Baby Reindeer

Reindeer Baby Frame/ Disclosure
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By IVANA BENTES*

like the series from NetFlix starts from traumas and situations of abuse to face masculinity in crisis and escape from psychological clichés

It's been a while since a series produced so many analyzes and drifts, “catching” the viewer due to its density and complexity in dealing with difficult themes. The script and the characters themselves Baby Reindeer always make the viewer leave their mental comfort zone and explode the clichés about “stalkers”, abusive relationships, toxic and symbiotic relationships, or about our own sexuality.

The complexity, humor, sarcasm and intelligence of the two abusers and of Donny Dunn's character himself, actor Richard Gadd, producer and creator of the NetFlix series and who in fact lived an obsessive story with a woman who pursues him, makes everything cathartic and engaging, which is accentuated by the confessional tone, with the story being narrated in the first person, and as if it were a heated self-analysis of the protagonist.

The series does not follow a manual of psychological clichés, and if it still relies on the traumas of the characters' past to try to explain the present, it goes further. We don't realize everything we feel or all our decisions, something escapes us irremediably. “Why didn’t you report her sooner?” The police officer asks Donny about his stalker. Answer: “I don’t know!” In this lack of response we can give not one, but a thousand reasons for what is narrated.

In that same scene, when the police officer asks if Donny has a relationship with Martha, his persecutor, we understand the mix of shame, guilt, desolation and doubt on his face. Perceiving oneself as a “victim” and “in a relationship” with one’s tormentor can be subjectively as painful as the psychological and sexual violence suffered, and being a man in this case does not help. Because men are precisely the subjects socially, historically and statistically recognized as those who subject and violate in fact, and in a naturalized way, in patriarchal societies.

Men are not only silent when they abuse, the same machismo and expectations around masculinity cause them to be silent when they are abused. Hence Donny's difficulty in admitting what is happening, whether in his relationship with Martha, a woman who embodies the stereotype of the stalker, or with his abusive mentor. Only after the situation escalates and starts to involve his family, his relationships, and starts to involve third parties, does he decide to ask for help.

Baby Reindeer It makes an impact due to its intimate and subjective narrative, functioning as an incredible confessional and analytical speech in a world in which the number of victims of sexual violence who do not register the crime, do not seek support, or do not want to talk about what happened is shocking.[I]

Only very recently, in 2017, did we see movements like #MeToo that encouraged women who had suffered sexual harassment to tell their stories publicly, using the networks and producing an impact beyond Hollywood, with a proliferation of harassment narratives. And what we saw was the massive outbreak of narratives: from micro events buried in memories, in therapy sessions, hushed up family “secrets”, to scandals involving celebrities with global repercussions.

Baby Reindeer It is impactful precisely because it tells one of these stories and places a man at the center of the circle, a man whose masculinity is also in crisis, a fragile man with whom women can identify, rebel and also suffer with him.

A man who goes from virtual sexual predator to abused is something that machismo silences and does not fit into the narrative of “top straight” masculinity and its stereotypes.

Em Baby Reindeer, this machismo and social pressures appear in the sexual jokes of Donny's bar friends, who are amused by Martha's daily presence and encourage Donny to play and have fun with Martha's obsession with the boy, which makes him the character takes time to realize what is problematic about this bond.

Delirious fabulousness and double bind

Also the figure of Martha, the cunning and manipulative woman, at the same time in command and super vulnerable is impactful. Martha is in love and amazed by a bond, by an idealized relationship in which Donny only plays an “auxiliary” role.

He doesn't have to do anything, or little, other than offer her that first cup of tea at the bar when she says she doesn't have the money to pay. And she starts coming back every day to drink it and build a relationship at the bar that doesn't require implementation. Here we have a very specific way of ideation that permeates and characterizes the world of networks, relationships through applications and that, taken into effective relationships, produces maladjustments and frustrations.

One of Martha's characteristics is the delirious fable of this relationship, which she creates with details, humor, irony, with her “incredible and disconcerting laugh” and, in the real story, “more than 41.071 emails, 350 hours of text messages voice, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages and 106 pages of letters”, according to actor Richard Gadd.

A narrative and obsessive compulsion, which Baby Reindeer is directed towards the character of Donny, we can see that it also crosses our contemporary compulsion on social networks to narrate and seek bonds and attention in a serial and automated way.

Martha is obsessed with celebrities, presents herself as a lawyer for famous people, despite not having money for a coffee, tries to live in a parallel world that she posts on her Facebook and starts treating, praising, spoiling Donny like a “baby reindeer to love and protect". And he likes it initially and even after discovering that it is a stalker, who faces criminal charges for harassing other men, feels in control of the situation when receiving compliments and seeing in the mirror of Martha's words his comforted narcissism. A mirror that will break and shatter, producing a situation of psychological terror.

Martha's characteristic of moving from affection to threat is that of the double bind, the dilemma theorized by theorist Gregory Bateson in the 1950s, in which one or two conflicting messages are expressed, where one denies the other, and whoever receives it even if respond positively to one of them will be in conflict with the other. In other words, it will automatically be wrong, regardless of the answer.

And we see Donny try to circumvent Martha's expectations, jumping in and out of her game and finding himself increasingly entangled in a web in which there is no right affective or relational answer, other than the game itself. This double bind is the way to produce control, subjection, without coercion or explicit violence, until it becomes unsustainable. By breaking this double bond the expression of hatred, anger and abandonment and desire for punishment manifests. And we see this happen at different times with both Martha and Donny.

The series also does not focus on Manichaeism, good and bad, “normal” or monstrous people, etc., but on what would almost be a clinical and empathetic look in which morality can be suspended for a while to try to understand the suffering of the other and certain confusion of feelings and actions.

Donny's reactions go from empathy to anger, acceptance and dependence on his persecutor, who in turn oscillates between many extremes. The character's affectionate and hateful personality is impressive, despicable and at the same time engaging and even moving: Martha, the extraordinary actress Jessica Gunning, leaves the protagonist and the viewer confused.

Social psychopathology and digital networks

And it seems that this confusion spills over into the series and reaches reality and the networks. It is symptomatic to see spectators Baby Reindeer behave like stalkers also, by acting like detectives trying to locate the series' characters in real life. When the actor and creator of the series, Richard Gadd, preferred not to do so.

The syndrome of judges in the world, on networks and “persecutors”, the impetus for lynchings per minute, is something that we should take care of. A strange generic social symptom today, a social psychopathology?

Can a film, a series, help people in a state of suffering? I think so. Baby Reindeer It is also courageous in exposing a rape that occurred between adult men and with a rapist who is fine, refined, a rape that is an expression of the game of seduction and power in television, but which could take place in any other professional environment.

Passion between men and abuse

The series sheds light on the most complex feelings in relationships that involve admiration, mentoring, intellectual reciprocity, a type of subjection and dependence, in which partnership, the pleasure of joint creation, male “brodage” gets bogged down in behavior that escalates to a rape by her intriguing and charming mentor Darrien, played admirably by Tom Goodman-Hill.

Darrien's relationship with Donny appears organic, affectionate, after all he finds someone who sees one of his failed performances as a comedian and effectively begins to help him with the text, with the jokes, with all the irresistible emotional and intellectual support.

A type of relationship that we see repeated often in the academic world (relationships with mentors, advisors, teachers), in the artistic world (complicity between directors and actors, partnerships with the screenwriter, dependence on a producer, etc.) and spread across a thousand other situations.

The series is careful to show this fascination and “infatuation” between the two men that becomes continuous and not noticeable abuse at first (the escalated use of drugs as a synonym for complicity and trust), until real sexual abuse. traumatic.

The relationship with Darrien also produces in Donny, in addition to “hatred, anger and confusion” about the rape, a search to discover his “true” sexuality, experimenting with pornographic websites and encounters with people of all genders. “I ended up in situations where I risked being raped again” and he continues to take risks until he realizes that his desire has “changed”.

Donny's anger and confusion is discovering that when he was raped by a man he also opened a drift and search that takes him out of his heteronormativity and the script deviates from an obvious cause and effect relationship: “I began to feel a distressing sexual confusion inside me. I thought it would pass, but it turned into insecurity, which turned into furious madness. I didn’t know if I felt this because of him or if deep down I always felt it.”

In the midst of this whirlwind, the script introduces another element that complicates Donny's investigation into his desire. Donny navigates his confusion and pain while simultaneously trying to have and hide a relationship with a trans woman, Teri. Once again the double bind: desire and denial of desire: loving Teri and being ashamed of her.

Donny's relationship with a trans woman, Teri, ends up replicating some of Martha's behaviors, he also lies, invents another profession, hides that he is a comedian and that he works in a bar. He also cannot accept the relationship and tries to hide it in public. Donny feels confused about his sexuality and is afraid. Find Teri on a dating site for trans people.

Donny invents a “profile”, a fictitious name and job on this website, invents a character. Common attitudes today, in a world mediated by networks, dating apps, in which we can show some things and hide others. Or simply lie to browse other worlds anonymously. “I hated myself for it, but I couldn't even think about being found out,” he writes, confessing his confusion and fear of being seen with a trans woman.

Teri is also a therapist and Donny falls in love with her. In the series, the two women, Martha and Teri, in very different ways, function as a detonator and unlocker of traumas and frustrations, but also as validation of an investigation into their own sexuality.

Martha is the “crazy” one, the cliché of the possessive, jealous woman, unhealthy in her dependence, but who validates her heteronormativity with all the clichés of standard romantic love turned hyperbolic and toxic. Martha, even with unhealthy attitudes, is the illusion of a normative relationship, which together with her friends at the bar, “common misogynists and heteronormatives” ward off the desire for other sexualities.

“When Martha appeared, all that confusion disappeared” (…) “Martha saw me as I wanted to be seen”.

The most moving in Baby Reindeer it is this impulse to restore the complexity of things and relationships. The series leaves the viewer feeling intelligent, supplementing with their own experiences or placing themselves in unusual points of view and points of existence. The questions that Donny asks are disturbing, including about the construction of sexuality and desire, a construction that includes abuse, violations of bodies, and subjecting relationships. Baby Rena doesn't “get rid of” the problem by reporting Martha to the police. In the same way that she strangely doesn't report her mentor Darrien.

The series impacts the viewer because its protagonist decides to “live with the problem”, that is, to deal with the two abuses in a very distinct and unique way, transforming a trauma, or traumas, experiences of suffering and mental confusion, into an investigation into his sexuality, a line of escape.

*Ivana Bentes She is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Media-Crowd: communication aesthetics and biopolitics (Mauad X) [https://amzn.to/4aLr0vH]

Note


[I] In Brazil, of the estimated 822 thousand rapes per year or two per minute, according to IPEA, mostly against women, only 8,5% reach the police and 4,2% reach the health system. https://revistagalileu.globo.com/sociedade/noticia/2023/03/brasil-tem-822-mil-estupros-por-ano-ou-dois-por-minuto-estima-ipea.ghtml


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