Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault
I vividly remember the moment when I was groped by a stranger on my way to school in 2007. I remember having a whole spectrum of feelings about that instance, moments after it took place. My emotions ranged from anger to helplessness. I distinctly remember building up alternative scenarios in my head that could have helped me escape that situation or deal with it in a braver manner, because all I did in that moment was go into shock and cry afterwards.
I May Destroy You, the HBO series, is about the could-have-beens and what ifs that a sexual assault survivor deals with every day. Though the show has been classified as a consent drama, that is too reductionist a label for it. This is a story about life. Almost every woman I have met or known has been molested or sexually assaulted at least once in her lifetime, yet barely anyone has seen their assaulter meet the justice they deserved. We have learned to live with the repercussions through survival strategies. Arabella, the protagonist of I May Destroy You, is no stranger to this kind of survival. The show begins with the sexual assault that she had to endure but never shows us the actual assault taking place. This is something even the Carrie Mulligan starter Promising Young Woman does. It seems there is a tacit consensus among female filmmakers to deny the audience the titillating pleasure they previously derived from the rape-revenge dramas directed by their male counterparts, all in the name of realism. The rest of the show portrays the after-effects of the sexual assault and the various coping mechanisms Arabella devises.
Barring a few exceptions, most Hindi movies have given us rape victims with passive bodies and passive minds, who are just plot points for the male protagonists to emerge as heroes. Later, when the male directors felt like going with the "trend" of women empowerment, they began giving us female protagonists who emerge as brave warriors post-rape to avenge their assault. We have seen this trope several times in movies like I Spit On Your Grave or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. However, I May Destroy You and Promising Young Woman do not give you the "girl-next-door" turning into "Durga Mata" post-rape trope. They acknowledge the cruel fact that the survivor of sexual assault gets severely damaged physically and mentally, showing society the truth as it is. Arabella is not the most likeable character, but she is the most believable one. She is flawed, a bit annoying, and overbearing as well, challenging our notions and expectations of what a "perfect victim" is.
Though Arabella is the most visible rape survivor in the show (she is violated not once but twice), she is not the only one. Both her best friends survive sexual encounters which leave them feeling violated. Through these stories, the show covers a wide spectrum of consent. Our notion of consent is confined within the binary of yes and no. However, life rarely pans out that way. How would you respond to a situation where you agree to have a threesome with two complete strangers who are unknown to each other, only to find out that they knew each other all along and laid a trap to make you feel like you were in control? Picture another scenario, where you went out on a Tinder date and had steamy consensual sex with your date, only to be forced when you were about to leave? These situations may be tough to be label for some, but those who endure it know that they've been violated.
The show expands the idea of consent to include the "theft of consent". It urges us to broaden our horizons while thinking about consent. Consent must be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. Rape isn't always the gruesome violation that the news channels shows it to be. Rape is a legal construct. Though it is defined by the educated lawmakers, it is lived and endured by everyday people. Arabella keeps telling herself that "there are children dying in Africa without food", in order to relativise and trivialise her pain and remind herself of the privileges she enjoys as a 21st century, London-born, educated woman. However, does that lessen her pain in any way? No, it does not.
I May Destroy You reminds us of the nature of pain, which is always absolute. The source of the pain can be relativised, for instance – not getting an expensive car as a birthday gift can be painful for some, but not getting a call from a friend can also hurt the same way. Though the source of the pain is different, the feeling it induces makes my body and brain react the same way. Consequently, Arabella's exercise is in vain. Her pain is absolute.
Like the novel she's writing to cope, her story is also going in a linear fashion. She is on a quest to find her assaulter, she shapes herself into an "Insta-celeb survivor". She places herself at the center of the story, while relegating her friends to props who are there only to solve only the the main character's issues. When the police inform her that her assaulter can't be caught, she is distraught. In the anti-climax, she builds several alternative scenarios in her head to avenge herself, to give a definite conclusion to her story, but in the end, it remains a scenario that cannot be fulfilled. She reconciles with the facts. She finishes her novel. We never get to read it. But we know that the author is somewhere out there, living her life with a body and a mind that are completely hers.