HerStory: Baby Reindeer Shows What Happens When The Stalker’s Shoe Is On The Other Foot

HerStory: Baby Reindeer Shows What Happens When The Stalker’s Shoe Is On The Other Foot

There have been a few films about female stalkers and in most of them they are unhinged, and need to be put away or put down — the difference is in how male and female stalkers are portrayed

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, May 02, 2024, 11:11 PM IST
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A man goes to the police station in London to file a report about a woman stalking him and is met with a dismissive response, since she has not actually done anything except flood him with emails. Disappointed, the man says what if the complainant was a woman, would she be treated the same way? And the cop replies that when the stalker is a man, there is always a physical threat. The law still does not consider a man’s mental trauma as something to be taken seriously.

Which is why the new trending and much discussed web series, Baby Reindeer (on Netflix), is so terrifying and tragic. Richard Gadd based the show on his real-life experiences, which he had turned into a one-man stage performance, and which he eventually adapted for the screen and played the lead role himself. Donny Dunn is an aspiring stand-up comedian, and works at a bar till he gets that elusive big break. One day a woman comes into the bar and starts crying. She does not have money to even pay for a cup of tea, so he gives it to her on the house. And that is the beginning of a long ordeal for him and his loved ones.

The woman called Martha Scott (played by Jessica Gunning), who happens to be much older and immensely overweight — from the male point of view, not attractive — says she is a hotshot lawyer, yet never has any money to pay for the drink Donny keeps giving her for free. He is curious about her fake persona and a bit charmed by her very loud and cheerful laugh. Soon, there is some flirtatious banter, which, after the involvement of his co-workers, takes on a mildly sexual tone. But nothing Donny says or does should have encouraged a normal woman to get obsessed with him. But Martha is obviously mentally unstable, and becomes the needy-clingy type of emotional barnacle everyone fears.

She gets his email id, and starts bombarding him with romantic and suggestive (full of misspellings) emails. Later she finds out his phone number and fills his voicemail with nasty messages. She imagines herself as his girlfriend, and starts making plans for a life together. Then Donny discovers that she used to be a lawyer who was disbarred for stalking on an earlier occasion, which was reported in the press. She had gone to the extent of attacking the man's mother and hearing-impaired daughter.

However much Donny tries he cannot dislodge Martha. He is also strangely fascinated by her and also slightly flattered by her attention, unwanted though it is. There is also some pity mingled in his complicated feelings for her. When she spends days and nights sitting on a bench opposite his house, at first he is creeped out, then feels sorry for her and gently talks her into letting him take her home — which is a messy dump. His kindness just drives her obsession up a notch. When Donny starts dating Teri, Martha starts harassing his parents, his ex-girlfriend, and attacks his date. Now she has moved from being a nutty pest to a full-blown psycho.

He does not report her for a long time, because of own troubled past; in the quest for opportunities in show business, he had allowed himself to be drugged and abused by a celebrity, and he feels that if he did not report that man, he has no moral right to report Martha. The show does not delve into the reasons for Martha’s mental issues, except a hint of an unhappy childhood. But one can imagine her being bullied and rejected for her obesity, and so when she finds a man who shows her some measure of respect, she latches on to him, and drives him to despair and paranoia.

Donny is an ordinary man, not particularly handsome, but to a stalker anything can trigger obsessive behaviour. In yet another true crime documentary, Lover Stalker Killer, the object of a woman’s vindictiveness is a garage mechanic who, in the process of finding a no-commitment relationship, rejected her for another woman. But in his case, he reports her quickly and the cops take action too, though even here the woman is way smarter than the posse of investigators hunting her.

The prize for the most famous female stalker in cinema would undoubtedly go to Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close in Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film Fatal Attraction, in which a somewhat arrogant corporate lawyer, Dan (played by Michael Douglas), has a one-night stand with Alex, while his wife and kid are away. He thinks that since she knows he is married, she will understand that this is a no-strings attached weekend affair. But Alex does not quietly go away — she starts a relentless campaign of emotional blackmail and harassment, and later targets his family. There was some debate, when the film came out, about a career woman being portrayed as menacingly aggressive while the wife was passive and understanding. There were also jokes about how the film had put the fear of god into cheating husbands. But before all the talk of mental health came out in the media, Alex was clearly a villain, and the man a hero who does everything to protect his family. By the time the film ends, the audience’s sympathy is meant to be for Dan, whose adultery is conveniently forgiven.

There have been a few films about female stalkers and in most of them they are unhinged, and need to be put away or put down — the difference is in how male and female stalkers are portrayed. In real life, women have been tormented by unwanted suitors — stalked, raped stabbed, disfigured by acid. Still, in Indian cinema for years, following a woman around and harassing her was seen as a mode of initiating romance and the woman usually acquiesced. In Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993), the stalker with his ‘KKKK-Kiran’ stutter is seen as a mentally disturbed man-child Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), obsessed with a woman who is unaware of his existence. When she gets married, Rahul’s mania takes a dangerous turn. Still, he was portrayed as a somewhat tragic, motherless, unloved figure, who only wanted Kiran to love him back. It took many more years for this romanticisation of stalking in Indian cinema to be acknowledged and criticised.

What if Martha Scott had been a young, pretty, slim woman? Would Donny still have been repelled by her? Since the show came out, net sleuths have dug into who the characters might be, and “outed” them. What is this, if not a form of stalking too?

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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