I may destroy the Golden Globes

On the complicated truths of Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You

I May Destroy You and its star, writer/director/actor Michaela Coel, are in the headlines this week, having been “snubbed” by the Golden Globes. The Daily Mail has reported that Coel’s fans are in a “race-hate storm” with Emily In Paris’s Lily Collins. This is internet hyperbole speak for: “a few people on Twitter are annoyed that Coel didn’t get a Golden Globes nomination but Collins did”. They think I May Destroy You is a far superior show to Emily in Paris (patently true) and that systemic racism may have spurred this nomination oversight (seems like a fair argument). 

“Race-hate storm” aside, drawing parallels between Emily in Paris and I May Destroy You feels a little misguided, like drawing parallels between Cosmopolitan magazine and Nabokov’s Lolita. Emily in Paris is about a basic bitch who moves from New York to Paris to work for a marketing agency, becomes an influencer and falls for a series of très beaux Frenchmen (and one Frenchboy). It presents the influencer gig economy as liberating and empowering for ambitious young girlbosses and posits that it’s fair game for Anglophone women to explore their “wild side” in stereotypically “sexy” and exoticised European cities without worrying much about social repercussions. (Nb – none of this actually bothered me too much while watching it. The trick is to have very low expectations.) 

I May Destroy You, on the other hand, is about a Black British writer/Twitter personality trying to piece together her life after blacking out, being spiked and raped in a nightclub. It offers a complex and considered exploration of agency, sexual politics and social media (both its capacity to empower and to exploit). A more apt comparison for the series might be with A Promising Young Woman, up for four Golden Globes. Yes, it’s a film, so wouldn’t be directly competing with I May Destroy You for nominations, but it explores similar themes of rape, revenge and gender politics in the wake of the #MeToo era. But I May Destroy You takes a more nuanced tack, going further to illustrate the grey areas and complexities of these issues.

I May Destroy You’s protagonist, Arabella (played by Coel), is both captivating and flawed. We are rightfully made to feel the trauma of her sexual assault, but feel discomfort at the marketing and weaponising of that trauma in a social media machine that feeds off pain (and particularly Black womens’ pain). In her vulnerable state, Arabella becomes addicted to the gratification and vindication of the “first-person industrial complex”. Rather than healing her, it fuels her anger and dims her capacity for listening to the friends surrounding her and trying to offer IRL help. Glued to Instagram Live, she fails to offer meaningful support to close friends who also experience sexual violence, but are less able to articulate their feelings about it. (If it’s not clear by now, this post contains many spoilers!). The power and the pitfalls of finding one’s voice on social media have never been so well-represented on screen.

It also raises uncomfortable questions. As viewers, we can’t help but grimace and feel a sense of foreboding in scenes where, in a flashback to a holiday in Ostia, Arabella staggers around an Italian nightclub, on her own, off her face and clearly vulnerable. This isn’t the night she’s attacked. But I can’t help but think the series is prompting us to consider our own susceptibility to the victim-blaming narrative we’re exposed to again and again in tabloid media. I found myself internally screaming at her to “have some common fucking sense” before checking myself. It belies a difficult truth: while many victims of sexual assault don’t partake in risky behaviour, there are plenty more that are targeted precisely because they do. This is, of course, unjust. (Why should women and queer people have to worry about this risk and not straight men?). But can acknowledging a degree of accountability actually give survivors some power? Let me elaborate before you cancel me.

In the series, Arabella’s Italian lover screams at her, upon hearing of the attack, that she “should have watched her drink”. This is classic victim-blaming, but in an interview with the Economist, Coel (who suffered a similar attack in real life, upon which the fictionalised series is based), points out both the truth and the fallacy in such thinking: “The fact is, if you were watching your drink, you would have seen somebody put some things in it. However, do any of us watch our drinks constantly? Do we make sure we see the barman at all times when he pours the drink? We don’t!”. Hands up who’s acted stupid and irresponsible on a night out in the clurb, or on holiday? I most certainly have. My own tendency toward recklessness has landed me in some dodgy situations (though thankfully nothing as traumatic as Arabella’s) and the uneasy feeling of picking through that is at odds with the hapless victim narrative we often encounter online. This doesn’t mean any of us deserve to be attacked, but the frustration of knowing one’s own proclivity to risk, the mea culpa, is partly what makes such assaults more difficult for survivors to process. 

Coel continues: “When you start looking at that fact, you see a very grey area where it involves, perhaps, this word that’s become very taboo around this subject – and I understand why it’s taboo, it’s gonna get everyone’s back’s up when the word comes out, it’s a scary word – responsibility. And it doesn’t mean that Arabella is responsible for what happened to her, but she can find, within that scene of when her drink was spiked, she can find herself not being powerless. When you dare to face that, for me personally, I gained some sort of power, I don’t know why … To shield me, to shield Arabella, to shield anyone, from that moment, is to keep somebody an infant. You’re making them only see it from a two-dimensional view, where there is a victim and a criminal. The criminal did everything and you did nothing, everything happened to you. But that is such a powerless way of seeing life, and I don’t know how much we can grow, and how much we can find our power if we’re only seeing things in that way.” Coel takes accountability, then, and uses it not as a source of blame or guilt, but as a source of power. This might not be everyone’s experience, but it’s hers, and it’s valid.

Some more uncomfortable questions. What is the value in a hashtag like #BelieveAllWomen, when women (being as morally ambiguous creatures as men are) are also capable of deceit? In a flashback to Arabella’s school days (wonderfully soundtracked by UK Garage), a vulnerable white girl, Theodora, is coerced into being photographed during sexual acts by a black boy. She extracts revenge on him by cutting her leg and telling teachers he raped her at knifepoint (which they believe, aided by her “white girl tears”). Is Theodora a victim of abuse? Of course! Does she then go on to perpetuate another form of abuse? Of course! There are no neat categories of right and wrong to file this away in. As a young woman with a lower-class status, Theo is disempowered, and tries to weaponise her sexual exploitation as a way to access power. But in doing so, she also joins a long lineage of white females making false or disproportionate claims against black males (think Emmett Till), without accounting for the power of her whiteness.

The question of informed consent comes up several times. Arabella sleeps with a fellow writer consensually, but finds out afterwards he has removed the condom without her knowledge. She learns afterwards that this constitutes as rape, and publicly outs him at an industry conference. This prompts us to ask what other omissions of information might transform a consensual sexual experience into a nonconsensual one. Best friend Terry, for instance, has a threesome with two Italian men she meets in a bar, believing it to be a chance encounter for all three of them. After some time, she comes to the uncomfortable realisation that the situation was orchestrated. But how much does knowing the men were, in fact, friends really change the sexual experience (one she enjoyed)? Enough to make it nonconsensual? Can there be a sliding scale of consent? A spectrum of rape? Having once been proud of having a threesome (she sees it as proof she’s not a prude), Terry goes on to attend a support group for survivors of sexual assault. Her feelings are mixed, contradictory, even to herself – both the pleasure and the pain hold truth.

Another case study: gay character Kwame wants to experiement with his sexuality and goes on a date with a woman. He only discloses his homosexuality to her after they’ve had sex. The woman is furious and later calls him a predator, accusing him of seducing her under false pretences. This is rich coming from a woman who fetishises black men, responding to a question of whether or not she has a type with “edgy” before clarifying “black”, and self-righteously accuses gay men of “appropriating female identity” (I’ve never wanted to slap a woman more!). Kwame’s omission of his sexuality is pretty shitty behaviour, I guess. But he has his reasons and, anyway, how much of your sexual history is it permissible to disclose or not disclose with a new sexual partner? I wonder if it would be considered as “bad” if a heretofore straight woman went on a date and slept with a lesbian as an “experiment”, without disclosing that she’d never been with a woman before? (Because I bet that happens all the time!). 

I May Destroy You is full of moments like this, that cause you to deeply consider the ethics of dating and hookup culture, and its success is in asking questions, not giving answers – illustrating complexities and contradictions in a way that neither heroises nor vilifies victimhood. It also crucially meditates on the value of forgiveness, a practice that’s overlooked in an age of instant cancellation. We are all capable of being hurt, but we are also equally capable of hurting others. Those who are unable to acknowledge their own moral failures are perhaps the most harmful of all (genuine cases of psychopathy aside). If all that sounds a bit heavy, it’s also worth pointing out that it’s whip-crackingly funny, smart and stylish, with a banging soundtrack, set against a richly textured backdrop of East London landmarks (is that Ridley Road market?). Golden Globe or no Golden Globe, there’s so much to chew over here – and my reckoning is that we’ll be continuing to do so regardless of what awards it snags.

- Rosa xo

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I May Destroy You is available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Big thanks to Kat, Harry and Pino, all of whom pushed me to elaborate my thoughts on all this!