BBC’s I May Destroy You, created, written, co-directed and starring Michaela Coel doesn’t shy away from heavy issues surrounding sexual assault, personal boundaries and consent
Starring Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, and Paapa Essiedu
I May Destroy You stars Coel as Arabella, a young, up-and-coming writer who, in the midst of a deadline goes for an impromptu break with friends, which turns into a night out. The next morning, foggy brained and back in her agent’s office, Arabella sifts through her hazy memories. A cut on her forehead, a smashed phone and her difficulty getting home betray the fact that Arabella is missing a good portion of the previous night and, before long, she comes to the realisation that she was sexually assaulted.
As the series unfolds, it becomes clear how Coel can balance the heavy material with dry, intelligent comedy. The entire series is very clever and wry in the way that it explores the fluid line that sexual transgressions have become in a modern society where there a growing number of different sexual encounters that young people find themselves in.
While some instances of rape are obvious within the show, there are other, more subtle forms: the removal of a condom during sex, withholding of crucial personal information for fear of not receiving sex, having a threesome that you initially viewed as empowering before discovering that you were the one being used, and not the other way round. The way that you can be sexually assaulted even by somebody who you previously explicitly consented to. The treading of the border between acceptable and unacceptable, to the extent that conveying it in words does not do the violation justice. The ways in which personal boundaries are waltzed through within a modern society that expects a person to simply shrug it off.
Based upon her own real-life experience during an evening of writing Chewing Gum‘s second series, Coel doesn’t focus upon elusive justice within I May Destroy You. Closure doesn’t come from putting her attacker behind bars – actual convictions for rape are still a depressing statistic – but rather from within, and Coel takes us on that journey throughout the 12-part series as Arabella comes to terms with her own reaction to her experience, alongside friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) who also have their own traumas to bear. It is less about the actual crime itself, but more about the victims, and how they continue in the wake of the event, carrying the trauma forward with them.
With this idea, Coel presents us with varied images of what a “victim” looks like, and how a “victim” behaves. Far from the image of a woman cowering underneath a duvet and receding from others’ touch, Arabella doesn’t lose her sexuality in the wake of the event. She throws herself from coping mechanism to coping mechanism, seeking approval from others, attending support groups, turning to social media and presenting audiences with images that challenge the conceptions of what a victim of sexual assault looks like in a clever way.
It, depressingly, normalises the people that are victims of sexual assault to make it clear that it’s not something that exists on the fringes of society, but rather pervades it, and often demands participants to be quiet about those violations in order to cause as little disruption as possible. It voices the trauma and anguish of those affected by their removal of consent and, while moments can be highly difficult to engage with, Coel does well to use humour to keep the darkness at bay.
Watching the entire series is truly an incredible experience, and absolutely carried on Coel’s multi-talented, many-hat-wearing shoulders. Intelligent and perfect from moment to moment, there simply hasn’t been another TV show like it.
I May Destroy You is streaming in its entirety on BBC iPlayer.