Warning: Spoilers ahead. Trigger warnings for mentions of sexual assault.
Premiering in the UK in June 2020, the BBC limited series, I May Destroy You, presents a unique, bold, and unapologetic take on the trauma of sexual assault, the solidarity in friendships and mutual empowerment. Unlike many shows that dramatise or tokenise issues relating to gender, sexuality, race and class, I May Destroy You‘s takes a brilliantly nuanced approach on the story of a young writer in London and the true experience of existing at the intersections of identity.
The twelve-episode series follows Arabella, played by show creator Michaela Coel, a young writer struggling to finish the draft of her second book of Twitter-esque ‘millennial’ content. Frustrated by the deadline and craving a break, Arabella spontaneously goes to Ego Death Bar with her friends where her drink is spiked and she is abused and raped while unconscious.
After writing all night to meet her deadline, she breaks out of her trauma-induced fugue state and is confronted with flashes of the assault. Clinging to the images in her mind, she attempts to piece together the events of the night before. Despite being unable to accept what happened, Arabella reports the assault to the police where she is, unfortunately, one of the many drug-induced sexual assault cases.
Coel gives us brilliantly developed, un-stereotyped, unique Black characters without feeling the need to justify their existence. Arabella is a writer, her friend Terry (Weruche Opia) is an actress and Kwame (Pappa Essiedu) is an aerobics instructor. Unlike much contemporary television representation, I May Destroy You does not tokenise the Black experience or exploit the characters as political instruments; it allows them to live at the intersections of their dynamic identities.
The chilling portrayal of trauma as a journey, with setbacks and utter pain, rings true for survivors of sexual assault. Arabella goes through denial—she humours herself, yet her overarching struggle remains coping with the reality of the assault. When Arabella begins to write about her rape, she writes about the struggle of personal intersectional identity. Her powerful monologue about forgetting the struggles of being a woman because she was “too busy being Black and poor” is a testament to the multiplicity of our presence at intersections. I was deeply moved by her realisation that she is one among so many women, and that the fight against intergenerational trauma is a united one.
Talking About Trauma
While Arabella’s assault mirrors Coel’s own experience of being drugged and assaulted while writing the second season of her award-winning show, Chewing Gum; I May Destroy You does more than tell the story of one isolated incident. One of the most significant ideas that Coel writes about is that of the gray area where the law does not rule and where victims are the only ones who can defend themselves.
In Episode 4, Kwame has casual, consensual sex with a man he met on Grindr. A few minutes later, he is assaulted by the same man who forcefully penetrates him without protection or consent. Kwame’s situation deletes the gray area because the audience is made aware that the situation was assault, however, his previously consensual encounter with the same man would nullify his claim on a legal battleground.
In the same episode, Arabella has sex with a colleague who is also a writer, Zain (Karan Gill), wherein he removes the condom without Arabella’s consent. Following the incident, he gaslights her, claims that she would’ve “felt” it, and then laughs it off as he pays for a Plan B pill. Episode 3 follows Arabella and Terry on a wild night out in Italy. Terry has a threesome with two men, who, she later realises, probably premeditated a scheme that would entrap a woman into “spontaneously” sleeping with them.
Coel’s writing enables the viewers to do two things—recognise patterns of abuse and see experiences of trauma represented by powerful characters. In an interview with the LA Times, she said that while these situations seem like gray areas, they aren’t gray once you shine a torch on them. The root of the problem is the lack of transparency regarding these situations, a topic of conversation that I May Destroy You addresses phenomenally.
I May Destroy You does not shy away from introducing the viewer to the individuality of trauma. For Arabella, she busies herself with the toxic validation of social media, avoids her deadlines and goes on a journey of ostentatious “self-care” to drown out the pain. Kwame loses his sense of self, going from a sociable person to secluding himself. Terry, on the other hand, does not realise the veracity of her experience until much later, and decides to confront it by joining a support group. The show brilliantly captures the essence of trauma in all its forms, allowing the audience to see their emotions represented and validated. While it is distressing to watch these events unfold, it is a stark reminder of the reality of abuse.
Friendships In IMDY
One of my favourite arcs on the show was the friendship between Arabella, Kwame and Terry. The three of them believe in mutual empowerment, in shared experiences and positive affirmation. However, unlike a yes-man friendship, they hold each other accountable for their missteps, allowing for mutual growth and empowerment. In the wake of traumatic experiences, as the show says, it is important to surround yourself with people you can trust and those that affirm you. They’re able to communicate feelings of guilt and hold each other to the standards they are familiar with.
The dynamic reminded me of the idea of a chosen family. While not much is said about Terry or Kwame’s families, Arabella is not often in contact with her family—her friends are her constants. Even when Arabella is invited to read her book at the Writers’ Summit, she asks Terry to read it for her. Arabella’s words are her guiding light—trusting Terry with words is trusting her with her narrative. “Your birth is my birth, your death is my death”—they are a benchmark of unconditional love and support. Their joy is pure, their lives are independent yet intertwined. This friendship is a beautiful representation of Black joy in a time where the world needs it most.
I May Destroy You allows you into the mind of a remarkable artist like Michaela Coel, somebody who can use her experiences to create a universally relevant narrative. Her characters were very deeply nuanced, powerful and real. The audience is moved to see themselves in Arabella’s pain and drown themselves in her happiness. The show reminded me of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag—in that both these shows present an unfiltered, startling and unapologetic depiction of womanhood in its essence.
While Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her show focus a lot on personal narratives of gender and sexuality, Michaela Coel, as a Black creative, goes above and beyond to represent complex racial dynamics. If like me, you cannot get enough of Fleabag’s unnerving journey of truth and acceptance, you will love everything that Arabella stands for.
As the title promises, I May Destroy You completely took over my headspace in the days that I watched it. It brought more strength, solidarity, acceptance and accountability than it did destruction, and it is one of the most remarkable television drama shows I have watched. It’s a nuanced take on survivor trauma and the universality of abusive experiences through the lens of race, sexuality, class and friendship and makes for an amazing binge-watching journey.
In its limited running time, I May Destroy You creates a daring, engaging experience that challenges the viewer’s biases every episode. I highly recommend it.
Featured Image Source: Boston Globe