The Problem with I May Destroy You

SPOILER WARNING!

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You has been praised for its creative and poignant dealing with a Black women’s experience of rape and abuse, and rightfully so. In just 11 episodes Coel covers the various emotions a victim has to deal with, often making viewers uncomfortable through the less commonly known and not so palatable ways a victim deals with their experience. As the lead character, Arabella, deals with her rape; her close friend Kwame deals with his sexual assault by a Grindr hook-up. As a result, Kwame gives up on dating men and decides to give women a try. In episode 8 we find him on a date with a woman named Nilufer and later sleeps with her but when he reveals that he is gay the situation turns ugly — as does the tone of the rest of the series.

Their date initially goes well, the pair hit it off and head back to her place. On the way there it becomes clear that Nilufer (a white woman) has a fetish for Black men stating “I’m into Black guys” but that doesn’t seem to faze Kwame too much. They joke around, sleep together and get to talking. We find that Nilufer is your typical ‘political correctness has gone too far’ white person begrudging that she “can’t even ask for a fag without being paranoid some fucking gay guy’s going to have a seizure.” Kwame, now faced with a white woman fetishising his blackness and brimming with the common homophobia of many straight people in Britain, feels compelled to tell her that he himself is gay. Nilufer is visibly disgusted and kicks him out, viewing herself as a victim of a sick appropriator “of the female identity” and Kwame becomes filled with shame.

Episode 8’s events came as a surprise to me. Up till that point the show had been a successful tale of the various ways we all become entangled and suffocated by patriarchy. Michaela Coel had shown the public the vulnerability of a Black gay man from his highs as the king of hook-ups to his lows navigating a criminal justice system that could not comprehend his identity. Yet, episode 8 so quickly slid back into a notoriously homophobic trope of the ‘gay predator’ — a perceived threat to women everywhere for his appropriation of female identity (as Nilufer called it) and ability to take advantage of women because of this. This was made worse by the fact that this character was a Black man, historically vilified for his violent hypersexuality. I held out til the next episode to see what would happen next, whether the show would hopefully redeem itself, but it would only get worse.

In the next episode Kwame reveals his ordeal to Arabella who has now taken on an online feminist persona as a response to her rape. He is again met with the anger and disgust of a straight woman who also views Nilufer as a victim of someone “deceitful, destructive, narcissistic, sick, inconsiderate.” By episode 10, Kwame meets with Nilufer once again to apologise but is labelled a predator and criminal. The ordeal ends there with Nilufer storming off.

I found myself disgusted that Coel in all the complexity of her writing had written such a lazy, homophobic storyline. The character of Nilufer was a racist who had confidently told a Black man she was interested in him merely because he was Black and we as the audience were clearly expected to recognise this as a common failing of white people. But it was she who found redemption and not Kwame. Michaela Coel had tapped into a reservoir of latent racism and homophobia held by her inevitably largely white and heterosexual audience, confirming that their greatest fear was true. A white woman, portrayed in the show and throughout history as the only legitimate bearer of victimhood, had been ‘preyed’ upon by a Black man already known in the show for his sexual deviance both as a gay man and as someone engaged in frequent hook-ups. The storyline bore an unsettling similarity to that of D.W. Griffith’s Klu Klux Klan phenomenon, The Birth of a Nation (1915), in which its most infamous scene portrays a savage Black man (played by a white man in blackface) attempting to rape a white woman.

Moreover, the rhetoric used by Nilufer and Arabella bears disturbing resemblance to that of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). They both make explicit that Kwame is deceitful for not sharing part of his identity and because of that is a threat to women. The homophobia is clear in this idea that sleeping with men is a deviant behaviour that ought to be made explicit so a partner might take it into account before deciding to proceed with them reifies heteronormativity whereby homosexuality is allowed only to exist as a demonised imitation of heterosexuality and gay people are forced to live in a constant state of ‘coming out’. Transphobia works with this same notion, claiming that trans people are a mere imitation of the only legitimate gender identity — cisgender heterosexuality. That Kwame is considered a threat for his deceitful nature is the very same logic used by TERFs to justify violence against trans people, particularly trans women. Again, Michaela Coel draws on the logics of oppression undermining the legitimate critiques of patriarchy that she makes through other storylines.

Ultimately, Coel’s feminist discourse in I May Destroy You is nothing new. Like many British feminists she stands strongly in defence of women but only those that are cisgender and heterosexual — she merely makes more space for Black women to fit into this. She feigns care for the experience of gay people under patriarchy through her portrayal of Kwame’s grappling with his sexual assault, but fails to understand how white supremacy and patriarchy intersect to form homophobia and transphobia. She works within this white supremacist patriarchal discourse, drawing on liberal feminism to prop up her arguments about sexual violence, but making no attempt to step outside of the discourse and it’s violence. The result is a regurgitation of the very logics that oppress her as a Black woman; ideas of Black hypersexuality and white cisgender heteronormative conceptions of femininity. The problem with I May Destroy You is that it is not the revolutionary work it’s been made out to be, in fact the warm embrace it has received from mainstream liberal media seems now to be evidence of this. Whilst Michaela Coel provides a gut wrenching breakdown of the experience of sexual violence and challenges our understandings of victims, she makes no attempt to challenge her own binary conceptions of gender and sexuality, thus, perpetuating the very violence she decries.

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