Is processing the trauma of sexual assault through screenwriting the answer to resilience and recovery? Michaela Coel asks that difficult question in I May Destroy You.
“Everything is copy” is an immortal phrase, epitomised by Nora Ephron throughout her career. It’s the idea that, when writing, nothing is off-limits. Be it ex-partners, personal embarrassment, or moments of complete emotional rock bottoms, it should be documented and turned into art, be that in a TV series, essays and more.
With screenwriter parents’ pushing this phrase down her throat, Ephron took to writing Heartburn, the story of her painful divorce, mere days after it happened. This mindset of documenting trauma is something that Michela Coel’s I May Destroy You, investigates extensively.
At best, this phrase holds the assumption that trauma can be recast, as the victim becomes the protagonist, and can regain agency through the process of retelling their narrative. At worst, the phrase encourages the exploitation of trauma for profit and entertainment value. These stories are oft heralded as brave, with the audience able to distance themselves in a way that the creator cannot do, for fear of the work seeming inauthentic.
The premise of I May Destroy You is multifaceted; in one sense, it follows the story of Arabella, an up-and-coming millennial author who, after attending a spontaneous night out with friends, has her drink spiked and is sexually assaulted. In another, it is a complex exploration of consent in the modern-day, and the blurred lines which are often accounted across diverse sexual experiences.
The show has been described as “sublimely unsettling” due to Coel’s unwillingness to settle at anything else than the total and complete annihilation of social and ethical standards around sex, gender, and race. Coel is precise, and surgical in her dismantling of the established rules of sex and consent, exploring the etiquette of being labelled a victim, and the troubling social side effects of said label.
This level of control within her work is by no means an accident. The creation of I May Destroy You is nonetheless a product of Michela Coel’s experiences of sexual assault. She has carefully masterminded a framework in which this personal trauma can be explored, against a wider narrative which questions consent, and sex more broadly. The show feels entirely possible due to the reliance it has on Coel, as its showrunner, star, and writer. She has become both the fuel and the engine of the show, allowing the “Everything is Copy” adage to empower, rather than exploit.
Coel hints at her awareness of the line she is toeing when using her trauma as inspiration. This is particularly clear in the characterisation of the publishing industry, and Susie Henny, the publishing executive pushing Arabella to create her next novel in the aftermath of the assault. Upon the revelation of Arabella’s assault, she is immediately encouraged to document it, and recast her trauma as her next best-selling novel.
Through this denial of pain, Coel demonstrates how trauma is publicly miscast. When trauma is shared in public it seemingly fails to fit unless it is recast as a “learning experience” for others to pay homage to. If it fails to fit this standard, it must be a long-buried burden that has to be systematically suppressed, or else lose everything.
As her trauma is put on public trial, by romantic partner and friends alike, Arabella is forced to rebuild and reassess her life in the aftermath. Text messages and bank statements become secret clues, as your life morphs into a confusing whodunit – everyone becomes a target of questioning. In its the final episodes, we see Arabella live out varied fantasies of finding her assaulter, with Arabella recast as a vengeful detective, avenging herself and solving the crime of her assault.
In reality, this brave, powerful self fails to materialise. The show quickly grounds us to the fact that the silent hope of justice for survivors often fails to ever be fulfilled. After fantasies of varied paths of confrontation are lived out scene-by-scene, we are pulled back to reality, to find that Arabella must simply move on by her own terms.
In considering I May Destroy You’s take on trauma, it appears Coel’s ultimate message is one of hope. Arabella is vulnerable, and honest, and raw about the experiences of sexual assault, and her own stance on being a victim, both publicly and privately.
We see her public persona warp and shift as she tries to cope with her assault through social media, leading her to a path of moral pretentiousness. She happily calls out her friend Kwame for immoral sexual behaviour but is unhappy to be confronted by her own problematic behaviour. She falls back into the arms of her former lover in a time of crisis, only to be rejected. She is brutal in her judgement of a false accuser as a teenager, who she now befriends for support in the aftermath of the assault.
Despite all these things, she can reconcile her former and current selves, as we see her take control of her trauma. She accepts the flaws of her previous behaviour towards others and forgives herself. We see Arabella break her repetitive cycles of returning to the bar where she was assaulted. She becomes free, if not from the memory of the event, then from the control which it had over her. It has only been due to this process of documenting and reflecting on her assault, that she has found freedom.
You can stream all episodes of I May Destroy You now on BBC iPlayer—trust us, it’s essential viewing.
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TV, film and culture writer interested in all things visual. Be it the artwork of Kathe Kollwitz, the films of Wes Anderson and Studio Ghibli, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s beautiful face, I’ll write about.