Content warning: This article discusses “I May Destroy You,” a BBC x HBO series that explicitly deals with rape, sexual assault, drug use, and trauma. There are also spoilers!
This week I watched “I May Destroy You,” the critically acclaimed tour de force by Black British auteur, Michaela Coel. The 12-part series, which is billed (mistakenly, IMHO) as a “consent drama,” was this month’s selection for my intersectional women’s group film discussion. I foolishly waited until mere days before the event to watch the series in its entirety. It is not for the faint of heart and, by design, is not well-suited for bingeing.
“I May Destroy You” is important, and I respect it. But I can’t say that I enjoyed very much of it, and I question many of the narrative and artistic choices that Coel, who took the series to BBC and HBO when Netflix refused to give her sufficient creative control, made. There are some minor things that bothered me. Likeable Ben got little airtime. Theo’s unresolved family story, that blood clot thing, Arabella’s bathroom moments, and Biago’s backstory—really, just Biago in general—all felt like unnecessary narrative clutter. But here are four things I downright hated about “I May Destroy You.”
No one uses the buddy system
This series had a real opportunity to broaden the discourse around consent by exploring what responsibilities we have to ourselves, friends, and sexual partners, particularly when we engage in activities that may expose us to risk.
Instead, Arabella, et al are around 30 but still approaching risky activities with reckless naïveté. Are “stranger danger” and the buddy system an American thing? Why would you think that two random Italian guys down for a threesome with a Black lady tourist aren’t running game? Y’all have been dealing with shitty guys since high school! Even in the best case scenario, there’s always the chance when you have sex with ESL-speakers after a cocktail of drugs and alcohol that something will get lost in translation and boundaries will be unclear.
And then there’s Arabella and Biago. Was an LDR with an Italian drug dealer with a traumatic past, who blamed you for getting raped, ever really going to work out? Is having a closed-door writerly brainstorm sesh with the rapist you publicly outed, and, therefore, has reason to harm you, really a solid choice? Hop on a Zoom call, ladybird!
Rape, abuse, deception — these are always the perpetrators fault. But once it’s established that victim-blaming and shaming is indeed, wrong, I wish the characters had moved on to learning how to better assess and manage boundaries to make partying and sex safer, more positive experiences.
Beware the mental and emotional toll
“I May Destroy You” triggered my anxiety and gave me nightmares. My anxiety and depression often present as rumination, and it’s very hard for me to move on from the kind unsettling content, which “I May Destroy You” has in spades. In future, I know to set better boundaries for myself (and look at the IMDB parents guide so I know what to expect).
But I resent the fact that the price to engage in this deeply important Black millennial conversation around rape and consent that “I May Destroy You” ignites—and one that the #MeToo movement sidestepped by largely centering white women—requires subjecting oneself to such disturbing imagery, some of which felt really unnecessary.
Part of this is a problem with film and TV in general: there are only a sprinkling of stories that involve fully humanized Black women characters, much less that deal with our process of recovery from sexual trauma. I fully recognize Coel’s right as a survivor and artist to process her own trauma of sexual assault in whatever way works for her. That being said, I’m disappointed that someone who’s so into “radical empathy” didn’t seem to consider that many people like her, like Arabella and Kwame, may not be able to watch the series without being retraumatized.
That ending though
Speaking of “radical empathy”… in a Vulture interview, Coel suggests this was the impetus behind that whole making-love-to-the-rapist bit in the series finale.
“Then I went from ‘Oh my God, now that I understand this whole feeling of, like, forgiveness and love, let me love David! I’m going to have sex with David!’” It still seems crazy, doesn’t it?” Coel says about the series’ conclusion.
Yes, Michabella, it does seem crazy. Besides being incredibly disturbing, it’s also completely incongruent with the rest of the series. There are precisely zero sex acts that have anything to do with empathy; they are only ever about anonymity and/or power. In fact, when two characters, Terry and Kwame, finally enter empathetic relationships, we never see them have sex.
It’s not that I don’t “get” the ending. I get the symbolism and the dreamlike state and the meta upon meta upon meta of Coel working through the endings of the series — which she apparently did while staying in Leelanau, Michigan, smitten with the mitten! — by having Arabella work through the ending of her book, which they’re both using to get to the other side of their trauma.
And it’s not that I don’t like this whole notion of extending radical empathy to rapists. This was more effectively drawn in the second vignette, which humanizes David, who we discover is also the survivor of severe sexual assault, but not at the expense of accountability. That fit with the whole victim-as-perpetrator throughline in the stories of Arabella, Kwame, Theo, and even, arguably, Biagio.
While I would’ve enjoyed the tidy ending that found David of that second scenario, I also understand that closure isn’t on the table for more sexual assault survivors. In the United States, just 0.7% of rapists were charged with felonies, The Washington Post reported in 2018. According to a 2020 piece in The Guardian, convictions of rapists in England and Wales hit record lows while the number of rapes increased over the same three-year period. So, kudos for not giving us the unrealistic ending many of us wanted; bummer that we got the unrealistic ending that no one wanted.
Kwame’s pain gets marginalized
This is possibly my biggest criticism of “I May Destroy You”: it brings up rape against men and then sidelines it. The effects of rape on male victims is understudied and “males are even less likely than females to report an assault,” wrote American researchers in 2010. Men in the U.K. are coming forward to report rape more, a positive trend the BBC reported in 2018. Also, local police have invested in training to prevent situations like the darkly comic encounter Kwame has at the police station in Episode 5. Still, there remains a “lack of support for male survivors, and how toxic gender norms leave them traumatised and struggling,” wrote The Guardian last year.
Coel intentionally chooses to shine a light on gay male survivors of rape through Kwame’s story. It felt like a hugely important inclusion to a story that could have easily just been about sexual crimes against cis-het women. Unfortunately, after Kwame leaves the police station, it basically is. Arabella never engages with Kwame’s pain and she even half-listens to a second male character who tells her his story outside a hair salon. I wanted the show to make better choices than Arabella and it just didn’t. “I May Destroy You” is not beholden to reality, so why reproduce the worst of it by showing a Black man get raped and then never acknowledge his pain or what trauma recovery looks like? What is this, “Bridgerton”?
It’s about the little things
I feel uncomfortable recommending “I May Destroy You,” because I don’t want to be responsible for someone being triggered. That being said, there were things I really liked. The show is visually stunning. The neon palette, popping against those just-a-bit-overexposed scenes in Italy and the darkness of midnight London clubs, was candy for my eyeballs. I loved Arabella’s style, and Kwame’s. (His teddy bear coat was everything.) I relished the little glimpses into London’s West African immigrant community, from the plantains and mash to how Arabella, in a teal-patterned button-down, is absorbed into the distinctly West African mash-up of patterns in her mother’s apartment in this sort of Kehinde Wiley moment. This throughline of using art, movement, and even personal style—that scene where Arabella strides into a store literally wearing her rapist’s shirt and then walks out in a bad bitch outfit that she built around it is one of my favorites of the series—really resonated with me.
“I May Destroy You” was not my favorite series ever, and I’m probably never going to watch it again. But I do believe Michaela Coel has done important work in amplifying the conversation about consent and rape culture, in a more intersectional way, from the perspective of a Black millennial, working-class woman. And maybe that outweighs its shortcomings.