I May Destroy You: rebuilding our sense of self

It is refreshing to see young black women on the screen indulging in recreational drugs, enjoying casual sex, and reserving their right to be fallible, flawed human beings


By Adwoa Owusu-Barnieh


TW: Sexual Assault


Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You may be one of the most important TV series released to date. Written over two and a half years, the series is a fictionalised retelling of Michaela Coel’s own sexual assault, which happened whilst writing the second series of her Channel 4 comedy Chewing Gum. The 2020 series orbits around the issue of consent, though to label it solely as ‘consent drama’ would be to do Michaela Coel’s talented storytelling a great injustice. I May Destroy You may more accurately be described as a transparent reflection on the intricacies of life – with heightened visibility given to issues generally deemed as taboo.


Watching the first few episodes, I was struck by the knowledge that this was the first time in my viewing history that I saw myself – a 4-dimensional black woman – represented on the screen. Michaela Coel’s creation expertly dispels traditional notions of storytelling, dissolving the fictional illusion of protagonists and antagonists. Arabella (Michaela Coel), Terry (Weruche Opia), and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) are written and presented as nuanced individuals – as capable of causing harm as they are of uplifting those around them.


Photograph by Natalie Seery/HBO

The ever-expanding plotlines weave each episode together, commenting on many socio-cultural realities. One particularly striking reflection is Arabella’s confession during therapy: that work obligations deny her the time, money, and resources to appropriately engage with her assault or appropriately recover from trauma.


Regardless, Arabella’s commitment to therapy encourages viewers to recognise the benefits of seeking professional help to manage the negative aspects of existence. To see a black woman regularly having meetings with her black therapist makes the idea of attending therapy less daunting, particularly for black womxn viewers who might be reluctant to process their own trauma in fear of the stigma associated with poor mental health and/or assault.


“I May Destroy You forces the audience to sit with our discomfort – at times almost unbearably – and recognise the errors in our flawed attempts to categorise the multiplicity of human existence through restrictive binary codes.”

I May Destroy You forces the audience to sit with our discomfort – at times almost unbearably – and recognise the errors in our flawed attempts to categorise the multiplicity of human existence through restrictive binary codes. Arabella is a victim of sexual assault, left by friends in an environment where her vulnerability is violently exploited. Yet Arabella’s rapport with Kwame occasionally positions her as an overwhelmingly negative force on her best friend’s life. Notably, too, Kwame’s personal story covers the under-represented narrative of sexual assault as experienced outside of a heterosexual context.


The series not only reflects the sad reality that anyone can be a victim of sexual assault but prompts us to dissect how cultural stereotypes of identity act as boundaries to providing certain individuals with adequate compassion, support, and care. The point is not to empathise with Arabella and Kwame’s different assaults and subsequent traumas because they are ‘good’ people, but, to recognise the negative repercussions of sexual assault because sexual assault and rape are harmful manifestations of violence in and of themselves.


Photograph by Natalie Seery/HBO

Moreover, I May Destroy You is a refreshingly honest representation of the aftermath of sexual assault in the transparency with which it conveys the many ways trauma can present itself. Following Kwame’s sexual assault, we witness him becoming hyper-sexualised, eager to suppress the memory of the loss of his sexual autonomy.


Arabella’s discomfort in the police’s failure to find her abuser drives her to reassert her control over the sexual act through an insistence on amplifying her voice on social media. The way she advocates for survivors of sexual assault is indicative of her failure to appropriately engage with her own sexual trauma.


“The series is indeed triggering, but Michaela Coel’s insistence on unapologetically addressing the taboo allows room for catharsis, healing, and growth.”

On top of this, flashbacks to secondary school force the viewer to recognise the full spectrum of sexual assault, which works to improve the viewer’s awareness regarding their own potential experiences with lack of consent.


I May Destroy You also does well to address the issue of stealthing, the non-consensual removal of a condom during sexual intercourse, providing much needed space for an aspect of rape culture that is hugely under-reported. The series is indeed triggering, but Michaela Coel’s insistence on unapologetically addressing the taboo allows room for catharsis, healing, and growth.


Photograph by Natalie Seery/HBO

Outside of issues of consent, Michaela Coel expertly paints a layered image of black womanhood. It is refreshing to see young black women on the screen indulging in recreational drugs, enjoying casual sex, and reserving their right to be fallible, flawed human beings. Arabella and Terry constantly strive to do well by themselves and each other, but inevitably make mistakes that have negative consequences for those around them.


An expert at presenting the realities of intersectionality for black women, Michaela Coel incorporates a scene in which Arabella’s black female identity is exploited by a white-led campaign promoting veganism, using ‘diversity’ as no more than an effective marketing strategy to achieve the business’ aims – one of many examples of Coel’s pure creative genius.


“Each character reflects the heterogeneity of black identities (that non-black perception tends to dilute) and goes to show how beneficial visibility can be when talented black writers are able to create their own characters...”

Michaela Coel’s sharp wit allows her to articulate the realities of the power dynamic between black women and white supremacy. Arabella’s justifiable aggrievance in being referred to as ‘Afro-Caribbean’ by a healthcare professional, and her insistence in pointing out that it is this ignorance that feeds into the culture of healthcare disproportionately failing black women, feels like finally letting out cries of anguish and rage at some of the microaggressions that black women face navigating the world on a daily basis.


I May Destroy You’s portrayal of Arabella, Terry, and Kwame shows three identities defined in part by their Blackness and the spectrum of their sexuality. Each character reflects the heterogeneity of black identities (that non-black perception tends to dilute) and goes to show how beneficial visibility can be when talented black writers are able to create their own characters and maintain a level of control in taking those characters from concept through to postproduction.


Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

As a British-Ghanaian myself, watching the family dynamics within Arabella’s household finally gave me a glimpse into how it feels to see one’s own domestic life reflected on the screen. Arabella, Nick (Tobi King Bakare), and their mother (Michelle Greenidge) stand in a cramped kitchen as they season chicken, make jollof, and prepare plantain. Even the seemingly trivial decision to reflect British-Ghanaian culture through food allows for a scene in which Arabella’s juxtaposing feelings of shame/pride, respect/resentment, guilt/innocence surrounding her father’s (Yinka Awoni) ephemeral role within the family are portrayed.


It is not only in the language spoken by the characters (integrating Twi with English, common vernacular for Twi-speaking British-Ghanaians) that Coel captures the nuances of human emotion, but in the deliberate silences and subtle body language. The family dynamic is presented more through the absence of communication than through open and direct speech.


“Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You captures the little details, too often blurred out by the camera lens, that bring depth and definition to our individual lives.”

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You captures the little details, too often blurred out by the camera lens, that bring depth and definition to our individual lives. Michaela Coel has said that fictionalising her sexual assault provided her with cathartic release; the series provides a platform for survivors within the audience to do the same.


I May Destroy You prompts us to recognise ourselves as beings constantly existing in juxtaposition with ourselves and asks us all to dissolve the idea that sympathy belongs only to those that we deem ‘morally deserving’. Michaela Coel’s intersecting identities – black, woman, working-class, creative, survivor – have undoubtedly played a role in her ability to use fiction as a mirror held up to reality, magnifying the realities of existence more poignantly than reality itself.

I May Destroy You sets the precedent on how TV, going forward, has the potential to be a vehicle for deconstructing the taboo, encouraging healing through trauma, and traversing transparently through the rocky landscape of marginalised identities.


You can now watch all episodes of I May Destroy You on BBC iPlayer.