Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is one of the best shows I have ever seen. The series is a deeply important exploration of consent, trauma, and what it means to be Black and British. As well as writing the show, Coel also stars as its main character, Arabella. Arabella is a young British-Ghanaian influencer and author. I May Destroy You follows her attempts to rebuild her life after sexual assault.
When we meet Arabella, she’s in the process of writing her latest book. Taking a break from writing, she joins a group of friends for a night out in London. On this night, she is drugged and raped by a stranger. The series goes on to explore Arabella’s experience of dealing with and healing from her trauma. It is based on Coel’s own experience of sexual assault. She generously invokes her own trauma to gift us a thought-provoking exploration of assault, consent, and healing.
The show received really positive reviews after its release in June 2020. Critics were full of praise for Coel’s writing and performance. In spite of this, it was revealed this week that the show hadn’t been nominated for a Golden Globes Award.
When I watched I May Destroy You, it completely consumed me. I found it breath-taking. It made me laugh, and it made me cry. It is a masterpiece in terms of writing, performance, and visuals. I can’t understand how anyone could watch it and not feel that it deserved recognition and celebration. So, I want to recognize and celebrate the show’s excellence through this piece. Here are three reasons why I May Destroy You is not only worthy of a Golden Globes nomination but one of the most important dramas of our time.
It expanded our vocabulary for talking about consent
We receive little to no formal education on consent at school. As a result of this, we have a limited vocabulary for understanding it. It also means that we don’t have many opportunities to think through the role consent plays in our lives. I May Destroy You‘s 12 episodes explore the nature of consent in lots of different situations.
In one storyline, Arabella’s best friend Terry consents to a threesome with two men. These two men present themselves as strangers. When the two men walk away later in the night, she watches them high-five. This leaves Terry feeling uncomfortable. It raises questions about whether the two men had pre-planned the event. This key detail changes the nature of consent in the situation. Other storylines like this one explore the nature and role of consent in complex sexual situations. As audience members, we must reflect on whether consent was fully informed.
In another storyline, Arabella consents to protected sex with Zain. As an audience, we watch Zain remove the condom mid-sex. Arabella finds the unused condom and feels distressed. Later, she learns that ‘stealthing’ is the act of removing a condom without a partner’s consent. U.K. law classes stealthing as rape.
Before watching the show, I’d never heard of the word stealthing. Watching the show expanded my vocabulary surrounding sexual assault and consent. This is important because vocabulary helps us make sense of our experiences.
The show represents the experiences of many people who’ve found themselves in situations where they’ve felt uncomfortable and violated, where they felt unable to give fully informed consent. Seeing your experiences represented is validating. Thinking through experiences as they play out on screen is also an important learning tool. It helps us to better understand consent and reflect on its role in our sexual experiences.
It provided us with a deeper understanding of trauma and sexual assault
The mainstream media rarely provides us with a holistic understanding of sexual assault survivors as individuals. I May Destroy You attempts to rectify this. It does so by providing us with a deeper understanding of trauma and healing. We watch as Arabella processes her trauma and grapples with her emotions. As an audience, we observe Arabella’s many attempts to make sense of her experience. We also see the different ways that she tries to heal. She joins a support group. She becomes more vocal about sexual assault on social media. Some of these strategies help. Some don’t. This demonstrates how difficult the process of healing from trauma is.
I May Destroy You also uses lots of flashbacks. The use of flashbacks transports the viewer to various events in Arabella’s life. This helps us to understand the character’s psyche and life experiences on a deeper level. As Coel is a survivor herself, the show supports and empowers the voice of survivors. It represents trauma and the healing process authentically. It also represents survivors with compassion. This is important because it validates the feelings and experiences of survivors of sexual assault. Through reflecting on her own trauma, Coel helps us to understand the experience of survivors more deeply and holistically. In doing so, she creates space and opportunity for education, understanding, and healing.
It is an example and celebration of Black British excellence
I May Destroy You is written by a Black British woman and performed by a predominantly Black British cast. It is a true celebration of Black British excellence. Blackness is inherent to the essence of the show. It is in its language and its music. It is in its environment and its voices. This is important because the mainstream media rarely represents the experience of being Black and British authentically. Therefore the show provides representation for Black British audiences. For White audiences, it provides an insight into what it means to be Black and British.
Michaela Coel is captivating as Arabella. Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu both give incredible performances as Arabella’s best friends Terry and Kwame. Each one explores and handles their character’s storylines and trauma with depth and emotion. Terry is an aspiring actress. Her storylines explore issues such as hair discrimination, Eurocentric standards of beauty, and typecasting in the media industry. Kwame is gay. Also, his storylines explore experiences of queerness and Blackness.
The show also explores important issues like racism in the U.K. healthcare system. In one scene, a doctor wrongly identifies Arabella as ‘Afro-Caribbean’ rather than African. Plus, the dialogue in this scene is incredibly eye-opening and educational. It is helpful in providing an understanding of the ways ‘Black’ has been homogenized as an identity. It also highlights White people’s lack of education on different and specific diasporic identities in the U.K. and the learning that still needs to be done. So, in a year where our consciousness of systemic and cultural racism was heightened, I May Destroy You enhanced our learning and made important contributions to the conversation.
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