I MAY DESTROY YOU – The show we all needed to see
TW: Rape, sexual assault
This week we say goodbye to Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. The general reaction to the show has been nothing but positive, however the cacophony of issues addressed in the show are hard to pin down and “tie-up” with one simple finale. It is this quality that makes the show so poignant as major issues of gender, race, sexuality, identity and consent are all intricately woven together in every episode.
Coel used her own experience of trauma in the writing, producing, acting and co-directing of the show. Coel’s own catharsis culminates through her character of Arabella’s cathartic journey across the length of the show. The processing of trauma in the show is unanimous and is something which every watcher can resonate with, having been a victim of sexual trauma or not. Whilst Arabella’s rape is the starting point and main focus of the show, Coel also touches on so many different points whilst simultaneously prising each issue wide open to expose the levels of experience. This makes for uncomfortable, but necessary viewing, and Coel has sparked a conversation like no other tv show ever has. I never thought I would be discussing period sex and threesomes with my Mum, but this show has enabled an important and well needed dialogue. In figuring out the intricacies of the plot and the nuances of each character’s development, I May Destroy You forces you to draw upon your own experiences and conceptualises trauma in a way that I have never seen on television before. Whilst Coel addresses a multitude of modern-day issues like dating apps and their influence on sex and dating, she also deflects long-standing, archaic tropes of women, more specifically black women. The strong black woman and sassy black woman narratives are overturned by the portrayal of Arabella as a vulnerable victim, and her character reclaims her strength in the processing of her trauma, becoming stronger through her own intricately carved narrative, not the one carved for her by societal stereotypes. In her interview with GQ, Coel herself says that the show was ‘never, ever coming from a place of anger. It was coming from a place of curiosity and exploration.’ This curiosity is the crux of the show’s success as taboo issues are now laid bare in a journey of exploration.
One of the best things about the show is its representation. We see the shows protagonist and her best friend Terry, cis straight black women and their best friend Kwame, a cis gay black man. This representation is refreshing to see on television, and is an accurate representation of survivors in that anyone and everyone; male, female, black, white, gay, straight, transgender, cisgender; can experience sexual trauma, and in fact most people have in one way or another. This is true of the show in that every sexual assault that happens is actually based on something that has really happened to someone. This is even more important to be recognised as black sexual assault victims are historically taken less seriously, as well as the wider problem of rape not being taken seriously full stop. Fortunately, in the show Arabella is afforded some help and therapy, yet her case is closed without a conviction as with many thousands of cases reported in the UK. Sexuality and sexual assault is interwoven into the experiences of many people, sometimes without realising it, and the show allows for conversations to be had and realisations to be made which could hopefully lead to a whole range of sexual trauma to be taken more seriously.
Promiscuity has long been the dominating theme for rape-apologist and victim-blaming narratives. The ‘fast-girl’ stereotype for black women and girls is perpetuated in the show’s storylines as Arabella is blamed by Biagio for her own rape. We also see a presentation of male and female promiscuity through Arabella’s father’s infidelity; again examining the intersection of gender with sexuality and promiscuousness. There is a generational shift in the interpretation of sexuality which is exhibited through Arabella’s home scenes and her reluctance to tell her mum the truth about her rape, and her reluctance to accept or acknowledge her father’s absence and infidelity. This generational representation is crucial in promoting the dialogue I discussed earlier; before watching this show I never would have spoken to my mum about period sex, and yet the relatability of the show has allowed that discourse.
Another avenue of exploration for Coel is the intersectionality of gender and sexuality. Boundaries are crossed when Kwame sleeps with a woman who thinks he’s straight in an attempt to heal from his sexual trauma, as he abuses her consent after the abuse of his own. Terry also has her consent abused by the pre-planned threesome, blurring the boundaries and exposing the different levels of consent. Coel exemplifies consent as a continuous structure in which boundaries are constantly shifting and this narrative is so important to understanding the experience of Arabella and understanding our own sexual experiences and boundaries. The unanimity of Arabella’s experience has provided the foundation for the show’s major success, but its success simultaneously lies in the uncomfortable and at times unenjoyable watching. The boundless interpretations and analyses of the show can be helpful at addressing the issues presented, but this post-mortem perhaps detracts from the show itself. There is pressure to produce something with a strong message and narrative, yet above all Coel is an ordinary person, going through her own trauma, and so as well as everything else, I May Destroy You can simply be interpreted as just what it is, not everything needs to be afforded a meaning in order for it to have value.
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