We wanted more than the flimsy female love interest, and so we asked for more than the Strong Female Character, but then swung too hard the other way and had to put up with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Tears and messy hair do not a real woman make. Michaela Coel knows this, and makes sure I May Destroy You’s Arabella will get deep under your skin, whether you like it or not.
Arabella, in the first episode, was raped on a night out – and is still trying to put the pieces back together. But Coel, who writes, often directs, and stars in the show, doesn’t just sculpt her character as a brave survivor who must be followed and worshipped to the end of the world.
She respects, understands and elevates Arabella – and so every woman who had to be believed, supported and listened to – but also wrestles with the difficult and conflicting aspects of her too. The ones learned, and the ones lived.
In episode nine, the oppressive realities of Arabella’s newfound social media fame become too much for her best friends Terry and Kwame to bear. Kwame, too, has survived rape – and the stark differences in the way such trauma can be processed are vivid.
Arabella overcompensates, she uses her experience to become a mouthpiece for others, to empower fellow survivors and speak truths people don’t usually want to hear. But this also comes at the expense of her intimate relationships, those that can’t be categorised or marketed into something traditionally empowering.
She’s still deeply flawed: entitled, narcissistic, judgemental, scared, disillusioned. None of this denies her monumental experience, the platform she deserves. But nuance exists.
Such nuance has been the driving force of I May Destroy You from the start. This manifests during a doctor’s visit in which the doctor points to Arabella’s 'Afro-Caribbean origins'. She corrects him, explaining how this is not only incorrect but a micro-aggression, the assumption of Caribbean heritage based on skin colour, that can ultimately go on to cause deep and irreparable harm.
Harm can be inflicted in endless ways. By a sea of people on the internet fighting over an opinion of a person they haven’t met. By close friends speaking for each other, assuming and judging and hiding and eventually erupting. By yourself, bound to the destructive powers of social media until you destroy it yourself.
Arabella’s trauma isn’t the only thing that defines her, but it’s also not only attached to that one crucial night. As the show develops we’re given more of her life, bit by bit. The things she tried to keep hidden under the bed, the people she painted a certain way in her childhood because it felt like the only thing to be done.
And as we’re given more of her life, she becomes trickier to pin down. From the start, she’s been a breath of fresh air: fearless and incendiary and unbelievably brilliant. But she’s also a b*tch sometimes. She’s been bruised, her heart and her memory and her dignity have been snatched by countless moments of pain.
I May Destroy You has never been an easy watch. But while such subjects might usually be inflicted on perfect pretty little people, poor victims who must turn themselves into survivors – Arabella is her own kind of monster. Impossible to shy away from, essential to watch – we wanted a complicated woman? Here she is, and all we can do is watch and learn.
|What||I May Destroy You episode 9 & 10, BBC review|
06 Jul 20 – 06 Jul 21, ON BBC ONE AND IPLAYER
|Website||Click here for more information|