Content warning – The following piece discusses sexual assault, rape, and abortion as addressed in BBC’s I May Destroy You. Spoilers for the series ahead.
When the Golden Globes 2021 award nominees were announced earlier this year, there was a unanimous digital sigh across my social media platforms when people realised BBC’s I May Destroy You had been snubbed. Particularly, people drew comparison between this show and Emily in Paris, a slapstick look at an American woman adjusting to the many faux pas of living and working in Paris and marketing luxury products for a living, which was indeed nominated for the best comedy or musical Television series accolade. Things came to a head as one of the writers for Emily in Paris, Deborah Copaken, spoke out in solidarity with Michela Coel’s bold and brilliant triumph of British Television in her article “I’m a writer on Emily in Paris. I May Destroy You deserved a Golden Globe nomination.” I made a mental note to watch I May Destroy You, but like many things in life, never quite got round to it as soon as I would have liked to, and instead assumed that it must be good simply because of how many people raved about it. I recently went through a bit of a reading draught and decided to spend my evenings enjoying some on-screen entertainment instead. Enter: I May Destroy You.
After inhaling the show over a few days, furiously scribbling notes at a near-constant rate throughout the six-hours of streaming, I can now say boldly that it is not good. Michaela Coel’s writing and acting in the lead role of Arabella Essiedu is nothing short of a masterpiece. I May Destroy You offers a stark and, at times, abysmally bleak look at the aftermath of sexual assault, which is perhaps the only way to portray its reality.
The show is refreshingly candid from the start, stripping back the unfathomably flawless filter of the desirable, conventional female lead we encounter so often. In the first episode, upon Arabella’s return to London after a fruitless work trip to Italy, we watch as she sits smoking on the toilet, talking to her agents over the phone, with the bathroom door wide-open as she receives “Welcome Home” greetings from her flatmate, Ben. The conversation gives a good glance over Bella’s current situation, dealing with writer’s block, feeling uninspired and that her life lacks direction. We get the impression that all of these elements are thrown together and Bella tries to juggle them all equally, without designating the right amount of time or attention to the most important areas. The physical set-up of the scene with its lack of closed doors and claustrophobically-small (London-sized) bathroom space shows the overarching chaos of her life, which is reflected in the abrupt cutting-out of music when Bella tries to finish her first draft, showing that all inspiration and motivation has run dry. It doesn’t help, therefore, that on the night of the deadline for her final draft to be submitted, Bella is drawn into a night-out with her friend Simon.
It is on this night out that Bella is sexually assaulted in a nightclub toilet, yet this realisation doesn’t truly come to fruition until the final few seconds of the first episode, where an unsettling flashback involving a cubicle door is interspersed with the mundanity of opening her own bedroom door. Bella mutters “that’s weird” under her breath, and the feeling of doubt begins to manifest just in time for the credits to start rolling. The tone is set for the rest of the series – I May Destroy You is a cannon-jump into the pool of modern womanhood with its overarching city social scenes, career pressures, and the very real possibility of sexual assault. These flashbacks continue to occur during other mundane occasions, such as eating lunch the next day. Delving deeper into the events of that night at the encouragement of her best friend Terry, Bella questions Simon’s version of events and raises our attention to his ow failure to exercise the male privilege of safety on her behalf, as he left her unattended, choosing instead to go home with his mistress, Alissa. After retracing Simon’s Uber receipts, Bella finds herself at Alissa’s house seeking further clarity. When we learn that Alissa was spiked and therefore Bella was too, this is not a unifying shared experience for both women, as Alissa becomes enraged at the suggestion that Simon had anything to do with it.
The idea that Bella was indeed raped is realised in her visit to the Police Station with her male best friend, Kwame. We return to the familiar candid scene from the first episode of Bella sat on the toilet, this time in a medical gown and providing a urine sample in the sexual assault clinic, the clinical contrast highlighting how her life has changed. In most depictions of sexual assault that I have seen in the media, I have become used to seeing women in isolation, going through the process on their own as swabs are taken from their mouths. I May Destroy You deflects this trope beautifully, with a shot of various other women sat with Bella in their gowns, as though they were simply in the waiting room of a dentist, reminding us that this happens to so many people all the time. What we learn by the end of the second episode is that the unpacking of that night has helped Bella to realise that she was indeed raped, despite her efforts to deflect this possibility, and that her rapist was David, a minor character from the first episode. The subtle message laced throughout Bella’s time in the sexual assault clinic is reiterated when another victim in a bloodied gown asks, “First time?” – a masterful line that in two syllables alone delivers a whole host of implications as to the reality of the female experience.
For me, rape is always an act of colonisation of the body and mind. It is the taking of what has been denied without consent and is both physical and deeply psychological. I May Destroy You does not shy away from the psychological effects of sexual assault, as in the aftermath of her attack Bella is afraid to spend time alone when her flashbacks get “a bit much”, and her ability to write has been altogether impeded by the trauma. Bella’s agents assign her the aid of Zain, another young writer, in order to get the draft finished. Zain encapsulates the anxieties of a generation of University graduates, yet his working relationship with Bella reflects the classist conflicts that are rife throughout society today. He shows visible disdain for her route to publication via Twitter versus his Cambridge education, and this is echoed in later episodes when we revisit Bella’s Catholic public school experiences. It is infuriating and disgusting, therefore, that when Bella decides to start a sexual relationship with him, he removes the condom during sexual intercourse against Bella’s consent, as we witness another man raping Bella. Around the same time, Kwame is sexually assaulted when he does not consent to unprotected sex with a partner, but is overpowered after refusing and trying to leave.
The power of placing strong female voices on media platforms, such as podcasts, is made apparent when Bella hears the hosts discussing the prevalence of non-consensual condom removal and realises that it is indeed rape. Biding her time with this realisation, she later publicly outs him on stage at the Writer’s Summit after hearing from another woman about Zain’s “nature”, and how some women aren’t lucky enough to get away from it. Telling the audience, “If I don’t take this opportunity to say this now, I certainly won’t be the last,” the phrase “Not all men,” comes to mind, as the show demonstrates how it takes just one man to assault and permanently affect so many women. This is echoed when Bella joins a women’s support group run by an old high school peer, Theo, and tells the group that, “I’m here to learn how to avoid being raped,” as though it is her responsibility. The reality that rape cannot be avoided by the victims because they aren’t just raped, men are raping them anywhere and anytime that they decide opportune, and it is beyond anyone’s control but the rapist themself.
The impact that this unsettling realisation has is explored in later episodes set further into the future, as I May Destroy You delves into an examination of Bella’s wellbeing. Reading an excerpt of her recent work to her agents, the prose questions the significance of her rape for all women, especially those who “have it worse”. Further turmoil ensues when she is told in a review of her case that the DNA extracted from her clothing on the night of her attack isn’t a match with the suspect, so it is no longer an active investigation. This news sends her recoiling back to Italy, perhaps because that was a simpler time before her assault, and the ensuing downfall there leaves her submerged in the ocean with her writing left behind on the shore, symbolising her feeling consumed at her lowest point. These emotions are manifested for the worse in her newly-appointed vigilante status and all-encompassing obsession with social media as she attempts to advocate for all victims. It is exhausting to watch her exploit herself constantly even if it is with the most heartfelt of intentions, as Bella begins to appear as a less authentic version of herself through compulsive promotion and posting. These vigilante fronts begin to bleed into Bella’s personal life, however, and confront her with conflict in her close relationships. At a wine and painting night on Halloween, the trio of Bella, Terry and Kwame are discussing Kwame’s recent sexual activity as a gay man with a straight woman, under the pretence that he too is straight. Bella snaps; “Terry, as someone who has not experienced rape, you should be listening and not concluding conversations”. This is never an assumption that should be made, as it implies that people who choose not to openly talk about their experiences aren’t also victims themselves. It implies that there is only one “correct” way to be a victim, invalidating the allyship of both silent victims and non-victims who still advocate for the cause. By Bella’s standards at this point in the show, nobody is a victim until they choose to tell the world in the same way that she did, making vocal survivors an “in-group,” and othering those who differ.
Despite this, her argument still has a strong foundation. Kwame still had sex with a woman under false pretences, and despite Terry’s defense that he was “vulnerable” after being sexually assaulted himself, Bella points out, brilliantly, that it doesn’t give him the right to make other people vulnerable- “Nobody gives a fuck that it’s a mistake, Terry, we all make those. Do we make deceitful, destructive, narcissistic, sick, inconsiderate mistakes? Mm, no.” Bella’s argument was so strong until the pointed finger is turned on her actions, namely, locking Kwame in her bedroom with a stranger during a house party, knowing that he had been sexually assaulted. Sent into a spin and walking out on her friends, her immediate reaction is to begin a livestream as she walks through the streets in costume, with comments such as “you need therapy” gradually flooding the screen and becoming symbolic of the encroachment of Bella’s social media presence on her personal life, and the sense of becoming overwhelmed. Coel doesn’t fail to see the irony in this, titling the episode “Social Media Is a Great Way to Connect.” Ending up at the home of her therapist, who encourages her to remover herself from social media as it is causing her to feel so conflicted, the music cuts to silence once again as the final account is deleted from her phone.
If you thought sexual assault, consent, sexuality, race, class, and mental health were the only tough topics the show would champion, you would be enlightened to learn that it also beautifully addresses the aftermath of abortion. Arabella, at the encouragement of her therapist, ventures underneath her bed to confront al the “dark stuff” she keeps under there, leading her to face a sonography scan from “a long time ago” whilst Ben watches on, ever the patient and gentle voice in the background. The same conflicting emotions begin to rise and when prompted by Ben to ask herself whether she made the right decision by choosing to have an abortion, and affirming that she did, he points out that “doing what we have to do doesn’t always feel good does it?” This is not only a beautiful and brutal line, but it also looks back to Halloween when Kwame deflects from his actions by stating that it didn’t feel good to do, and Bella told him that “if it felt good I would be even more horrified”. In the increasingly meta-style of I May Destroy You, Bella watches in horror as her self begins to repeat the things she said to Kwame back to her, leading us to question if her ranting and anger was to some degree a form of self-projection. The evidence bags containing her clothing from the night of the assault are opened, and with one demon left to confront, she heads back to the scene of the crime. For me, Episode 9 was the pivotal point in Bella’s development, with the overarching theme of self-confrontation in both one’s past and present.
The penultimate episode of the series sees the pieces of Bella’s past traumas begin to stitch together. After reaching out to another newly-published author to help her complete her novel after being dropped by Henny House and her agents, she is disgusted to learn that they are in fact Zain, forced to publish under a female alias. He wants to help her finish her book because he “didn’t before” when he “was supposed to”. She accepts his assistance and writing prompts, and begins afresh with her ideas spread across notes on her bedroom walls- the very place in which Zain raped her is reclaimed and repurposed. There is no reconciliation, as I should absolutely think not, but it helps Bella to move forward with her writing. What can’t be rectified in her past experience is channelled into her written narrative.
I really don’t know where to begin with the finale of I May Destroy You. The culmination of brilliant writing and production and acting culminated in what I would call the perfect ending, because we don’t know what really happened in the events leading up to the final scene, but nonetheless this fact doesn’t change the outcome. Coel offers us three versions of events after Bella spots and decides to confront her rapist in the Ego Bar. We are presented with three possible versions of events. In the first, Bella has planned for this opportunity and forms an alliance with Terry and Theo to distract her rapist and his friend, steal the date-rape drugs he carries, and lure him into the toilet cubicle. Theo injects him with the drugs when he is in the midst of attempting to assault an apparently – unconscious Bella. In the ensuing scenes, after leaving the club dazed and confused, Bella beats him in the street once he falls unconscious, with Theo holding his head up and Theo watching on in horror. Bella then takes his unconscious, bloodied body home and hides him under her bed, with the rest of her “dark stuff.” Cut to the next morning, in the garden, watching Ben prune one of his plants.
In the second scenario, Terry lays down the plan – again, she distracts the rapist’s friend whilst Bella lures him into the toilets under the pretence that he has successfully drugged her. When she reveals that she is sober and confronts him, we see an unnerving array of emotions from the attacker, culminating in him breaking down as he reveals that he too has been a victim of sexual assault. The Police, having been contacted by Terry, arrive and realise that the toilets are empty, meanwhile Bella sits on her bed with her rapist, listening to his story, hearing the terrible things he has done to women, the detachment from it, the many different types of rape he has commited. The absurdity of sitting on the bed of his victim in her own home is not beyond him- he asks her, “Why are you not scared?” and reveals “It’s like, if you’re not scared, I don’t know how I’m meant to be, you know?”. The police arrive and take the tearful rapist away, and we cut to the same scene the next morning.
In the third scenario, we watch Bella and Terry planning in the toilets as they previously have, but this time Bella hallucinates the woman from the Sexual Assault Clinic is in one of the cubicles, whilst the teenage versions of herself, Terry and Theo are in another. As Terry and Bella come out into a deserted Ego dancefloor and bar (except for the rapist and his friend), the roles are reversed. Bella seduces her rapist whilst his friend performs a dance for Terry. Whilst he uses drugs as his abuse of power over women, Bella uses her words, whispering seductions that we can’t hear, as words are indeed her power. Back in her bedroom, the two engage in consensual sex, which finishes with Bella penetrating her rapist. The next morning, when he tells her “I’m not going to go unless you tell me to”, Bella immediately responds by telling him to go, negotiating the terms of their interaction. As he leaves the bedroom, his dumped body from the first scenario comes out from under the bed and leaves carrying the sonography scan and bloodied underwear from Bella’s termination.
After the third scenario has played out, we return to the same scene as in the two previously, except that this time Bella openly engages with Ben and appears physically more uplifted. The final scenes of I May Destroy You see Bella gifting Terry her finished novel as a birthday present, with the acknowledgements dedicated to her. The final scene is the book launch itself, in which we learn Bella independently published the novel and reads the foreward to her audience. When the credits started rolling after it all had ended, I simply wrote, “Wow.” I was left wondering if any of them even happened, and after trying to wrap my head around all of the different layers Coel set out, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter that we don’t know exactly what happened in that final episode. That isn’t the point.
That I May Destroy You did not get one Golden Globe nod is not only wrong, it’s what is wrong with everything.Deborah Copaken via The Guardian TV
I May Destroy You was a breath of fresh air for educating viewers on the different kinds of rape, and drawing attention to the fact that not enough conversations are had across institutions to educate people about the different types of rape there are, highlighting particularly having the condom removed non-consensually (it’s horrifying equally that this is such a prevalent crime and that so few people realise they have been raped in this way). It represented victims of sexual assault that choose to have sex after experiencing rape, and humanising it in a really subtle, “not a big deal” way – as it absolutely should. It champions safe sex, and doesn’t slut-shame characters for having sex with multiple partners. Condoms are central to this show, the practice of safe sex highlights the severity of some of the sexual assaults. The characters keep them in their bags, stashed in their drawers, setting a stellar example to viewers. It highlights the inequity of how male vs female experience of sexual assault is treated by exploring Kwame’s experiences of reporting sexual assault in the current system.
It gives us a heroine who undergoes a lot of soul-searching, showing us that although, at times, Arabella is wrong in her actions, she is still a victim and still a person dealing with this reality. She doesn’t have to be a virtuous beacon of perfect-victimhood to prove it. She doesn’t have to be beaten-down or a quieter version of herself to show that she has been traumatised. The lesson to be learned is that there is no perfect victim, and Kwame is even further proof of this. There is compromise on this premise to show a range of experience.
What I May Destroy You offered the world was a curtain pulled back on the experience and trauma of one woman and the implications on her own life and the lives of those around her. How something as raw and bold as this is interpreted and appreciated is up to both the individual viewers and the powerful institutions to decide, and sometimes they fall short.
Image via BBC