Exploiting other people’s madness –On sanism and Baby Reindeer (This entry contains spoilers)

by Macarena Marey on May 10, 2024

This text is not about Baby Reindeer, Netflix’s latest hit. It’s about one of the most perverse dimensions of sanism and anti-madness: the exploitation of madness as an edifying aesthetic resource. It is also about the obsolescence of narratives centered on the uncritical perspective of the traditional agent of the banality of evil, the mediocre white guy who destroys everything, including himself (even if temporarily), in the pursuit of a vague and elusive future for which he has neither the preparation nor the talent.

Donny is almost thirty and works in a London bar while waiting for his career as a comedian to magically take off. As a comedian, he’s bad, outdated, his humor is naive, he lacks charisma. He evokes neither laughter nor cringe, he generates indifference. Donny lives rent-free in his ex’s mother’s (a black woman who lost a child) big house. One day Martha, a forty-two-year-old woman, fat (there’s quite a bit of fatphobia in the series) and visibly crazy, walks into the bar. He feels sorry for her and offers her a cup of tea on the house, as she mentions she can’t afford it. Her demeanour changes completely with this minimal gesture of attention and that’s where the story begins. Martha has previous stories of harassment and stalking, and Donny becomes her “victim.” The series has seven episodes. In the fourth, we learn that Donny has been raped by an older and famous comedy writer who groomed him by pretending to help him with his career. Donny also falls in love with a beautiful, smart, elegant, and successful trans woman and he feels ashamed to be seen in public with her.

The relationship between Donny and Martha is not one of harasser-harassed. Donny encourages Martha’s attachment and knows perfectly well what he’s doing. He has nothing clear in his life, except that he’s promoting the relationship with Martha. At first, he feels sorry for her, but that pity almost instantly turns into a mixture of need and fascination by his part. Unlike Martha, Donny is not crazy, nor does he become crazy at any point in the series. He’s just a loser who has almost no awareness of his lack of talent or of his own sexuality, which causes him to suffer from different malaises and “symptoms”. Such is the fragility of his subjectivity that his own sexual desires make him feel guilty. Such is the inability of the scriptwriter to detect the unjustified repression of the character’s (his own!) pansexuality that not only does he conflates it with homosexuality, but he also attributes its “cause” to being a victim of rape by a cis man. Everyone can be confused about sexuality, but to the point of uncritically reproducing in a popular series the homophobic, psychologising, and pathologizing narrative that homosexuality and pansexuality are products of sexual trauma? (Seriously, didn’t anyone tell the author, ‘hey, I don’t think that’s right’?).

It is suggested in passing in the series that the Donny’s ex and current girlfriends (both of them beautiful, focused, and talented) have degrees in Psychology. However, neither recommends nor initiates concrete care actions towards Martha, although they do apply their knowledge and care towards Donny. There is no solidarity among women in the series. In this tale of a prince in distress, women are only there to rescue him. Even Martha, the “harasser”, plays a salvific role: it is she who catalyses his public recognition of the rape and how it affected his life. I insist on this point: two black women provide him with free accommodation in their own home. A trans woman gives him love and awareness of various aspects of himself, despite him lying to her, standing her up, and hiding her. Another woman, the crazy one, gives him the attention he desires most: her laughter. But he gives them nothing more than “a cup of tea.” He doesn’t give anything to the other women around him. Donny came into this world to receive.


I finished watching the series because I wanted it to refute my initial feeling. But I waited in vain to learn more about Martha, to understand why she’s so lonely and helpless. I waited in vain for a defocusing of the narrative, but the whole story is centripetal. The women in this story blur into a centripetal involution until they become smudges, blurry contour lines whose presence only matters to tell us a confusing story about the confusion of an ordinary man.

I don’t think we need to “cancel” stories about average middle-class white guys: the serious issue is that Western culture is already saturated with these characters. Is there anything minimally interesting left to say about them? Who cares about these lives other than themselves? Why do we tolerate their worldview and let them show us their melodramas without even a tiny critical anagnorisis?

Donny is like most cisgender white males who didn’t experience deprivation or violence rooted in structural injustices and oppressions growing up. He’s a guy whose life has no narrative interest until he’s raped. But the screenwriter (Donny, the character, the actor, and the author) doesn’t know what to do with that because he can’t see it in any other way other than as an only personal and intimate drama. The big twist in the series is Donny’s coming out of the closet, which happens alongside the public denouncement of the rape in the finals of a comedy contest that accompanies the progression of the episodes. Donny finally breaks, stops trying to make an impassive audience laugh, grabs the microphone, and tells his story. Someone in the audience films the scene and the video goes viral. When the spectacle of his vulnerability goes viral, Donny progresses in life, regains some control over it, achieves some success. But the rape doesn’t seem to matter much anymore: the rapist is not reported, nobody even asks his name. Donny will remain mediocre, and by making his story public, he capitalizes on it. It’s about winning in life like in the dialectics of emotional “harassment” that unfolds between Donny and Martha.

We have no hints in the series to think that Donny’s childhood and adolescence were tough. His mother and father instantly accept him when he comes out of the closet and tells them he was raped. His father hugs him for the first time. The homophobic one, in the end, was he, Donny. But we can know this from the outside. The screenwriter (the actor, the character, the author) doesn’t know it. He doesn’t perceive it, and we perceive how he doesn’t perceive it. We are constantly witnessing a story of wilful ignorance. Donny calls his denouncement and coming out of the closet a “confession.”

Finally, Donny manages to get Martha imprisoned, although he knows perfectly well that he is complicit in the acceleration of her “symptoms.” Martha is not his victimizer. The plot’s mirror game is that even though Donny isn’t guilty of being raped by Darren (as nobody is guilty of being raped), he still feels he is guilty, and when he finally articulates it out-loud, nobody does anything about it. At one point in the series, Donny’s voice-over thinks about the irony of denouncing her and not his rapist.


Solidarity is reciprocal. Compassion is unilateral. Giving someone a cup of tea when they’re crying can either open up a world of support or a world of solipsism, depending on the hand that prepares and extends it. Circularity is clumsily implied in the series by the analogy between the first and the last scenes. But they are different scenes because those offering a drink on the house do so in different ways. Those receiving it do it differently, too.

People don’t act right or wrong because they have or haven’t lived through certain traumatic experiences. Human beings act well or poorly because we live in complex systems of interwoven dominations, oppressions, and exploitations that make us victims and, at the same time, victimizers, and in both cases, free agents. A mad person isn’t a good or a bad person for being mad. A sane person isn’t either. Identity doesn’t replace human agency and praxis. Agency isn’t spontaneous; it occurs in determined material conditions (which include symbolic conditions), but this doesn’t make it any less agency. There’s no human agency outside specific conditions; they’re the coordinates within which we act and which guide our actions. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon proposed that to explain mental health issues, we had to resort to sociogenesis instead of Freudian ontogenesis. To dismantle some (many) malaises, we need to dismantle the systems of oppression that generate them. There’s no such thing as an individual “cure” for madness, inferiority complexes, or guilt. Looking at our psyche and our biography alone isn’t enough to stop feeling down. We have to look at other people. This is valid for the oppressed and for the oppressors because the oppressor also has their own complexes and sufferings.

Kant was wrong about many things, but he was very right about one thing. Radical evil, Kant believed, is moral solipsism, not being able to conceive other people as subjectivities, agents, moral persons, and ends in themselves. Benjamin has a wonderful text he wrote in his youth, “Erfahrung” (“Experience”). It’s a very brief text and ends by suggesting a fundamental difference between having experiences only of oneself (which he considers the attitude of the Nietzschean philistine) and experiencing other people as well. The first attitude lacks spirit (Geist), the second is the properly spiritual experience because it’s an experience of and with other subjectivities. The former is the experience of those who don’t come out of themselves; the latter is the experience of those whose subjectivities are constituted along with others. Of course, the second way of living generates more suffering. But as Adorno said, there’s no correct life in falsehood.

The series exploits the neuronormative and sane supremacist equating of madness with evil. This equating has, as its counterpart, or even as its purpose, the justification of sane evil as a simple excusable by-product of trauma. Sanism and anti-madness are ways of excusing neuro-normal people’s evil banality.

Those of us who know madness have heard that infamous phrase “it’s all in your head” many times. And indeed, what tortures us is the head, the fact that our heads in particular exist not in a vacuum but in this unbearable world. But there’s another sense of “it’s all in your head” that we can certainly use as a reproach. Injustices proliferate largely because we’re moral solipsists who get so into our own heads that we forget that other subjectivities exist. We think of madness as alienation not because we give particularly high value to rational autonomy. We do so because we are unwilling to recognize that rationality (sanity), the very definition of being human, is at the same time the true author of the most terrifying deeds and events (genocides, slavery, atomic bombs, rape, gender violence, racial violence, violence against childhoods and old ages, against non-human animals, exploitation).

We don’t really know what to do with other people’s madness. We find it hard to relate to people like Martha as equals. We find it hard to accompany and support someone who can’t change the subject of conversation for months, someone who fabulates about their life, who has suicidal ideation, who is euphoric, manic, depressed, paranoid, delusional, deregulated, uninhibited, institutionalized, or medicated. We find it hard for many reasons, and I think the main one is that nobody taught us to deal with madness (our own or others’). Not only do we not know how to deal with it, we also can’t do it without disempowering people who are euphoric, manic, depressed, paranoid, delusional, deregulated, uninhibited, institutionalized, or medicated, even when we too have been or are euphoric, manic, depressed, paranoid, delusional, deregulated, uninhibited, institutionalized, or medicated. Trust me on this. Compassion, repulsion, and fear of madness are ways of denying other people their own condition as subjects. These emotions are the solipsistic and sane feelings of someone who can only perceive themselves.


(This is the English version of my article in Spanish “El consumo edificante de la locura ajena“).



Georgias 05.10.24 at 7:04 pm

Hey! That’s actually a cool article !

Totally agree about solidarity as a condition of subjectivity


Another lurker 05.13.24 at 10:43 am

I don’t think this is a fair reading of the show or of its intentions.

When I watched it I also thought a lot of the things you put in writing, but rather than thinking that the show was flawed in some sense I thought that it was subtle enough to make you doubt that the protagonist and narrator was some sort of blameless hero. There is a lot of self doubt, a lot of shame, t


Another lurker 05.13.24 at 10:48 am

I don’t think this is a fair reading of the show or of its intentions.

When I watched it I also thought a lot of the things you put in writing, but rather than thinking that the show was flawed in some sense I thought that it was subtle enough to make you doubt that the protagonist and narrator was some sort of blameless hero. There is a lot of self doubt, a lot of shame, of guilt on the part of the author.

In short I think that most of the things you thought and wrote are things that the author put in the series, reflections he has made himself that he subtly communicated with the viewers. I really didn’t read the whole show as portraying a hero.


Sophie Jane 05.14.24 at 1:44 pm

I think all the wider points in this excellent essay are well made, whether the show has more nuance or not. And on a personal level I’m nearly as tired of white cis guys self-flagellating as I am of hearing them blame their problems on others. We just generally need to hear less from them


William Berry 05.15.24 at 1:01 am

Thnx for reminding me that I should read “The Poetics” again. It’s been fifty years, give or take.

I’m not familiar with the series you discuss, but it strikes me that you’ve nailed it in a way that can be extended, as you observe (in other words), into a wider “literary/ artistic “ universe.

I’m thinking here of some of our own (U.S.) white man (dead and alive, old and young[ish]) novelists— think some Jonathans, say, or Davids, perhaps.

Lots of navel-gazing and lint picking.

Nothing much otherwise, unless one sees self-created ennui and malaise (products of narcissism, primarily) as meaningful dimensions of the human experience, rather than as a point of departure for engagement and activism, as should be.

Ah, but, one might say. Such, such is life, such is literature. So it often is, unfortunately.


Ray Vinmad 05.15.24 at 9:30 am

“I really didn’t read the whole show as portraying a hero.”

Yes. This is extremely obvious. There is no attempt whatsoever to make the character Donny sympathetic. Except for his rape, everything that happens to him is his own fault, driven by some very unhealthy needs. it’s made explicit that he is going nowhere and can go nowhere given what he is like, and that being stalked for him is a substitute for having an audience, to give him the sense he is valuable and important. He is paralyzed, unable to act to improve his life or to be authentic in any manner. It’s important to the story that he is dull and uninteresting in order to explore the odd idea that somebody might be so desperate to be special that they would be complicit in creating a situation where someone like Martha would become interested. Her attention is the only thing that makes him feel seen and important.

Whenever anything good happens to him, he ruins it. Indeed, his own homophobia destroys his one chance at happiness, one it is made painfully clearly doesn’t deserve as he is fundamentally dishonest with his partner and himself.

On the other hand, Martha is a more sympathetic character than simply someone who is ‘mad.’. She, at least, is authentic and honest in many of the ways that Donny is inauthentic and dishonest. She is insightful. Overall, she is depicted as more original and creative than he is –so that he has to borrow from her in order to improve his comedy act. She is even portrayed as clever and talented as she enables him to have a halfway decent comedy set after continually flopping. She is ultimately responsible for whatever success he does end up having. (The actor who plays Martha, Jessica Gunning, is truly stunning in the role.)

It’s somewhat ambiguous by the end who is stalking whom. He listens obsessively to her voicemails. He makes a kind of chart of her actions. He is consumed with her–with catching her, and punishing her. He engages in a sexual relationship with her so there is no way she is guilty of her interest in him. He thus sets her up for prison, and then is left bereft, and facing his own loneliness and the desperate need for kindness and attention that he initially interpreted as pity for her.

The woman Martha was supposed to be based on claims most of the story is false, and apparently there is little evidence that she was arrested, etc. Her privacy has been violated–so she is calling this show a kind of stalking, as it harmed her.

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