Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
Michaela Coel’s directorial debut wrapped up after twelve episodes last week. I May Destroy You is a powerful, layered series exploring themes around consent, sexuality, black identity and much more. At thirty minutes per episode, the pace of the series moves along perfectly and presents a binge-friendly option for those so inclined. While I wish I could dissect every theme in depth, for ease of reading I will just focus on a few. Spoiler alert!
There were many moments where I saw myself in Arabella, both as a writer and a black woman, right down to her internet searches. This can be attributed to the fantastic story telling abilities of Michaela Coel and the representative cast chosen for the series, whose acting was so realistic it was almost like watching a documentary.
When Terry is looking after Arabella and asks where her headscarf is, it was a tiny detail that made the scene that much more relatable to Black women. It is refreshing for Black Brits to see themselves in ordinary contexts, without their Blackness necessarily driving the story, as opposed to how we are represented in gang/crime genres. Two girls going on holiday, a guy using dating apps to hook up, Arabella being in an undefined ‘situationship’ with Biagio, are all very modern relatable circumstances that we are not used to seeing represented through a Black British lens.
While the main plotline revolves around unravelling the events of the night of Arabella’s sexual assault, the subplots continue to explore consent through the other characters. Simon, for example, betrays his girlfriend Cat’s trust by entertaining Alissa outside of the boundaries of the open relationship that Cat proposed. There’s also Terry’s threesome and the underlying implication that the Italian men had known each other prior and premeditated the evening’s events. Does Terry’s lack of consent to the entirety of the plan constitute assault? Similarly, we see Arabella become the victim of stealthing, where she consents to the act of protected sex and Zain removes the condom discreetly. Can we apply those parameters of consent to Terry’s threesome, where she consented to a night of passion among three strangers as opposed to the reality which left her feeling slightly used and vulnerable?
Episode six goes into the past and explores consent again with the sexual encounter between Theodora and Ryan and him attempting to take pictures of the act without asking her first. This scene also depicts how promiscuity is weaponised against women, inferring they are undeserving of respect or unable to withdraw consent, if they had consented on a previous occasion. This links directly to Kwame’s experience with sexual assault. Before I discuss Kwame, special mention must be given to production who transported me back in time with thoughtful and nostalgic references to the early noughties in episode six, alongside the fantastic young actors portraying Arabella’s younger years and peers.
Kwame, played by the brilliant Paapa Essiedu, portrays the realities of the modern Black gay man and it was interesting to watch his response to trauma play out alongside Arabella’s. Kwame’s story pushes the viewer to consider how masculinity can be a barrier to compassion, and this is seen in the poor handling of his police report by the male officer. Both Kwame and Arabella’s interaction with the police yields no results, but the added layer of latent homophobia in Kwame’s police experience would further discourage victims from reporting assault. Kwame’s officer does not treat him with the same care and compassion that Arabella’s do, and this may have contributed to his use of hyper-sexual activity as a coping mechanism, in order to regain power.
The story arcs of all the characters serve as an educational tool illustrating the grey areas when it comes to consent and sex. Although the scenes and topics can be highly triggering for survivors of sexual assault, I hope that victims can take comfort in seeing their stories shown and knowing they are not alone in their experiences.
Arabella is initially resistant to label herself a sexual assault victim as she is in denial about what happened to her. She minimises her trauma to cope with it by focussing on bigger global issues. Arabella frequently dissociates, which is artfully portrayed through varying focus shots and abrupt music changes and stops. Her live rant on social media is filmed as if she is experiencing psychosis of some sort and the comments she receives during the live mimic voices in one’s head, both enabling and berating her. The trauma leaves Arabella emotionally disconnected and she numbs herself with drugs to remain disconnected. Her therapist reminds her not to erase herself in minimising the assault which I thought was a great message and one of many ways in which the show validates assault survivors.
A key piece of social commentary the show emphasised is that nice guys and assaulters look the same. Scenes with Biagio helping Arabella home seemed sketchy as he fit the stereotypical ‘dangerous guy’ archetype. Alone with a drug dealer and practical stranger, Arabella was perfectly safe. Zain, however, was intentionally depicted as non-threatening and yet was a stealther who feigned ignorance at the gravity of his actions. In a GQ interview Michaela Coel admits that the ambiguity of the title is deliberate, in that we don’t know who is destroying who. Is it being said by the abuser to Arabella, is it Arabella saying it to herself? It is left open to interpretation for discussions just like these.
Arabella breaking into Biagio’s apartment links back to consent and violating boundaries. This came in an episode that began with a pertinent monologue on boundaries by Arabella in which she expressed that men explore this by not crossing boundaries, but tip-toeing on the line. “In this grey area where nothing was quite clear, no one could be clear.” Faced with her own words applied to her own past actions showed Arabella that there is nuance and blurred lines to right and wrong. Every victim in this show has been a perpetrator of a wrong to someone else.
Michaela Coel makes many references to surfaces and exploring beneath them. The most apparent of these is Arabella’s constant need to appear fine on social media surpassing the need for everything to actually be ok, even when we as viewers know she is going through turmoil. Other rape survivors and victims of abuse flocking to Arabella for support turns her into an inadvertent martyr to the cause, which must be exhausting as it perpetuates the need for her to appear strong and healed. Arabella posting her CT scan results before actually listening to the doctor’s breakdown of the results was a perfect example of the quote from her therapist who told her “social media promotes speaking often at the cost of listening”.
Towards the end of the series we are introduced to Arabella’s parents which gives us a better understanding of who and why she is the way she is. Not understanding her mother tongue, Twi, created an inability to understand context for Arabella, which can be said to have followed her into adulthood.
My favourite moments of the series both focus on Arabella’s rebirth. When she lost the wig, it represented her transformation from victim to survivor. Her beauty was hidden behind the wig and in a way she had wanted to stay hidden, but it’s removal (particularly by a black woman) gave her power. Perhaps this is a play on the biblical story of Samson who loses his power when his hair is cut. Another powerful moment comes at the end of episode eight where she wades into the sea fully clothed accompanied by liturgical music and beautiful visuals. It could be interpreted as Arabella ending it all or symbolic of a baptism and starting again. Those contrasting concepts are part of what makes this show so captivating to watch.
Overall, this series left me with so much to think about and I commend their ability to achieve this in twelve episodes.I found flatmate Ben’s character to be a little bit one dimensional and pointless. It was, however, an interesting trope switch to have a white man play the ‘supportive sidekick’ role with no real character development. An archetype that film and media have stuck black women in for decades. Weruche Opia animated the character of Terry to the extent that every woman watching could see parts of their best friend in her. Terry’s character also made me consider how victim blaming extends to the friend of the rape survivor. She felt guilty and blamed herself for not being there, believing she could have prevented it.
The finale episode faces the viewer with the choice to decide how abusers should be treated. While I initially found this frustrating, it explored many variations of the abuser and connected with the theme of nuance and grey areas. While not absolving the rapist completely it gives viewers a little more food for thought.
Catch I May Destroy You on BBC iPlayer.