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Baby Reindeer has exposed the perils of art-as-therapy

Richard Gadd’s hit Netflix series has turned personal pain into a media feeding frenzy.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Culture UK

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The most perplexing aspect of the controversy now engulfing Baby Reindeer is its sheer predictability. What on Earth did Netflix expect?

Famously, Baby Reindeer (barely) dramatises writer and star Richard Gadd’s own experience of being stalked by ‘Martha’. More shocking still, it depicts his grooming and rape at the hands of a TV higher-up called ‘Darrien’. The show even opens with the unequivocal words: ‘This is a true story.’ Given the serious, criminal nature of these allegations, what has happened since should surely have surprised no one.

Some viewers tried to hunt down the real-life perpetrators. Within days of Baby Reindeer’s release on Netflix on 11 April, they had seemingly identified the stalker. She has since appeared on Piers Morgan’s YouTube channel to deny just about everything that Baby Reindeer portrays. Viewers also mis-identified the alleged rapist, much to the understandable distress of an innocent theatre producer. Now an MP has called on Netflix to answer questions as to the veracity of the claims made in the show. People are now understandably wondering if Gadd, at the very least, embellished the story.

Some have blamed Netflix’s inadequate compliance unit for the real-life mess this show is now creating. They say that more effort should have been made to conceal the identities of those portrayed. More effort to separate art from life.

But this misses the point. The damage that this show is now doing to real people, casting them against their will in Gadd’s own story, is not due to some legal oversight or misstep in a compliance unit. No, the damage is a direct consequence of the confessional, therapeutic nature of Baby Reindeer itself.

That, after all, is the whole point of Baby Reindeer. It is an exercise in art-as-therapy, a chance for Gadd to unveil and unburden himself. As he said of the stage show on which Baby Reindeer is based: ‘The way people received the show, and received me, and accepted what happened to me: it saved my life.’

Gadd effectively treats Baby Reindeer as a couch from which he can tell all. He encourages us to immerse ourselves in his psychic suffering and emotional unravelling. We see him being raped. We hear of his feeling of complicity in the rape. We see his relationship with a transwoman, and his reluctance to consummate that relationship – which makes him doubt his ‘progressive credentials’. He’s a funny, self-deprecating narrator. He’s also weak, selfish and often unappealing. No detail, no matter how humiliating, is omitted from the show.

There is, of course, a great tradition of confessional writing, from Saint Augustine to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But where their often painfully honest self-examinations yield insight, Gadd seeks only validation. Netflix and the countless TV critics who gave it fawning reviews clearly agree that this a worthy artistic aspiration.

This probably explains why so many who worked on Baby Reindeer, and so many who praised it on release, seemed oblivious to the damage that Gadd ‘speaking his truth’ could do. They were all too willing to celebrate one individual’s quest for affirmation that they overlooked all other concerns – including, it seems, the lives of all those caught up in this story.

The consequences of this approach are now all too clear. People are having their names dragged through the mud. Meanwhile, the most awful moments of Gadd’s troubled life have become the stuff of a media feeding frenzy. It can hardly be the great, cathartic experience he envisaged.

In this therapeutic, tell-all age, there’s an increasingly fine line between ‘speaking your truth’ and offering up a painful private life for salacious media consumption. Gadd says he wants Baby Reindeer to be treated and judged as art. But it’s, sadly, far too close to life for that.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Netflix.

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Topics Culture UK

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