CW: I MAY DESTROY YOU is a very graphic but informational show dealing with topics such as sexual assault, race, and injustices LGBTQ+ community.
The charismatic Michaela Coel, who you may know from Chewing Gum or Black Earth Rising has not just written, co-directed and starred in this TV serious; she propels us into her inner world of chaos and unapologetic veracity so that we are immersed into her life. Every scene will elicit a reaction from you whether you like it or not and this may just be why this show is revolutionary in so many senses. Adele has even labelled it the ‘best British TV in years’ if you need any more persuasion to watch.
It centres on Arabella (played by Coel) and alongside best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), as it tackles a plethora of taboo topics from drug assisted rape, consent, stealthing (the practice of stealthily removing a condom during sex), and even features exploitation of people of color by the vegan movement! For such as heavy show, you may think it’s too dark, but the cast ensure to keep you captivated as they navigate millennial life with a splash of comedy – and period sex, well almost - amidst the chaos, not to mention how visually arresting the production is.
Coel’s own experience of sexual assault has heavily influenced the character arc we see played out on screen, which elucidates the level of nuance involved. In opening scenes we see a confident Arabella, a burgeoning author yet 20 something year old that loves to party – relatable to many of us – who’s drink is spiked and is forced to piece together hazy memories of a suppressed drug assisted sexual assault – unfortunately also relatable to many of us.
Arabella doesn’t need to convince the police officers of the story, as they are aware of what happens before she lets herself be cognizant of it. They ask her questions to find out the details and prosecute the perpetrator, not to gaslight her. Coel’s character and recreational drug use is never once mentioned as ammunition against her. She is believed like a human should be with this kind of allegation. This kind of narrative around sexual assault and rape shows just how far we have come in 2020, but there are many reminders to show us we still have a way to go despite it being the 21st century. Just as significantly, she is portrayed as a successful black woman, and a survivor, not a victim.
Her confidence also sees her call out another person who stealthily removes a condom during sex, a questionable and non-consenting act. Yes, she consented to the sexual part of the encounter but not to the elimination of the condom. The significance of this alleged gray area is highlighted as black and white for the audiences and lets people see other actions that may constitute as sexual assault. It’s refreshing for it to be called out for what it is and reminds everyone assault is pretty straightforward; just don’t be a dickhead with your dick.
We often see the white female narrative of rape, but Coel reminds us it happens to people of color. We see her engage in therapy, which many POC’s still find taboo and engaging in self-care. The way race is portrayed in the show is in itself revolutionary as none of the characters are stereotypes and are typical millennials that relate to our demographic. Some are successful, some famous on twitter, some still trying to figure it out and some are short on rent in London despite everything – practically an initiation for every 20-something in the city. It brings a new layer of intersectionality to the forefront, and this increases this tenfold as it shows disturbing scenes of Kwame – a gay black man - being sexually assaulted by a Grindr hook up, with whom he previously had consensual sex with. Your heart breaks for him as he is not helped by a police officer who tells him there is essentially nothing he can legally do.
We see Kwame wanting to further explore his sexual identity after this – this scene alone of him openly discussing the fluidity of sexuality with Arabella and Terry is ground-breaking alone – and it leads to a disheartening display by his date who borders on almost fetishizing Kwame at first, before her homophobia takes the spotlight. Her saying ‘I’m really into black guys’ and how gay men are ‘major appropriators of the female identity’ shows her superficial ‘woke’ facade crumble. Again we are treated with this nuance as we see an exchange where the woman questions Kwame on his racial dating preferences – or lack thereof, as if that’s a personality trait, as it has become a normalized thing in the dating scene despite being these preferences being damaging to how racial groups are stereotyped when dating.
A flashback to a teenage Terry in high school reminds us of black children’s innocence being stripped away earlier than white counterparts when she states "white girl tears are of high currency." The shows resident Karen (Theo) insidiously tries to use her privilege in a damning way against a black boy. Not without nuance though, Coel allows for Thea to also be used as a lens into unsolicited pics of her to be taken when engaging in sex, which means we are sympathetic to her – until she uses her white privilege to get the boy into serious trouble after already getting cash out of the pictures and showing blatant racism.
These scenes are especially resonant amidst the current political climate where the #MeToo movement, and race relations are at the forefront. The show may be British, where topics like racism and sexual assault are less salient than its American cousin, but it’s ever present in the folds of society and just as insidious. The writing perfectly captures these themes brazenly without being patronizing to its audience as it shows multiple reactions to and scenarios of rape through its characters.
Throwaway comments about a white casting director asking to see Terry, an aspiring actress’s natural hair on command shows the clueless-ness shrouding black hair and why she can’t remove her wig as if it’s just a part of a Halloween costume portray the micro-aggressions faced by black women. Pastor Sam’s speech sheds light on how the vegan movement has become a tool of exclusion, exploitation and colonialism in a repacked form, with Thea corroborating this. This is perhaps the first time I have seen a show address this and it would be the first time for many others hearing about it.
Then again, this show seems to be about firsts in a sense. Although it is about Coel’s account of sexual assault through the lens of the protagonist, it is simultaneously about so much more. We’re invested in her whole story--as unlike with other shows or films based around consent and sexual assault--we get to see her handle everything else in her life parallel to this like her book deal, her friendships and how race colors their lives. The rape never defines her as it is shown as something atrocious that happens to her, NOT as a defining trait for her and we also get invested in the equally outstanding ensemble cast as they also have substantive plots of their own.
If you’re still reading, you must also be intrigued by this beautifully created show. It will have you unable to contain your excitement till the next episode drops (Mondays at 9PM on HBO) and brings traditionally taboo topics to your main screen, something not may TV shows have been able to successfully do.