Bea Piésold analyses Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’, and how it breaks with TV tradition to give us a nuanced and cathartic story of sexual assault survival.
Trigger warning: sexual violence.
From ‘Game of Thrones’ to ’13 Reasons Why’, sexual assault on-screen is typically laden with extreme violence and eroticism or utilised as a crass plot device. Despite the pervasiveness of sexual violence, there is an absence of accurate and dignified representation in film and TV. ‘I May Destroy You’, Michaela Coel’s BBC/HBO series, is pioneering in its survivor-led depiction of the subject. The show demonstrates how portrayals of sexual assault, when executed correctly, can be cathartic for the viewer as well as the writer.
Based on events in Coel’s life, ‘I May Destroy You’ follows Arabella, played by Coel, leading up to and in the aftermath of her rape. While working overnight to finish the first draft of her book, Arabella takes a break to meet a friend. They go to a bar, where she is drugged and raped by a stranger. She then emerges from a blackout back in the office, disoriented and tormented by flashbacks.
Coel does not shy away from explicitly showing the brutality of the assault. However, she manages to steer clear of the titillating under-tone palpable in many rape scenes shown in film and television. Within the narrative, Arabella is not shamed for what happened to her, nor is her suffering sensationalised. Her trauma is complex and not always consistent. She views the label of sexual assault victim with ambivalence. The absurdity of Arabella’s coping mechanisms is shown in a way that is both heart-wrenching and humorous: ‘There’s a war in Syria, there’s a war in Syria, there’s a war in Syria’ she repeats to herself in the midst of a flash-back, followed by, ‘There are hungry children’ and, ‘Not everyone has a smartphone’. The audience can feel that ‘I May Destroy You’ is sculpted from real-life experience which is what makes it ground-breaking and so raw.
Sexual violence against Black women, particularly at the hands of white men, has been historically erased and ignored. Black women survivors often have their experiences silenced and stolen. This was epitomised by the ‘Me Too’ movement, which was co-opted from Black survivors by white feminists. The contributions of the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, were erased and the original focus on Black women and survivors from other marginalised groups was diverted.
Despite being under-represented as rape victims in on-screen fiction and in the media, Black women are at a higher risk of sexual violence than white women in the UK and the US. Coel gives a voice to working-class Black women survivors whose trauma is erased and enabled by the intersection of anti-black racism and misogyny at every level of our society. While ‘I May Destroy You’ has deeply resonated with victims of all races and genders, it specifically speaks to the experiences of Black women. Intersectionality is fundamental to ensuring that portrayals of sexual assault can be representative of and beneficial to all survivors.
Coel innovatively concludes her 12-part series by posing the audience with four alternative outcomes as Arabella contemplates different endings to her book. In the first ending, Arabella executes her meticulously planned revenge fantasy. Rape-revenge fantasies are a popular film trope– see ‘Kill Bill’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and ‘Lawless’. They can also be common in real-life victims of trauma. Reclaiming power by switching the roles of victim and perpetrator can feel like the only conceivable form of justice, particularly in the face of a negligent judicial system. However, inflicting violence doesn’t unpick the psychological effects of rape trauma, nor does it neutralise feelings of anger or shame.
This cliché is often milked on-screen for effect, to which Wikipedia’s 200 item list of rape-revenge films is testament. The genre feeds a cultural yearning for graphic depictions of violence against women – particularly in sexual contexts – often followed by a fetishised transformation from ‘damsel in destress’ to ‘vengeful femme fatale’. It exists for the viewer’s pleasure, not because it is a practical or constructive outlet for real-life survivors, nor does it provide genuine closure. In exposing this, Coel shows her audience that this is not the ending they want for Arabella.
In the second scenario, Arabella finds retribution by exposing her perpetrator’s own trauma. Pinning up against the toilet wall, he threatens her, “Don’t you tell anyone David, this is our secret and if you tell anyone I will fucking kill you,” alluding to possible childhood sexual abuse. When the police arrive, he weeps into her arms begging, “I’m scared, please don’t leave me”. Arabella derives closure from understanding his trauma and seeing him as vulnerable dissolves her fear of him.
The third version of events shows Arabella instigating their encounter and seducing him. Back in her bedroom, they have sex, in which she assumes the dominant position. Through this she reclaims her sense of control. Sometimes survivors may seek to regain their agency in ways that may seem counterintuitive. Victims may instigate sex with their rapist after the event in an attempt to take control of the experience and thus ‘undoing’ the rape. Survivors are often fixated with reliving the past; trauma is extremely complex and not always logical.
In her final ending, Arabella chooses to abandon her ritual of returning to the scene of the crime. She relinquishes the hold her trauma has on her and is able to complete her book. Through experimenting with alternative endings, Arabella explores her own fantasies of closure. Coel uses them as a means to examine real-life responses to rape and on-screen clichés, prompting the audience to confront how they feel about each scenario and its implications.
The ending typifies the experience of many victims: recovery is gradual, often inconsistent and rarely marked by a defining moment or a conviction. By completing her book Arabella is able to process and live with her trauma; this parallels Coel’s experience of writing the series which she described as “hard, but cathartic”. On her recovery she said: “The past isn’t ever really past. You have to learn to manage it. And it stays with you. You have to learn to have power over the thing instead of it having power over you.”
‘I May Destroy You’ is a watershed moment in the portrayal of rape in film and TV, informed by her experience as a survivor and as a Black woman, which has set the bar high for others in the industry. As well as challenging the viewer to reassess their perception of sexual violence and consent, Coel empowers survivors to reflect on their own trauma and heal alongside her.
Artwork by Charlotte Facer