‘Baby Reindeer’ tells more than a real-life story. It also has real-life effects

With Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer” captivating audiences — nearly 60 million viewers watched it in its first month — and the fifth and final season of “You” set to release this year, stories about stalkers have clearly struck people’s attention.

But some experts warn that what you see on your screen isn’t always representative of reality. Many Hollywood-ified dramatizations lean into storylines of extreme behaviors and sometimes don’t include appropriate warnings, leading to misconceptions about what stalking actually is.

For some victims, this could lead to more harm than good. Real-life stalking, experts say, can be more subtle than what is usually portrayed in popular media — though just as damaging and dangerous.

How stalking is portrayed in popular media

“Baby Reindeer” is a dramatized version of real events that happened to series creator and actor Richard Gadd. In the show, Gadd’s character, Donny, meets Martha at the pub where he bartends. After he offers her her tea on the house, Martha begins to stalk and harass Donny, sabotaging his life.

The TV series “You,” based on the 2014 novel of the same name, follows the perspective of stalker Joe Goldberg as he tracks, manipulates and murders his victims, often using romance and his good looks as a lure.

Forensic psychologist Dr. Lorraine Sheridan says stalking is not always the cookie-cutter formula audiences are enthralled by.

“A lot of it (the media) is all killer, no filler. You don’t get the more mundane aspects of stalking. You just get the really, really dramatic bits,” Sheridan said. “That means it is often quite misrepresented because the everyday, boring, hideous, demeaning, fear-inducing — but ultimately kind of predictably miserable — aspects of stalking does not make good TV.”

Gadd’s story is real, but he says the version that appears in “Baby Reindeer” has been altered for artistic and privacy reasons. “I’ve put out a statement publicly saying I want the show to be received as a piece of art, and I want the show to people (sic) to enjoy as a piece of art,” Gadd told The Hollywood Reporter, speaking about those who aim to find the show’s real life counterparts. “I’m called Donny Dunn. It exists in a sort of fictional realm, even though it’s based on truth, it exists in a fictional realm, let’s enjoy the world that I’ve created.”

“Baby Reindeer” comes with a standard post-credits disclaimer that says, “This program is based on real events; however certain characters, names, incidents, locations and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”

One notable change is in the show: Martha is charged with three counts of harassment and stalking, found guilty and sent to prison. In real life, Gadd says the legal situation with his stalker was simply “resolved.”

Stalking has always been a subject of popular media, even before many viewers can grasp the actual concept, since so much of it appears in content aimed at young people. In “Twilight,” the main character Edward breaks into his school crush Bella’s room to watch her sleep. In “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Emilio Estevez’s character follows Andie MacDowell’s character across town to crash her and her boyfriend’s vacation.

Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg in "You." - Courtesy of Netflix
Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg in "You." - Courtesy of Netflix

These representations can lead to confusion about what is stalking and what is romantic, according to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness and Resource Center (SPARC), which issued a discussion guide in 2019 that noted, “Romantic films often include protagonists who are ‘guys like Joe (Goldberg),’ ones who stop at nothing to get the girl. Usually there is no negative consequence for their actions — in fact, the stalking is successful, and they persuade their initially reluctant romantic interests that they should be together.”

For its part in reducing victim blaming, Sheridan says that “You” makes viewers “question ourselves and (it) demonstrates how we can get taken in by somebody who is so cruel, selfish, sadistic and evil.”

Stalkers don’t only take the shape of dashing, cunning men. In “Baby Reindeer,” Gadd’s stalker is portrayed as unattractive and mentally ill — someone whom her victim actually feels sorry for.

While both male and female fictional stalkers are portrayed as dangers, Sheridan notes  that, typically, only women stalkers are portrayed in a way that gives audiences license to laugh and ridicule them.

“I think it’s worth noting those more nuanced, less sensational, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this’ kind of pieces of media (like “Baby Reindeer” and Netflix’s “Lover Stalker Killer”) are both showing men as the victims,” said Dana Fleitman, a SPARC training and awareness specialist. “When we see women as victims, it is often on other networks that are a lot more campy (and) sensational.”

While 1 in 3 women will experience stalking in their lifetime, 1 in 6 men will as well, making it not a fully gendered issue.

Some argue that stories where males are the victims may lend extra legitimacy to the problem.

Anna Nasset, a stalking survivor and founder of Stand-Up Resources, watched “Baby Reindeer” upon the recommendation of her colleagues and thought the show was “really good.”

“Having the male victim in “Baby Reindeer” is going to do more than if the gender was switched. It just is,” Nasset said. “I hate to say it that way, but I think there’s still that narrative of ‘Well, this is just part of being a woman, this what you get!’

Media portrayals of stalking aren’t always accurate

Media representations can also cause victims to believe they are not actually being stalked if  their situation doesn’t seem as severe as what they see on screen.

“Stalking is very underreported and under-identified and so people kind of think they know what it is, but they’re actually very unlikely to have received any sort of formal or real education on it. So, where are we learning what stalking is? It’s often from these (media) misrepresentations,” Fleitman said.

Fleitman believes these dramatizations cause the public to confuse stalkers with sexy, romantic and heroic leads (much like Edward Cullen of “Twilight”) and think real-life victims are overreacting to a harmless, awkward attachment.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as Edward and Bella, respectively, in “Twilight.” - Summit Entertainment
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as Edward and Bella, respectively, in “Twilight.” - Summit Entertainment

With the exclusion of a US National Stalking Hotline and stalking public service announcements, Fleitman wishes there were more content warnings and resources around stalker-centered media so that audiences and organizations didn’t have to do the bulk of the work.

“Baby Reindeer,” rated TV-MA by Netflix for “language, nudity, sex, sexual violence, substances,” only has a viewer discretionary warning before “Episode 4” wherein Gadd’s character is sexually assaulted.

In the series finale, the resource, wannatalkaboutit, pops up in the credits. Created by Netflix, it includes round tables and discussions guides of other Netflix shows and films, links to resources such as the National Suicide Hotline, Crisis Text and the Domestic Violence Hotline. Information is also available on sexual assault, sexual violence and relationship abuse. Yet no mention of stalking, despite it being the main subject matter of the show.

Neither Netflix nor the “You” and “Baby Reindeer” teams responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

Nasset echoes that educating people about stalking is difficult but believes “we’re on track” to be able to have more public awareness around stalker-centered media, noting that content warnings or PSAs around sexual violence, which are now common, were rare as recently as 10 to 20 years ago.

Fletiman calls stalking shows without PSAs and resources “irresponsible.”

Sheridan argues that such efforts at public awareness are important, and reflect changing outlooks on what issues are worth talking about. “I love the way the young people are standing up. I don’t see it that they’re soft and easily offended. I’m seeing they’re just not going to take that crap anymore and I’m loving it,” she said.

“All the PSAs, all the content warnings, bring it on. Because that comes with an opportunity for education as well.”

Fleitman also believes these stories have an opportunity: “I think that the media can be a really good starting place for discussion, for learning, for empathizing with victims and survivors (and) for understanding stalking, but only if it’s used that way.” she said.

The realities of stalking

Stalkers are often imagined as hooded strangers in a secret lair but the reality is less dramatic — though just as scary. According to Fleitman, stalkers are more likely to be a current or past partner or acquaintance — a situation represented in both “Baby Reindeer” and “You.”

Stalking is about scaring or upsetting somebody, she says.

SPARC defines stalking as “a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.”

Although the definition varies for different areas, Sheridan hopes to defy its notorious murkiness. “A lot of things are hard to define. The bloody weather is hard to define, and people know what that is,” she said.

Fleitman hopes “Baby Reindeer” can raise awareness for stalking victims, like men and so-called “imperfect victims” whose stories may not look like the ones we’re used to seeing.

The term “imperfect victim” refers to people who may be seen by those outside of the situation as not doing enough to prevent their abusers’ actions — in some cases, they are even accused of doing something themselves to incite the stalker, such as not establishing boundaries or sharing too much private information.

Fleitman said what someone chooses to share on the Internet can be seen as the new “well, what were you wearing?” when it comes to stalking. The narrative enforces that victims are to be seen as blameless and innocent with no prior indiscretions of their own.

Nasset often gets called a “perfect victim” because she was quick to report her situation to law enforcement, but she thinks the moniker is a “horrible term.”

“[A] stalker is going to do what the stalker is going to do,” she said. “Even if you’re trying to bargain with them or be nice to them, [it’s] not necessarily going to change the trajectory.”

In fiction, stalking may make for tense drama, but in reality it is so insidious that it is often called “slow motion homicide.”

And, indeed, stalking often ends with violence and death.

76% of intimate partner femicides included stalking in the year prior to their death and stalking increases the risk of intimate partner homicide by three times, according to SPARC.

Stalking survivor Anna Nasset knows her stalker being a stranger is actually the minority of stalking cases, despite it often being the media's main representation. - Photos by Kintz
Stalking survivor Anna Nasset knows her stalker being a stranger is actually the minority of stalking cases, despite it often being the media's main representation. - Photos by Kintz

Nasset’s stalker is currently serving 10 years in prison after being sentenced in 2019. He was a stranger who hung around her art gallery and began stalking her in 2011.

Stalking is illegal in all US states and territories, but the topic is still under-researched and awareness resources are scant. In fact, stalking first became a crime in the US less than 35 years ago — in 1990 in the state of California.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, where “Baby Reindeer” takes place, harassment laws weren’t introduced until 1997 before being amended in 2010 to more accurately reflect stalking’s danger, validity and to call it out by name. This was just five years before the real-life Martha started stalking Gadd and four years before “You” hit shelves in its first novel incarnation.

While stalking makes for compelling storylines, the real-life issue is difficult to navigate. Representation in TV shows or movies could change this for the better by raising awareness about the nuances of predatory behavior. Or, it could perpetuate outdated and dangerous ideas about what stalking really is.

Editor’s note: Dana Fleitman’s opinions are her own and not necessarily a representation of the US Department of Justice, the Office on Violence Against Women or AEquitas, all organizations SPARC is associated with.


The Alice Ruggles Trust

Stalking Prevention, Awareness and Resource Center (SPARC) (does not deal with victims directly; serves as an information and resource database)

The Friendship Center’s 24-hour help line for domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: 406-442-6800

National Sexual Assault Hotline - provided by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) online.rainn.org 800.656.HOPE

VictimConnect Resource Center - operated by the National Center for Victims of Crime

Call or text 1-855-4VICTIM or 855-484-2846 Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

VictimConnect Resource Map available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

End Violence Against Women International

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