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“Baby Reindeer” Marks Positive Change in Sexual Violence Media Portrayals

June 25, 2024

Abby Jackson & Omny Miranda Martone

Content Warning: This article discusses sexual violence and contains spoilers for “Baby Reindeer.”

For the past few weeks, it has been nearly impossible to scroll social media without seeing a reference to “Baby Reindeer,” a play-turned-Netflix phenomenon created by Richard Gadd. The show – which is based on Gadd’s real life – swept the world in April, with 60 million views in its first month alone. Gadd himself stars as Donny Dunn, a struggling comedian trying to overcome being stalked. As the story unfolds over seven episodes, he reveals a secret kept for years from even his closest family members: he was sexually abused by a man, Darrien, who promised to help make him a star. 

In a society that often portrays vulnerability as a sign of weakness, male victims as lesser men, and incidents of sexual violence inaccurately for the sake of shock value, “Baby Reindeer,” is a trauma-informed, responsible telling of sexual violence against a male victim that dispells rape myths, and addresses the ways sexual violence affects victims. 

The show opens with Donny going to report a crime only to be questioned about the legitimacy and being told he waited too long to report his stalker. Whether or not Gadd is in any real danger is consistently questioned because his stalker is a woman. This is a common myth regarding sexual violence against men. A 2023 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior revealed 71 percent of men in a sample of 1,100 reported being sexually victimized by women. Trying to report a crime only to be rejected is a struggle viewers come to learn was even more difficult for Gadd because of his experience being sexually abused in the past and being afraid to come forward.  

By episode 4, the story shifts from being about Richard Gadd’s stalker, Martha, and all the ways she invades his life, tinged with silly British comic relief, to revealing the first person to make Gadd feel powerless. The episode opens with a content warning, “The following episode contains depictions of sexual violence which some viewers may find troubling.” This was a responsible warning compared to most because it gives potential viewers a clear telling of what the triggering content is right before the episode containing the violence. Many shows give a general warning at the beginning of the series: “Viewer discretion is advised,” leaving viewers unaware of what topic the trigger warning is referring to or when it will appear.

The episode ends by showing resources for anyone who may have found the content disturbing or who may have been victimized themselves. Something so simple can be a powerful tool connecting victims in the audience with vital resources. That’s evident with a UK-based charity, We Are Survivors. The organization works with male victims of sexual violence. It reported an 80 percent increase in first-time callers in the first two weeks of “Baby Reindeer’s” popularity according to an article in Independent. This staggering number raises the question of how many other victims are looking for someone else to come forward and show them they deserve support and that help is out there.. 

“Baby Reindeer” does a fantastic job portraying very real aspects of being sexually victimized. Gadd spends years in silence about the abuse he experienced. He faces feelings of guilt and blames himself for doing drugs with his abuser and even going back to him after the abuse had occurred. This is another instance of a rape myth being dispelled, the idea that if a victim is under the influence, what happened to them is their fault. He questions his sexuality and if any part of himself was okay with what happened to him because his professional relationship with his abuser was supposed to help launch his comedy career. That struggle with his identity and intimacy affects his relationships. He distances himself from his girlfriend and finds himself unable to become sexually aroused by her because of the weight of what was done to him. We again see the impact sexual violence can have on relationships when Gadd’s relationship with Teri falls apart. Gadd finds himself lying to Teri about his name and hiding her because of the shame he’s feeling. 

Gadd later names Darrien’s behavior for what it truly was: He was grooming him. He offered Gadd various kinds of drugs every weekend, told him trip-induced tales of what a huge success he would become, ensured him he was safe, and then took advantage of him. Gadd says it best in the show, “When you take enough drugs to reach that plane where all thought stops and euphoria begins, talk of the future and fame and happiness feel almost as real as the chemicals that flow through your body.”  

We then see Gadd deal with feelings of rage before he shifts into hypersexuality. Hypersexuality is a reaction that’s very common in victims of sexual violence, but it’s not often covered in media portrayals. It can be a way for victims to regain a sense of control over their bodies or numb themselves. In Gadd’s case, he begins watching aggressive, inaccurate portrayals of sex in porn, describing himself as, “going through puberty all over again.” He begins having unprotected sex with multiple people and grapples with putting himself in risky situations where he believed he could be raped again. When he starts going on dates again, we see him go through multiple partners, unable to make a real connection until he meets Teri. We even see Gadd go through a phase of finding himself sexually aroused by his stalker, Martha, and the attention she provided him, even though it doesn’t make sense to him. At one point he says he took a while to report Martha because he couldn’t imagine reporting her without reporting Darrien as well and admitting what happened to him. 

We also see Gadd struggle with suicidal thoughts, something many victims of sexual violence deal with. They may feel trapped by what happened to them and go into a state of deep depression and anxiety. All of the aspects of Gadd’s complicated emotions dispell the myth of the “perfect victim.” A perfect victim is often portrayed as being passive, innocent, and someone who reports the crime right away. They’re expected to behave in a certain way in order to be considered credible. Instead, Gadd is shown as being flawed, having complex, honest emotions, yet still being wholly deserving of empathy. This is an important lesson for viewers and society as a whole who may be unknowingly invalidating victims by viewing them through the lens of the perfect victim myth. 

The series goes on to show Gadd disclosing to his parents that Darrien assaulted him. The response from them is a lesson in parenting everyone can use, showing full acceptance and love for their son. Gadd’s father shows him he isn’t less of a man for what happened to him. Many men are afraid to come forward because they may feel less masculine or are afraid of how society will view them. In a report in Behavioral Sciences, 27 percent of men were estimated to have been sexually victimized at some point in their lives and between 90 and 95 percent of male sexual violations are not reported. Finding the strength to tell his family, report his stalker and his abuser, and confront his abuser are all ways Gadd ultimately takes back his power and confronts toxic stigmas attached to male victims.

Viewers everywhere were even more moved to find out Gadd reenacted things that really happened to him in his own life. We have seen an uptick in recent years in portrayals of sexual violence. While some are positive portrayals that leave room to discuss a difficult topic, others are done without the victims’ knowledge or consent. “Baby Reindeer” is a refreshing change where the person who was victimized wrote, directed, and starred in his own story. His courageous telling sheds light on all victims, regardless of gender. If we continue this momentum of responsible and empathetic storytelling, we can foster a world where more victims feel safe coming forward.  

In recent years there has been an uptick in media portrayals of sexual violence.  While some are positive portrayals, many are created without the victims’ knowledge or consent in a way that can be retraumatizing and dangerous. Further, most media surrounding sexual violence consists of depicting the “perfect victim” and other rape myths. Gadd bravely told his own story and in doing so portrayed victims with accuracy and nuance. Baby Reindeer is a trauma-informed survivor story that will empower victims to feel understood and deserving of help.

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