Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ is a Staggering and Grounded Work on Rape Culture

A still from 'I May Destroy You'. Arabella (Michaela Coel) stands in a busy London street. She is a Black woman in her late 20s, wearing a pink ombre wig and a white T-Shirt. She is looking defiantly towards the camera.
BBC

I May Destroy You by Michaela Coel has been advertised as the show that ‘everyone is talking about’, and with good reason. Coel, who found fame through her play Chewing Gum Dreams and then TV series Chewing Gum, is known for writing devastatingly honest pieces that draw on her experiences about what it means to be growing up black and poor in London. I May Destroy You was inspired by her real-life sexual assault, which took place when she was working on series two of Chewing Gum. For its release, she fought to get as much creative control as possible, turning down a one million pound deal from Netflix as they wouldn’t allow her its rights. It took her 191 drafts of the show until she was satisfied, a remarkable commitment to artistry.  

The mini-series follows Arabella (Coel), a struggling writer, and shows how she deals with the after-effects of assault. Unlike many other famous depictions of rape on television, such as The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)—which follows a rape victim watching her family from heaven— it deals with the real-life consequences: PTSD and rapists being allowed to walk free. Instead of making the protagonist an angelic character, Arabella is flawed, and thereby more human. The bar in which the assault takes place is called Ego Death, and that’s much of what she experiences as the series progresses. To understand her own experiences, she uses social media to elevate other victims of assault, but ultimately becomes negatively consumed by it, lashing out on those around her. This is much the same as what happened to Coel herself, who told Vulture she deleted social media after feeling as if it was polarising her views “I make a line and I say dangerous/safe […] angel/devil, me/not me,”. This is symbolised quite literally in the Halloween episode Social Media is a Great Way to Connect, which has Arabella dressed as the devil and her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) as an angel.

BBC

Alongside capturing how PTSD can change a person, what I May Destroy You also does well is show how sexual acts that fall into the ‘grey’ area of consent can be just as traumatising. Arabella’s friends, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and Terry also experience acts of sexual coercion and violence, but initially don’t take them seriously as they are more ‘everyday’. Coel here makes the point that there is no grey area of sexual assault and that it should not be normalised as an ‘everyday’ trauma. When Arabella talks to the police who are helping her with her case, she is shocked to learn that acts such as taking the condom off during sex are legally treated as rape “when people don’t know what is and what isn’t a crime, they don’t report it,” the police tell her. I May Destroy You makes a firm point that under the rape culture we live in, we are all victims, and we should be supporting each other. At a help group, Arabella asks how we can move forward with our lives when rapists are so often allowed to walk free— “could I just be dragged into a bush at any moment?” she queries.

The mini-series goes through the process of being a survivor in its entirety, and its concluding shot is one of Arabella and her friends, united. This, I feel, is the solution Coel is offering us. We must support our friends, and it is through community we can find our solace. Arabella is forced to find her own closure, imagining different scenarios, and deciding that she doesn’t want revenge or a conversation with her rapist; real freedom from her trauma will come on her terms. As writers, it is important to find the correct ways to frame our stories, as they can say whatever we want them to. And I May Destroy You—as a survivor myself— is one of the best depictions I’ve seen of recovery. Her thoughtfulness with her craft; her fight for creative control and her endless drafts has paid off, immeasurably so. Coel’s message is clear; we must unite and protect those around us; listen to and believe survivors. It is only then that we can move forward.

I May Destroy You is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO in the US

by Dandy Glover

Dandy is a soon-to-be film studies graduate from Merseyside, UK. She is especially interested in maverick and experimental directors such as David Lynch, John Waters and Lars von Trier. In the future she hopes to continue her film criticism and continue to educate herself about the medium. You can more from her in the form of essays and reviews on her blog, DandyReviews and more informal pieces on her Letterboxd @dandyig. You can follow her on Twitter @__ungezieferr__

1 reply »

  1. This show has surely put the spotlight on this toxic culture of assaults and its many permutations like never before without reducing the agency of survivors. That’s the blueprint we need in these fraught times.

    Like

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