In June 2019, E. Jean Carroll published an excerpt from her forthcoming book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, in New York Magazine. In the piece, she deftly recounts how President Donald J. Trump assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room some twenty-three years prior. This story does not exist in isolation; numerous women have come forward with similar stories of sexual aggression by the President. And, throughout his time in the Oval Office, Trump and his contemporaries have made serious strides to quell the reproductive rights of women—promising to overturn Roe V. Wade and angling to defund Planned Parenthood in its entirety. The body has developed into a political object to be regulated, exploited, and controlled. This is not just limited to the United States; rather, this phenomenon is commonplace.
Michaela Coel’s 2020 BBC/HBO television series, I May Destroy You, makes this clear. The show follows aspiring-writer Arabella (played by Coel herself) as she grapples with her sexual assault—having been drugged and raped while out with friends at a London bar. At first, she doesn’t quite remember the contents of that night. However, over time, she begins to understand what has happened. I May Destroy You pays homage to Coel’s personal relationship to assault, having had an experience reminiscent of Arabella’s while writing her famed play-turned-television show Chewing Gum.
Grappling With Sexual Violence, Examining Cultural Norms
Throughout the twelve episodes, Coel sifts through the pervasive and frightening emotional impact that assault chillingly inflicts upon its victim. As writer, director, executive producer, and actress, Coel leaves no stone unturned. She highlights the dysfunctionality of law enforcement in dealing with cases of sexual violence. Investigators try their best, but cases are left unresolved. She demonstrates how cultural attitudes inform how acts of sexual violence are regarded, and whose voices are heard.
Particularly powerful is how Coel demonstrates sexual violence as something strange, irreconcilable, and foreign. It is something both deeply felt and alien—as if it has happened to someone else, and not to you. She perfectly articulates the ways we misbehave in the wake of trauma, and the newfound ways we interact with those who matter to us as a result.
Coel additionally demonstrates the shortcomings of friends and systems of supposed support and the importance of somewhat dangerous coping mechanisms [think: social media, alcohol, and nicotine] in surviving trauma. Says Arabella’s therapist, Carrie, about the aftermath of sexual assault: “Everything and nothing is normal.”
Intersectional Frameworks: Whose Story is Heard?
As the show unfolds, Coel makes a compelling case for why we must view sexual violence from an intersectional lens. The show critically decenters the often-amplified white narrative, highlighting Black voices that have for too long been made secondary. She demonstrates how those with distinctive identities—along lines of sexuality, race, and gender identity—move through spheres of sexual violence in different ways, paying particular attention to the Black female body in the British context. She shows how one’s sexuality informs how their case is perceived by law enforcement. Arabella’s case, as a heterosexual woman, is taken more more seriously than her best friend Kwame’s case—his case is made more piecemeal, treated differently because he is queer and Black. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), a nonprofit collective of sexual assault prevention- and rape crisis centers, argues that we must consider how systems of oppression interact when thinking through instances of assault.
According to CALCASA, we need to acknowledge our “complex and layered reality” which accounts for why some cases of assault are taken more seriously than others. It is exactly this reality that, for so long, has been ignored. For example, the voices of white women have come to take precedence over more diverse ones when discussing sexual violence. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and a survivor of sexual violence herself, said “The women of color, trans women, queer people—our stories get pushed aside and our pain is never prioritized.” And, throughout history, white women have played into harmful tropes which perpetuate this trend. For example, the ‘damsel in distress’ trope in which a white woman acts like they are “in need of saving from a Black man,” something which Amy Cooper evoked in May of 2020 during her widely publicized, offensive harassment of Christian Cooper in Central Park. It is exactly this complex, layered reality á la CALCASA, that Coel illuminates in her show.
Appealing to Our Humanity
I May Destroy You matters because it is a universal story. Sexual violence does not just happen to Arabella; all characters have experienced it to some degree. Arabella’s two closest friends—Terry and Kwame—too uncover this violence in their own sexual histories. Terry comes to terms with the fact that a threesome she engaged in may not have been as capricious, consensual, and unplanned as she had once thought. After being forced to engage in sex, Kwame finds himself thinking through the perils of online dating apps and the power dynamics inherent in their formats. These considerations are not just limited to the few characters—all have something to say. All have some form of sexual history that is intertwined and enmeshed in acts of sexual violence.
The medium of I May Destroy You, as a television show, strengthens its impact. TV shows, film, and media generally are important because they make us feel things—they appeal to our emotions in ways multivalent. For example, in his 2016 book The World Reimagined, Historian Mark Bradley says of Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother: “In seeking to make the suffering of strangers as visible and deeply felt as one’s own, [Lange] engage[d] in imaginative, moral, and political interventions.” I May Destroy You does something similar. It diminishes the gap between actor and audience—in its manipulation of camera angles, use of nonlinear storytelling, witty dialogue, and more. It makes you feel like you are in the room with Arabella, having a conversation. It compels the viewer to consider their own sexual history. It brings up memories and feelings that have so long been repressed. It leaves them quietly muttering “Me, too” under their breath.
The show too asks the viewer to think—to consider their own sexual history, how they treat others in a sexual context, and how they have conceived of things like rape and assault. The show challenges the viewer to think about their own sexual citizenship—that is, their own projects, autonomies, and geographies—as Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan proffer. The show compels us to reckon with sex against a societal backdrop in which sex is too often overlooked or not taken seriously [in the American case, a world in which our President, Donald Trump, possesses a rich history of sexual aggression towards women]. It is for these reasons that I May Destroy You is a story of now and then; of Arabella and everyone; and a difficult, yet essential, story.
If you are experiencing sexual violence, you are not alone. Contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline for free, safe, confidential help at 800.656.HOPE (4673). Find other resources at www.rainn.org.