BY NYALA V. ALI
“What’s here… becomes rather… abstract… Where does it go?” stammers a confused publishing agent, in response to a book draft by Arabella, the protagonist of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. The same could be said of Coel’s 12-episode BBC drama, which is unsettling but essential viewing. At first, the show is structured around Arabella’s identity as a Black author and lauded social media influencer trying to live up to her own hype. She battles writer’s block and looming deadlines by
barhopping with friends before pulling an all-nighter to finish her second book.
After the troubling feedback from her agent, Arabella’s focus is further interrupted by a foggy memory of being sexually assaulted in a public bathroom. Remarkably, her recollection of this incident happens at the end of the show’s first episode, and her reaction is not one of abject horror, but instead manifests as a small, thoughtful “hm….” To which the audience might similarly react, as I May Destroy You shifts its focus from Arabella’s struggles as a writer, to her attempts to piece together the events that likely led to her assault.
This narrative shift dovetails with how Coel has strategically framed Arabella as an “imperfect victim,” both implicitly due to her race, class and the precarious reality of her seemingly glamorous job, and explicitly through her social proclivities and history of substance use.
But Arabella’s close friends are also important here, notably aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia), and aerobics
instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). Through this core group, I May Destroy You explores how single, Black, East End thirtysomethings fit into the current discourses around consent, assault and trauma, as all three experience some form of non-consensual sex.
Terry recalls a trip to Italy, during which she is picked up by two seemingly random men, only to later realize that she was targeted by the pair. For Kwame, a frequent Grindr user, a consensual hook-up quickly turns violent. Like Arabella, he files a report with the police, but the two friends have vastly different experiences at the station. Since the definition of “rape” does not neatly fit
Kwame’s experience, the police are both unable to help and are made visibly uncomfortable, indicating that there is
even less space for Kwame (a queer Black man) than for his women counterparts within this narrative.
In Coel’s show, anyone’s actions can potentially destroy another by causing trauma, as she positions Arabella and her friends alongside many dubious allies, all of whom have constructed themselves as “good people” incapable of causing the kind of harm as the anonymous attacker in Arabella’s memory. When workshopping her book with Zayn, a writer from the same publishing house, Arabella experiences a situation similar to Terry’s, where she does not realize the deliberate lack of consent in a sexual encounter until later. Arabella uses her social media clout to out Zayn as an abuser, but in doing so, has become even more vulnerable, exposing not only herself, but the line between self-empowerment and self-exploitation.
Moreover, the public callout is not particularly satisfying in granting closure to Arabella or to the audience; in fact, a later scene between Arabella and Zayn suggests that yes, seeking accountability is important, but what if the
process was less performative, less destructive and more personal?
Here, both consent and accountability are less about how to mediate acts of violation, and more about care for oneself and one’s community. Specifically, the show is interested in what folks might owe to each other in the aftermath of a
traumatic incident, and what shape that process might take.
For Coel, to portray trauma honestly means that its depiction onscreen is necessarily abstract, fragmented and untidy; no specific outcome is ever certain in situations where personal boundaries are both broached and blurred. She blends questions of authorship, race, class and gender into vignettes mirroring a crime procedural, an artist’s film, a hangout film, even a comedy, only to challenge the audience’s expectations of each genre throughout Arabella’s story. The only certainty I May Destroy You provides is that Arabella will continue to work through her trauma in a way that serves her. She is Arabella the author, the friend, the daughter, the lover, the detective, the survivor, but never Arabella the victim.