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Approaching sexual assault on screen: The triumph of I May Destroy You

Anna Robinson explores Michaela Coel's nuanced and sensitive depiction of trauma in the groundbreaking series I May Destroy You

TW: sexual assault / rape

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is what television’s been missing. Everyone should see this programme. It’s beautiful. It’s funny and it’s sad and it’s thought-provoking. It’s full of metaphor and meaning and feeling. It deals with sexual assault in a way I have never seen on television. Its characters are flawed and funny – they make us laugh at the most painful and surprising times; they can be selfish, insensitive, dishonest; they swear, smoke, drink too much. And Coel refuses to offer us the sanitised, tidy femininity we are used to seeing on television: we see things such as Arabella on the toilet chatting to her friends; we see period sex in all its realism. And we see sexual abuse in all its sickening ordinariness.

The series begins with Arabella struggling to deliver a draft of her book to her publishers. With hours left until the deadline, and her phone ringing with invites, she goes to meet some friends on a night out. Someone spikes her drink in the bar. The next morning all she remembers is a man on top of her, raping her in the bathroom stalls. We follow Arabella’s recovery, how she pieces together that night, and navigates her denial, her despair, her rage, her fear.

I love that Coel also explores kinds of abuse that don’t typically get air time. When Arabella sleeps with a colleague, Zain, she finds out after that he took the condom off without telling her. He gaslights her into believing it’s not a big deal. They carry on their relationship, but when Arabella discovers discussions of ‘stealthing’ online, she realises the she has been assaulted. As she later describes him, Zain is “not rape-adjacent, or a bit rapey: he’s a rapist”.

Coel reminds us that sexual assault is not always staring down at us from a bathroom stall. Sexual assault can be quiet, even subtle. It can be disguised with words to look ‘harmless’. Sexual assault can live hidden, unnamed in memories for years. Throughout the series, we hear Terry boast of her threesome in Italy – how she met two strangers and they went back to her hotel “and did things that prudish bitches don’t do”. But in a flashback we see that the two “strangers” appear to secretly know each other – “there was something about the way they left together”, Terry admits later. What Terry believed to be a spontaneous, unpremeditated encounter, was in fact planned and predatory. Terry “took the bait’” Her consent was gained through dishonesty. And that “still burns like it was yesterday”.

Kwame, one of Arabella’s close friends, explores the limitlessness of his sexuality with frequent Grindr hook-ups. He has consensual sex with ‘Hornyman808’, but the same man rapes him later in the evening. Three weeks later we see Kwame’s attempt to report it to the police. The scene is a masterpiece of discomfort. It crackles with awkwardness, sadness and disillusion. Magnificent and delicate symbolism operates throughout the scene to expose the flaws in the way the law handles sexual assault victims.

Under the lurid yellow light of the interview room, Kwame sits behind a large black table: its mass obtrusiveness seems to symbolise the barrier between the justice system and the people it is supposed to protect. We are made hyperaware of invasive background sounds; telephones ringing, conversations uttered. It is an auditory reminder than the average workday is churning on, all whilst someone is heaving their trauma out onto that black table in interview room one, ready to be dissected under the unsympathetic, disinterested light of the police officer – an officer who conducts half of the interview standing near the door, itching to leave.

This collision of the mundane workaday and raw trauma keeps the scene sparking with disquiet. The walls are a lifeless yellow and the room feels tired, worn down through usage. The wall behind Kwame is comprised of four translucent windows. Through the milky panes we can see the shadows of an office corner. Murky figures move past, resembling oceanic creatures swimming in shallower water above the claustrophobic depths of the interview room. The ghostly spectators of this clouded amphitheatre watch through the panes at the awkward vivisection about to happen.

The policeman is uncomfortable talking to a gay black man about rape. He chuckles under his breath, seems nervous, disapproving, and repeatedly ignores Kwame’s assertions that he has the rapist’s address, instead insisting that he need only gather the information asked for “on the form”. He asks about the extent of penetration, and is uncomfortable with the response: “you know, we have machines outside that you could have reported this on”.

He then asks Kwame if he needs anything – a glass of water perhaps? Kwame’s need for protection and justice is completely overlooked in the very place meant to provide these things, but at least his thirst can be quenched. The officer leaves out of an open door, with a sign which reads ‘ATTENTION: THIS DOOR MUST BE CLOSED AT ALL TIMES. YOU ARE PUTTING PEOPLE IN DANGER BY HAVING IT OPEN’. The officer fails to even shut the door for him: the system keeps breezing on, answering phones, filling out forms, but ultimately leaving doors open for offenders to walk free. Home Office statistics from 2019 suggest the alleged perpetrators of more than 98 per cent of rapes reported to the police are allowed to go free.[1]

Arabella’s experience with the police is less dismissive and more sympathetic, but it is ultimately just as fruitless. The day after she is spiked and raped in ‘Ego Death’ (the bar’s apt name), still in the depths of denial, Arabella reports “the man in my head” and what he did to her to the police. We see her in a hospital gown, having tests, samples and photos taken. She goes for a smoke, and sat next to her is another woman in a gown. There’s a large blood stain near her thigh. “Is this your first time?” the woman asks sympathetically. “Funny, isn’t it,” she continues serenely, “how nothing hurts and everything is beautiful?”

In a later episode, Arabella gets a call from the police asking her to come in. The original policewomen on her case walk in, one after another. They are both now heavily pregnant. Arabella and Terry screech excited congratulations. The officers ask to proceed with the meeting. “It has been nine months,’” Arabella is told, “since your first interview”. Reading from her folder the facts of the investigation – and never taking her eyes off the page – an officer informs Arabella that after testing the DNA of one suspect and it not being a match, there is “no longer an active investigation”. Arabella is asked if she would like her things back from forensics.

Their fat, fruitful bellies contrast with the withered, dried up, fruitless investigation. It takes nine months for a pinprick to gestate into a fully developed foetus; it has also taken nine months for the investigation to reach the stage of abortion. On one side of the table sits a rape victim, on the other two pregnant officers. We have the destructive and the constructive consequences of sex, juxtaposed across the desk. The babies will be born into a world where yet another rapist walks free. The officers’ pregnancies embody the fertile infertility of the justice system. Last year the proportion of rapes being prosecuted in England and Wales was 1.7 per cent.[2]

Michaela Coel, having been sexually assaulted herself, recalls going to the police station after the attack: “as we waited for the detective, I noticed him playing Pokemon Go on his phone. And that became the tone for the rest of my thoughts.”[3]

I May Destroy You traces a web of destruction and consequence, but Coel’s skilled and nuanced touch, her expert interweaving of comic relief and heart-warming moments with threads of darkness and devastation, prevents us from ever fully going under. The series brims with ordinary beauty and also the ordinariness of trauma. It is genuine and heartfelt. It captures the beauty in friendship and in finding your own power. A poster by Arabella’s bedside reminds us that we are made of 70% water. Throughout the series, water symbolises power: ‘we are made of the thing that can destroy us’, Coel explained in an interview. [4] In episode one we see Arabella flinching from the sea in Italy: later in the series, after her rape investigation is closed, we see her walking into the ocean, fully clothed. She submerges herself. ‘Going under’ is a prominent concept in the series: under water, under investigation, under the bed where Arabella throws all her things from forensics, under another person. Just before the scene ends, we see Arabella emerge from the water, ‘like a sea monster’.[5] We might be subsumed by the thing that can destroy us, but Coel tells us that we can, and will, resurface.

Art by Philip Olney

[1] https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/rape-prosecution-england-wales-victims-court-cps-police-a8885961.html%3famp

[2] https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/rape-prosecution-england-wales-victims-court-cps-police-a8885961.html%3famp

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/jul/10/michaela-coel-i-may-destroy-you-bbc-arabella-assault-racism

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=GWNb6uGc748

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=GWNb6uGc748

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