Content warning: This article discusses themes such as sexual assault and trauma. It also contains spoilers from the television show “I May Destroy You.”
The vast majority of my free time this quarantine was spent streaming movies and television shows. I found solace in lounging around on whichever piece of furniture seemed most comfortable that day and spending hours fully engrossed in fictional and far away worlds. The TV show “I May Destroy You,” created by Michaela Coel, took me to an entirely different state of mind. The HBO series, set in London, follows Arabella, a young Black writer, and her group of friends as she juggles work life, family, friends and romantic relationships after being sexually assaulted.
While numerous aspects of the twelve-episode series were exciting, puzzling and even triggering, the most notable theme that stuck with me was the importance of portraying imperfect people on screen. This realization immediately made me think of the ‘single story,’ a phrase coined by the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her 2009 TedTalk titled “The danger of a single story.” She speaks about the dangers of oversimplified stories or ideas we form about individuals, groups of people or entire countries. Speaking in generalizations is harmful and erases any kind of dignity or possibility of seeing each other as full human beingsand not just one part of a monolith.
Coel sincerely invests in deconstructing the ‘single story’ of sexual assault, showing that sexual assault looks differently for every individual who experiences it. Throughout the series, we see five different incidents of sexual assault. Each survivor responds in such different ways, making it impossible to force into a single narrative, character or plotline.
This is an applaudable feat as media portrayals of people who survive traumatic experiences can often be stereotypical. Highlighting varying experiences with sexual assault shows that no one survivor, perpetrator or environment is the same as one another. It is vital to understand that every survivor of sexual assault processes trauma in different ways, therefore we must reject the single story of the ‘perfect victim.’
It is for this reason that the characters are written to be honest and flawed; no character is fully good or fully evil. Coel captures the messiness, the confusion, the denial, the anger, the grief and the acceptance that may come after being assaulted and how that can play out in daily life. “I May Destroy You” makes us ask ourselves, can we really judge an individual until we’ve experienced the same trauma and triumphs that they have?
By understanding this and writing with respect and nuance to the complexities of sexual assault, Michaela Coel has created a show that resonates with viewers worldwide, including myself. This series truly strives to bring more voices and varying experiences into light while forcing audiences to be introspective. In the end, she leaves us with a powerful message that after the dust fades (while some may still linger), trauma does not define the individual, and neither can we.