Emily Menger-Davis discusses how Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You revolutionises on-screen depiction of sexual assault.
Content/trigger warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault and rape.
Sexual assault has long been used in the narrative arts as a symbol of the ultimate violation of a female character by a male one. In literature and theatre, it has been used as a concluding act, a downfall, and an act of dominance over a woman’s body. In the world of television, depictions of sexual assault are still problematic. Its use as a plot twist or gripping mystery to be solved often fails to dedicate enough space to the reality of the victim’s trauma.
I May Destroy You is a BBC series created by and starring Michaela Coel, creator of Chewing Gum and star of Black Earth Rising. It tells the story of Arabella, a young writer from London who is drugged and raped by a stranger whilst out with friends. This series shifts the conversation around rape, as the victim becomes more than just a plot device and, instead of a gripping search for the perpetrator, the series focuses on Arabella’s journey to recovery. This journey is messy, unpredictable, and complicated. The series shows how a police investigation into rape is carried out and also details not just Arabella’s but her friends’ experiences with assault and consent. Through this, we see the complexity of assault and the myriad forms in which it presents itself. Drug-facilitated sexual assault; “doxing”; “stealthing”; and same-sex assault are just some of the forms of assault presented in this series.
As well as the external processes Arabella has to wade through following this traumatic event, her internal struggle of trying to piece back together her identity is masterfully depicted. Significantly, Arabella’s rape occurs in a nightclub called Ego Death, the site of the death of her sense of self. She connects with other survivors over the vast plains of the internet, adding the burdens of strangers to her shoulders as well as her own before she collapses under the weight of it at her therapist’s office.
It is not only Arabella’s own identity which seems to change over the course of the series but also the identity of her unknown aggressor. The flashback to her assault mutates at various points, and his face is replaced by different people; even, at one point, with Arabella’s own. In the final episode, when she pictures meeting him again at Ego Death, he has a different name in each imagined scenario. Through these three scenarios, she imagines at first an act of violent revenge against Patrick, ending with his bloodied body stuffed under her bed. Then, legal justice is achieved against David, with the police arresting him. Finally, the third scenario features a reconciliation, where they spend a consensual, almost loving night together in her bed. In this way, Arabella achieves closure as she reclaims her narrative, and we see the bloodied body of Patrick crawl out from under her bed and leave.
Perhaps the reason this series is so truthful and honest is because it was based on Michaela Coel’s own experience when, like Arabella, she was drugged and raped by a stranger from a bar. Coel revealed her experience with rape during her 2018 McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, where she was the first-ever Black woman to give this key address in the festival’s history. In this lecture, she described how the noise and bustle of an industry on a deadline left little space for her own welfare. This is mirrored in I May Destroy You, in a scene in which Arabella reads her editors a piece she has written about her rape and, after a few sympathetic nods, they remind her of the contract she has signed and the deadline she needs to meet.
Coel isn’t just the auteur of I May Destroy You, she is also offering us an insight into her own pain and vulnerability and, as she says in her lecture, “twists a narrative of pain into one of hope”. She offers up her heart, her head, and her body for examination, rejecting the secrecy and shame of trauma which she, a born storyteller, moulds from something private and intimate into the most public of art forms. I May Destroy You is not an easy watch, but it is this uneasiness that makes it so brave. Coel scoops up the monster under her bed and turns it into something hopeful.