We don’t know what sex is. Michaela Coel’s new drama, I May Destroy You, is full of shocking revelations for Arabella (Coel) and her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), as they navigate the messy emotional fallout of surviving sexual assault and live with the toll it takes on their most intimate relationships. While the narrative moves from one jarring experience of sexual assault to another, the real horror comes from contemplating the reality that we don’t know the answers to our most personal questions: What is sexual pleasure and what is violation? For the characters on the show, the boundaries between these terms are constantly shifting, despite their best attempts at following their desires. For survivors of sexual assault, however, these scenes reveal the fundamental disorientation that occurs in the midst of violation, in the very moments when we might disassociate or freeze in the realization that we’re watching something go horribly wrong but can’t seem to stop it, when it feels like we’re in someone else’s movie. The show, in short, explores how sexual violation is entangled in relations of visuality.
This messy knot first unravels at the police station where the protagonist, Arabella, arrives after piecing together her fractured memories of the night before, which include an inexplicably persistent flashback of a man assaulting someone. While she is unclear about where this violation occurred or who is involved, she goes to the cops, because this movie in her head won’t stop playing. The audience is given brief flashes of this memory (or “thing in her head,” as she refers to it), where we see a young white man (Lewis Reeves) in a dress shirt towering over the camera in a medium close-up, violently thrusting and grunting down toward the floor of a bathroom stall. The camera is trained on his dead-eyed stare as he looks down on the body he is thrusting into. That off-screen body is presumably Bella’s, since she is the only character whose point of view we’ve had access to so far in the episode, and of course, it is her memory that we’re watching.
Until this moment, we’ve mostly been watching a show about a young writer who is rapidly approaching a writing deadline for her second book project. We’ve learned so far that she is trying to replicate the runaway success of her first book, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. She is trying to do so while negotiating with her polite but extremely frustrated literary agents and while avoiding any contact with her publishing house, which has paid her a handsome advance for a book that still doesn’t exist. On a writing break, Arabella meets up with a friend, Simon (Aml Ameen), who is hatching schemes to manage his infidelity. Simon takes Arabella along to a bar, Ego Death, where her drink is spiked. The next morning she finds herself at her computer in the literary agents’ office, bruised and bleeding, with no idea how she made it back and just shards of memory from the night before.
“Who’s he looking at?” is the question that breaks Arabella’s composure at the police station. The question is posed to her by a sympathetic detective, Officer Funmi (Sarah Niles), who is able to recognize in Bella’s description of her flashbacks what is clearly a brutal sexual assault. As Funmi asks her about her friends and their whereabouts during the assault, Bella balks at the term assault, proposing that perhaps the movie she sees doesn’t involve her and refusing to see herself as a victim. So Funmi gives Bella a short lesson in film analysis, explaining visual perspective and angles of sight, and asking questions that I would ask students taking a course in film semiotics: Where is the camera in relation to the subjects in the shot? Who is looking at whom? Where is the audience placed in the scene?
Bella learns about her assault because Funmi asks her to pay attention to where the subject is looking. We, the audience, know that we’re watching Bella’s memories. So I watch Bella’s face like I’m streaming a reaction video, waiting for her to realize what we already know: that the rapist met the camera’s gaze.
What’s unique about the aftermath of Bella’s assault is her insistence on her memories appearing as if she’s watching a movie on a screen.
Reviews of the show have noted that we’re watching something fundamentally new in this narrative about sexual assault.1 But utilizing flashbacks to tell a story onscreen is a very old tactic, and we are trained to recognize it when it happens even if the character herself doesn’t. What’s more, entering the character’s world that we’re watching onscreen as if it were our own is the most pedestrian approach to film analysis one can take. In the language of film theory, this would be the recognition that the screen is a mirror, inviting us to view the characters onscreen as reflections of ourselves, through formal choices such as the camera placement that suggests we’re watching the violation from Bella’s point of view. Even the conceit of watching someone else’s memory like a movie has been done before: played to much more violent effect, for example, in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and to more questionable ethical outcomes in films like Minority Report.
What is unique about the way this event unfolds is Bella’s own insistence on her memories appearing as if she’s watching a movie on a screen—once removed from the scene of the action.2 She’s faced with the terrifying realization that she doesn’t know what she’s actually watching, which means that she doesn’t know what she’s just lived through.
I didn’t know there was a way to make perceptible to others the sound I sometimes heard when I felt light-headed from a flash of memory of my assault—until I heard the flat ringing in the soundtrack whenever Bella experienced her own. To be clear, the uncanny feeling of recognition as I watched these scenes emerged not because I shared any of Bella’s personal history, and I didn’t feel like she was telling my story. My stories of surviving sexual assault are very different, most obviously because the most egregious ones occurred in intimate domestic situations, by people I deeply trusted: a cousin, my swimming coach, an old friend. My life has been lived quite far away from the Black British milieu in which the show is set, so I certainly don’t feel some inherent commonality along lines of personal identity. I definitely do not share the added complication of trying to remember my encounter through the fog of the date-rape drug that Bella was still reeling from in these scenes.
What drew me in and left me stunned after the first two episodes was the structure of the encounter: the way that the character grappled with the ringing silence where memories should have been and never finds all the answers she’s looking for. Bella’s cultivated air of denial and nonchalance—which she wears like her fun, fuzzy cardigans—is the same I wore for years to keep myself from the chilling reality that I still don’t fully remember every detail of my own experiences of sexual violation.
Being reduced to an object for another’s use, a character in someone else’s video, is the closest I can come to describing what violation feels like.3 I remember, as Bella eventually does, watching my limbs as if they belonged to someone else. Frozen in place by some mix of terror and incomprehension the first time I was assaulted, I barely registered what was happening to my body as I watched dust floating lazily through sunlight with a detached sort of interest. Some small part of me tried to jump out of my skin, and all I could hear was that flat ringing and somebody far away softly saying, “no, no, no,” and I just lay there wishing it would end, wishing I were dead, wishing I were dust floating away. It felt, in other words, like watching a movie that was happening to someone else. And in the time after, each time, my memories felt fragile and tattered, like I had rescued them from a raging fire. All I had were little singed bits that didn’t add up to a full story.
Summaries of I May Destroy You often resort to the term “consent” in describing what it’s about.4 But there seems to be a more fundamental question that these characters are negotiating: the uncertainty of what we want from intimacy, and how to tell when that desire is violated. And if these problems weren’t hard enough already, the show examines how all this is now negotiated through our screens.
At crucial moments in the narrative, Bella takes her questions and needs to her social media accounts. In the first episode, she looks up “how to write quickly” online. She leaves for her fateful evening at the bar when no good answers arrive, in search of other crowds to source answers from.
In another tense moment, after having just been yelled at on a video call with her drug-dealing love interest, Bella posts a selfie online and watches the likes and hearts run upward. A single heart escapes the screen and floats toward her. The obviously digital effect feels like an annotation to our screens, as if we’re suddenly scrolling through Instagram.
As the show progresses, it becomes clear that Bella might have something one could call a “problem” in her dependence on internet affirmation. Zain (Karan Gill), the condescending Cambridge-educated writer tasked with helping Bella write her new novel, informs Bella early on of this issue. “You’re turning into a computer,” he says, when she jumps out of his bed early in the morning to post yoga selfies for her fans. By then Zain has sexually assaulted her and gaslit her about it, and they’re now casually dating. Meanwhile, he has completely failed to help her career or writer’s block. Eventually, we learn that Zain has taken on a pen name, “Della,” and published a novel that echoes and perhaps appropriates Bella’s own experiences as a young Black woman writer in London.
It isn’t a surprise that Bella appreciates the distant intimacy of life online and that her sexual relationships in person are really quite awful; that’s just called your early 20s. But it is also online that she eventually learns that Zain, who is the first person she’s had sex with since her assault at the bar, has assaulted her. While scrolling through her podcasts, Bella listens to women sharing their stories of men intentionally taking their condoms off in the middle of sex without their partners’ consent and pretending that it was a misunderstanding. This is legally classified as sexual assault, and it is also what Zain did the first time they had sex.
Bella walks around in a daze as she learns that their first moment of intimacy was also a violation. What is horrifying is the fact that Bella didn’t know she was violated, even though she was fully present and able to consent this time around. But what’s the point of consent when you don’t know what you’re consenting to? So Bella turns to the call-and-response of mediated intimacy, basically attempting to crowdsource sexual boundaries, because it seems like she can’t trust her own.
Bella traces the emergence of a general acceptance of sexual harassment by men through their constant gaslighting and exploiting of the “gray areas” of consent.
Watching the results of her increasingly bizarre experiments with mediated vulnerability carries a therapeutic charge for us as viewers, and perhaps for Coel herself, who drew on her own experience of sexual assault to write this narrative. This becomes most explicit in the opening scene of episode 8, where Bella is at a sexual-assault survivors’ group meeting organized by an acquaintance, Theo. Almost everyone in the room is a stranger, and they are all sharing and processing their stories of assault. Like the show itself, the confessions are free-ranging and associative, though the general tone is set up front by Theo, who opens each meeting by announcing that she is a survivor of various forms of sexual harassment and assault and that she really hates perpetrators of sexual crimes. Her anger is palpable, and so is Bella’s when someone shares a story about a coworker inappropriately touching and harassing them at an office party.
Bella delivers a vehement monologue, tracing the emergence of a general acceptance of sexual harassment by men through their constant gaslighting and exploiting of the “gray areas” of consent. “We will show you exactly what we mean by violation,” she forcefully states to no one in particular, as if she knows we’re watching, which of course we are. And the show does deliver on this promise for the next couple of episodes, as the focus shifts to other characters and their experiences of violation, though not always with as much care or success.
Kwame’s experiences as a gay man, for example, are granted none of the psychic complexity of Bella’s own, and his coerced sexual encounter with a white woman, Nilufer (Pearl Chanda), who explicitly fetishizes his Blackness, was extremely cringe-inducing. And that was even before Bella confronted him in an awkwardly homophobic exchange, where his uncertain consent to the encounter is dismissed, and his withholding of his sexual preferences is described as a violation of that woman’s trust. Meanwhile, Terry learns that her most exciting sexual encounter, a threesome with two strangers in Italy, was perhaps premeditated by those men, which leaves her questioning her own desires and agency. This news is delivered by her cute date, Kai (Tyler Luke Cunningham), who Terry learns is trans when she looks him up online. The scene places one revelation in relation to the other and gets us into TERF territory by equivocating between a potentially violating, anonymous sexual encounter and Kai not blurting out that he’s trans in the first 30 seconds of their meeting.
Okay, just in case it isn’t clear already: we’re watching all sorts of violations of trust. We’re also watching unlikeable characters play out their confused political opinions, which might feel both intimate and violent. In Bella’s case, we even occasionally see her inner demons appear onscreen as terrifying doubles of herself, torturing her with insightful critiques of her hypocrisy toward Kwame. Still, it’s such a relief when the finale returns us to the violation that the show seems to understand best.
The final episode looks for a minute like we’re about to watch a revenge fantasy. The police investigation is now closed, Bella’s contract with the publishers has vanished, and her polite agents have dropped her as a client. She has managed to get back to writing, with some last-minute assistance from Zain, who returns briefly to teach her about plot structures and assuage his guilt. Bella has been returning often to Ego Death, hoping to somehow remember more details of the night or maybe catch her rapist returning to the scene of his crime. This evening, her wish actually comes true and she has a startling jolt of recognition as she sees her rapist and his friend drinking at the bar, spurring an intense meltdown in the bathroom as crucial details of the assault come flooding back to her. Terry, who is with Bella, helps her figure out what to do, and the rest of the episode fractures into several potential endings for what happens next.
In the first scenario, Bella and her friends violently attack and kill the guy, and Bella shoves his dead body under her bed. This would be a good place to end: give us the fictional blood of this rapist to stand in the place of all rapists, a metonymic price that would definitely be therapeutic on its own. But as the scenarios get increasingly absurd, from taking him home and listening to his emotional struggles, to having intensely erotic sex with him and letting him spend the night, it becomes clear that we are watching something else: a metaleptic ending.5
The final fantasy scenario ends with Bella waking up next to her rapist after a night of intense sex. He sweetly stares into her eyes and says, “I’m not going to go unless you tell me to,” as if he were a one-night stand looking for something more. She tells him to leave and he walks out naked, followed by his dead fantasy double from under her bed. We now understand that these are alternate endings to her new book, which Bella has been frantically pulling together from the note cards she has arranged along her wall. We’re no longer just in the fictional world of Bella’s life, but also in the fictional world of the book that she is writing within it.
That all these events are set in motion at a bar named “Ego Death” makes it almost too easy for me to follow this argument home, but here we are; the show is, one might say, asking for it. Ultimately, all these outrageous experiments play out the same narrative relation: Bella is using her rapist as a cipher in her own story. Where the first episode marked a kind of tragic “ego death”—her own in the assault—here the rapist’s death is a fantastical farce. Emptied of any inner world or claim to subjectivity, the man is merely a character to manipulate for her narrative: effectively kept alive only to play out Bella’s fantasies.
Bella is, to put it mildly, lying about having sex with her rapist on HBO. And it’s not just fun to watch, it is oddly sweet and even therapeutic. But for whom? The uncertainty of the answer to that question becomes unavoidable once the show has made these metaleptic jumps between Bella, her fictional protagonist in her new novel, Coel, and us, her audience. All of this is only possible because the show makes us see how experiencing assault feels like watching it happen. And that begs the question: What are we hoping to see?
- Such reviews include Sophie Gilbert, “I May Destroy You Explodes the Idea of Consent,” Atlantic, June 7, 2020; Rosie Humphrey, “How I May Destroy You Navigates Consent and Trauma On-Screen,” Harper’s Bazaar, August 25, 2020; Nonny Onyekweli, “I May Destroy You Changed the Way My Friends and I Talk about Consent,” Slate, September 4, 2020; Amanda Whiting, “How I May Destroy You Expertly Navigates the Thorny Truth of Consent,” Bustle, June 29, 2020. ↩
- For more on this distinction, see Joan Copjec’s essay, “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” in Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists (1994; repr., Verso, 2015). ↩
- This insight shares some conceptual resonances with those outlined in Summer Kim Lee’s engagement with the problems of demarcating proper objects of attachment for racialized subjects. See “Someone Else’s Object,” Post45, December 9, 2019. ↩
- See Gilbert, “I May Destroy You Explodes the Idea of Consent”; Humphrey, “How I May Destroy You Navigates Consent and Trauma On-Screen”; Onyekweli, “I May Destroy You Changed the Way My Friends and I Talk about Consent”; Whiting, “How I May Destroy You Expertly Navigates the Thorny Truth of Consent”; and Meredith Blake, “Michaela Coel’s New HBO Show Makes Consent Clear: ‘It Doesn’t Look Gray, Does It?’” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2020. ↩
- A metalepsis, in narratology, occurs when the narrator or author interrupts the diegetic narrative, or when a character from within the diegesis steps out into the world outside, often to comic or tragic effect. For a longer discussion of metalepsis and the source of the working definition I use here, see Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, translated from the French by Jane E. Lewin (Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 234–35. For a more recent and very useful discussion of the term in contemporary art and fiction, see Stephen Best, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Duke University Press, 2018). ↩