Thoughts on Peach Salinger and Queer Villainy

*Spoiler warning for Netflix’s “You”*

In everything from Disney films (see literally any Disney villain ever - I recommend starting with Ursula) to Hitchcockian masterpieces (see Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” or Philip and Brandon in “Rope”), queerness and villainy have been tied to one another pretty much since filmmaking began. The film industry’s relationship with queer representation is sordid, to say the least, and there is a ton of history that informed how queer people were allowed to be portrayed in film. The Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) literally had rules stating that homosexuality could not be portrayed in any light that could be interpreted as positive. So what we got were a lot of characters that served as the punchlines to jokes or who were made to be punishable villains in their films. It’s been nearly 50 years since we stopped officially using the code but surprisingly little has changed in terms of queer representation and how these characters are used. I won’t go into a lot of detail on the history here but I will link a video at the end of this that does a really good of job explaining the origins and impacts of the code. Unfortunately, these queer villains and jokes continue to be written, some more offensively than others, so here I sit, writing about yet another queer character who was made out to be a villain by the media she inhabited.

“You” is one of the latest installments in Netflix’s thriller catalog and, honestly, it’s one of the better ones that I’ve seen. It’s shot beautifully, with interesting style choices, incredible acting, and a compelling story. Despite my enjoyment watching it, I did find fault with certain aspects. Peach was not my only gripe but my gripe about her is the one to which I keep returning, and the one I think warrants the most analysis. But first we need to talk about Joe.

Joe is our protagonist, our narrator, and the lens through which we experience most of the events of the series, which is why it is important to start here. An argument could be made that, because the story we are seeing is so subjective, my reading of Peach could be explained away by saying that Joe is an unreliable narrator who changes the world around him to fit how he wants things to work out. But Joe isn’t an unreliable narrator. He’s manipulative, obviously, he’s a murderer, he lies, but he’s not delusional. At least not in the sense that the events taking place around him are actually altered through his narration. He knows when he makes mistakes, he even acknowledges that a lot of what he’s doing is “wrong.” He simply justifies it with his love for Beck. As further evidence I would submit the episodes where we have information as an audience that Joe doesn’t have but that still tracks with what he eventually learns, and the episodes in which we hear both his and Beck’s internal monologues and at no time do the facts of the events experienced change between the two. Joe may manipulate facts to further his own agenda, but he doesn’t make them up. So when he figures out that Peach is gay, I believe it. When he sees her manipulating Beck, I believe it. And when he finds damning evidence that Peach has been manipulating and pretty much stalking Beck for years, I believe it.

Peach is a classic self-hating and predatory gay stereotype. She comes from a rich, conservative, and well-known family who would be thoroughly disappointed to discover they had anything but a heterosexual child. So she hides her feelings, ignores them, and acts out in unhealthy and harmful ways that give her an illusion of control. As the show progresses we see Peach become increasingly obviously jealous and manipulative over her best friend, Beck. We become aware, later, that much of their relationship has been steeped in Peach’s manipulations. Peach sees Joe as a threat where she did not see Beck’s other boyfriends as a threat for the same reason that Joe sees Peach as more of a threat than Beck’s other friends; they both want full control over Beck’s life. Now I will say that, from the standpoint of a writer, having the characters foil each other in this way, giving them both the same goal but making it impossible for that goal to be known to any other character, is actually quite good and brings a lot of tension to a relationship between two characters that might not really interact otherwise. The device is solid but I still have a problem with its execution.

Many of the decisions made that shape Peach as a character and inform her interactions with the people around her are, to my eyes, completely unnecessary, and ultimately take away from the final effect of the show. I believe this for a number of reasons but I want to start with just the sheer number of traits that are heaped on to her that fall into the category of a trope or stereotype of queer characters. As I mentioned before, Peach is not out and actively denies and hides her homosexuality from everyone around her, despite having what appears to be a network of loving and supportive friends to confide in, and existing in the year of our lord 2018. I see no reason why Peach would have these reservations about being out even with a mildly unsupportive family (which we never see, by the way, they’re only briefly referenced in Joe’s internal monologue). Even if she felt the need to hide her identity publicly, I definitely see no reason she would feel the need to hide her identity from every single one of her friends. It just doesn’t make sense. On top of that, Peach is actively predatory toward Beck. She is possessive over Beck’s life, manipulative of Beck’s decisions, and critical of Beck’s love life, all because, as we see as the series progresses, she is in love with Beck. This works on two levels as a trope as both predatory behavior and unrequited love for a best friend are traits that are constantly seen in queer characters throughout film, television, and literature. On top of the unsettling photo album of candids of Beck sleeping, or entering and exiting the shower, Peach takes her predation even further and attempts to sexually assault Beck after encouraging her to take drugs and facilitating a situation in which they would be close enough to touch and kiss. This particular sequence also reveals a few more traits of Peach’s that are notably upsetting; she has to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol to express her homosexuality, and, after Beck leaves the scene, she goes out of her way to prevent being penetrated by her male partner for the night, retrieving a strap-on from under the bed and using him as a sort of surrogate for her desires toward Beck, and an outlet for her frustrations in not being able to express her homosexuality. The second half of that isn’t upsetting because she chooses to top this man, but because he is there under false pretenses, and the act of her penetrating him puts her in a position of power over him that is still seen as somehow even more deviant from our status quo than just her being queer. Even the film Deadpool can’t have a woman penetrating a man without it being both a special occasion and undercut by a quip about “the things we do for love” or something similar.

Peach is also the only queer character we see in the entirety of this series so far. Think about that for just a moment. In the middle of New York City, in a group of people consisting of students, writers, and artists, and, again, in 2018, Peach Salinger is the only queer person to be seen for miles. Yeah, right.

What we have by the time Peach is murdered is this unlikeable caricature of a queer person who is just as bad for Beck as Joe. If Peach had lasted a few more episodes, she might have made an attempt on Joe’s life so that she could retain control over Beck just as Joe killed Benji (Beck’s boyfriend before Joe) earlier in the series. Peach and Joe are put on a level field before their climactic battle and, honestly, at that point in the series you kind of want Joe to win. The gravity of what Joe does is lost when his victims are people I want him to kill.

Peach isn’t just an antagonist that happens to be gay and acts as a foil to the protagonist of a show in a nuanced and complicated way. She’s a queer monster, defeated by a white het cis male. At no point do I care about Peach. At no point do I root for Peach. I admit, I was drawn in by Shay Mitchell because, let’s be honest, she’s great and I’ll watch her make out with hot women any day of the week. When I watched the trailer for the show I was hoping to get a good, maybe semi-heroic, possibly martyred lesbian character in a cool thriller show with a good premise and a great cast. But that’s not what I got. Don’t get me wrong here, queer people can be absolutely horrid. I have no problem with creating complex characters with actual motives and layers that make them villainous in some way. What I do have a problem with is the only queer character in your entire show being this hyper-stereotyped cartoon of a lesbian who would fit right in under the Hays Code especially because she’s punished in the end. It’s so frustrating and exhausting to see that this is still acceptable representation especially when we have examples now of ways in which queer characters can be written well (see Sex Education, Sense8, or The 100). I think it would have given the show a lot more, or even just better, tension and impact if Peach had been an actual good friend to Beck. Perhaps she has a romantic partner but still carries a torch for Beck in some way. Maybe she starts to convince Beck that Joe isn’t exactly what he pretends to be, and that’s why Joe has to eliminate her. Have all of this plant some seeds of doubt in Beck’s mind so Joe has something to struggle against other than just Peach’s toxicity. There is no good reason Peach had to be closeted. There is no good reason Peach had to be predatory. There is no good reason Peach had to be so actively terrible to Beck. Especially when the version we get in the show is so exaggerated from the source material which only sort of hints that she may have held on to a couple pictures of Beck from college. Making Peach and Joe so similar in their treatment of Beck is, if I’m being totally honest, boring and lazy. In the past we were able to accept some of these characters who, at  best, failed to help push society toward accepting queer people, even making some of them figureheads for the queer community, because we had no other options. But these characters aren’t just failing to help anymore. They’re actively causing harm in reinforcing stereotypes and ideals created by rules that were designed to hide and eliminate any deviation from a bygone norm. My patience is running exceedingly thin when it comes to these representations of queer people, and I no longer award points just for including a queer character.

Here's the video I mentioned that goes deeper in to the history of queer representation: