(This post contains spoilers.)
“It’s wholesome, uncomfortable, hilarious but terribly sad and then awkward … I’ve never felt so many emotions at once! Absolutely fantastic. Michaela Coel bloody SMASHED it.”
That how Adele described Michaela Coel’s new series, I May Destroy You in a rare Instagram post last month. If Adele came on social media to tell us to watch it, you know it must really be good. I loved Michaela’s last series, Chewing Gum, (Kathleen wrote about Chewing Gum and her other series, Been So Long back in 2018) but still, I let it marinate on my watchlist for longer than I should have. I knew there was a sexual assault in the plot and hadn’t had time to give the show my undivided attention. Until Monday, when I was in bed sick and scrolled past this tweet from Seth Rogen.
I recommend watching â€œI May Destroy Youâ€ on HBO because holy shit itâ€™s good.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) July 6, 2020
I pressed play on the first episode where we’re introduced to Michaela’s character Arabella, who’s dealing with some writer’s block during an all-nighter, when friends invite her out for drinks. You’re hooked into continuing onto the second episode when a seed is planted in the viewer’s mind, and the character’s, that she may have been assaulted that night. Now we’re on this journey with her.
After bingeing the first four episodes I did some research. The plot is actually based on Coel’s own experiences. While pulling an all-nighter, writing the second season of Chewing Gum, she took a break to meet a friend at a bar, her drink was spiked, and she was assaulted by two men.
So many shows continue to get sex wrong, but this show, created, written, starring, and majority co-directed by Michaela is getting the greyest areas of sex right — or perhaps accurate is a better word.
I feel like my generation is incredibly sex-positive. I mean, we grew up with porn in the palm of our hands, for better or worse. Sex can be whatever you want it to be: love and intimacy or purely pleasure, and it can change on a case by case basis. But the education surrounding consent has never been able to keep up.
This show moves beyond the example used to teach consent in high school, the baseline of consent that if they’re intoxicated they can’t consent. Consent, or lack of consent, takes shape in so many other ways though. And on this show they’re diving into situations where you feel pressured into sex, or situations where someone takes off their condom during the act without their partner’s knowledge — known as “stealthing.” Michaela’s not only telling her story but she’s trying to bring extremely nuanced stories of sexual assault to the screen and show how trauma inhibits each survivor.
And those survivors aren’t always women.
In a later episode, two Black guys are having casual sex. Which was almost shocking since I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw that on screen, if ever. It’s rare to even see Black heterosexual love on screen, although HBO’s Insecure is doing their damnedest to up those numbers. But before things get intimate, the one guy asks the other, “What are you into?” A phrase that means everything and nothing at the same time, especially in the gay community. The other replies, “I’m into everything.” Moments later you find out that was apparently taken as consenting to unprotected sex.
After the miscommunication, they’re enjoying each other’s intimate company. It’s going well. It’s a hot sex scene. Thanks Michaela! But after visiting another character’s storyline, we return to this scene where the deed is done, and one guy won’t let the other leave, eventually pinning him down to the bed and sexually assaulting him.
As the guy on top finishes, he says, “What can I say, I’m a bad boy?”, as if it was just a rape-fantasy porno and not real life. What did I say about porn in the palm of our hands? In this week’s episode, you learn there wasn’t penetration during the assault. Does that change anything? The character wonders if he’s making a bigger deal out of it than it was — since he wasn’t raped. I was left wondering how a survivor feels reporting a sexual assault to authorities which involved a night of both consensual and non-consensual sex? It’s already an underreported crime because they don’t think they’ll be believed.
Getting assaulted during a casual hookup isn’t my story, but it’s a story I’ve heard many times. I think that’s part of the problem. We’ve started to have conversations about these formerly taboo topics but we need to be having them on a bigger level. I May Destroy You helps. It’s entertainment, but also maybe a little bit of info-tainment for some people. The show is heavy but, as Adele said, it can be hilarious at times. Michaela’s signature sense of humour runs through this project and I think that’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down for some people. It’s THE series to watch right now. Are you on it?
P.S. Michaela Coel turned down $1 million from Netflix for this series because they weren’t going to let her retain any ownership in the show. Know your worth people!