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Making the Distinction Between Liberation and Exploitation? - "I May Destroy You"

7 Sept 2020

Megan Cole

Making the Distinction Between Liberation and Exploitation? - "I May Destroy You"

TW: The following article mentions sexual harassment and assault.

I May Destroy You (BBC One) is an astonishing, captivating and thrilling series. At face value a sexual-consent drama, but in reality, so much more than that. It works on every level and succeeds by any metric you care to throw at it. Written by and starring Michaela Coel, it has become not only one of the most-talked-about shows of 2020, but also one of the most important. Tackling deeper themes of sexual consent, assault, race, friendship and identity, it deftly moves from tragic to funny, creating a compelling series that never shies away from the toughest subjects. This along with a variety of different aspects is what succeeds in making the show feel so human. Described as a “consent drama”, a seemingly new genre of television that puts a lens on sexual assault in its varying forms and makes the viewer question their own relationships. Of course, sexual assault on film and television has been depicted in many forms but never with the rawness that Coel manages to achieve.

The tone of I May Destroy You is also part of its appeal. As in life, there are moments of humour in the darkest times. The themes are heavy, and Coel has balanced it perfectly, seamlessly moving between light and dark. The audience is with the characters at their darkest moments, but then, at the right time, it's alleviated with humour. The show takes you on a journey of the characters' ups and downs, reflective of the peaks and troughs of real life.

In I May Destroy You the central aggression though, is undoubtedly the issue of “consent”. Protagonist Arabella was barely conscious when she was dragged into a toilet cubicle, and only remembers it in flashbacks. Her attacker was a complete stranger, a faceless spectre tethered to her forever. That refusal to identify him as one specific black-and-white villain, even when his crime was the show’s most overtly malevolent, allowed Coel to examine all the other villains we don’t notice, but who do just as much damage by breaching others’ boundaries in complex, insidious ways.

Another intriguing ability of the show is the portrayal of the varying forms of assault with the second time Arabella experiences rape being during seemingly consensual sex. It isn’t until after when she finds out she was “stealthed”. Naturally Arabella is annoyed by this, but the event is unremarkable to her and she continues life as normal. Only when listening to a podcast does she realise this is another form of rape and becomes enraged. Viewers assaulted in similar ways may in turn only have discovered it – or had their conflict validated – by this show.

The audience and the characters themselves are continuously reminded that assault is not limited or restricted to one form, one gender, one race or one scenario: whilst at a group support session, Arabella musters the words “I’m here to learn how to avoid being raped. There must be some way…’. The helplessness of Arabella is matched by the audience at this moment as the show displays multiple assaults wherein all character’s act and behave differently, we know that there is nothing they could have done. In the end, it is also this which unites the three central characters who are all coming to terms with the abuses they have endured. However, Coel successfully conveys the difficulty of this. Whilst caught up in her own trauma, Arabella dismisses and even enhances Kwame’s suffering, first by locking him in a room with a man just days after his rape and secondly in shunning him for his attempts to cope – even if they are slightly controversial.

Ultimately the beauty of I Will Destroy You lies in the way that it explores sexual assault and rape in unique, intensely realistic scenes. The difficulty of watching the show and the realness is a testament to Coel’s ideas, writing and execution. With 20% of women and 4% of men experiencing some form of assault in their lifetime, it is understandable the show is raw and may hit a nerve with many. But equally, it is this exploration of the grey areas of sexual assault and harassment that make it a must watch.

Photograph: Natalie Seery/BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA