Healing Hurts

Baby Reindeer takes a sharp, painful look at gay shame

*Spoilers for Baby Reindeer below*

I didn’t plan on watching the viral Netflix hit Baby Reindeer, but at a certain point, it became unavoidable. The show instantly hit a nerve, and it wasn’t completely clear what people were responding to in what appeared to be a fairly straightforward stalker narrative of the kind we’ve been seeing since Fatal Attraction: woman falls for man, man denies emotional involvement in woman’s life, woman goes “crazy.”

From the very start, it was clear that Baby Reindeer was telling a different kind of story about romantic obsession and sexual shame. It wasn’t being discussed as a queer story, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s just not the kind of queer story we’re used to being told.

Donny Dunn (played by Baby Reindeer creator Richard Gadd) is a failing Scottish comedian working in a London bar when he first meets Martha, a lonely woman who instantly gloms onto him, and not without some encouragement from Dunn himself. While Dunn tries to distance himself from any notions Martha might have about a romantic future between them, it’s clear that he needs something from her, and we’re not sure what until about halfway through the 7-episode series. That’s when the reveal hits, and we realize we’re not watching your run-of-the-mill stalker drama. By this point, Dunn has started dating Teri, a sophisticated, self-assured trans woman who can’t understand why Dunn can’t kiss her in public, can’t show up for her, can’t cast off his shame about being trans-attracted. She asks him why he keeps Martha around, and he doesn’t have an answer for her. But one night, things come to a head when Martha sees Dunn out with Teri. Martha attacks Teri, and Dunn finally comes to his girlfriend’s defense. Then, all at once, the narrative goes backwards: we learn everything that happened to Dunn to bring him to this uniquely tortured place, and we start to understand everything that’s been simmering just beneath the surface as the backstory unfolds.

A few months before Martha entered his life, and before moving to London to study acting, Dunn fell in with a certain crowd back in Edinburgh. After meeting successful comedy writer Darrien in a bar, Dunn thinks he’s found his mentor. Darrien does make big promises to Dunn and offers to help him out with his set, but we soon learn that there’s a dark intention behind his mentorship. Invitations to come over to Darrien’s place to smoke and work on comedy routines soon turn into long weekends where the two pass out on LSD, heroin, and GHB, leading up to the moment when Dunn, in an especially vulnerable moment, gets raped by Darrien.

The empty promises increase, and Dunn keeps coming back, hoping against hope that something other than torment will come out of the relationship. But all that happens is that Dunn continues to face sexual abuse from the man who promised to mentor him, and his shame intensifies.

It’s this shame that forms Baby Reindeer‘s true subject: for the rest of the series, we’re left grappling with questions that are often considered too dark for mainstream media to touch on when it comes to queer representation. After Dunn finally breaks away from Darrien and starts living his life in London, he’s confused by the changes he’s going through. He starts seeking out rough sex with strangers, trying to replicate the painful dynamic that he had with Darrien.

“I started to feel this overwhelming sexual confusion crashing through my body,” Dunn tells us. “I could never tell whether these feelings were because of [Darrien] or whether they always existed deep down.”

To combat his feelings of shame and confusion, Dunn starts having “reckless sex with people of all genders,” desperate to figure out the truth of his sexuality. Is he bisexual? Is he straight and trans-attracted? Or does the sex he’s having actually have nothing to do with sexuality, existing instead as a product of his trauma and a desperate attempt at answering the questions it creates for him?

Dunn doesn’t know, and neither do we—we’ve seen him react with shame to the attraction he feels to Teri, and at first it felt like run-of-the-mill denial about discovering his own queerness. But Dunn’s trauma goes so much deeper. Even if many queer folks don’t have the best entry into queerness, we eventually find ways to move past our bad or awkward experiences and embrace who we are. But Dunn’s entrance into queerness was a total invasion. In trying to find out who he is and what he wants, he’s drawn to violent and dangerous scenarios and can only express his queer desire by hurting himself.

That’s something we don’t talk about as much as we should in this community. Yes, being out and proud is wonderful, but so many of us still deal with shame, stigma, and the pain of finding out that the way we identify and experience love comes with a heavy cost, at least in the early years of being out. Dunn’s story is an important one to tell, and it cuts viewers to the heart. What would we do, and how much would we tolerate, if our first queer experience had been as painful and confusing as Dunn’s?

Sadly it’s Teri who has to deal with the brunt of Dunn’s shame about being queer and trans-attracted. When he tells her to “protect herself” from Martha by erasing any evidence of her transness of her social media profiles, she rightfully balks. Why should she be forced to hide who she is just to avoid being attacked by his stalker? Eventually, the strain becomes too much for the couple, and they break up. In Dunn’s onstage confessional monologue, he admits that shame was the thing that held him back from giving Teri the love she deserved. “I hated myself so much more than I loved her,” he says, and suddenly we’re left remembering all the times we weren’t able to give our loved ones what they needed because of the grip our own self-hatred had over us.

It’s such a painful and real moment—as is Dunn’s confession to his parents when he finally decides to come out. He doesn’t know what he’s coming out as, which is part of what makes it so raw. He says he’s “bisexual, maybe,” and that he doesn’t exactly know what he identifies as, but that he needs to come out anyway, because otherwise shame will continue to eat him alive.

So much recent queer TV has been designed seemingly with the purpose of hope in mind. From Heartstopper to Somebody Somewhere to We’re Here, many queer shows are focused on accentuating the positive, and for good reason. We need to feel hopeful about the future. But we also need to be honest about our pasts—many of which are painful, many of which have scarred us in ways we still can’t fully heal from. That’s where the bravery of Baby Reindeer becomes intensely important. If we can look back at ourselves at our most closeted and ashamed and have empathy for that past version of ourselves, we can start to approach the future with genuine hope. ♦

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