I May Destroy You: Discussing trauma, rape culture and coping, with focus on the HBO-BBC series

I May Destroy You, produced by HBO and BBC, is about the act of figuring out survival from trauma, and an effort to nudge our language out of its limitations.

Vishnupriya Bhandaram July 21, 2020 08:00:52 IST
I May Destroy You: Discussing trauma, rape culture and coping, with focus on the HBO-BBC series

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s latest television series explores the aftermath of a sexual assault. In the same breath, it’s a comical whodunit, and also sensitive, careful unlayering of sexual traumas, relationships, and in the middle of all this: surviving.

Coel plays Arabella, a young-ish Londoner who has been commissioned to write a book.  She is out at a pub one night with her friends when someone spikes her drink, and she is raped. As viewers, we are made to piece together all of this through 12 episodes that introduce us to her friends, relationships and most importantly, her life in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

In one of the episodes, Arabella (Coel) visits a therapist who asks her how she is doing. She replies quickly that she is trying not to think about it too much, and that she just tries not to be alone, and if it ever gets too much, that she thinks about the bigger picture: the Syrian war, the hungry children. To this, her therapist says: “Sometimes when we try to our best to see the big picture, we lose sight of the little one altogether. The little detail here is you.

This statement doesn’t bear particular heft in the series, at least in terms of screenplay, there is no silence that follows, yet I am inclined to think that Coel’s series is an exploration of that “little detail” and the everyday violence that exists around it. How we have become used to minimising our experiences because it would be inconvenient to address them. We’re grasping at straws of “normalcy” because it would be too much otherwise. Our violations would be too much, and too inconvenient. Consent is used as a vehicle to talk about our messed up social mores. Consent is addressed in the series, as a way to turn the viewers’ gaze inwards, about their own understanding of social mores, especially in terms of sexual relations. To confront viewers with situations that feel wrong.

As I watched some of the episodes, my mind quickly wandered to the worst-case scenario. For example, when Arabella and Terry (Weruche Opia) are high on drugs in Italy and are out partying, and their paths separate, I was filled with anxiety. My eyes kept darting at the background, is there going to be an assault? Will they be in danger? What followed instead was a threesome between Terry and two men at a bar, which seemed like a “pick-up” game. Another worst case scenario is the beginning of a relationship with Biagio (a man she scored drugs from earlier) who helped Arabella get home. While watching this part, I remember texting my friend that I was relieved that nothing bad happened, yet the outcomes of the episode felt slightly off, but I couldn’t pinpoint the reason for my discomfort. It’s exactly this feeling that Coel wants to draw out of you.

I May Destroy You pointedly asks as to why risk has become a primary component of sexual experiences, and why it is an accepted part of our culture. The series is searing in its treatment of rape, assault, and sexual trauma. It goes to uncomfortable places, and that’s what makes it so compelling.

For example, a consensual encounter between two men turns hostile in seconds, a woman feels betrayed and misused after she finds out that the man she slept with is gay. That threesome is discussed again, where it becomes clearer that it wasn’t too strangers, but a ruse played out by the two men. It’s these boundaries and these grey areas that Coel excellently traverses, and as you watch one boundary pushed after another, it becomes clear that there is no grey. The transformation of a ‘creepy vibe’ into a ‘rapey vibe’ into a ‘predatory vibe’; is there a route-map for this?

In one of the scenes at a survivor’s group, Arabella shares a compelling monologue:

“Well, Bob probably does think you’re crazy...He thinks this is all a little uncalled for, and this personal space thing is going a bit too far. And he is very confident in his view because he has gone exploring to see for himself what boundaries and violations these women might be banging on about because Bob’s thorough. And on his explorations, Bob found the line that separated him from everything else. Rather than crossing it, he tiptoed on it and he experienced this feeling of being on the boundary...on the border...right on the line of being neither in one place or another and saw how, in this grey area, where nothing was quite clear, no one could be clear. He can’t articulate, follow our words, he couldn’t pinpoint what exactly what it was that he did that we felt was wrong. So yeah, Bob thinks you’re crazy.” 

I May Destroy You Discussing trauma rape culture and coping with focus on the HBOBBC series

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.

Many of the places that Coel takes us through Arabella, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), and Terry feel wrong. It’s probably because we know they are wrong. We just don’t have the words to accurately put down what is it that is wrong. In a way, Coel rebukes our language and points to the limitations. People experience varying degrees of violences, their boundaries are transgressed, yet all the frameworks around us force us into corners where we have to internalise them because feeling is too much. We will perish if we feel things. And when we articulate them, who owns that trauma and what becomes of it? Where does it go from there?

One of the tools that Coel employs in her storytelling is how she makes you question what you heard. Because what is said, is said with great speed and quickly corrected, almost mirroring the ways in which women are asked to minimise their trauma, made to question their own memories, and led to undermining their own experiences.

For example, in one of the scenes at her publishers’ office, she mentions that she just got back from the police station because she was raped and that the rapist is Zain (Karan Gill), her co-worker and whom she was also seeing, and that he took off the condom during an encounter without telling her. Like those around her in the scene, we’re not given a chance to react, as she minimises it, and then the others minimise it, and we, as the viewers are also inclined to minimise it. In another instance, she calls him her rapist during a one on one conversation and immediately says something else. He heard it, but he isn’t keen to dig deeper. He wants to minimise it. She has already minimised it. Coel adeptly exposes the internalisation of trauma and the minimisation of it in moments that say a lot by saying almost nothing. Whether it’s through directing anger about the stealthing through making him pay for emergency contraception, or whether it’s the display of self-blame when she lands up in a different country to apologise to an ex-boyfriend who blamed her for the first rape because she was too drunk and on too many drugs. It’s a thin line between control and care.

In all of this, the question harks back to the little detail. In one of the most compelling finales on television, she dives deep into the little detail, all the fantasies or revenge, all of the ways in which you can imagine reclaiming your sense of autonomy lead to one question: What do I do with my trauma? What does healing look like, and why is there no single answer or a solid tried and tested way of achieving closure from trauma.

“The detail here is you.”

Coel’s 12-part series, produced by HBO and BBC, is about the act of figuring out survival from trauma, and an effort to nudge our language out of its limitations.

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