Coercion or Constructive Force?

Chrissie Fitch watches BBC dark comedy drama, I May Destroy You (2020), by Michaela Coel, creator and main protagonist of the show – this review includes spoilers!

This show follows a 20-something Ghanaian woman named Arabella, as she navigates working as a freelance author in London. As a freelancer currently in pandemic lockdown in the same city, Arabella’s frustrations in motivation, meeting deadlines and maintaining a balance between her professional and personal life resonated with me. 

Tackling the themes of social categorisation, intersectionality, rape, substance abuse, sexual identity, self-efficacy and the desire for unconditional love, friendship and intimacy, this show is authentic, unfiltered, nuanced, and even amusing, compared to other shows of a similar nature. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and identifying as British-Sri Lankan myself, I was encouraged that the show’s cast centres around people of colour. For example, Terry is an aspiring black actress and her scenes in episode 2 illustrate the systemic racial injustice and white privilege that occurs in the entertainment industry as a whole. Further, episode 3 abrasively addresses the explicit situations faced by millennials that are rarely, if ever, seen on television. Due to these realistic representations, the show exceeded my expectations. I believe the show is pivotal, progressive, timely and necessary; an absolute must-watch for audiences today.

I enjoyed how fragments of the show’s premise were revealed to create an overall picture. Deviating from the picturesque setting of Liar (ITV), this show shifts between nightlife in London and Italy. After a night of recreational drugs and alcohol in episode 1, Arabella begins to have flashbacks; her head is bleeding, and her iPhone is broken. Arabella discovers she is a victim of drug-facilitated sexual assault; a plot inspired by Coel’s personal experience. Later her allegations are twisted by leading questions during police investigations, mirroring the interrogations of White British teenager Marie in Unbelievable (Netflix). 

Whilst Arabella is photographed and swabbed in episode 2, we learn that she was subjected to more violence than suggested by her nonchalant exterior. This is interesting in terms of Freudian defence mechanisms, as Arabella continues to partake in sex and alcohol only to be violated by ‘stealthing’, in episode 4. Finally, in three different, but brilliantly formulated scenarios, episodes 11 and 12 praise the strength of the human mind as Arabella reaches a point of acceptance, resilience and confidence despite her trauma; throughout the show her emotional state is symbolised by her hairstyle changes, from purple dye to baldness. What coping methods do we use ourselves and how are they perceived by society? 

Coel ensured that the emotional and moral integrity of all cast and crew were protected; therapists were accessible in case scenes triggered adverse memories. This is poignant as episodes 7 and 8 discuss the stigma associated with counselling sessions and support groups following rape survival, and the repercussions of falsified rape accusations. Alluding to Philip Larkin’s poem: ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do’, the scenes with Arabella’s parents in episode 10 and Theodora’s relationship with her mother in episode 6 portray the effects of avoidant attachment styles and parental neglect. 

The show also explores the perils of online dating and sexual manipulation, and that male rape is not uncommon. In increasingly harrowing scenes with Arabella’s gay best friend, Kwame, episodes 4 and 5 consider the complexities of control, consent and self-criticism, as well as the decriminalisation of rape and the potential loopholes of our criminal justice system. Kwame’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in episodes 8 and 9 emphasise the stereotype of male masculinity particularly in black communities. What is the impact of sexual exploitation on self-image, trust and autonomy, and what effect does social media have on one’s psyche? 

- The 12 episodes of I May Destroy You are on BBC iPlayer – hopeful for more!  

- Reviewed by Chrissie Fitch MBPsS (Online Child Psychology Tutor); T: @fitchy_chris; E: [email protected]. Many thanks to Jean-Phylippe Provencher, Baljeet Panesar (Research Editor, Future Publishing) and Jessica Fitch (Clifford Chance) for proofreading.  

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