How Netflix’s ‘Baby Reindeer’ Humanizes the Female Stalker

No one sets out to be an object of obsession.

On Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer” when Martha (Jessica Gunning) enters the pub where down-and-out comedian Donny Dunn (show creator and writer Richard Gadd) works, she is looking downcast, like she’s trying to disappear. One simple cup of tea opens her up. It’s an act of kindness (or pity), but that’s all it takes for Donny to become her new fixation. Her interest in him unfolds in a montage of colorful outfits, badly applied pink lipstick and lies. She sends him tens of thousands of emails, ranging from the randy (“myy curtains r waitinfro yu they r readyy”) to the ranting (“i just had an egg”). She follows him home and sits outside his window for hours, pretends to be a hot-shot lawyer with politicians’ names in her phone and to own a penthouse in Belsize Park. Martha’s lies are so absurd and overblown it would be easy to dump her in with the rest of the deranged, damaged female stalker figures that have populated screen history, but “Baby Reindeer” does something way more creatively radical: it humanizes Martha.

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Cinema has long held the figure of the female stalker as one of its go-to villains. They tend to fit into one of several molds. They are obsessive fans, like Evelyn (Jessica Walters) in “Play Misty for Me” (1972) and Annie (Kathy Bates) in “Misery” (1990). Most commonly, they are spurned lovers, like Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in “Fatal Attraction” (1987), whose shenanigans made ‘bunny boiler’ a shorthand for ‘madwoman’. Or, if they are the girls crushing too hard in “The Crush” (1993) and “Swimfan” (2009). Sometimes, there are women who are obsessed with other women, confused about whether they want to be them or be with them, like Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in “Single White Female” (1992) or Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) in “Ingrid Goes West” (2017). The last type is, like Martha, an older woman fixated on someone younger, like the friendless, traumatized loner Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) in “Ma” (2019)

The female stalker is presented as a sad figure who has somehow “failed” at femininity. Often, she is fixated on sex, either because she’s deemed promiscuous, or hasn’t had children. Her looks are always used against her: she’s cast as manipulative if she’s young and attractive, violent when she’s older and less desirable. The stalker’s obsession curdles her, imbuing her with a monstrous energy that makes her unstoppable. The stalker might not have the physical upper hand, but she is relentless. She can be stabbed, burnt, drowned, and still get back up. More often than not, she must be violently eliminated in order for normality to be restored.

‘Baby Reindeer’<cite>Ed Miller/Netflix</cite>
‘Baby Reindeer’Ed Miller/Netflix

Martha, on the surface, fits this profile: she is older than Donny; she’s not conventionally attractive; she’s got no family or friends; and she’s poor. But “Baby Reindeer” carefully and emphatically avoids reducing Martha to a cardboard cut-out villain. It spends more time on her in a state of overwhelming paralysis than it does on her outbursts. The show isolates her visually, dimming the lights around her. Gunning plays her as a woman desperately attaching herself to someone, anyone who’d listen to her. In one of the show’s most tender moments, Donny takes her home after she sits, freezing, on a bus stop outside his house. The camera shows us her tumbledown apartment, its dirty, overflowing kitchen and the multiple burner phones. It’s not the house of a villain. When Martha is slapped with a restraining order, it’s not played as a moment of victory for Donny, but one of great tragedy for her.

If Martha is paralyzed by her fixation for Donny, he is galvanized by it. Because, as the show’s complex web of conflicting emotions and reactions to abuse emerges, Donny is using Martha too. At first, he reads her obsessions as validating of his specialness (“Martha saw me the way that I wanted to be seen”). He becomes, in his own way, fascinated with her obsession with him, using her to avoid confronting the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a mentor, a writer more powerful and successful than him.

The show is largely autobiographical, and Gadd has been loudly protective of the real-life inspiration for Martha (especially since online sleuths have gone out of their way to try and identify her). Humanizing a villain does not mean forgiving or excusing their actions, but rather in listening to what they’re saying between the lines. Cataloging the thousands of hours of deranged voicemails she left him, the wild range of emotions she displayed started to make a sick sort of sense to Donny, and he finds closure from the experience. “Baby Reindeer” doesn’t excuse her unhealthy, often vile and violent actions, it also manages to create an uncomfortably human character out of someone that could’ve easily become a punching bag.

“Baby Reindeer” is now streaming on Netflix.

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