Note: Minor spoilers ahead.
Michaela Coel's semi-autobiographical I May Destroy You is irreverent, genre-bending and structurally inventive in telling a complex story about consent. Coel, previously of Chewing Gum fame, plays Arabella, a writer and aspiring novelist who is a survivor of sexual assault.
In the first episode of the series, Arabella is procrastinating on a book deadline with a group of friends at a place called Ego Death Bar. Her night ends in flashes — she's struggling to get to her feet, trying to get out of the bar, her friends have lost her, and a girl in the bar glances momentarily at her to make a 'yikes' face — often directed at sloppy drinkers. Somehow, Arabella gets to work in time to complete a draft, with a bleeding cut on her forehead and slowly returning memories of what happened last night — a man, unknown to her, raped her in a bathroom stall at the bar. And so the show is set up like a whodunnit, but quickly turns the genre on its head by challenging notions of 'closure' when you live with trauma. The system will fail you, your friends may not understand you, your anger will be both a responsibility and, suddenly, your currency, and you will want to desperately take control of a personal narrative that is slipping from your hands.
I May Destroy You is most incisive when it looks at how our moral compasses are in a constant battle to match the true north of our Twitter feeds. One scene in particular hauntingly visualises the fissures in our personal politics when we process trauma in extremely polarised and loud spaces.
In episode nine, 'Social Media is a Great Way to Connect', Arabella sits on her bed processing the day before her. Up until this point in the show, she has become an internet sensation and a rallying voice against sexual assault. More recently however, she has also been told by the police that the rape that she filed a case against is no longer an active investigation, because they haven't been to able to find the perpetrator.
She looks at her phone. There's nothing out of the ordinary in her bedroom, except that there's another version of her, with long hair and different clothes, standing on the foot of her bed, leaning downwards, with a glassy look in her eyes. Arabella, on the bed, picks up her phone and opens up Twitter. The phantom Arabella, in the same instant, coolly moves her head towards her and the phone, as if animated by the act.
She plays back her own video, where she talks about how much she hates straight white men and white fragility, then she reads tweets of encouragement from her followers. Someone posts their rapist's home address, someone calls for doxing men. Arabella cries, soundlessly, and then googles the word 'doxing'. The scene fades to the title card, reading I May Destroy You. I want to come back to this scene later.
When Arabella is raped by a stranger at Ego Death Bar, it sets off a series of negotiations with consent, race, and feminist politics in an increasingly polarised Internet age. The show follows the perspective of Arabella, and in some episodes, her best friends Terry and Kwame, as they navigate their lives, deadlines, and relationships as young black creative professionals in London. Terry is an actress, and Kwame is a fitness trainer. Like most friend groups, they are quick to call you out on posturing, but will also give you the space to figure out who you are.
The phrase 'consent-drama' has come up plenty of times when people try to describe the show – and one can see why. In an August interview with Trevor Noah, Coel says that she was curious to explore the ways in which rape felt like a theft of consent. Something really clicked for me when she said that –I felt like that was the phrase I had needed when explaining why 'grey area' #MeToo cases were in fact well within the domain of rape.
Arabella has sex with Zain Tareen, a writer from the same publishing house as her, and he takes off his condom mid-sex without telling her. While listening to a podcast after, Arabella realises why she felt so unsettled by the incident. The woman from the podcast says, 'There are actual Reddit forums, where men share tips and tricks. And even phrases like, "I thought you knew", "you mean you didn't feel it?"'.
There's an incident earlier on, where her best friend Terry has a threesome with two men, who were strangers to her. Later, she finds out that they knew each other and had planned it all along. This intentionality hits you hard – the vast internet troll army would have you believe that the #MeToo movement is teetering on the edge of misandry, more organised and violent than anything the modern world has seen – but how is that mental gymnastics propagated as a truth in a world where handbooks for rape exist on Reddit forums? What can be more organised, violent and visible?
At a time when 'cancel culture' has forced several public figures to revisit their past, I May Destroy You spends a whole episode in a flashback of high-school Arabella and Terry, as they actively try to disprove their classmate Theo's assault allegation against a friend of theirs. It's a messy combination of misplaced race solidarity and misunderstood victim-shaming. It's nails-against-a-chalkboard discomfort. But it brought something new to the discourse on selfhood and the internet. We're familiar with apologies hastily typed out by publicists for their employers' Problematic Past – but as private individuals, how do we face our most morally and ethically inconsistent moments? How do we reconcile them with who we want to be, or who we project ourselves as? No statement or press conference does this work for us, because the work of unlearning is private, retrospective and deeply embarrassing. Arabella and Terry navigate this as they meet Theo several years later – she now runs a support group for survivors that Arabella ends up joining.
The show leans into this discomfort most heavily following an incident where Kwame decides to explore his sexuality. He goes on a date and has sex with a woman without disclosing to her that he identifies as gay. Terry points out that he was vulnerable too – the woman was racist and homophobic. Arabella's first instinct is to approach Kwame with condescension, as she reminds him that if he makes himself out to be a victim when he isn't one, then he should 'look in the mirror', because it's 'unnerving for everyone'.
Later on, as she sits alone in her bedroom, the second, imaginary Arabella is back – sitting calmly on a chair, repeating the very same sentence she told Kwame, back to her. Coel has said in interviews that she wanted to explore the ways in which we are all a combination of hurt and complicit – in an episode just before this one, Arabella breaks into her ex-boyfriend Biagio's house in an attempt to win him back. To me, this moment where she sits in her bedroom with the imaginary, cockier version of herself, was a turning point for her in realising that her own politics were imperfect, and she had a fuzzy understanding of boundaries as well. It also illustrated the utter failure of buzzwords and popular discourse around consent when it comes to navigating your own relationships – whether it's confrontation, self-evaluation or even 'cancelling' someone.
After her confrontation with Kwame, Arabella walks through the streets, live-streaming herself talking about sexism in the design of crash test dummies. Responses are pouring in, real-time, and they begin to flood the screen. There's adulation, devotion, harassment, violence – the almost pan-cultural fixture, 'show breasts' – and all of it at once. She looks like she's lost her train of thought, and like her mind is pulled in a hundred different directions.
So coming back to the scene where Arabella Googles the word 'doxing' – I'm interested in how the title of the series seems to take on a new life with every episode. Who will destroy whom – does the rapist destroy? Does Arabella's newfound social media power destroy? Does 'calling out', 'doxing' or 'cancelling' destroy? Or do you destroy yourself, in sharing your pain? And the more I tried to understand the interplay of social media and trauma, the more I thought of what The New Yorker's Jia Tolentino wrote in an essay about college towns and rape culture: "There is no glorified interpersonal behaviour that can be used to explain robbery or murder the way that sex can be used to explain rape. The best-case scenario for a rape victim in terms of adjudication is the worst-case scenario in terms of experience: for people to believe you deserve justice, you have to be destroyed."
Perhaps the cultural and political moment I exist in made me read this into the show – but I was left with the sense that the show was trying to tell me something about the crime genre and 'red herrings'. I May Destroy You is littered with red herrings – even when it slipped into the groove of being an introspective drama, I found myself wondering if I missed a minor character who could have been the rapist. In the end, the rapist is essentially a nobody – no one known to Arabella or the viewer.
Rape does not happen because you consume drugs, because you drink too much, because you're carefree, because of your relationships with men, because your friend wasn't there for you, or because of your relationship with your father. There is no 'aha!' moment, there are no clues in a survivor's trauma. The lens we've often used to look at rape has been through courtroom and cop dramas – a breathless search for prints, the triumphs of a scrappy lawyer. But perhaps Coel is trying to say that we would understand the nuance of trauma if we understood that people are just as nuanced – their past, their family, their friends and their creativity. She asks, what mental labour is spent behind the scenes of a hashtag, a movement, a feminist reckoning? What does Arabella choose to do with her trauma, and can there be a right answer?