Euphoria & Pain: How Michaela Coel is challenging the limits of modern storytelling

CW: Reference to rape, drug use and sexual assault.

“I’ve gone underneath, underneath into the darkness and that darkness is now in me, looking at you”

Narratives of trauma throughout all mediums often end up creating scenarios where assault exists as a function of the plot, enabling characters to either grow or be destroyed by their experiences. This trope is an outdated one, often simplifying the suffering of survivors and maintaining a view of consent that fails to encapsulate the complexities of such incidents. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You has burst onto our screens at a moment in time where many of us are questioning our internal biases and privileges in the wake of the renewed Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, amongst many others. This moment in time feels like a pause, a chance to reflect on our preconceptions and prejudices and work harder to be more tolerant, understanding and empathetic human beings. Coel’s narrative tackles issues of race, sexuality, gender discrimination and consent head on, exposing the failures of modern society through often brutally honest portrayals of assault, trauma and complex relationships. She navigates through hook-up culture, period sex, drug usage, ‘stealthing’, racial tension, familial breakdown and toxic masculinity to name just a few, and all the while is able to imbue every scenario with a poignant realism that is painfully familiar to many of us watching. 

To try and boil down the plot of the show into a bitesize piece feels disingenuous, yet if I were to try and describe what I May Destroy You is about, it follows the impact of trauma on young writer Arabella, how she and her two friends Terry and Kwame begin to question and reevaluate situations in their past and present as they come to terms with the significance of what has happened. The premise was inspired by Coel’s own experience being drugged and raped on a night out whilst writing the second season of her show Chewing Gum, and this sense of lived experience permeates each episode, adding to the impression that this is a show about reality only loosely masked in fiction. 

There is a brutal honesty to Coel’s writing which causes laughter as often as it causes shock, with her punchy dialogue reverberating with wit and anguish. There are no binaries here, the limitations of a black and white perspective are shown in all their nonsensical parameters, the show grapples only with the grey, the in-between minutia of experience which feels so much more tangible than any predetermined categories ever could. As she says herself in a recent interview with Vulture, “the line is not real” – the distinctions we as a society place on certain groups and behaviours don’t ever fully encapsulate a narrative. And that is what Coel is able to do, in throwing out these labels and presenting constantly shifting characters and situations, she demonstrates the futility of such an approach, as well as highlighting its dangers. She crafts characters who feel both familiar and uncomfortable, we see protagonists Arabella, Terry and Kwame navigate distressing situations with a realism which at first appears almost alien because it is so uncommon to view these scenarios on screen. The fact that it felt so shocking for many viewers in episode 2 to see used tampons and blood clots so casually introduced on television proves how, as a society, we are still so hesitant to directly address certain issues and situations, preferring to keep a veil over them. Coel dispenses with any veil from the moment the drama begins, choosing to pierce through the outdated notions of acceptable representations of sex and sexuality on screen and expose latent truths which are often overlooked in mainstream media. 

If Coel’s narrative teaches us anything it is that consent is a conversation that is messy and complicated, it isn’t always binary and by viewing it in such a way, we restrict our own ability to question things that have happened to us. The difference between a yes and a no is not always clear, the boundaries can change and warp over time, again, and again she plunges us into situations that are painfully difficult to untangle. By labeling this show as about rape or assault simplifies her complex writing to an unhelpful degree, Coel is able to capture the modern technology fuelled world we inhabit with all of its flaws and its advantages. Very often with narratives that have heavy social media usage, the writing feels outdated and clunky, failing to reflect the ways in which young people communicate, but this is never an issue – Coel artfully weaves the daily relationships her characters have with their online exploits into the fabric of the narrative; she creates an honest portrait of hook-up culture which never demeans or implicitly judges the morality of such choices; she examines the drain online activity can have on our mental health and the positivity of online spaces which allow isolated or struggling individuals to feel connected to others who feel similar to themselves. This is not a show about the dangers of online culture, it never demonises any of the subjects it portrays, even those that seem inherently toxic are not treated as evil or repugnant, it is up to the viewer to decide how to come to terms with the issues she raises; perspective becomes the focus. 

Without giving anything away, the ending of Coel’s drama is the kind of finale that most writers wish they were capable of achieving, it is deliciously surreal and open-ended, questioning the expectations of narratives surrounding trauma – you subconsciously expect a nice resolution, even though the show has never once been neat and conclusive in any way. Coel executes the culmination of her narrative with shattering eloquence and perplexity, it is not one complete thing, but a multiplicity, as it should be. As she stated herself, “What does closure look like? It’s not that it ends. For me, I look at the last four years and I feel this overwhelming sense of euphoria and pain.” How better to end a narrative brimming with truth and realism than with an ending which eludes simple understanding? Because nothing is ever neatly resolved and put away. These things stay with us, as Coel’s narrative too surely will stay with us also as we attempt to create a more open and positive discourse of empathy and consent.

Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.