Will ‘Baby Reindeer’ Welcome a New Era of Complex Television?

When I first started writing about TV professionally in 2018, media criticism was like a checklist.

The Bechdel test, named after a queer artist whose work is actually multifaceted and complicated, provided a readily copied guide. Does a movie do right by its characters with marginalized identities? Why sit in the complications of art and life when it’s so much easier to have a yes or no?

The “rules” that were established were not random. The desire to see lesbian characters ride off into the sunset instead of dying was born out of the shear number of fictional lesbians whose deaths felt empty and cruel. The desire to only see trans actors in trans roles was born out of the lack of opportunities for trans actors and the social impact of associating trans people with cis people playing dress up.

Some of these rules, in my opinion, hold more value than others. (I still think trans roles should predominantly be played by trans actors.) But I look back on my own early pieces of criticism with judgment. One of my earliest reviews was a pan of JT LeRoy that criticized the casting of Kristen Stewart. Now I see little difference between a “cis” dyke like Stewart and a trans person like Savannah Knoop — it’s different than Eddie Redmayne throwing on a dress to get an Oscar nom. The issue with JT LeRoy wasn’t Stewart’s casting but the film’s inability to say or do anything interesting with its interesting story.

A few months later, I reviewed Euphoria and had developed enough as a writer to bring in more complexity. But I still felt stuck on the way that show connected interest in a trans girl with bisexuality and sexual shame. Again, that wasn’t the real issue — it wasn’t what was being shown but how it was done.

The problem with putting forth these “rules” isn’t just that excellent, complicated art can often be unfairly critiqued. It’s also a matter of how little it accomplishes. Artists who want to reduce the humanity of queer and trans people have continued to do so — even if they’re less likely to kill their poorly written lesbian character or they cast a trans woman to play the one-note projection of cis fascinations. Rules can be obliged while the reasons for the rules are ignored — kind of like a stalker who ruins someone’s life while technically never doing anything illegal.

Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer, based on his own life, is about one such stalker. Or, rather, it’s about Donny Dunn, a standup comedian whose history of abuse and shame around his bisexuality make him a prime target for a serial stalker’s fixations.

The first episode introduces us to Donny (Gadd) and to his stalker Martha (Jessica Gunning), who at first appears sad and unwell but ultimately harmless. The second episode introduces us to Teri (Nava Mau), a trans woman who Donny meets on a dating site. At this point in the series, the show breaks all the rules. While Donny’s narration lends an awareness that he knows his shame around dating a trans woman is wrong, it still frames Teri, a human being separate from Donny’s inner conflict, as a sort of teaching tool. Here is an amazing woman who is confident and without shame! Watch as this man agonizes over his attraction to her because he can’t get over society’s bullshit! When the episode ends with him abandoning Teri on the tube, along with an audiovisual representation of a panic attack, my eyes rolled so far back in my head they could’ve made me choke.

But Baby Reindeer is a show that reveals itself little by little. It plays with our expectations, then subverts them, then reaffirms them but with an honesty we don’t expect. Ultimately, Donny is not a stereotypical straight man agonizing over his attraction to a trans woman. He’s a bisexual survivor of ongoing sexual abuse who is struggling to open himself up to any intimacy. Fixating his shame on Teri’s transness is just his way of avoiding the deeper, more personal shame. Society tells Donny that men are supposed to feel grossed out by trans women. Society tells Donny that men aren’t supposed to experience sexual abuse. And so he decides his complicated feelings about Teri are only due to her identity.

This doesn’t make it any easier to watch Teri navigate Donny’s feelings about her. She doesn’t know about his trauma and makes the same assumption I did. It’s painful to watch Donny’s PTSD and it’s painful to watch Teri think it’s her fault. Just like it’s painful to watch Martha be violently transphobic toward Teri and also painful to watch someone so unwell receive so little help.

Throughout the show, the police range from incompetent to callous. That’s because Martha doesn’t need the police or prison — she needs medical help. Donny and the police are waiting for Martha to break a rule, to cross lines that will allow the police to arrest her. But what if more specific attention was paid to this case? What if Martha and Donny were approached as two individuals with a specific set of circumstances? What did these two individuals need?

This is not how our society functions, but it is the society we can aspire to. It’s also what we can aspire to in our media. Eventually, Donny accepts his bisexual identity, something he comes to after being raped by a man and while dating a trans woman. This violates two rules of representation. Media isn’t supposed to show rape as a cause of queerness nor bisexuality as a prerequisite for desiring a trans woman. But the show says neither of these things. Baby Reindeer isn’t about all people. It’s about Donny, it’s about Richard Gadd. Isn’t it better to have hyper-specific stories grounded in real experiences rather than pretending like people never come to their queerness after abuse or that trans people don’t often date bisexuals?

As my years of writing criticism add up, I feel more and more adamant that we cannot create from a place of fear. We will never succeed at convincing those who want to hate us not to hate us. We cannot fight any number of stigmas by reducing the complexities of life into rules and checklists.

Instead we need more shows like Baby Reindeer — challenging work that leads with empathy and a commitment to the many contradictions of our world.

Baby Reindeer is now streaming on Netflix.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 534 articles for us.


  1. Good lord that was a lot. What an expression of how “hurt people hurt people.” The whole writer aspect of it was jarring throughout as well. Just read that he wrote the confession as a show, not a spontaneous breakdown. I’m actually relieved to hear that! At least sharing the story was able to be a decision for him.

    Like this review says, there’s so much that is/could be read as problematic about the show. I hope that doesn’t keep people (who wouldn’t be triggered by the like 500 possible trigger warning situations here!!) from watching it. Wow. Thanks for the nudge to engage with this.

  2. Just finished watching. Wow, it’s a lot. I think as a story, it is very important. My biggest critique is the exploitation of the real woman who inspired the character of Martha. Yes, the character has been disguised to protect her anonymity, but at the core, this very ill woman’s story is being exploited without her consent (according to what I’ve read). I would feel less upset if the show were not marketed as being autobiographical – even if it was exactly the same. Gadd’s story of his trauma is very important to tell, but bringing Martha along for the ride is not okay.

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