June 19, 2024

I May Destroy You navigates sexual assault in a brave and honest way

Coel wrote 191 drafts and turned down a $1 Million Netflix deal in favour of the BBC, so that she could retain creative control – and it shows. Every line written, every character, every location feels intentional, and thoughtful in a way that can only be described as genius.

Every half an hour episode could be its own novel, and there’s enough material in every minute to deserve its own review.

So what feels so different about this show? For me, it’s all in the fluidity. Sexual assault isn’t treated casually, but it is treated as a constant – a spectrum of experiences, that flow into one another and between characters. we’re so used to seeing rape being written into TV by men, and used as a character arch or traumatic experience to explain the unraveling of a woman.

Watching IMDY, it’s clear that it’s written a) by a woman, and b) by someone who has experienced it themselves. In 2018, a survey found that one in five women in England and Wales have experienced some type of sexual assault, including attempts, since the age of 16. My personal experience as a woman would guess this is higher, as I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been sexually assaulted or subjected to attempts.

And, a lot of this comes down to miseducation – so many people don’t know what ‘counts’ as sexual assault, or that consent is far more complex than a straight no.

Michaela Coel’s 12-part BBC and HBO show, I May Destroy You, has caused a cultural reset. In a similar way to how Normal People sparked public discourse around how consent should be discussed, and portrayed it in a positive way, Coel’s new work has illustrated the complexities of sex, consent, rape and coercion in a way I’ve never seen before.

IMDY hit me like a freight train, with two episodes dropping every Monday for the last six weeks, I’ve waited with bated breath to consume it. I’ve never felt triggered by TV or film in this way – it truly did *emotionally* destroy me.

It centers on protagonist Arabella (or Bella to friends) Essiedu (played by Coel), an East London-based writer who we follow as she works through the trauma of being sexually assaulted. During the filming of Chewing Gum, her first show, Coel’s drink was spiked and she was raped. In the year that followed, she penned IMDY, inspired by her own experiences

IMDY starts by Bella’s experience of rape, and it’s a rape that we can clearly recognise as rape – it involves drugging, violence, a dark night, and a man she doesn’t know. But the narrative also explores what some people like to call the ‘grey areas’.

Bella, later in the series, is raped again – but this time by a man she knows and trusts, Zain, and is subjected to what is known as ‘stealthing. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, Stealthing is the non-consensual removal of a condom. As recently as 2017, stealthing was seen as a ‘sex trend’. But it’s not a sex trend, it’s rape – and we watch Bella come to this realisation.

After having sex with a colleague, Bella asks him to put the condom in the bin, and he replies: “I took it off. I thought you…”. They then go to get the morning-after pill, and share a packet of crisps – he’s still seen as a ‘good guy’. Bella meets another victim of his, and slowly comes to terms with the fact that this wasn’t consensual – and she calls him out at a public event saying: “he took a condom off in the middle of having sex with me.

He placated my shock and gaslighted me with such intention that I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime that had occurred. I believe he is a predator. He is a rapist. Not “rape-adjacent” or “a bit rapey”, he’s a rapist. ” It’s the first time I’ve seen stealthing on screen, and given that last year was the first time a British person was convicted for stealthing (he was sentenced for rape) – we have a long way to go for ‘stealthing’ to be seen for what it is. Rape.

IMDY is also the first time I’ve seen a black queer man experience sexual assault on screen. Kwame (played by Paapa Essiedu), is raped following a consensual encounter, in episode 4. His storyline explores how men and women are often treated differently in the wake of sexual assault, and it also further demonstrates that sexual assault is not binary – consent given once, is not consent given twice. Essiedu spoke about the scene with Sophie Duker, saying “It was a historical moment in British TV. ”

The third main character in the show, Terry, Arabella’s best friend, experiences sexual coercion. She has a threesome on holiday in Italy, which makes her feel empowered and sexually free – she thought this was in her control. In the 11th episode, she has the realisation that these men preyed on her – pretending to not know one another, when they really did, and had orchestrated the encounter.

This is left more open-ended, as Terry begins to unpack this trauma at the end of the series – as the viewer, we are then also left to chew it over. Should this experience be classed as rape, given that it was deceptive, and Terry may not have consented under the real circumstance?

And that’s the crux of IMDY, the narrative is constantly evolving, and challenging the viewer to look internally and unpack as the show does. The two episodes at a time felt intentional – it gives us enough time to heal, but also ample space to digest. The ending drums this in – we are offered three different endings: the first is where Bella gets revenge on the man who raped her, in a violent and bloody way.

The second, Bella ends up alone in her bedroom with the rapist comforting him, as it becomes clear that he’s mentally ill, the cops turn up and take him away. The third, she engages in consensual sex with her rapist, taking control of their experience, ending with her asking him to leave. Many of us who have been sexually assaulted will have fantasied about confronting their abuser again – how would we act, what would we say, what would we do. We see Bella working through different endings, as she writes her book – she’s rewriting her own story, and taking back control of her trauma – because it’s her’s to own.

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