Controversy, online shaming and lawsuits: the ‘Baby Reindeer’ problem

Jessica Gunning and Richard Gadd at the BAFTA Television Awards in London. Photo via AP
Jessica Gunning and Richard Gadd at the BAFTA Television Awards in London. Photo via AP


In a cruel irony, a series about the trauma of stalking has become an instrument of that very same torment

You know Baby Reindeer. You’ve either devoured the Netflix hit already or have been warned to steer clear of it because it may be too triggering, but you’re aware of the show itself, and of its part confessional, part true-crime nature. It's got everything a viewer could want: stalking, mental health issues, a deep dive into personal trauma. Comedian Richard Gadd created and starred in the show, baring his experience of being stalked and sexually assaulted with startling candour, making viewers squirm. This show would be the feel-good hit of the summer if your idea of feeling good was to question the safety of your morning jog.

I wrote about Baby Reindeer when it came out in April, and while I wasn’t entirely enamoured by the show, I recognised the impressiveness of Gadd’s confessional feat, and of the show’s craft — if not its writing. Most of the narrative issues on the show, however, regarding the behaviour of the characters, etc, could be hidden behind the five words Netflix (now controversially) chose to preface our viewing with: ‘This is a true story.’

In a twist that now feels inevitable, the drama began after the end credits. Armchair detectives descended upon the character-specific details the show offered and chose to unmask the female stalker, named ‘Martha’ in the series, as well as the male television creator who had sexually assaulted Gadd.

The meticulousness with which these hobbyist investigators pore over social media profiles and public records is staggering, and more than slightly unnerving. This can actually be effective, as shown in the fascinating 2019 documentary Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer (Netflix) where cat-loving internet sleuths around the world stunningly tracked down a murderer after he had posted a video where he had tortured and killed two kittens.

On Baby Reindeer, however, the truth was in irresponsibly plain sight.

The show is impressively empathetic, showing us Martha the monster but also—arguably even more so—Martha the mentally-disturbed, a fragile and sick person not in control of her actions. At the time of the release, Gadd claimed that he had changed so many details about “the real Martha" that she wouldn’t even recognise herself on-screen. This statement turned out to be alarmingly disingenuous. As a Slate article recaps, “The woman in question is also Scottish, also has a legal background, looks somewhat like Martha, and had tweeted things at Gadd in the past that are quoted word for word in the series. It’s fairly damning, particularly since Netflix put out an Instagram reel stating that each and every email [Gadd’s character] Donny recieves from Martha in the show is a verbatim message Gadd received from his stalker."

Despite Gadd’s protestations that revealing, or kicking off a hunt for, the true identities of his assailants was not the point of his story, the internet unleashed a sadly predictable storm of doxxing and speculation. Now “the real Martha" (whom I refuse to name) has spoken to television and tabloids about the way she has been harassed by the show. She is suing Netflix for $170 million claiming that, since she has never been convicted, the show has damaged her reputation irreparably.

She may not be wrong. In a cruel irony, a series about the trauma of stalking has, in her view, become an instrument of that very same torment. Gadd has been brave to bare his own trauma, but in doing so, this poor woman’s mental health struggles have now become public property, and the internet, being the compassionate place it is, treats her with the same kindness as a piñata at a five-year-old’s birthday party. She has been thrown to the lions.

Who, then, are we supposed to feel sorry for? Gadd lived a nightmare and told us about it on screen, but his stalker was clearly mentally-ill — and is now rightly feeling harassed by this show. It can be seen as a new form of exploitation. Behind every true-crime story, there are real people whose lives are irrevocably altered by the public’s insatiable curiosity. Martha’s mental health struggles, once private, are now fodder for social media debates and memes. Her privacy has been shattered in the name of entertainment. She claims to have received death threats from irate viewers.

Gadd should have obfuscated her identity more, but we the viewers have turned out to be the real stalkers in this morbidly fascinating narrative. We have become conditioned to consume something and then immediately choose sides, but this culture of outrage helps nobody. The public outcry was first against Gadd’s assailants, then towards those interviewing the real Martha, and then it was revealed that Gadd had himself rather problematically dated a trans woman by suggesting that he would cast her on the show. This reindeer may have a long nose.

Baby Reindeer ultimately reveals a sobering truth about our culture. We have become enamoured with true crime not merely as a genre, but as a participatory sport. The boundary between viewer and participant has dissolved; we are no longer passive consumers but active agents in the unfolding drama. Our quest for ‘truth’, unfortunately, often bulldozes over empathy for the people involved. It’s like a self-righteous vegan who secretly loves the smell of bacon – there’s a cognitive dissonance at play.

If everybody wants to execute, then everybody will someday be executed. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, everyone will be cancelled for fifteen minutes.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Before Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F comes to Netflix on July 3, familiarise yourself—or revisit—the adventures of Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking cop Axel Foley with the first three Beverly Hills Cop films (from 1984, 1987 and 1994) on Netflix. Action comedies used to be cool, man.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.