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Baby Reindeer: how the Netflix TV show brings a fresh perspective to male sexual victimisation

Baby Reindeer: how the Netflix TV show brings a fresh perspective to male sexual victimisation
Richard Gadd in 'Baby Reindeer'. Image: Netflix

A harrowing and important depiction of a male victim of sexual abuse.

This article discusses sexual assault and contains spoilers for Baby Reindeer.

Baby Reindeer is a gripping new Netflix show based on a true story and adapted from an acclaimed play by Scottish actor Richard Gadd. The show delves into the harrowing experiences of its main character, Donny (a fictionalised version of Gadd), whose life unravels after he becomes the target of a female stalker, Martha (played by Jessica Gunning).

Baby Reindeer has captivated audiences with its candid portrayal of male sexual victimisation, stalking and substance abuse. It has also highlighted the important role of popular culture in raising difficult questions around such delicate issues.

The Netflix hit is the latest addition to an ever-growing range of socially aware TV shows providing a form of educating entertainment (or “edutainment”). What differentiates Gadd’s offering, however, from others is that it sheds light on the often overlooked (both in popular culture and in real life) male experiences of sexual violence.

Bringing the male victim out of the shadows

Recent statistics suggest that women are almost three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than men. So it’s important and understandable that discussions about sexual assault and how it should be tackled prioritise the female perspective.

Despite the impact of the #MeToo movement in encouraging survivors to speak openly about their experiences, the disproportionate emphasis placed on this female victim/male perpetrator narrative has, according to research, rendered male victims almost “invisible”. This is also reflected in popular culture, where stories of male sexual victimisation are far fewer and tend to attract less attention.

Baby Reindeer bucks this trend as it’s become one of the most-watched shows on Netflix.

The show is harrowing and powerful as it delves into the psychological effects of stalking and sexual victimisation on Donny. Donny’s interactions with a female stalker, Martha, lead to a troubling spiral into vulnerability and mistrust.

The show provides a realistic depiction of the distress associated with stalking. Donny’s journey offers an insight into consent, victimisation and the societal pressures placed on men to conform to traditional norms of masculinity, which often dictate their responses to abuse.

For instance, as the stalking begins, we see Donny going along with often sexual jokes about his relationship with Martha, who is turning up at the pub he works at on a daily basis to talk to him. Despite becoming increasingly nervous about her and the increasingly sexual tone of her incessant emails, he feels pressure to “be one of the lads” in front of his colleagues.

It also highlights how, as shown by Gadd’s own experience and the recent conviction of Harry Styles’s stalker, stalkers are not always male.

Navigating survivor trauma, guilt and rape myths

As well as shedding a light on the male experience of being stalked, the show vividly explores survivor trauma and guilt. It does so through Donny’s introspection and increasingly destructive behaviour following his rape by his “mentor”, Darrien (played by Tom Goodman-Hill).

Throughout the show, Donny tries to come to terms with his victimisation, reflecting on how this experience affected the way he handled subsequent events in his life, including his stalking by Martha. We see this clearly in scenes where Donny navigates his confusion and pain while trying to have and hide a relationship with a trans woman, Teri.

Despite professing to love Teri, his actions – which include lying to her about who he is and running away from her in public – are dictated by shame and fear. This behaviour reflects his struggle with his sexual identity and self-worth. Research has found that such feelings are common in the aftermath of sexual victimisation.

Another key issue Baby Reindeer effectively addresses is the interaction between victims of sex crimes and the police. It draws attention to pervasive rape myths that often silence victims by scrutinising their actions and asking whether they did anything to encourage their abuser.

In the opening scene, for example, the police officer he is reporting the crime to immediately asks him whether he has a relationship with Martha and why he didn’t do something sooner. These elements of the narrative invite viewers to reconsider common misconceptions about sexual abuse and the barriers that victims face when engaging with criminal justice agencies.

Baby Reindeer is an exemplary piece of “edutainment” that breathes fresh air into the continuing public dialogue over the causes of and appropriate responses to sexual violence. It underlines the power of popular culture to challenge dominant beliefs and facilitate a deeper understanding of the diverse and often hidden struggles that shape the lives of those who endure such painful experiences.

As it continues to resonate with a global audience, Richard Gadd’s show serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of inclusive and realistic stories of sexual violence. These shows ensure that different victims’ voices are heard, irrespective of their gender and sexuality. DM

This story was first published in The Conversation. Dimitris Akrivos is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Surrey.

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