Michaela Coel — writer, creator, and star of HBO’s brilliant I May Destroy You — spares no one from her transparently objective scrutiny. Not even those who are victims. In an interview with Shondaland, Coel is asked about being “beholden to the often binary rules of wokeness” mostly found on Twitter. Coel’s response: “I’m not aware of that pressure, to be honest.” This attitude probably contributes to her effortless ability to tap into the zeitgeist and capture snapshots of contemporary truths and relevant discourses.
I May Destroy You, which wrapped up its first season on HBO on Monday (August 25th), is a painstakingly honest portrayal of what happens when millennials try to cope with confronting their trauma. With her depiction, Coel has created one of the most comprehensive works of art to tackle rape culture; throughout 12 episodes, she digs into all of the muddy subtleties and gray areas without hesitation or remorse. And it’s the small moments and little details in I May Destroy You that have the most profound impact within the story.
The series starts with Arabella, played by Coel, a Twitter personality turned author, recounting the night she was sexually assaulted by a stranger. As she struggles to meet a deadline for her debut novel, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, Arabella decides to go out in London for a night of debauchery with friends. She spends the following morning unsure of what transpired the night before until a flashback reveals she was raped. The premise is inspired by Coel’s own experience of being sexually assaulted the night she went out to blow off steam while she tirelessly worked on the second season of Chewing Gum.
With the help of her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), Coel retraces her steps from the night of her assault trying to jog her memory of how she ended up violated. On top of not being able to recall the events from the night in question, reporting the assault, and trying to find some semblance of normalcy after such a violation, there is a constant looming awareness of global strife: flooding, world hunger, deforestation, and climate change. These scenes, at first, seem separate and irrelevant from the main storyline, but actually highlight a phenomenon millennials deal with, which is a consistent hyper-awareness of social issues. The world around us seems inevitably doomed, with insurmountable issues that dwarf us and the personal traumas we experience. For Arabella, she finds it difficult to focus on tackling the trauma of her sexual assault when so many people experience hardships that make hers seem trivial and small in nature.
In the fourth episode, “That Was Fun,” Arabella’s therapist asks her how she is coping with her emotions following her assault. Arabella mentions that she needs to be around other people, and if that isn’t possible and she is alone, she repeats to herself, “There are hungry children. There’s a war in Syria. Not everyone has a cell phone.” She does this to remind herself of the bigger picture. It’s a common small coping mechanism many of us use to deflect and diminish the very real and very true feelings we either don’t want to admit we have or can’t fully process. And like Arabella’s therapist reminds her, sometimes when we try to distract ourselves with the bigger picture, we lose sight of the small, which includes us and the little details of our lives.
Arabella’s struggle to process her assualt drives her to increase personal engagement with the very same tool that contributes to her mental overstimulation and exhaustion, social media. Social media is an omnipresent force in the series, offering a sense of comfort and purpose for Arabella. When she has a silent breakdown after being victim-blamed by her Italian lover, Bella immediately posts a selfie on Instagram and receives an instant barrage of “likes” and compliments. The love she receives from her followers manifests into a graphic heart that floats giddily from the screen to her face, and it’s as if all of her troubles and trauma melt away, even if momentarily. It’s another common coping mechanism of today — hurt, lonely people turning to strangers on the Internet for slight boosts in self-esteem. Something as small as a “like,” an empty heart turned red or a positive comment can drastically change the way a person feels about themselves. Arabella consistently turns to social media for affirmation, using it not only as a way to establish self-importance but also as a way to use her voice. But her hyper-connectivity and consistent online presence quickly becomes detrimental to her healing process and causes a chasm between her and her friends — particularly her friend Kwame who has also experienced an instance of sexual assault but is dealing with it in a manner that Arabella is judgmental of. In episode nine, “Social Media is a Great Way to Connect,” she is sucked into a warped dimension of online activism where she feels obligated to speak the truth and fight for the justice of others at the expense of her own well-being. Through an insightful session with her therapist, she learns that living within a binary of good vs. bad can create a crooked room of existence that doesn’t allow for self-introspection and accountability.
Even though her friends have done their best to assist in her healing process, Arabella feels the need to join a support group for those affected by sexual assault. In her first session, Arabella confesses, “I came here to learn how to avoid being raped. There must be some way. Cause if there isn’t that means that any time someone can just drag me into a bush and it would happen all over again.” The sentiment reflects Coel’s thought process in the aftermath of her own assault which she spoke about in an interview with The Economist podcast:
“If you whisper to yourself, at some point during your healing, ‘If I had watched my drink, this wouldn’t have happened,’ perhaps it doesn’t sound so scary. It’s just a fact.”
She goes on to add that her comment doesn’t place blame on Arabella for what happened to her, but that didn’t stop pushback on her comments. People on social media questioned her idea of victims being able to give themselves power by taking responsibility for what happened to them. People also had an issue with her using her platform to process her pain publicly in an effort to reclaim her own power. But the reality Coel intended to explore is the uncertainty victims of sexual abuse experience when they as autonomous people are reminded that there are things out of their control.
It’s the uncertainty — the gray areas of rape culture and what constitutes consent — that acts as the foundation of Coel’s storytelling. It’s the “small” sometimes inexplicable and difficult to articulate things like stealthing, dry humping, innocent “compliments,” taking pictures during sex without permission, hands on the small of backs, and lightly placed on knees that keep rape culture pervasive in society. In one of Arabella’s support group sessions, another woman in the group gives testimony about an encounter she recently had with a man named Bob who gaslit her feelings of being violated by him. In response, Arabella gives a poignant monologue about men who love to live in the gray:
“He’s very confident in his view because he’s gone exploring to see for himself what boundaries and violations these women might be banging on about because Bob’s thorough. And on these explorations Bob found the line that separated him from everything else. Rather than crossing it, he tiptoed on it. And he experienced this feeling of being on the boundary, on the border, right on the line of being neither in one place or another. And saw how in this gray area, where nothing was quite clear, no one could be clear. We can’t articulate. We fuddle our words. We couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was he did that we felt was so wrong. Bob has observed the detail. We have to start observing Bob, telling him ‘We too see the detail. We see you, Bob.’ And in that palce where rules, clarity, law and separation cease to exist, we will show you exactly what we mean by ‘violation.’”
In the season finale, “Ego Death,” Arabella is presented with the chance to confront her rapist, or at least that is what appears to be happening after viewers are taken through three wildly alternative scenarios of how she reacts to seeing her assailant face to face. The scenarios play as fantasies: the first so outrageous, the audience could believe Bella has turned into a psychotic murderer. (And honestly, who could blame her after what she’s been through?) But no, Coel is more complex than that as is the interrogation of the subject matter she is exploring. Instead, Coel invites audiences into her mind as it processes possibilities of closure, each fantasy eliciting a range of emotions towards her rapist, from vengeance to empathy and finally pleasure in a scene that could be described as an effort from Arabella to re-establish power over the man who stole her autonomy and sanity. It’s uncomfortable, at best. For Arabella, however, her real closure comes from release as the reality sets in that there might not be a grand explanation or finite finish to the wild ride she’s been on. Her acceptance of the fact that she may forever live in the gray area of her assault and the uncertainty of her rapist’s consequences oddly brings her peace, healing, and enough clarity to finish her book. And after passage of time, the courage to tell her story.
It is with this observation of the small details, the exploration of the gray and uncertain areas of violation that Coel masterfully begins to assign clarity to what defines rape culture and what constitutes consent. It’s clear that Coel’s characters know the egregious forms of rape and sexual violence, but what’s unclear for them is the detailed minutiae of what constitutes assault and what feelings and reactions are permissible when coping with the trauma of being or having a friend whose been sexually assaulted. It’s also clear that Coel’s main intention is to delve into the nitty-gritty, the mess, the daunting quagmire of social issues that plague our minds daily. Not to find answers or conclusions or encourage us to throw our hands up in exhaustion and continued complacency, but to provoke introspection, thought and conversation on how we can start establishing clarity in the densely packed gray areas of our lives and the social behaviors that cause harm to vulnerable members of our community.