‘I May Destroy you’ – How Michaela Coel dismantled the stereotypes and taboos of race, drugs, class and the ‘grey’ areas of rape.

Michaela Coel’s recent BBC series has taken the world by storm, as a raw yet idiosyncratic drama depicting the aftermath of a sexual assault. Such a troubling subject matter requires great sensitivity; Coel’s own experience of sexual assault became the catalyst for an intimate reflection of the mercurial nature of trauma. 

This millennial drama captures the bubbly lifestyle of young writer Arabella, who after struggling with an all-nighter, embarks on a night out with her friends. Already you’re on her side. Her down to earth likeability shines through every scene, immediately placing you on board with all her pals within the metropolitan milieu. Thus, making it all the more unsettling when, after having her drink spiked,, she is raped. As viewers, we are slowly drip fed abrupt flashbacks consequently alerting us, alongside our protagonist, about the gravity of what has happened. 

We are then hooked on the journey of Arabella as she comes to terms with her trauma. Her friends Kwame and Terry share narrative that whilst comical in parts, serve to disclose how pervasive other ‘non-consensual’ violations are within the real world. And what’s worse is that, at the time, we might not even realise the importance of their roles.

What immediately struck me about this series was its refreshing style in depicting taboo topics. Not only are they unorthodox in nature but they simultaneously dismantle many stereotypes in visual depictions of sexual abuse within TV dramas.  

Non-sensationalist Style:

In contrast to the historical sensationalist tropes of many TV dramas and thrillers, Coel’s series is powerful in its more personalised survivor viewpoint. Shows such as The Fall, True Detective and Luther have employed sexual violence as exploitative plot device in order to heighten shock value and to provoke abhorrence for the perpetrator’s actions. Yet the women are often secondary to the narrative. They rarely give us an insight into the survivor’s viewpoint and emotional trauma in full episodic detail. This is why I May Destroy You hits you right at the core! It does not give us a graphic depiction of sexual violence, but instead it captures its graphic aftermath. The memory depriving effect of a date rape drug leaves an unnerving ambiguity around the incident. Leaving no “villain” to identify made it so gut-wrenchingly real for many viewers. Traditionally, reporting the crime is often seen as the pivotal character break through, leading to the more optimistic court case and verdict denouement. However, this typical sequence is not a type of closure many survivors, like Arabella face.

Michaela Coel as Arabella

The Untold Reality of the Survivors:

The grim reality is that ‘half of all sexual offences recorded by the police didn’t proceed further through the criminal justice system’. Arabella’s story encapsulates the untold frustration, denial and pain undisclosed in that appalling but all together true statistic. Her scenes of post-traumatic stress are an example of this:in frequently dismissing the severity of the situation by repeating the phrase “there’s a war in Syria” or scolding one of the police officers for calling the image of the potential perpetrator a memory, saying that “[he] may not even be real.”. Following this,she breaks down during the police interview. 

The complexity of emotions victims go through are divulged in full realism on our screens, making it all the more harrowing when we realise she doesn’t get the closure most victims get in these prestige dramas. A despondency that critically examines how our culture facilitates these horrific incidents, but often legal intervention is not subsequently pursued. 

Entering the Grey Areas:

As the series goes on, Coel shines a light on the certain ‘grey areas’ around sexual consent, and reveals how it actually isn’t that grey at all. 

Previously, we have used this term because of the lack of transparency. Yet what Coel’s series achieves is showing us that, these incidents you often brush off, are actually secretive and calculating loopholes in which perpetrators get away with the crime. When we see Zain Tareen taking the condom off during sex, it becomes crystal clear that this is non-consensual, just like  when Kwame is raped after having consensual sex with a man from Grindr. Viewers can see the duplicity and, in our eyes, are immediately painted as the villains. 

Yet in a court of law, the lines are still blurred. As both of these sexual encounters were initially consensual, the crimes don’t ‘fit’ within the rigidity of police forms in determining if and when consent is breached. Watching these situations unfold you become  frustrated, not only at the deceit itself, but when the law and police aren’t on their side. Moreover, Coel brings to our attention how alarmingly common different types of sexual assaults are. 

Yet, by traversing these boundaries in classifying what is consensual or not, Coel’s series crafts a narrative that helps us identify different forms of non-consensual acts, routinely making us question our typical notions of what ‘grey areas.’ are.  In reality there isn’t one. The deceit makes it crystal clear where the lines have been crossed. 

Coel conjures a world that makes us laugh, feel anger, yet most importantly makes us question our own notions of who is considered a friend or foe. There sadly is no clear line to separate villain from hero, but Coe’s series helps us pinpoint when exactly a line could be crossed. 

Words by Katie Heyes. 

Images from the BBC.

References:

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/sexualoffendingvictimisationandthepaththroughthecriminaljusticesystem/2018-12-13

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