Review: I May Destroy You
Print Screen Editor Francesca Sylph reviews Michaela Coel’s harrowing and hilarious sexual consent drama I May Destroy You. TW: SEXUAL ASSAULT AND RAPE.
In 2018, Michela Coel became the first black woman to give the James MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival in which she revealed that she had been sexually assaulted and discussed the complexities of navigating industry spaces as a working class black woman. While drafting the second season of Chewing Gum in 2016, Coel was drugged and sexually assaulted by two strangers. In an attempt to process her trauma, Coel began writing I May Destroy You: a limited series based on her own assault which she described as a “cathartic” experience.
I May Destroy You follows Arabella Essiedu: a pink-haired, Twitter-celebrity-turned-novelist who is struggling to finish the first draft of her follow-up book. While pulling an all-nighter, the author of ‘Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial’ is persuaded to take a break. The next morning, Arabella is haunted by flashbacks of a terrifying stranger as the camera loses focus and music becomes muffled. Her detached and bemused “huh” perfectly encapsulates the tone of the show: harrowing at times, and hilarious at others, since trauma manifests itself in a multitude of ways. With the help of her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), Arabella gradually pieces together what happened that night while also discovering repressed painful memories.
Her detached and bemused “huh” perfectly encapsulates the tone of the show: harrowing at times, and hilarious at others, since trauma manifests itself in a multitude of ways.
Coel paints an authentic portrait of what it means to be a black woman in today’s Britain. We see black characters frequently code-switching in an attempt to navigate predominately white spaces. Terry is told to take her wig off at an audition and asked invasive and ignorant questions about her hair: a situation likely painfully familiar to many black women. There is a moment when Terry is putting Arabella to bed and asks where her headscarf is. It’s not necessarily an important or memorable moment but the fact that it’s never explained makes it even more refreshing and authentic. Arabella is also shown changing her pad and having period sex which, I don’t know about you, is not something I see regularly onscreen. All of this adds up to create a truly honest portrayal clearly grounded in lived experience.
I May Destroy You navigates the ‘grey areas’ surrounding rape in the millennial world. When her ‘nice’ boyfriend Zain removes the condom during sex (known as ‘stealthing’), Arabella only realises that this is a form of rape while listening to a podcast (shoutout to The Receipts Podcast). When she publicly ‘cancels’ him, the ethics around ‘doxing’ (publishing private information about someone on the internet without their permission, often in an attempt to harass people) are questioned. But then again, who are we to tell people how to respond to their own trauma? Arabella’s friends are also dealing with their own ‘grey’ experiences: Terry feels liberated by a threesome but later discovers it was a set-up. Kwame was sexually assaulted by a Grindr date after consensual sex. He later has sex with a woman (because he feels safer) without telling her that he is gay. Theo “cried rape” as a teenager after pictures were taken and leaked without her permission. I May Destroy You is populated by complex characters who blur the line between victim and villain.
We have absolutely no right to judge or dictate how survivors navigate their trauma, even when, and especially when, it makes us uncomfortable.
In an interview with Radio 1’s Newsbeat, Coel notes how “we respond to trauma and triggering situations in many different ways.” Arabella is not a ‘good’ rape survivor: she is loud, angry and often acts before thinking. She is a flawed character who responds to situations in unexpected and contradictory ways. While she may be hard to understand for a lot of audiences, we have absolutely no right to judge or dictate how survivors navigate their trauma, even when, and especially when, it makes us uncomfortable. The anticipated and explosive final episode (‘Ego Death’) ends with Arabella in her very own Groundhog Day, living out three alternative fantasies of how her story could end: justice, revenge and forgiveness. Each of these endings would have been equally valid. However, Coel chooses to leave the ending ambiguous, reflecting how there is no clear ending to trauma. TV shows can tie up loose ends, resulting in a satisfying finale, but trauma can never be that neatly and easily resolved. None of the endings would bring Arabella closure that simply and quickly. The final and ‘real’ ending finds Arabella reading her finished novel to an audience. As she tells her own story, I was reminded of Coel’s lecture back in 2018. While this may be the least satisfactory of all the endings, I found it the most comforting. This Arabella does not find her attacker. There is no clear resolution. Yet, she is still able to be happy and successful. Carrying her trauma with her, but not letting it define her, Arabella reclaims her truth.