Table of Contents:
- Content Warning
- A Short Review
- Chapter 1: Memories During, Before, and After Sexual Assault
- Chapter 2: The Aftermath of Taking a Step against Injustice
- Chapter 3: Now That You Are a Survivor, Does It Also Mean You Are Flawless?
- Chapter 4: Moving on Is the Best Form of Catharsis, or Is It?
An extended content warning:
The following essay contains material that may be harmful or traumatising to some readers. Topics such as racism, mental health, rape, and the various types will be mentioned within this essay. The intention behind this essay is to merely spark a sincere, civil discussion about such topics and nothing else. We have tried to approach this with an analytical mind, deprived of any bias. But, we are motivated by empathy towards such issues. We do not aim to trigger any existing traumas or any painful memories for the reader. So, proceed with caution.
Most of the analysis and/ or breakdown that I will discuss will be from a writing and thematic standpoint. That said, the technical aspects might seemingly feel like they are getting overlooked. Therefore, I will start with a summary of the series followed by a short review before delving deep into the story.
A Short Review
I May Destroy You is a black comedy-drama miniseries created, written, co-directed, and executive produced by Michaela Cole for BBC One and HBO. It follows Arabella, played by Cole, as a young writer caught in the public eye which seeks to build her life after being raped.
The series is inspired by Cole’s own experiences, being a survivor of sexual assault. Despite the heavy nature of the topic, she manages to bring a certain amount of charm and goofiness to help the viewers easily digest the story as a whole. It also stars Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu as Terry and Kwame, Arabella’s best friends. The trio’s experiences, both individual and shared, form the crux of the story.
I feel dishonest. There is no way I can leave a short review on such a dense topic. But let me try. The series is perfect to a fault. The performances of the cast, especially the three leads, are outstanding. Cole’s portrayal of a writer having to deal with the gravity of a situation is raw and chilling to the point where the viewer might need the feel to look away. As do Opia playing a struggling actor, trying and failing and trying again to be a pillar of support for her best friend. When the inner conflict is visible, the actor is doing a great job.
As for Essiedu playing a gay man coming to terms with his situation as he tries to stay strong for his friend, all the while dealing with his underlying trauma, is heartbreaking. This is a testament to Cole being an exceptional writer who has written for all the 12 episodes. She creates the dynamics between the characters as they effortlessly navigate the world. The efficiency stems from her experience as a writer and creator, working on the hit sitcom Chewing Gum, based on her play.
There are hardly any unnecessary scenes in the series; a pet peeve that I have had with a lot of mainstream shows like Sex Education and Daredevil, where there are there is some sort of standalone episode that focuses on a character whose actions during that episode may or may not serve the story. The show is inventive to a fault in the way it explores various scenarios through some smart but risky editing choices. We are not always told what timeline we are following; that was the creators’ way of letting us navigate the main character’s memories with her.
My rating: 9/10. I’m keeping the “1” because it would be hard to re-watch something like this.
Chapter 1: Memories During, Before, and After Sexual Assault
Pretty early on in the series, we are introduced to Arabella on a visit to Italy with her on-again, off-again, drug-dealer boyfriend, Biagio. She is lagging on her second book, and her deadline is coming up. She is about to leave, but not before “officially” asking Biagio out. During this very little scene, we get so much insight into our main character; she is a talented individual trying to build a relationship with a rather unreliable person. The storyline is already set up in a way that makes us question the character even before the incident occurs. This is accompanied by Tierra Whack’s head-bopping number “Only Child,” suggesting our character to be a carefree, creative person.
Halfway through the episode, our empathy is restored in the character as she procrastinates about finishing her book, to the point she just googles, “How to write quickly?” Feeling like she could use a break, Arabella visits her friend Simon, who insists on her connecting with his cousin. Eventually, one thing leads to another, and the friends get drunk. Arabella wakes up in the morning to a haunting realisation; she was violated the night before, but she cannot figure out who it was.
She feels pain but has no recollection of how she got it in the first place. Here’s one depressingly funny aspect of such an incident; the survivor seems to second-guess themselves first. That is what causes most survivors to not report cases of sexual assault. They fear no one will believe them. Advocates, therefore, emphasise better training for police on the neuroscience of trauma, for it will make survivors feel while talking to the police. Any form of aggressiveness during the investigation could result in the survivor feeling secondary trauma. Be it assault, abuse, or even something as seemingly minute as workplace discrimination- there is a necessity for investigators to at least appear as compassionate as advertised.
Neuroscientists and psychologists say it’s common for trauma survivors to have gaps in their immediate recall of a violent event and for details to return weeks or months later. But if police officers don’t know the neuroscience behind trauma, they may assume a survivor is unreliable or lying. Experts say officers make that assumption more often with sexual assault than other crimes. These recall issues might complicate the investigation of rape if survivors report it to the police.
Jim Hopper, a Harvard psychologist, states that if pressured during an investigation, the brain of a survivor goes into “survival mode.” He further explains that the “defence circuitry” of the brain takes over, and the prefrontal cortex- the part of the brain responsible for logical decision making- is no longer in control. Instead, the areas of the brain responsible for scanning danger take charge.
There seem to be too many independent variables connected in Arabella’s first incident; her friend Simon is advised by Terry there wouldn’t be any problem leaving Arabella alone at the bar- which is what led to the drug-facilitated rape. She then instructs Simon to lie to Arabella that he walked her home to hide his extramarital affair. The lie proves to be devastating as Arabella tries to figure out the missing pieces of the case.
In a rather off-going storyline in the series, we see Arabella romanticising growing up with her parents in two different households. It is shown that the father’s second house is his decoy for him to continue an extramarital affair under the pretext of work, which is why he never gave the keys to that house to Arabella. As she goes through her childhood memories, she is devastated to understand the magnitude of such a revelation.
Memories shape our perception of someone: the details we might not notice or just mistakenly ignore sometimes turn out to be the most important aspect of that person. It separates the view we have of our parents and what they are. She had a different view of her mother when she saw her ask her aunt Lenora to leave. But, as she plays back her memory, she realises the grief her mother has gone through by dealing with her husband’s infidelity along with raising her kids as an immigrant.
Memories play an integral part in the narrative. Terry, Arabella’s best friend, recalls her visit to Italy in the third episode and figures out much later in the present that she might have been tricked into the threesome that she thought was “mutually decided.”
It’s funny- not the incident itself- but how one remembers it that shapes the way how we perceive things. Once it hits her, she is devastated, to say the least. But, the subtle way this show just throws certain twists in our face is refreshing and mind-blowing at the same time. It makes us question as people how we let so many little but relevant things slide and the futility of understanding its impact much later. So, what was it in Terry’s case? A misinterpreted social cue? A 66-per cent consensual sexual engagement? Or rape by deception?
Chapter 2: The Aftermath of Taking a Step against Injustice
The trauma for our main character doesn’t stop there. In episode 4, she becomes close with a fellow writer, Zain. As they engage in sex, he removes the said protection without her knowledge. Some of us might ask, “Wait a minute, but she did consent to the whole thing, right?”
Here’s the thing: the action mentioned above is called “Stealthing.” As of 2020, it is punishable as a form of sexual violence in some countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom- the latter being where the show is based in. The creators don’t shy away from showing how such horrific acts happen in such a discreet manner, to the point that the viewers are left startled with the knowledge they are now uncomfortable with. It is unnerving to witness that both the predators in her life are such unassuming, seemingly mild-mannered individuals that you would think nothing of.
Arabella, disoriented by the occurrence, decides to expose Zain at a literary festival. It goes viral, and she is celebrated as a woman who stood up against injustice as it is indicated that he will face legal action for the crime he has committed. Happy ending? Not so much.
Twitter has been at the forefront when it comes to exposing rape and sexual assault allegations. It has been better than it has been worse. “One of the things we know about sexual assault is it takes power and agency away from survivors. Sometimes telling their story is a way of reclaiming their voice,” says University of Sydney professor Catherine Lumby.
“Like the #MeToo movement, this is allowing women to tell their stories in a collective way rather than in single file which is what they were forced to do in the past — to police, or friends and family — which often brought a sense of isolation for them.”
Within a short time, we see our main character become a sort of youth icon on social media, much to the annoyance of her close friends. That is not a negative take on survivors at all. It dares to show that whether you are the abuser or the abused, both sides can have human flaws because they are, and this is not a spoiler, HUMAN. We see a sexual assault survivor enjoying the limelight as a social media celebrity, faking a persona while avoiding therapy that would help in healing her. This constant, instant self-mythologizing is prevalent in modern times more than ever- thanks to social media. It is a curious case of “modern woman, archaic consequences.”
But, this is our main character, and she does learn to mend herself now and then, a testament to a great character arc written by the person playing the main character, Michaela Coel. In her rather transparent interview with W Magazine, Coel said,
“We deserve to be made uncomfortable, too, and that discomfort is so raw and so outrageous. The audience should be allowed to feel those things. We shouldn’t make work that simply panders to whatever the political norm is right now unless there is a way you can do that, that stimulates the audience and gives them that feeling the storytelling is supposed to give them. It’s fear-based. We can’t be afraid as writers to bring discomfort to anyone.”
It is through this lens of discomfort that Coel sheds light on so many internal topics hidden under the microscope of one big issue. We second-guess the survivors while we are on the verge of sympathising with the perpetrators, only to be brought back to reality.
Chapter 3: Now That You Are a Survivor, Does It Also Mean You Are Flawless?
Hollywood and a huge portion of world cinema have been notorious for playing men’s sexual assault for laughs; be it, Joey from F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is “taken advantage of” by a tailor. Or even in Wedding Crashers, where Vince Vaughn’s character is tied to his bed and forced into sex by his love interested, played by Isla Fisher. These problematic stereotypes have been haunting the visual medium with the wrong sense of approach toward male sexual assault.
Fast-forward to 2020, we see the character of Kwame being sexually assaulted on a date. He does, however, manage to report it to the authorities. But, unlike Arabella, the officers pay him no mind, indicating that “if there is no penetration involved, then there doesn’t seem anything substantial enough to make a case on.” It was the s sheer swiftness with which the sexual assault on a man of colour was trivialised that was unnerving to witness.
The Huffington Post did a report on male sexual assault in the United Kingdom, which stated that out of 679, 051 rapes of males that took place between 2010 and 2017, 652, 568 weren’t reported. That is a total of 3.9% of cases in the books. On the contrary, more than 3.5 million cases of female sexual assault took place, and 20% reported it to the police. The stats are not to disregard one side and honour the other; it is only for us to read through them and exhale collectively.
That makes Kwame quite a sympathetic character, right? Sure.
Surprisingly, in Episode 8, Kwame, whom we have known to be gay, goes on a date with Nilufer, a woman. All the while he is with her, he hides his sexuality and doesn’t let her know until after they have sex. To call it horrible would be an understatement- it is a form of sexual deception. Is it terrible enough to convict one of a crime? It is too complicated for the general public to assume anything as such. But, it is a vicious act to deceive someone who trusts you enough to hand themselves over to you.
Now, how much accountability one needs to take on this is a psychological conundrum. Apart from their intimate moment, Nilufer confides in him that she is only attracted to him because he is Black. Where does she stand? What does that make her? Is she not a racist but a homophobic? The dynamics are complicated. In the end, Kwame is interpreted to be a predator, according to Nilufer, and that remains unresolved despite Kwame’s attempt at reconciliation. We even have a moment when Arabella calls him out for this.
Meanwhile, Terry immediately points out to Arabella for the time she locked the door on him with another guy being in the room, which triggered his memory of sexual assault- causing a breakdown. She was, however, unaware of what he went through before that. The point is, these are flawed people, and the creators have left no stone unturned in terms of adding layers to these characters.
We see Terry over-compensating for her ignorance by being the most caring and available friend to Arabella. She doesn’t have the nerve to reveal to her that she instructed Simon to lie. Instead, it is revealed by Simon to her. Arabella ultimately lets it go because she understands that it was neither her nor Terry’s responsibility to not get raped. Rather, it is the abuser’s responsibility to not perpetuate it. Everyone made a bad call that night: Simon left Arabella, Terry advised towards it, and Arabella mixed cocaine and alcohol, which led to her lack of consciousness. None of these actions led to the rape itself. That guilt is the perpetrator’s burden to carry.
Theodora, one of the most dynamic characters in the show, meets Arabella at a crossroads in her life. She is seen as somewhat extremely serious in her activism, but there was always this eerie, cult-leader-like side to her, which turns out to be a subversion. As soon as we get to observe the backstory of Theo, we go on a journey and witness one of the most nuanced and layered characters penned for television.
A victim of emotional abuse from her mother as a child, she was forced by her to accuse her father of sexual assault so that the mother could win custody. Later on, she projects this onto a classmate who asks for her explicit pictures in exchange for some lunch money.
Later, she complains to the principal about it, only to be dismissed after the authorities that she took money for the act and that she consented anyway. In the aftermath, we see a young Arabella and Theo joining the other classmates in cheering her away as a form of some racial solidarity since the accused was a P.O.C. The fact that Ryan, the accused, did take pictures and passed them around to boost his ego was overlooked, which makes us ask a pretty valid question: is mindless racial solidarity a form of racism?
Despite what had happened in the past, Theo and Arabella cross paths in the support group and help each other, much to the initial disapproval of Terry, who believes that people’s core nature does not change. Whatever Theo was as a child, it was due to years of manipulation from her mother, something she has gotten over while trying to make peace with herself.
Chapter 4: Moving on Is the Best Form of Catharsis, or Is It?
“Ego Death” is the name of the final episode, titled after the Jungian concept of total psychic transformation. It goes on a Groundhog Day-meets-Russian Doll route. We see Arabella, along with Terry and Theo, planning three types of plans to catch David, her rapist.
The common theme in the first two endings is that something goes wrong. At first, Arabella leaves a piece of clothing, and at the second one, Arabella tries to keep David busy while Terry calls the cops. David finds out and turns the situation on her, and she ends up taking him home. They have a heart-to-heart until the police arrive anyway. So much for closure!
The third ending borders on the surreal, where she visits him at a now-empty Ego Death, and she buys him drinks. They have sex and have an intimate conversation where he reveals his history as a broken man- and a rapist. The police evict him in the end. It turns out all of these scenarios are possible endings for her second book, which she successfully finishes with the help of Zain!
Redemption? No. It’s just her making peace with her trauma by utilising what he has to offer. A fair transaction. Kwame finds love, as does Terry, with a Trans man named Kai. And Arabella continues her friendship with Theo, who seems to have blended in with the group, and Ben, Arabella’s reserved but sweet flatmate. Arabella’s book is successful. And all of them happily ever after.
Oh, and there’s one more thing: her abuser doesn’t get persecuted. Maybe that was never the point. Before the group gets together, Arabella has a subtle heart-to-heart moment with Ben, telling him that she’s considering going to the bar to hunt down David. However, in the possibly real version of the night, she decides to stay home with Ben and invite Terry and the others to hang out with her.
Although revenge would have been a more cinematically cathartic choice, it is not the theme of the show that Coel has created. It is about an individual surviving something horrible and navigating herself within the many adversities, internal and external, personal and professional, logical and irrational, and overcoming them with the help of her willpower and the collective strength of having the right people in her life.
Through an equal display of humour and conscious emotion in the story, Coel delivers an accurate and effective masterpiece. It is not an easy feat to deliver an imaginative yet socially relevant piece of art that doesn’t shy away from asking certain questions while not being too preachy about it. It is a surprisingly introspective take on the multiple variants of abuse that dares to ask the question, “Can these types of adversity teach us who we are?”
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