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I May Destroy You – The power of authentic storytelling

Michaela Coel provides a nuanced depiction of sexual assault survivors.

Michaela Coel’s authentically crafted I May Destroy You follows a woman’s journey to uncover what happened on the night she was sexually assaulted, raising the question for survivors of sexual assault: ‘how does one carry such trauma?’ Receiving glowing recommendations across the world from esteemed writers, it’s easy to see why from the moment the first episode plays, this story needs to be told.

I May Destroy You follows the story of Arabella, a young writer. One morning, she wakes up with a hazy memory of being sexually assaulted. Unable to place where it happened or who the perpetrator was, Arabella sets out to piece together the events leading up to the assault. What makes this story authentic is its nuanced depiction of the experience, thoughts, and emotions of sexual assault survivors. Often, survivors are placed in one of two boxes: the vigilante who seeks justice at whatever cost, or the reserved, hopeless survivor — two stigmas rooted in the toxicity of patriarchal perspectives. However, Coel challenges these depictions through the non-linear aspect of Arabella’s journey to healing. Arabella’s characterisation is complex, unable to be placed neatly into either of those cliches. From Arabella’s denial and self-destructive spiral, to her use of the power of writing to speak out against the injustice she faced, Coel demonstrates why we need more stories that draw from reality.

I May Destroy You is handled with care and grace. Coel uses her writing to represent sexual assault survivors and raise how forms of bigotry affect the way survivors are seen and heard. The story of the character Kwame reveals how male sexual assault survivors are often silenced by toxic masculinity. Kwame, a gay, black man, is assaulted by another man, but homophobia and toxic masculinity informs how Kwame isn’t believed by the police or his friends. Kwame and Arabella have vastly different experiences. Arabella finds comfort in sisterhood, attending support groups and finding solidarity within the arms of her friends. On the other hand, Kwame suffers in silence, being told by the police that his experience is invalid. The audience watches Kwame as he suffers in isolation and recoils into denial, an unfortunate reality of many survivors.

As we watch Arabella respond to her friends’ disclosures of their experiences with assault, we see reactions borne out of internalised misogyny, making her character unlikeable at times. Through flashbacks, we see that Arabella, as a teenager, resorted to schoolyard bullying tactics to victim blame a classmate, after she accused one of Arabella’s friends of sexual assault. It is this imperfect aspect of Arabella’s character that the true effect of internalised misogyny is revealed. While watching this problematic aspect of Arabella’s character is unsettling for viewers, it further reiterates the complexities of internalized misogyny, and the inherent biases that exist within us. This further echoes the raw honesty within Coel’s writing, that makes I May Destroy You more than just a television series, but a tool of education. 

Despite this show’s groundbreaking artistic representation of toxic masculinity, misogyny, and racism to explore the nuances of sexual assault, I May Destroy You has yet to receive the accolades it deserves. This year’s Golden Globes was nothing but disappointing for the show, receiving zero nominations for the powerful story telling of Coel, or the stellar acting of the cast. Yet, Emily in Paris, a mediocre series set around a young marketing executive with a predominantly white cast, gained Golden Globe nominations for Best TV Series and Best Actress in a TV series. This reflects the tone-deafness of society that Coel raises through her series, and the need for an intersectional approach to social justice issues, to understand how various systems of oppression interact with one another. Furthermore, it emphasises why we need to engage with writers such as Coel, as a means for understanding the personal biases we inherently hold. 

I May Destroy You  is a necessity to watch in order to understand the weight sexual assault survivors carry, and the need for us all to deconstruct how our internal biases have affected the way we see and believe survivors. 

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