Normal People celebrated consent. I May Destroy You shows what happens when you take it away

The show is triggering – and rightly so. I found the first episode distinctly uncomfortable to watch, utterly familiar to any woman who, like me, has had her drink spiked

Harriet Hall
Wednesday 17 June 2020 10:32
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I May Destroy You trailer starring Michaela Coel

“What’s your background?” a publishing agent asks author, Arabella, in a meeting. “Ghana,” she replies without missing a beat, so used is she to her racial identity being interrogated as a black British woman. “I meant career background,” he laughs.

It’s this sort of knowing humour that forms the backbone of BBC One's latest lockdown offering, I May Destroy You, a drama that explores the aftermath of sexual assault.

The 12-part-series, written by 32-year-old Bafta winner Michaela Coel, the creator of Channel 4 comedy Chewing Gum, has been hailed for its fresh style, a raw and vulgar but darkly funny approach to twenty-something womanhood.

The series follows Arabella, a young author whose hugely successful debut book Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial – born from a viral Twitter thread, of course – sees fans stopping her in the street. On deadline for her follow-up work, Arabella is a master of procrastination, going out partying with friends and taking a cocktail of drugs.

On the night she has to complete her final manuscript, something happens. But what? She can't remember.

The next morning, Arabella notices a cut on her forehead; her phone is smashed, and she has suspicious bruises across her body. She realises she has been drugged and assaulted.

The story is based on Coel’s own experience of sexual assault when she was writing the second series of Chewing Gum, and explores how she struggled to meet her deadline while coming to terms with what had happened to her. As the character Arabella tries to make sense of the night’s events, piecing together Uber receipts and involuntary flashbacks, her mind is fogged by blackout, and a recurring vision of a man she doesn’t know thrusting on top of her in a toilet cubicle.

We are taken through the reporting process as her bruised body is swabbed. She makes awkward jokes and bursts into tears as she tries to reconcile what she has been through.

She isn’t challenged: this is not a series about whether we should believe her account, like the Netflix hit Unbelievable. Arabella owns her story. She is not a damaged victim; she is a confident and chaotic woman who has been attacked.

And Arabella’s attack is not the only one. Her body and those of her friends are objectified and tossed aside in similar ways, as Coel explores the nuance of sexual politics.

Where the recent BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People was lauded for its depiction of consent (while also have-your-cake-and-eat-it languishing in the naked bodies of its lead stars), I May Destroy You shows in detail what happens when consent is not asked for or granted.

The series describes sexual exploration and risk perfectly, because it sits alongside the nuance of real lives. Arabella is drugged and raped, but later has consensual sex with a fellow writer named Zain. Her ability to consent has not been removed by her experiences.

And yet, during this experience, her sexual partner asks her to turn around and then removes the condom, tossing it to the floor before penetrating her. Afterwards, when she asks where he put the used condom, he slaps on faux surprise claiming, “I thought you knew". How could she know? Plausible deniability is no defence, and Coel makes sure we know that.

Meanwhile Arabella's best friend Kwame meets a Grindr hook-up at his house, has consensual sex with him and is then raped by the same man. Consenting once isn’t consenting twice.

Elsewhere, Coel confronts us with the messy reality of womanhood. Arabella goes home with a man, remembering halfway through kissing that she’s on her period. “It’s OK”, he says. “I’m quite a heavy bleeder,” she replies.

As they begin to get undressed, a flash of sanitary towel in Arabella’s underwear before he removes her bloody tampon. It’s graphic, there’s a blood clot. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he says – and neither have we on television.

The more we see consent and female bodily experience on our screens, the more the terrible silencing of those parts of our lives is exposed.

Yes, it is triggering – and rightly so. I found the first episode distinctly uncomfortable to watch, utterly familiar to any woman who, like me, has had her drink spiked. Watching Arabella stumble through the club as onlookers whoop, assuming she’s had a little too much, was a grim window on our collective view of women who dare to enjoy life. This is not sexual programming just for the sake of the drama.

Just as everything women write seems to be “a version” of something that preceded it – Fleabag was the British Girls, Girls was the millennial Sex and the City – this landmark drama will be pigeon-holed as the black Fleabag. It is not. It is a completely original series that centres black actors and womanhood. It deserves the fanfare Normal People boasted – though, for every reason I've celebrated it here, I suspect there’s every chance it won’t get it.

For support for sexual violence, visit Rape Crisis in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. HBO's I May Destroy You resources page also provides links for further support

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