Baby Reindeer, the new Netflix miniseries based on a true story, opens with a simple act of kindness — Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd), a wannabe stand-up comedian, gives a customer a free cup of tea.

“I felt sorry for her,” Donny tells us in voiceover, as Martha (Jessica Gunning) wanders into the pub where he works. It is an action he will soon regret.  

The two begin conversing; as they do, Martha becomes increasingly obsessed with the comedian. Simple affection morphs into something obsessive and painful – Martha begins bombarding Donny with texts and emails. Quickly, it becomes clear: Martha is a stalker, and Donny is her victim. 

That’s not exactly a new story to be told onscreen. Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and When A Stranger Calls have all dealt with the significant fear and anxiety that being stalked can create – when you’re the victim of a stalker, you live on a constant knife’s edge, forever expecting the next email, the next escalation. These films capture that tension. 

But what Baby Reindeer does additionally is depict – in a surprisingly complex way – the blend of emotions a victim can feel towards their stalker, not all of them strictly negative. And more than that, it explores the difficult histories that can make a stalking victim vulnerable to being harassed in the first place. 

Which is why it is fascinating – and troubling – that such a complicated, nuanced show has led some viewers to begin replicating Martha’s behaviour to find the real people behind the story. 

The complexity of the stalker/victim relationship

Stalking is, as philosopher Elizabeth Brake notes, composed of actions “which would normally be permissible; indeed, many stalking behaviors are protected liberties.” That makes it a complicated form of ethical wrong, one many stalkers take advantage of. There’s nothing bad about sending an email. There’s not even anything wrong with sending many emails – under specific circumstances. What makes stalking terrifying is the amount of communication, and, often, its intent. 

Additionally, some stalkers are themselves dealing with trauma, or have been victims of a serious harm. This is what Baby Reindeer captures – Martha is harming Donny, but she herself has been harmed. More than that, Donny’s traumatic past – he is the victim of sexual assault – makes him open to her affection initially. These are two people who have suffered, and are continuing to suffer. They find each other, amidst the chaos of traumatic flashbacks, and a deep sense of purposelessness.  

Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd) and Martha (Jessica Gunning), Baby Reindeer, Netflix

Perhaps if things were different, they might have become friends. After all, they are not so dissimilar, in some ways: Baby Reindeer ends with Donny finding himself in the exact position Martha was in when he first encountered her, relying on the random kindness of a bartender.  

In this way, Baby Reindeer does not condemn Martha. Nor does it condemn Donny, even though they have both made mistakes. Instead, it sees their actions as deeply tied to past harms, a continuation of the cycle of abuse.  

And a cycle that some viewers of the show are perpetuating. 

Viewer as stalker

Since Baby Reindeer became a smash hit, some viewers have begun attempting to track down the real humans that inspired the show. As The Guardian notes, “online sleuths” (those are the article’s words), believe they’ve found the real-life Martha. But so obsessive and dangerous has been the search, that innocent people have been caught up in the fray – one man was mistakenly believed to be the television writer who assaulted Donny, and received death threats as a result. 

But whether or not the “right” targets have been uncovered and attacked, such a response to the show is deeply unethical. Baby Reindeer itself doesn’t want to demonise Martha – so why are some viewers doing that themselves? Baby Reindeer is a cautionary story about letting passion overcome reason, and trying to track down people who don’t want to be tracked down. That stalking is being perpetuated in its name is a deep ethical wrong. 

It’s also a common ethical issue in our modern age. Increasingly, online vigilantes – better to call them that than “sleuths” – have come to behave in a way that shows they believe under certain circumstances, normal ethical rules are waved away. Think of the targeted harassment that was directed towards the real people that stans assumed Ariana Grande’s or Taylor Swift’s new records were about. Or Beyonce’s ‘Beyhive’ hounding a women off social media. In all of these cases, the abuse was “justified” in the mind of the perpetrators. They believed an ethical crime had been committed, and so gave themselves free rein to punish right back. 

So it goes in the case of Baby Reindeer. Martha wronged Donny; the TV writer assaulted him. In an increasingly punitive, carceral and old-school digital world, viewers are taking it on themselves to dole out their own justice, in order to reset wrongs. 

In actual fact, they are not moral arbiters. They are committing a wrong themselves. And it is a wrong that we must call out.

Baby Reindeer urges us to consider human beings as complex – not deserving of punishment, but of understanding, even if we condemn their actions.

We can want someone to be far away from us, given the harms they have committed. But we must attempt to collectively return to a place where retributive justice – so often confused as “activism” – does not cloud our understanding of complexity. After all, as that final scene of Baby Reindeer shows, we could all find ourselves in Martha’s shoes.  

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