Home Gay Entertainment Baby Reindeer, Trans Trauma, and Abstraction

Baby Reindeer, Trans Trauma, and Abstraction

by Mike Zamora
Image of a woman seemingly praying with a small man under a glass in front of her and the text Netflix Baby Reindeer

The new limited series Baby Reindeer, to my mind, may be the wildest and most unexpected adventure to hit Netflix since Tiger King. The trailer is only moderately interesting and doesn’t fully prepare you for what’s to come: a man, named Donny, recounts his experience being stalked by a woman he met while serving drinks at a neighborhood bar.

That’s exactly what it was for the first few episodes, but then we got the flashbacks. This gritty and sometimes painful retelling of the worst few years of Donny’s life tackles stalking, rape, gender identity, issues facing the transgender community, processing rape trauma, and drug abuse. It’s also a painful and powerful 4th wall break the further you get into the series.

(Needless to say, be aware that some spoilers approach below.)

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Netflix describes the series like so: “When a struggling comedian shows one act of kindness to a vulnerable woman, it sparks a suffocating obsession which threatens to wreck both their lives.” That struggling comedian, Richard Gadd, wrote and starred in this seven episode binge-worthy thriller.

There are a lot of moments where I, as the viewer, hated Gadd’s character, Donny. Some of the things he said and did really left a sour taste in my mouth until near the end of episode 3. And, as became clear, was the point.

Where to begin?

The first few episodes are setting up the stalker scenario. A woman named Martha sits down at the bar with no money; Donny gives her a drink on the house because he feels sorry for her. 

This relationship quickly turns into an unhealthy obsession. Martha returns every day to sit at the bar and talk to Donny, who seemingly enjoys the attention. We learn that Donny loves her infectious and over-the-top laugh, but feels uncomfortable because he admits to knowing she is unstable. This left me desperately wanting him to distance himself from her.

Just as things were beginning to get really tense for Donny, we learn about his dating life. We learn about some insecurities and fears he has when it comes to love and companionship. We begin to see Donny going on date after date with a transgender women he met on a trans dating site. Through gritted teeth, my spouse and I watched and listened as Donny narrated his internal shame of being seen in public with transgender people.

Shame Facing the Transgender Community

To this point, all of the dates Donny goes on with people from the dating site were at one specific restaurant. He admits he prefers this restaurant because it’s a place Martha wouldn’t visit, and also because of the low lighting. Donny says he was worried about what people would think seeing him on a date with a transgender woman.

My heart broke.

This was a big moment where I decided Donny was not actually the good guy. He was seemingly leading this stalker on for personal gratification, and being a dick to the transgender people he was dating. It was hard to continue watching at this point.

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As a gay man, I know what it feels like to fear sharing myself with other people, especially strangers. I know what it feels like sitting down to dinner at a restaurant and feeling everyone’s eyes on me and my date, whether they actually are or not. Although I am not transgender, It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to know they experience the same fears.

As the story progressed, Donny began seeing a trans woman named Teri more regularly. Donny admits he didn’t intend to fall in love, claiming he just wanted to explore and learn more about his own sexuality. We also learn that Donny created an entirely different alias on the dating site.

Donny, Richard, Tony

Though there are many reasons a person might create an alias, it seems like Donny took this path as a way to protect himself. The world is so full of people who wish to do harm to others. I believe Donny, AKA Tony, should have come clean to Teri much sooner, but every situation is different. Seeing Donny continually lie to Teri is hard to watch; but later on, it  allows us to appreciate Teri for her compassion and forgiveness towards others. A beautiful moment for the viewer to connect with a transgender woman in a television show. As Donny and Teri continue dating, his insecurities begin to ease a bit. He went to an LGBTQ+ bar with Teri and left the bar with her only to fall back into a shitty situation.

Donny and Teri were on a subway train being flirty and enjoying themselves when suddenly Donny’s shame returned. He started noticing the people on the train and started believing they were all judging him. He then stepped out the closing door, leaving Teri alone on the train, abandoned because he was afraid of being seen with her. Again, my heart broke for Teri. Then I thought of the times I haven’t held a man’s hand in public out of fear. Sitting in a theater and pulling my hand out of my spouses as the lights come up and the credits begin to roll. I was angry at Donny, but I also felt sorry for him. Shame, and the shame of being ashamed, are real and frustrating parts of the queer experience and a heteronormative society.

The Trauma of Sexual Assault

In episode 4, we begin to really understand what makes Donny tick. As he visits the police station to report Martha for stalking, the police officer begins asking questions, including why it took him six months of stalking before reporting Martha. We then see a flashback of just a few years prior when Donny found himself being taken under the wing of a man he thought wanted to help him: a big-shot television writer named Darrien. He helped Donny rework his comedy set and offered to help revise a script.

Donny wanted success and recognition so badly he put up with a lot from Darrien. The two would spend days together doing drugs at Darrien’s apartment. Donny thought the only way he could make it big was to do what Darrien asked of him. Darrien had groomed him into thinking getting high was the only way Darrien would help him with his script. Those days with Darrien quickly turned into sexual abuse. Donny knew their relationship had taken a turn but didn’t know exactly what was happening when he blacked out. That is, until he woke up while being raped.

What does it mean?

After watching the incredibly graphic rape scene, we jump back to Donny at the police station answering the police officer’s question: why did it take you so long to report Martha?  As Donny reflects on the sexual violence from a man he trusted, narrator Donny asked himself why he would report Martha and not Darrien. At this point she had not turned violent or physical, while Darrien had groomed, drugged, and raped him. Perplexed and trying to understand the inner-workings of his brain, Donny responds to the officer with a simple “I don’t know.”

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Sexual violence doesn’t excuse Donny from some of the things he said and did throughout the limited series. Seeing what he went through and how it caused him to question his own sexuality really does make you feel for the guy. Donny said he was confused by his interactions with Darrien, a wealthy pansexual socialite. He fell into a spiral of drugs and sex with anyone and everyone. Donny associated the euphoria of drugs and sex with being gay, but he didn’t know if he was gay, straight, or bi. He’s just a person who suffered trauma, didn’t have the support to work through it, and made mistakes.

Baby Reindeer

This limited series was so much more than I expected. It was cringe to watch the way this man interacted with his stalker. It hurt to hear how his own pain was impacting Teri; and, it brought tears to my eyes seeing the trauma he endured alone.

Loneliness is something I believe everyone is afraid of. Whether it’s a lover, companion, or a few close friends, most people need somebody in their lives. This limited series really gives us a good look at the fear of being alone. Donny battled his own insecurities alone. Martha experienced loneliness in ways that I’m sure hurt very much; perhaps,the loneliness is what pushed her into obsession. And then there’s Teri. Again, I am not transgender so I can’t speak to this with any certainty but I would imagine a trans person’s experience in this world could be very isolating. Transphobia exists within the LGBTQ+ community. Generally speaking, I feel safe as a cisgender gay man in a queer space. I don’t think transgender or gender non-conforming people experience that same safety, and that is something that we as a community need to correct. 

The 4th Wall As Healing

As somebody who loves a gritty binge-worthy series, Baby Reindeer doesn’t disappoint. The best part of a good story is feeling a range of emotions. The way Richard Gadd allowed us into his life—Donny is very much Richard telling his own traumatic story, a fact of which gives extra painful weight to the layer of abstraction with Donny creating the “Tony” alias—without censoring his own shortcomings helped me connect to him.

As far as the title goes, it baffled me and my spouse until its meaning was revealed at the very end. Martha’s pet name for Donny was Baby Reindeer. Throughout the series, it always just felt like it was a random name she came up with on the fly. In the end, we learn that she called him Baby Reindeer because he reminded her of a stuffed baby reindeer she had as a child. A stuffed animal that protected her while her parents were fighting. 

I believe this revelation really helps to sum up the moral of the story. You never know what’s going on with people under the surface. Since we live in a shame-filled world it’s not common to talk about our experiences with sexual trauma, childhood trauma, or prejudices imposed by heteronormativity. We need to recognize that everyone is hurting in some untold way and convince ourselves to live with a bit more compassion. Baby Reindeer taught me that.

Sources: Netflix, IMDB

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