Some shows are praised for their ability to hold the messier and uglier parts of being a woman up to the light. Sex and the City examined the pitfalls of dating as a woman in New York, Lena Dunham’s Girls gave an unfiltered view of female friendship in your twenties, and Fleabag presented a protagonist who was as weird, gross and unhinged as all of your darkest thoughts.
I have cried at some point while watching all of these shows. Like many women, I saw some part of myself reflected in their characters and story lines, however stylised. And yet, despite my enjoyment, I always had the feeling that something was missing.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is different. Every Monday for the past five weeks, I have finished work, made a meal and allowed myself to watch and then re-watch the two new episodes, over and over again. I watch them until I have to force myself to close my laptop and then shake with sobs until I fall asleep.
The 12-part BBC-HBO “consent-drama” centres on Arabella, played by Coel, a struggling writer who is sexually assaulted, and her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). Drawing on Coel’s own experience of sexual assault, the show has been praised for its ability to portray trauma with both unflinching precision and humour. Vulture described it as “sublimely unsettling.”
Another part of what makes I May Destroy You so powerful is its portrayal of Black women. Black women, specifically dark-skinned Black women, are usually background characters in film and TV shows. They are stereotyped – the caregiver or the sassy best friend – and never get the chance to be the protagonist. Instead, their role is to help the main character, who is almost always white. But I May Destroy You gives us authentic Black female characters in all their messy glory. Just as she did in Chewing Gum, the 2015 Channel 4 sitcom about a religious 24-year-old trying to lose her virginity, Coel subverts every preconception about how Black women should behave. Into Arabella, she distills the uncomfortable parts of being a woman – including those bodily Fleabag-esque moments usually reserved for depictions of white women. In episode one, Arabella smokes and uses cocaine recreationally. In episode three, we see her sitting on the toilet, putting on a sanitary towel as she chats to Terry. Later on in the episode, when she is having sex with her on-off boyfriend, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), he pulls out and we see a clot of period blood.
Race wasn’t at the forefront of Coel’s mind when she created the show. When the Guardian asked for her thoughts on I May Destroy You being wrongly pigeonholed as a “black show”, she said: “I don’t really think about that stuff, I just make content.” But in writing about her experiences, Coel has done what Girls, Fleabag et al were all praised for: accurately explored the intricacies of millennials' sex lives and friendships. The difference is that she has done it in a way that includes Black women.
In the same interview, Coel said that she writes things as they happen in real life. This sounds mundane, but watching scenes quite clearly written by a Black British woman is radical when you consider how little we see of Black women’s true lives on screen. In episode ten, we meet Arabella’s family who, like Coel, are British-Ghanaian. The scene shows a gathering for her mum’s birthday: a family dynamic that will be enjoyably familiar to many viewers who grew up in British-Ghanaian households. Arabella sits, happily watching her parents and family friends slip seamlessly between Twi and English – much like I did as a child – oblivious to what is being said.
The points of familiarity between Arabella’s life and my own take darker turns, too. At one point, Terry says: “Apart from Arabella, [Black women] don’t get raped.” It’s a quietly cutting sentiment that many Black British women will have heard before – despite the fact that it is evidently untrue.
Of course, I May Destroy You is a great show, regardless of its exploration of race. By writing what she knows, Coel has challenged the on-screen stereotypes of Black women, but she also makes it OK for women to feel ugly things, particularly following a trauma like sexual assault. I May Destroy You is a series that all women – regardless of race – will find something to identify with. Exploring race may have been unintentional on Coel’s part, but listening to Black women’s stories benefits everyone. The proof is in the response to the show. As well as being lauded by everyone from Adele to Hilton Als, I May Destroy You has received five-star reviews from almost every major paper, and was named the “the best drama of the year” by the Guardian.
Until there are more shows like I May Destroy You, I will watch all 12 episodes again, repeating the ones that stung the most. The same way you do with passages from books about unrequited love, or those specific chunks of an album that hook onto something in your chest, forcing you to look deeper inside yourself.