Stealthing, trauma and menstrual blood: Why everyone needs to watch I May Destroy You

It’s like nothing you’ve seen on TV before

CW: sexual assault, rape, trauma.

There are so many TV shows with hour-long episodes and 10+ series that don’t actually say very much. After dedicating years of our lives to Game of Thrones, we walk away from a new series with the same perspective on life that we had before. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, not everything we watch needs to educate us or shift our understanding of the world and our place in it. However, with this in mind – the money, time and resources that go into shows that don’t do much in the way of progress – it makes it even more impressive when something like I May Destroy You manages to explore so many questions, fears, injustices and experiences from a completely fresh point of view in just 12 30-minute episodes.

The first episode of I May Destroy You was released at the beginning of June and since then The Guardian has argued it’s on its way to being the best drama of the year. The High Low, Black Gals Livin’, Woman’s Hour and many other podcasts have raved that everyone needs to watch it, not because it’s just hilarious, heartbreaking, powerful and incredibly real but because it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen on TV before.

The series is about a young writer who becomes famous after she turns her Twitter profile into a book, The Chronicles of a Fed-up Millenial. After her success, she is under new pressure to publish the follow-up book. During a late night of writing, she takes a break to go for drinks with friends. The next morning she wakes up with little memory of the night, apart from a hazy recurring flashback of what she later learns is a sexual assault. Michaela Coel wrote the story based on her own sexual violence, she also stars as Arabella and co-directed it.

I May Destroy You offers the perspective of a working-class black woman and her experience of identity, injustice and trauma. Alongside this, the series explores themes of sexual assault between men, exploitation, liberation, friendship and so much more. Despite there still being four episodes to come, here’s a rundown of everything the series has touched on so far and all the reasons you need to start it right now. It will blow your mind.

**Some spoilers below**

It’s from the point of view of a black woman

Firstly, the story isn’t just written and co-directed by Michaela Cole, it also stems from her own life experiences and you can tell. On the Black Gals Livin’ podcast, Vic and Jas said Michaela’s perspective as a black woman is clear from the get-go and this is what connected them to the show because it’s actually authentic.

They mentioned the script, the language used, the experiences Arabella has, even the flashbacks to her school – it’s true to many people’s lived experiences. This is arguably what makes the series so unlike anything else because seeing through this lens is pretty rare on mainstream TV. How many other shows can you name that are written by, directed by and star black women? Not many.

Arabella is a new type of woman we haven’t seen on screen

Female characters that are at the centre of TV shows or films tend to share a few key traits. They’re chaotic, lost, aimless, desperate to love and be loved and completely in need of a man to save them – Bridget Jones being a perfect example. Or, they’re independent, headstrong and determined, but too hard and in need of “softening” by a man – eg Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada or even Cher from Clueless.

Fleabag came along and appeared to reinvent this because she was both chaotic and headstrong. And yet she still semi-relied on a man to save her and, though at times relatable, was another woman who seemed lost and completely terrified by life.

Arabella isn’t like any of these. She’s a unique combination of frantic chaos and fearlessness. Comparing her experience to the characters above, she has a lot more to be afraid of and yet she’s not. She’s got balls. Every scary, traumatic experience she has, she faces head-on – when she realises she’s been sexually assaulted she goes to the police straight away. When she realises she needs professional support she openly speaks to a therapist. When she learns she’s been stealthed, she calls him out on a stage in front of everyone. Throughout all of this, she never apologises for, or questions, any of her actions.

Maybe some (or a lot of) women can’t relate to Arabella’s fearlessness but nevertheless it’s so refreshing. Rather than repeatedly seeing women who are scared shitless which often just reinforces our own anxiety, we finally have a female character owning her life and not second-guessing anything.

The show has a black majority cast but doesn’t centre on race

The theme of race runs throughout but it isn’t the main thread of the show. It’s present because race is always present but the characters’ race, culture and identity isn’t at the base of the story for the sake of diversity or eduction but simply because it’s a black majority cast.

Throughout the series, there are multiple references to black culture, for example when Terry asks where Arabella’s headscarf is before she goes to sleep, or when Arabella gets her wig changed at the hairdressers or the slang the characters use. These references appear and disappear without any explanation or attention drawn to them – they’re not there to educate viewers who don’t relate, they’re there simply because they’re part of the characters’ day to day lives.

It presents trauma incredibly accurately

On Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, the poet Venessa Kisuule said the series is so unique because of how well it presents trauma and the process of coming to terms with trauma. She said: “It honours the fragmentary way our brain processes information, particularly trauma. Often we block things out and then when they reoccur in our minds, we get it in pieces”.

She added: “The show depicts how strange and disordered our thoughts and memories can be. It makes the show so different from any other depiction of sexual assault”. The series allows people who have experienced trauma to relate and feel validated, and anyone who hasn’t can gain some insight into it.

It shows the experience of being spiked

Michaela’s script gives a lot of time and attention to what it feels like to be spiked. A BBC investigations unit found in 2019 that there had been 2,600 reports of drink-spiking incidents in England and Wales since 2015. A lot of people have experienced it and yet it’s rarely spoken about publically or seen on TV.

In a Radio 4 interview, Zing Tsjeng executive editor of VICE UK compared the portrayal of Arabella’s experience to her own and praised it for its accuracy. Zing said the ever-changing flashbacks Arabella has of the incident reflect that sense of confusion you feel after you’ve been spiked. She added: “It’s really relatable for anyone that’s been through it. How it presents a sense that you can’t trust yourself and a feeling like you’re constantly questioning your own judgement”.

It calls out stealthing as sexual assault

A really poignant moment in the series is when Arabella sleeps with Zain (the first person since the assault) and he stealths her (removes the condom without her knowing). When Arabella finds out, Zain says all the classic excuses, such as, “I thought you could feel it”, “I thought you knew”, “the condom was uncomfortable”. Arabella is annoyed that she has to get the morning after pill but, like a lot of people, doesn’t realise how serious it is. It’s not until she is at the police station that she mentions it and the officer point-blank replies – that’s rape.

This all happens in less than an hour and what does it do? Shines a light on how badly we’ve been educated on sex, consent and sexual assault because I can bet a lot of the people watching this scene were just as surprised as Arabella to find out this is legally considered sexual assault. This one episode offers us more than any sex education class ever could and that’s fucking sad, but hats off to Michaela for doing it.

It highlights the different experience of reporting sexual assault for men and women

Once again, this series manages to delve into a really important issue in just a few scenes. The contrast between Kwame’s experience and Arabella’s draws attention to how differently men and women are treated when reporting sexual assault. It also highlights how different it is when it’s a man on woman assault and a man on man.

The police officer dealing with Kwame doesn’t understand Grindr and doesn’t understand anal penetration forcing Kwame to go into detail about the traumatic experience. Because of how uncomfortable he is, Kwame doesn’t file a full report and even says the experience nearly put him off ever mentioning it to anyone again. The scene demonstrates how important it is for everyone who reports a sexual assault to be offered the same sensitivity and respect to ensure these crimes are reported.

One scene shows menstrual blood on TV

The period blood scene is explicit and shocking. I’m a woman who bleeds every month and yet I genuinely found this a lot because I’ve never seen it on TV before. We see brutal murders and torture and guts but a blood clot on a towel (that most women have seen many times in their life) completely took me back.

Not only is it great that Michaela chose to include this moment in the series but also how she writes Biagio’s reaction is perfect. He firstly doesn’t give a shit about period sex (amen), but he’s also not grossed out at all by the blood clot. He’s surprised and curious because he hasn’t seen one before but he appreciates the reality that it’s natural. He even cleans up the towel afterwards. He turns out to be a massive knob but in this scene, he’s an angel and an example for how all men should act.

It touches on the conflict experienced for people who are part of more than one minority group

The letter Arabella reads out to her publishers is so powerful. She brings up an inner conflict that a lot of people can relate to – the realisation that she faces more forms of prejudice than she previously realised. She has always identified as black and working-class but hasn’t thought much about her position in society as a woman until this reality was forced on her by an assault. She questions whether it’s too late to join the “side” of women and fight for the cause at this stage in her life.

Within the fight against sexism there are issues of race, within the fight against racism there are issues of homophobia, within the fight against homophobia, there are issues of class, and so on. You can’t truly fight for one minority group without fighting for them all. This is something that has come up a lot in the BLM movement and with Pride, and it’s something people are only just starting to properly think about – Michaela’s timing couldn’t be better.

It explores the fine line women balance between sexual liberation and exploitation

As women, we’re often toeing the line between feeling liberated by sex and feeling exploited. On Woman’s Hour, they brought up the 90s movement that pushed women to go out and shag who they want and feel liberated by this. But at the same time we question these moments and whether we’re fully in control or not.

When Terry has a threesome with two guys in Italy, at first she’s super liberated because she feels powerful – she wanted to have a threesome so she did and she had fun. But then she sees the two guys walking away together and wonders if she did have the power or whether they’d planned it, meaning she was actually being used.

Issues of sexual exploitation and liberation are everywhere in this series. Michaela doesn’t try to offer an answer to this conflict because there isn’t really one. This is the result of a history of women being hyper-sexualised but at the same time shamed for using their sexuality. It’s a head fuck and she puts it on our screens as so.

There are still four more episodes to go

Maybe the most important reason you should watch it is because all of this^ happened in eight episodes. There are four left and so much potential. You can catch up on BBC iPlayer here.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help and support is available. You can find international resources on the I May Destroy You HBO website. You can also call Mind on 0300 123 3393 (weekdays 9am – 6pm) or contact your GP.

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