‘Baby Reindeer’ highlights sexual violence against men – but feels indifferent to viewer safety

May 7, 2024 - 3:08 PM
"Baby Reindeer" creator and star Richard Gadd (Netflix Media)

This story contains spoilers about ‘Baby Reindeer,’ and mentions suicide in the show ‘13 Reasons Why’.

Your phone buzzes; it’s the group chat. “Watch Baby Reindeer! Stephen King said it was one of the best things he’s ever seen.” Surely that’s all you need to know.

Maybe not. The Netflix story, created by comedian Richard Gadd, is based on Gadd’s real-life experiences and delivers a narrative steeped in violence.

The show follows Donny — a fictionalized version of Gadd — as he contends with a stalker, as well as dealing with the sexual violence of a purported television writer and an attack on Donny’s romantic interest, Teri.

Netflix shares enough to pull you in with the show descriptor: “Struggling comedian and barman Donny meets a lonely woman claiming to be a lawyer. He offers her a cup of tea on the house, and she’s instantly obsessed.” Baby Reindeer is enthralling, captivating viewers with its intense and unsettling themes.

Amid its acclaim, Baby Reindeer highlights critical issues including sexual violence against men, prompting some scholarly acknowledgement of the show.

But while the show flags mature themes for viewers in various ways, it’s far from clear that doing so prevents or mitigates secondary trauma in the audience — or that this establishes a consensual relationship between viewers and the producers.

Vague but tantalizing description

In Australia, the show is rated R18+, while Common Sense Media, an American non-profit organization that helps parents by reviewing shows’ suitability for youth or children, designated the show 16+.

For Canadian viewers, the show is rated for mature audiences (TV-MA) due to language, nudity, sex, sexual violence and substances. However, this designation hardly accounts for the potential effects of its content, which can be much more profound than the brief label suggests.

In Episode 3, we witness a transphobic attack on Donny’s partner Teri. Apart from the show rating, the viewer is provided no warning, and the episode does little to reconcile the emotional turmoil it evokes, leaving the audience to grapple with the violence.

While Donny physically intervenes and stops the attack, the scene ends with Donny staring at Teri sitting on the ground. The show’s depiction of Donny’s failure to support Teri is mirrored in a narrative that feels unbridled and indifferent to viewer safety.

In Episode 4, Donny is sexually assaulted and subsequently raped while unconscious. Before the episode, the viewer gets an advisory: “The following episode contains depictions of sexual violence that some viewers may find troubling.” However, the depiction is severe and callous. The episode, as well as the show’s finale, conclude with a link to a crisis resource.

Potential impacts on empathy

“Some viewers” warnings raise questions about our collective sensitivity to violence in media. I worry that desensitization to violent content may suggest a broader cultural shift in how we perceive media of this kind, potentially impacting our empathy and response to real-world violence.

As a survivor and violence-prevention educator, I was sympathetic to the character of Donny and to Gadd. However, I could not move past the largely unmediated way the viewer observes the character’s suffering. Seldom do we see stories that show men as survivors of sexual trauma on the screen, and seeing it portrayed this way left me unsettled.

This discomfort is rooted in the knowledge that sexual violence in entertainment media has been linked to more harmful attitudes toward rape: It has been reported that men exposed to sexual violence in film have been more accepting of interpersonal violence and sexual aggression, show less sympathy towards rape victims and may be less likely to see perpetrators as guilty.

Repeated exposure to sexually violent media has been shown to result in emotional desensitization and a lack of regard for abuse victims.

‘Baby Reindeer,’ the trending Netflix series, captivated more than 22 million viewers just in its second week.

Sexual and gender-based violence are not simple tools of plot development. Rather, they carry significant implications for audience understanding and responsiveness to such issues.

Responsibility with representing

The issue of audience well-being and safety is not new territory for Netflix. In 2019, Netflix removed a controversial scene from 13 Reasons Why of a teen girl’s death, following recommendations from medical professionals, including the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

This decision raised questions about the ethical responsibilities that film and television producers have towards their viewers. However, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Netflix in 2022 for 13 Reasons Why from a father who alleged viewers were not properly warned of the show’s content. The ruling was based on free-speech protections underscoring the complexities of attributing legal responsibility to media content for individual actions.

This context is relevant when considering how other shows like Baby Reindeer might take responsibility when depicting traumatic content. Such awareness is crucial in determining how to present sensitive material without exacerbating trauma.

A person in a phonebooth.
What is the best way to present sensitive material? Richard Gadd in a scene as Donny Dunn.

Vicarious trauma

I worry that unmitigated violence in film and television may be an act of vicarious trauma, exposing audiences to negative psychological impacts of violence through forceful storytelling and visuals. The consumption of violence through social media and news can lead to symptoms akin to those experienced by individuals with post-traumatic stress.

In the field of sexual violence prevention and response, it is understood that care providers, who regularly hear people’s stories of trauma, may internalize feelings of hyper-vigilance, anxiety, mistrust and vulnerability. There is a focus on the “intrusive re-experiencing of trauma” and its implications for the well-being of those providing care.

In this field, it is typically understood that words alone can have a powerful impact, potentially triggering similar responses in those who hear them. This underscores the necessity of carefully handling such stories in media to prevent psychological harm.

Are content warnings effective?

We should rethink how content advisories are used, and whether they truly inform viewers or absolve creators of deeper ethical responsibilities.

Television content ratings allow creators to check a box without ensuring the audience fully understands what lies ahead. These measures are insufficient to establish a consensual relationship between viewers and producers insofar as a lack of clarity about what lies ahead may leave viewers vulnerable to secondary trauma, particularly those who have experienced similar violence.

Creators should consider the ethical implications of depicting violence and trauma, especially when rooted in real-life experiences. At the very least, networks might understand that content advisories are an essential accessibility measure in film and television, and also consider how shaping a narrative and editing scenes may partly mitigate potentially harmful depictions.

If you’ve experienced sexual violence or are at risk, help is available. See resources at the Public Health Agency of Canada about intimate partner violence against men and boys. You can also get help by contacting a provincial crisis line or going to the nearest Sexual Assault Centre.The Conversation

Jacob DesRochers, PhD Candidate, Sexuality Education, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.