I recently finished watching I May Destroy You on HBO Max and all I can say is WOW. Michaela Coel is a genius for this show and for so many reasons. I had to make a post dedicated to this masterpiece, especially since my viewing of the finale coincides with my latest YouTube episode about rape (in Wolof; link below for your convenience). Let me start off by saying that I May Destroy You is about so much more than rape. Ugh let’s just get into it.
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
The show tackles consent in many ways. There are multiple relationships that we can use as examples in dissecting this concept. If we take the relationship of the protagonist Arabella and her Italian beau, Biagio, we see their first sexual encounter rely heavily on their mutual consent. Arabella is on her period and after she expresses it, Biagio lets her know that he doesn’t mind (expressing consent for having period sex). When they actually attempt it, Biagio asks Arabella if it’s okay if he removes her tampon for her. It may seem like a trivial example but it’s important to call out. Consent matters in every situation between two people!
Let’s take another example between Kwame, Arabella and Terry’s best friend, who is sexually assaulted AFTER a consensual sexual encounter with a dating app hookup. Kwame gives consent one time and then doesn’t give consent for a second time with this pompous man who neglects his denial and assaults him anyway. Consent is a one-time-use ticket and thus, is required for every act!
We also have the scene where Arabella’s best friend, Terry, has a night out in Italy during a creative writing trip to inspire Aabella’s writing. While out, Terry meets two strangers and takes them home for a threesome. When all is said and done and they’re leaving, Terry sees them walking side by side, headed in the same direction, and talking it up … as if it wasn’t the first time they met…or did something like this. This strips all notions of enjoyment/liberation from Terry as she realizes she’s been duped. She’s been roped into this situation under false pretenses and that negates any consent she gave. Blurred lines some say.
One last relationship I’d like to highlight is the infamous condom removal scene between Arabella and her fellow writer, Zain. During an otherwise consensual sexual encounter, Zain removes the condom he had on, without Arabella’s … you guessed it, consent (this is known as stealthing in the UK, btw). She did not know he removed the condom until after the encounter and it completely traumatized Arabella (and me to be honest) because that’s quite frankly considered rape. Even in the middle of consensual sexual interactions, any and all new acts require consent.
I read into things a lot and noticed consent even in non-sexual situations. When Arabella stops smoking and drinking to help her cope with her sexual assault, a simple question asking her if she’d like a smoke or a drink is important instead of just assuming she’d like it. Overall, the show tackles consent in a very dynamic way, leading us to think deep. The show has soooo many examples, at every corner of every episode. I will just urge you all to watch the entire series. No excuses.
“Your birth is my birth. Your death is my death.” This is the ride-or-die motto of protagonist Arabella and Terry. Throughout the season, we see their friendship in many lights. From the highs, figuratively and literally, of walking the streets of Italy and enjoying a day of promenade to the intense encounter where Arabella confronts Terry about giving their friend Simon the green light to leave Arabella alone the night she was raped. The complicity of their relationship can also be seen in the flashbacks of the younger Arabella and Terry in high school. When a black male student was accused by a white female student of rape (which was a whole tangent all on its own), Arabella and Terry were the ones who hyped each other up, to the point where Arabella denounced the girl. They have always stood side-by-side, no matter the situation and that’s quite admirable.
Another friendship dynamic that I found interesting was that of Arabella and Simon, her male friend that convinced her to come out when she had a draft for her book due the next day. Simon is married and Arabella knows his wife. Nonetheless, Arabella “covers” for Simon when she meets his mistress (who, by the way, showed up earlier as a stranger to Simon, under the guise as someone Simon’s wife found for them to have a threesome with. Simon already knew her… just watch the show! It’s THAT good). Anyways, back on topic. So Arabella turns a blind eye to Simon’s secret affair and while I don’t condone that, I find that noble that they have a close enough relationship to withstand the trials and tribulations of life. So much so that even though Simon was the one who left Arabella alone on the night she was raped, she reconciled with him in Episode 10, letting bygones by bygones. That takes strength.
Dealing with Sexual Assault
When I first heard about the show, I thought Arabella would be a total hot mess after being raped. And don’t get me wrong, she was (is) distraught and definitely had her fair share of meltdowns. The back-and-forth trips to the police station, her staggered memory of the events that night, her blowup towards Kwame at a paint-and-sip event, her therapy sessions that sometimes were, and sometimes weren’t helpful to her recovery. But one thing the show did an incredible job with was showing us how Arabella “moved on” after the assault. She wasn’t confined to her room, wallowing in depression, rejecting the whole world. Instead, we see how this assault impacts her life in other ways. Her demeanor changes frequently. At some point, she works at a vegan charity where I personally saw she was quickly spiraling. She was doing it for the money but then she started to gain publicity as the black girl of this vegan brand who spoke her mind about sexual abuse. She sort of runs with this social media newfound attention, causing her to neglect her needs in dealing with the societal pressures and expectations around her.
Arabella continues for the next year without telling her family about the assault, something that is almost out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the viewer because we don’t meet her family until Episode 10. She finally reveals the truth to her mother after walking out of the dinner conversation as her dad tells the story of being robbed back in the day (during this flashblack, we learn it was Arabella that snuck in through the window earlier and left it open) and then returns to the table with her mother as if nothing had happened. Her life after the assault is a pendulum of event after event, testing her and pushing her to finally confront her aggressor when her memory of the assault comes back.
This show is ALL about gray areas. It leaves you thinking “wait, what just happened?” so many times that you have no choice but to be in shock! It’s provocative, it’s intense, it’s messy, it’s blurred, and it’s raw. Michaela does not hold back; we’re forced to confront the ugly nature of sex, consent, and assault in 12 intoxicating episodes. Each episode paints a vibrant picture. Each episode reels us in and forces us to rethink our own lives as these scenarios are all too familiar… all too real.
The concept of gray areas seem straightforward. The opposite of black and white, right? Well, yes and yes. I May Destroy You presents a well thought-out, carefully crafted, and stark representation of the reality of sexual assault and consent. It’s complex, compelling, and nuanced. All I can say is WOW. Please watch this show. Multiple times. And really think about it. I loved Arabella’s monologue where she talks about predators who operate in this gray area – it perfectly encapsulates this entire show.
Kudos to the entire team and thank you for this masterpiece! #IMDY