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Coming-of-rage with I May Destroy You

Shigorika Singh | Updated on September 26, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

Diary in the dark: The 12-episode drama follows the personal journey of a rising London literary star who struggles to keep deadlines   -  IMAGE COURTESY: FACEBOOK

BAFTA winner Michaela Coel’s 'I May Destroy You', now streaming on Hotstar, breaks new ground with its comedic touch to trauma

* Arabella (played by BAFTA winner Michaela Coel, also the show’s creator), of the colourful hair and habits, is a rising literary star of the London Twitterati scene

* I May Destroy You is not one of those shows you play in the back while you browse through your phone — it demands to be dealt with, like past trauma

* We never pity Arabella, because she takes control of the narrative, even when she is breaking down

Female rage seems to be elegantly exploding on our viewing screens. While Fleabag and Girls were a severely honest look at our gendered experience, I May Destroy You, an HBO-BBC series of 12 episodes now available on Hotstar, is an inadvertent look at it.

Arabella (played by BAFTA winner Michaela Coel, also the show’s creator), of the colourful hair and habits, is a rising literary star of the London Twitterati scene. Strangers ask the social media maven and mendicant surviving on an author’s advance for selfies while she struggles to pay for groceries. By her own admission, “I never noticed being a woman. I was too busy being poor and black”.

In a way, she’s the ideal victim — always pushing it too far, partying before manuscript submission, drinking, smoking, taking Molly (MDMA), not covering her drink, not covering her a** and not covering up for those who wrong her.

The world has focussed on using sexual assault as the ultimate bogeyman that will appear if you do all of the aforementioned things, but it still doesn’t have a narrative of the morning after. The sun still rises, the earth doesn’t split open, and you get to review the pieces of your destroyed self you’d like to keep or leave behind.

Deftly treating a heavy topic with a wry comedic touch, I May Destroy You never devolves into revenge-porn. Don’t watch it if you’re looking for answers; a web-series is not about resolving uncomfortable questions about sexual assault. What it does is let you sit in the long unsettling moment of the aftermath and poke at it.

The series seems to be shot in the mental pause when your entire life flashes before your eyes, just before the fall. The tone, dialogue, soundtrack choices, even Arabella’s memory flashes — in the style of a first-person, inside-the-brain, point-of-view — all work together to deliver an experience that feels lived and intimate. While she struggles with figuring out if they are memories or dreams, we try to keep guessing if they are ours or hers, creating an empathetic bond between actor and audience.

I May Destroy You is not one of those shows you play in the back while you browse through your phone — it demands to be dealt with, like past trauma. It may push you to make an Arya Stark-esque list of people — expose or dispose of them. Either way, get ready for buried things to come to the fore: Destruction is imminent.

The drama takes the female coming-of-age format and releases it from the clutches of cosmopolitans. It’s a rare bildungsroman of a woman who can’t clear the ‘survive’ level to get to the ‘thrive’ level. She must learn to do both at the same time.

Her mates through this journey are Terry, childhood friend and mother-hen, and Kwame, a trigger-happy Grindr connoisseur. Together they navigate the shifting sands of ‘consent’. Interestingly, there is not one episode where it is not violated or imposed upon: From showing up at a door uninvited to being gaslit while being demoted from girlfriend to ‘whore’.

Consent can be stolen outside the lines of clearly defined legal and verbal spaces. Behind closed doors, in glances and silences, due to peer pressure or persuasion. The same person can be found on either side of this thievery, exploiting the white guilt of her publishing agents who are struggling to hold her accountable to a deadline, squirming in all their British awkwardness.

We never pity Arabella, because she takes control of the narrative, even when she is breaking down. On one hand, in full Halloween garb — literally donning the horns of a dilemma — she hurtles down London streets, puking self-righteous venom on Insta-live, high on the sound of her own activism, out to single-handedly fix the world one post at a time. The garish blue and pink neon of the city lights reflect on her impossible cheekbones. On the other, she lands up vulnerable in this phony suit of armour at her therapist’s home asking for help, crashing in private life even as she becomes a warrior on social media.

I May Destroy You starts with the premise that everyone gets dehumanised. The type of dehumanisation can vary based on your skin, gender and level of privilege. As a model who signed off her respect when she agreed to lingerie shoots. As a radicalised vote-bank. As a demographic: 18-25, urban, most likely to use social media for activism. As a survivor of sexual assault. As a ‘human resource’ of a global MNC — a pair of hands that turns the lever.

To then ‘insist on your humanity’ (demand to be treated as human) is the biggest power move of them all.

Shigorika Singh is a Delhi-based journalist

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Published on September 25, 2020
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