.

The 2nd-person voice also experienced a bit of a literary renaissance in the last decade. As sites like Thought Catalog cropped up, confessional pieces written in this voice went from feeling fresh and immediate to cliché and derivative. Headlines like “20 Thoughts You Have When You Get Dumped” featured lines like “You log on to Facebook and consider changing your relationship status.”

The voice here is notable, because it takes one person’s experience and makes it feel universal. The “you” makes it seem like the writer is describing the reader, and there’s a kind of simpatico there that was suuuuper cool to me in my early 20s.

Through articles like this, an entire generation poured out their most personal thoughts and feelings. Who needs to go to confession on Sunday when you can submit your sins to Thought Catalog instead? (The young people at my work don’t even know what Thought Catalog is. WHAT?!) Back then, sharing your every secret on the internet didn’t seem like a huge deal. It felt kind of good—your vulnerabilities might go viral on Facebook, and people might even write you nice comments. It felt safe. It felt ok. Maybe this was just part of being young?

But the show You, and An Anonymous Girl, made me think about whether or not this has objectively changed. In You in particular, Joe dissects and critiques Beck’s social media presence. What is she sharing, and how does her social veneer differ from the actual secrets she keeps. (Like … who is her dad really????) This directly feels like a critique of internet culture. We’re putting ourselves out there, but who is watching? And what are they going to do with this information?

In An Anonymous Girl, Jessica shares her deepest secrets as part of an anonymous psychological study, but it turns out not to be anonymous at all. It makes you question where you can put your information—and who is going to use it against you.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the usually friendly 2nd-person voice is enjoying a particularly creepy moment in culture. After finding out how intricately our social media presences were used against us in the last election, people are feeling a bit vulnerable. Not only are there creeps and predators out there, but there are dark, dystopian political forces that are hoping we’ll share our personal info with Farm Ville.

I threw out this hypothesis at a party last night, and people named a few other examples where the narrative voice of a show was written in a creepy 2nd-person. Black Mirror in particular came up.

You was a pretty bad show, all things considered. The references to literature are heavy-handed, Joe isn’t very good at creeping and Beck was terrible at closing her blinds! Yet everyone absorbed it eagerly—myself included. Maybe Penn Badgley is just that great. But I also could not put down An Anonymous Girl, which, as far as psychothrillers go is original and exciting, but it’s no Gillian Flynn masterpiece.

The creepy 2nd-person has roped me in. I just don’t want to hear the names “Beck” or “Jessica” right before bed anytime soon.

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