Trigger warning: mentions sexual assault and r*pe
Michaela Coel is a household name. I know this because she featured in the popular science fiction series ‘Black Mirror’; created and acted in the wildly creative ‘Chewing Gum [Dreams]’ and also starred as protagonist in the Netflix musical ‘Been Too Long’ opposite Arinze Kene. Notwithstanding, her latest creation ‘I May Destroy You’, a comedy-drama series available on both HBO and BBC, feels outstanding from the get-go. Though its trailer promises a story of trauma, the first episode cocoons itself in the blanket of everyday blase in a way that subverts the viewer’s expectations.
Main character Arabella Essiedu, played by Michaela Coel, is a writer who lives as many creative millenials do – balancing an ill-paying job, sometimeish sexual partners and a host of fun friends. The supporting cast include a best gal pal, Terri and gay best friend, Kwame – both black – alongside homebody housemate Ben and an Italian on-and-off fuck buddy Biagio, whom Arabella aspirationally hopes to one day make her boyfriend. The story-line is conceivable, nothing too out of the ordinary if you are a lusty twenty-something woman, looking for love, paying rent to a landlord whilst trying to make a living.
Mainstream conversations surrounding consent are not new. Less than four decades ago, it was decided by UK law that wives could be raped by their husbands and reported cases are by no means an accurate representation for the number of rapes that actually occur in the world. The body is not just a corporeal creation but a political and legal playground. As a result, the offence of sexual assault – though less widely discussed – is also a sight for sore eyes in terms of classifications. Actions that are often undermined, e.g. unwanted groping or kissing all qualify as assault; meanwhile, more complex phrases like coercion and stealthing add to the vocabulary of what it means to own your body as a woman, man, non-binary or child. Michaela Coel responds to this discussion humanely and responsibly.
For a long time, I’ve grappled with bodily autonomy in the digital age. My personal statement that admitted me into university pontificated on the ramifications of criminalising revenge pornography and I’ve always been curious about the different modes women undertake to reclaim their bodies. Where some choose nudity, others select modesty and we see Coel passively tackle this subversion in the choice of how she challenges her status as a victim of violence.
Like 1 in 3 women in the world, I too have experienced sexual assault both as a child and adult. And so to see Coel investigate the offence head-on has proved uncomfortable but necessary viewing. Off-hand humour and emotion often disguise the critical information that Coel weaves into the dialogue of characters Arabella, Terri and Kwame. Though the subject matter is heavy, all three are clueless to the criminality enforced upon their bodies. Sex scenes drape themselves under a haze of arousal and recreational drugs to complicate the concept of consent. Some sexual partners are attractive Europeans, others local London hookups that share the same continental heritage. All are seemingly ordinary to magnify the seamlessness of how rape culture sews our everyday interactions together. What it means to be a villain is not as clear-cut as what it means to be a victim.
How is consent subtracted from sex?
To Law students like myself, this is posed as a problem question in a criminal law exam. To the everyday lay person however, sexual dynamics belong mostly to the bedroom and not the court-room. In ‘I May Destroy You’, Coel negates this boundaries by melding the legal and contemporary worlds. We as watchers become judge and jury.
Since rape and sexual assault span many settings, Coel measures these crimes in question with a plethora of people. The female police officers she is acquainted with prove a reliable source of information in the series, re-educating Arabella and Terri about the autonomy of their bodies (as does Google), in a way that is not dissimilar to the criticism outlined by June Jordan. Kwame however has a stultifying experience that leans into the exceptionalism of the black British gay male experience. Despite both being victims, their methods of recourse and reaction to justice prove different.
From the first episode, we see an excitable Arabella with her shock of pink hair, slowly redefine herself amongst her blackness. Newly engaged with puritanical wellness, she begins aerobics and yoga, goes cold turkey on alcohol and seeks therapy with a group called ‘The Alliance.’ All of this occurs beside a musical soundtrack that includes remixes of Gabrielle’s ‘Sunshine,’ Nottingham duo Young T and Bugsey’s viral tune ‘Strike Me A Pose‘, Lil Simz’s prosaic rapping and the voice of Audrey Akanbi – Ghana’s Finest – from The Receipts podcast making a cameo. Themes of identity suffuse the neoliberal approach many young people take to healing themselves when faced with trauma: hyper-vigilance of the sensory body – sound, feel, touch – all heighten to skyscraper level and we become hyper-aware of our diet, exercise and daily habits in a way that individualises the macro issue of patriarchal male violence to micro-level, one-to-one micro-aggression.
Still, in terms of creativity, to christen Coel as Black British royalty feels fair considering her star-power. Not only did she represent her Ghanaian heritage at the BAFTA award in full-fledged kente, she also feels like a prophetess. For without any hint, she foresaw the implosion of awareness surrounding consent and created a mini-series that travels and gets lost along the binaries of sex and consent in a climate charged by the #MeToo movement. Notwithstanding, a nostalgic flashback to 2004 which she includes in the show illuminates the timelessness of her project. In just over an episode, Coel highlights the mores of secondary school living for the average British student with excellent characterisation: a drab school uniform, Just Do It bags and flip phones are all enlivened by slang-inflected voices, gossip and juvenile confrontations to colour the scenes of Arabella’s childhood. We see the power of language entrench further when she is at home and the use of the Ghanaian language Twi is adopted by her elders.
All of these characterisations contribute to Michaela Coel’s mystique as the visible dark-skinned black British starlet that women like myself have been searching for in the acting industry. By the seventh episode, Arabella has confronted the intersectionality of blackness, poverty and the afterthought of womanhood when confronted with a campaign she is asked to take part in by old school-friend Theo. Here she tackles the spoofing of radical consciousness in tandem with the ethics of the Instagram influencer complex. As per the comedy angle, it is tackled light-heartedly, but in true comedic form, challenges society’s most recent ill using humour.
Alongside the racialisation of activism and feminism, the audience infers the magnification of Arabella’s first generation and world woes. At her birthday party, a debate on colonialism and capitalism begins. Buttressed by the musical backdrop of Burna Boy’s ‘Ye’ and incantations of various African accents, a comradery of millennial diasporic differences unfold.
Michaela Coel’s focus on the wellness of sexual assault survivors – women and men provokes a sense of purpose in the show. Questions of consent include informative statistics and diatribes on race and male entitlement with pregnant police officers and medical professionals; much of which is shared on Arabella’s social media accounts where she assumes spokeswoman status for survivors. Outlandish with her coping mechanisms, she dons colourful club costumes and paints up a storm to rationalise her trauma.
Conversely, the audience sees Arabella’s low moments in parallels to other people also. In appearance, she shows up in dark dungarees and a roll neck floral patterned top to ‘The Alliance’ therapy group on a regular basis. Surrounded by mostly white and Asian women, she shares their story of abuse along the common thread of womanhood. Meanwhile, in the periphery, her best friends test the spectrum of sexuality with experimentation – whilst Kwame has sex with a white woman, Terri dates a black trans-man – Arabella remains celibate after being stealthed by another character Zain. The set up of Arabella’s struggles against those around her prove uncomfortable in a way that exceptionalises but also grounds her experience in everyday life. As she writhes through her coloured trauma, stopping and starting, life continues to go on. And we as viewers, go along with her.
The medley of smaller narratives meld to buttress ‘I May Destroy You’ without overtaking the major plot. Theo’s false rape accusation of a black boy, Biagio’s non-commitment and estrangement of Arabella in Italy, Arabella’s dad’s adultery and her past abortion only seek to gather the crumbs of what is an intentional story of transgression. Arabella, like most victims, is not perfect and she does not have to be. When she is screaming, banging on the door of her part-time lover in a foreign country, sleeping and waking up on a beach like a scene from Inception, we see the turmoil that trauma has inflicted on her life. Her incongruence to her new victim status as a black woman is magnified by a single statement by Terri’s: ‘black girls don’t do class A or get raped‘. Despite the plain facts of her circumstance proving otherwise, Arabella is still somehow excluded from the mainstream healing and mercy that requires. For that reason alone, she reaches little resolve.
The season finale exposes the genesis of Michaela Coel’s stage experience in a way that is full circle but also directly aligned with the purpose of the project. As opposed to the traditional screenwriting approach, Coel takes an artisan route to concluding her show by never coming to one. Instead she designs a stream of consciousness which includes three absurd ‘what if’ scenarios – two at either end of obscenity and one role reversal that saddles somewhere in the middle. The audience decide which outcome they prefer. We see the passion of Coel’s own experience unfold as she beats her abuser, forgives him and has consensual sex with him all in the trappings of an hour. In negotiating the outcome of what a confrontation between her and abuser could be, Arabella eliminates the metaphorical monster under her bed that taunts her healing.
Meanwhile, each scenario ends and begins circling back to Arabella and her housemate Ben who proves to be the neutralising, quiet force she needs to ground herself. Green-fingered, he fiddles with soil in their small garden as birds chirp in a scene that can only be described as escapist. Quick-fire shots of plants growing in number and size to reflect an untimely evolution. In an ode to plant parenthood, Arabella returns – as many millennials have – back to nature in order to restore peace. Such an ending shrieks the lack of conclusiveness in one’s journey to coming to terms with oneself. Removed from the shields of our homes, families and friends, we are exposed to the elements, still forced to grow, rain or shine.
Current, topical, fiercely political and at times deliberately open-ended, I May Destroy You leads with uncertainty and fallibility. The interspersion of Coel’s personal experiences seek to sanctify the humanity of its characters to the fault of familiarity. The main character shares her co-star Paapa Essiedu’s real surname; meanwhile her mum makes a cameo appearance on the bus during one of her ‘what if’ streams of consciousness. In numerous journalistic pieces, Coel has mentioned that Arabella’s experiences with rape and sexual assault are not entirely based on her own; still, she bestows upon Arabella enough likeness, that makes her intractably familial. At times, in Coel’s many interviews and speeches, I feel like I’m hearing from a friend or family member instead of this far-removed woman on the TV screen.
Arguably, the best feature of I May Destroy You is the fact that it reflects little right because it is produced in a world that is mostly wrong. Still it perseveres with humanity, honesty and humour, three misnomers which seem unlikely, but in the end, create the story. So much so, the final scene starts where a new story begins: independent, free from the politics of the performative publishing world, Arabella reads the first page from her new story. A story that is, in short, an allegory of a new life.