Guest contributor Jenn Gannon is a pop culture writer, broadcaster and DJ. She lives for reality telly, forgotten pop songs and obscure European actors. In her critical essay on BBC’s I May Destroy You, she looks at the choices we get to make within our narrative.
Every episode of I May Destroy You begins with the deletion of words. The title is tapped out, hot pink and capitalised then back spaced until the “You” disappears. I May Destroy.[restrict]
Michaela Coel’s blistering series is wrapped up in the idea of the removal of the self. There is the creator myth of the series protagonist, the writer Arabella Essideu (played by Coel) who wields the ultimate power on the page to invent worlds and to erase them. Then after she is drugged and sexually assaulted in the toilets of a bar one night she struggles with how to continue, how to press return and move on to a new line. Can you carry on and complete the narrative if your past is half-written? Can you obliterate it all and start again? I May Destroy… there is a choice that’s enclosed within the half-scrubbed thought.
The sprawling 12-part series contains multitudes, not only is it a cavalcade of genres from buddy-comedy to slasher-thriller to body horror, surreal drama to domestic drama but it has deep layers that are exposed upon multiple viewings. It forces us to stop speed binging and start listening intently.
It’s a show about contemporary Black British culture, Black bodies, Black women, their friendships and families. It explores difficult, intricate terrain such as consent in all its forms and the idea of how we constantly move forward and are thrust into the unknown, how the choices we make in a flash, can bend our future. Unlike other dramas that use sexual assault as a narrative core, there is no blame to be found here. I May Destroy You is not a procedural drama about bad men being caught because everything in the haze of real life is much messier than that. Coel instead offers up different permutations of a night.
As Arabella and her friends Terry and Kwame travel through the series, they discover truths that happen across towns and cities every weekend; a man may take you home, a man may rape you in a toilet, a man may follow you down the street, a man may tenderly enquire about your clotting menstrual blood, a man may take you to a beach, a man may play you a song on his phone, a man may hold you down in a strange bedroom, a man may ask another man to join you for a threesome, a man may secretly remove a condom during sex. You dance with desire and flirt with danger every time. As we click-clack into the unknowable night, they may destroy you.
When Arabella slinks over towards Biagio in her publisher’s fancy apartment, she serenades him with Daft Punk’s Something About Us:
“It might not be the right time
I might not be the right one
But there’s something about us I want to say
Cause there’s something between us anyway”
We give ourselves over to the night and pull that risk ever closer, hoping for something else, the escape hatch of other bodies, the petite mort that will leave us replenished.
It’s no surprise that the bar where she is attacked is named Ego Death; the series fuels the idea of the annihilation of the self in a bacchanalian sense. We are first introduced to Arabella abandoning responsibilities and downing shots in an attempt to erase the ticking countdown clock of her looming book deadline . We see Terry and Arabella months earlier ripping through life with unbridled wildness in an Italian nightclub. We hear Simon say that on the night of the assault Terry told him to “just leave her, this is what she does”. We empty ourselves out every weekend at the mercy of some unseen God just to feel something and then reboot ourselves when the pale blue light of another Monday morning finds us, examining unidentified bruises.
The show asks important questions about the uncontrollable moveable feast of modern sexuality that we gorge on. It mainly exists online, a place where we live anonymously but simultaneously where we know everything about each other. The series explores the judgement surrounding dating apps, the fast-track to intimacy that everyone craves, to momentarily lose ourselves in another person. This is a place where we all connect but it is also where we are dissolved and boiled right down into statistics: age, race, height, weight and where headless torso shots like disembodied murder victims float through our consciousness. Swipe left to forget.
The online world is where Arabella rebuilds herself, through the safety of social media, she constructs another version of herself and performs as if she’s cos-playing at being the girl before the assault. The smart girl with the book deal who dutifully poses for photos with fans at bus stops and in supermarkets. A paramour tells her that she’ll turn into an “IBM” as she checks her phone lying beneath him. Our dependency on our phones transforms us into glowing vampires endlessly scrolling into oblivion.
The internet isn’t just a method of distraction in the series it’s also a place of discovery for the characters. Arabella learns about “stealthing” (the removal of a condom during sex) whilst listening to a podcast as she blithely snaps selfies, the perpetrator is indisposed in the bathroom. Her friend Kwame desperately looks to his phone to help him understand if what happened to him after a night on a hook-up app could be deemed as sexual assault. This generation is soothed by this act of confirmation. We have to be assured that these things are real because sometimes in life it doesn’t happen the way you are told it will by authority figures and only a Google search will reveal the blank truth.
Arabella speaks of the “grey area” in a survivors meeting, this sweet-spot where rapists thrive due to uncertainty. She says that we must learn to “observe the detail”, the internet offers up a myriad of details whether through survivor testimonies, #MeToo call outs or forums that can help eradicate gnawing doubt. Although the show also analyses how dependent we have become upon this unwieldy territory and how our addictions can spiral out of control as we lose that tangible attachment to the real world.
When Arabella calls out the novelist that stealths her, it goes viral and she’s flooded with the dopamine hits of those tiny love hearts of likes, even though she is lying in bed in tears as her life has imploded. Three women sit in a pub together scrolling through their phones seeing a rapist unmasked in real time. It feels glorious and grotesque all at once. Part of the show hinges on the validation we seek through social media from strangers, our curious relationships with strangers, the unseen ones we rely on, the unseen ones that are dangerous, are they the same? Are we the same? This merging of the personal and the private is a Faustian pact.
Arabella gives this aspect of her life over to this invisible audience in a bid to be reborn but ends up as empty and confused as ever. She is shrunken down to the archetype of the angry Black woman rallying against Straight White Guys, she is a millennial author in a pale pink wig spitting out a furious diatribe on Instagram stories. Social media removes the nuance and complexities and leaves behind a moulded mannequin of one moment that then becomes impossible to escape from.
To save herself, Arabella begins again through the deletion of her social media. She ceases to exist in this easy space of artificiality and takes on the arduous work of being a human in the offline world. Throughout the series Arabella continuously starts anew, chaotically, painfully, unhappily, dizzily there is no straight pathway to a fresh existence, I May Destroy You zigzags and shows the viewer entirely fallible characters. Arabella and Terry objectify Kwame treating him as a hyper-sexualised stereotype of a gay man. When he is checking his phone trying to gain confirmation regarding his sexual assault, Terry mocks him assuming he is searching a hook-up app. Arabella, not knowing about his assault, locks him in a bedroom with another man at a party and is taken to task by a shaken Kwame, where she sees her own vulnerability reflected back to her. Later, Kwame sleeps with a straight woman and only afterwards admits he is gay.
There are transgressions, there are faults, there are no unimpeachable saints to be found within the three main characters. When Arabella discovers Terry told Simon to leave her behind on the night of her assault she thanks Terry for being a good friend to her for the subsequent year, she sees Terry’s protectiveness and gives her a kind of absolution so they can both move away from the experience. Drama is depleted and what survives is the forgiveness of true friendship and a deep desire to start over.
Lost in procrastination and PTSD, Arabella flounders but within those false starts and pauses she finally moves forward through her work and this is where Coel flips the script in the dazzling finale. She gives the viewers a rape revenge fantasy, the delicious pay off of the monster under the bed that is finally captured. She then presents the image of the rapist as a deeply disturbed human suffused in hurt who tells Arabella “I won’t go until you tell me to go”. He tenderly asks permission to leave, to be released from the prison of her mind. These are not actual endings, though, they are just ideas and placeholders for the real thing. They are mutable and variable available to her to accept or reject. She must be the one to conjure up a new reality for herself.
Arabella is truly free through her own creation. It is writing that offers her a space where she can disappear completely, through the pages stuck on her wall that evolve into her second novel like the flowers that bloom in her small garden. In an epilogue her publisher says that her new book “feels like the work of an entirely different writer”
Creativity can give us that opportunity, we can recreate ourselves every day and rewrite our own ending until it makes sense. We can always delete the “You” only to replace it again, bigger and bolder, it is always our choice.