How Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You breathed new life into TV drama

by Nicole Leslie Charria

content warning: r*pe, sexual assault

As Parliament brings in its ban of the rough sex defence and raises mainstream discussion on what justifies consent, Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ is a brutal examination of consent, what it means to be assaulted, and the ‘grey’ areas of rape.

It is a gritty, vulnerable and painful comedy-drama about a twenty-something year old woman in London, dealing with the aftermath of her sexual assault. Coel covers the healing process rather than the assault itself; all while making some very real comments on LGBTQ+ relationships, racism, the differing responses to assault for men and women, the exploitation and fetishisation of People of Colour and society’s obsession with social media and virtual validation.

For many of us, ‘I May Destroy You’ breathed new life into drama with its diverse cast and honest portrayal of living in London as a millennial in 2020. She shows the ugly realities of healing and moving on from trauma; with your best friends at your side, each with their own issues and complications.

Her cast and characters are more than their stereotypes

Coel’s first success comes from her cast. Playing protagonist Arabella Essiedu, alongside Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu as best friends Terry and Kwame, their onscreen chemistry could be mistaken for childhood best friends. Opia and Coel effortlessly transition from slapstick comedy in earlier episodes, to raw and vulnerable emotion as the series draws on. Having two Black women as the main characters makes Arabella’s story applicable to all — they represent the BIPOC women that the #MeToo movement, and by extension, the media has left out. 

Kwame’s character explores gay relationships, and while somewhat fitting the ‘gay best friend’ trope, he is much more three-dimensional than he is a tool used to further a diversity quota. His own assault and the way it is treated is compared directly to Arabella’s. This, as well as an exploration of Kwame’s sexuality, are very real comments from Coel on the way male mental health and sexual violence towards men are understood and treated.

Society silences male victims of sexual assault; the barriers faced by men and women in reporting rape and sexual abuse are different and should be considered separately. Men face the societal projections of needing to appear strong and masculine, while women may fear the repercussions of reporting, when more often than not the perpetrator is not charged. Coel’s portrayal of the same situation with different reactions is necessary in understanding why victims do or do not report.

As well as exploring the lack of sympathy and professionalism surrounding Kwame’s assault, Coel delicately touches on the fetishisation of Black men and the touchy subject of fluid sexuality within a feminist and homophobic context. One scene in particular stands out — Kwame’s race becomes an object of fetishisation for the woman with which he is having a sexual relationship. We see the embodiment of what we might call a ‘white feminist’ as she declares that “gay men are the major appropriators of the female identity”, having also claimed some scenes previously that she has “a thing for Black guys.” Here, Kwame is the victim and perpetrator — objectified and sexualised for his skin colour, a victim of homophobia and sexual coercion, whilst being complicit in sexual deception. Female victimisation, and its assumption to be the automatic, is called out — Kwame’s crime, in her eyes, far outweighs hers.

Coel refuses to have clear cut good and evil characters, for example, in this particular scene, both Kwame and the girl make mistakes, which do not cancel out the other’s actions. Kwame, Arabella and Terry are made all the more real by their mistakes, as we see them look for redemption for their owns sins, as well as capitalising on those who have wronged them.

Every detail in Coel’s portrayal of London is meticulously chosen

It is relatable and reflects the life many young adults will face, from the grotty flat share in central London to Terry’s struggling acting career. Coel has portrayed a real version of London, away from the overly-glamorised or poverty-porn stricken ones we see all too often on television. 

Young Terry and Arabella represent every British teenager, from their Kicker branded shoes to their Just Do It backpacks. Growing up in London, ethnic backgrounds become an important part of your personality and identity, hence Coel’s decision to identify Zain as Indian, Arabella correcting her doctor on being of African not Afro-Caribbean origin, and Jamal describing himself as “Egypuadorian.”

Race-based plot lines are avoided, whilst maintaining the importance of race in her characters and their mannerisms

It is refreshing to have Black and PoC characters who are written as people, and not to a diversity checklist, providing nothing but stereotypes and ‘token’ characters. Tropes such as the ‘strong Black woman’ are deconstructed through Arabella’s varied coping mechanisms, as well as her breakdowns. We are shown a family that is civilly separated, rather than playing on the negative stereotypes surrounding Black families. 

Coel dissects assault as never before 

It is by far her best exploration; nothing is glamourised or dramatised. She touches on the less-spoken topics in sexual education — like threesomes, stealthing, inner-city gay hook up culture and the blurry lines of consent. Terry is manipulated by two men who claim to be strangers; Zayn’s stealthing blunder is later explained to be a form of sexual assault; and Kwame’s dating app obsession all feature into Coel’s overall message on consent. Arabella and her friends are all victims to some sort of ‘grey area’, a vital point being made — not all assaults are obvious crimes. 

We feel joy when Zain is outed as a rapist, an interesting comment on the quickness of society’s cancel culture — he appears completely irredeemable after being publicly called out by Arabella. We later feel rage (or at least I did) when Arabella “takes” her abuser to bed, which again is a clever point on forgiveness and healing, when victims can find the strength to face and forgive their perpetrators. Cancel culture demands that abusers disappear, pushing the blame and shame onto them, without any thought of the healing process for the victim. There is also a loss of accountability with ‘cancelling’ an abuser in evaporating rape culture from the world, their actions not being fully tackled. 

Furthermore, the show guides us through the genuine healing process of Arabella. Her coping mechanisms range from sarcasm and humour, to intrusive thoughts and bigger world comparisons, self-care and seeking internet validation — a selection of terrifying emotions for those who have been through similar. 

The flashbacks to the assault build up to an explosive ending; covering cancel culture and rapist redemption as we follow Arabella’s anger and despair, ending in subdued exultation as she comes to terms with the assault. However, the finale left me feeling rather dissatisfied, and although Coel may have intended it as a cathartic release of ambiguity, as all healing journeys are different, I found there was an underlying message of rapist redemption and forgiveness.

Because Coel’s characters are not without fault, there are some instances in the series where there is an implication that you can forgive a ‘good’ person for doing a ‘bad’ thing. It seemed that Zain’s ‘good’ action cancelled out his ‘bad’ one and Arabella later consensually sleeps with her abuser in one of the healing journeys we see, implying that she’s ‘over’ her trauma.

Overall, Coel has redefined British television with ‘I May Destroy You’. It is unflinching, real, and painful; exactly what we didn’t know we needed. Healing from trauma is a difficult subject to cover without completely vilifying the perpetrator and falling into cancel culture tropes. Coel has given right and wrong a new spin, and has done an incredible job at it too.

Leave a Reply