“I May Destroy You”: Let’s Talk Fiction and Rape Culture

17 mins read

“I am here to learn how to avoid being raped. There has to be a way… because if not I don’t know what world it would be.”

Sitting in group therapy with other survivors of sexual violence, Arabella think out loud, try to understand, put words to your pain. She is the one who talks about her, but she gives voice to her companions, who listen to her, nod and answer “you are not alone”; after all, they are also part of that same world. The one who speaks is her, but we could be all of them.

“I May Destroy You” (2020) is the series created, written, produced and starred by Michaela Coell, which follows a young writer who is raped while out for a drink at a bar and is based on the author’s real-life experience. In 12 chapters we see a raw, dark story with hints of comedy; are available in HBOMax.

Winner of a Emmy in the category “Best Writing for a Miniseries” – although unfairly ignored in awards season in general – the series focuses on rape culture. But first a bit of perspective: what is that and how is it usually treated in fiction?

***

It is not news that we grew up, live and continue watching series and movies, they are part of our DNA and a social and cultural communication tool. Each story and each scenario that we know become bridges of meaning to understand the reality we inhabit. If we talk about those that deal with violence against women, surely several will cross your mind.

Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

But how is it displayed? “In the cinema, the stories of women have been narrated, the traumatic events that they experienced in an extremely violent way; for decades the suffering experienced by women has been eroticized; there are multiple movies where consent is non-existent, and it is terrifying that these acts are sold as love. Even many rape scenes have been filmed in great detail and have been defended in the name of ‘art’. Without counting on a long repertoire of films full of macho and misogynist jokes”, he says Mabe Guzman, creator of the “Feminist Film Club” page, in dialogue with this medium.

Fremdina Biancofilmmaker, teacher, writer and member of “Neighbors Cinema”affirms to Filo.news: “Historically, movies and series have completely reified the female body. Sexual violence has been treated with very little respect and sensitivity… morbidity is sought, to spectacularize sexual violence, which has no relation to the construction of the characters”.

In this way, as Bianco points out, “historically, cinema has favored the construction of this culture of rape”; this means the legitimization of acts that normalize and justify sexual violence. It is important to talk about the subject, there is no doubt about that: the problem is how it is shown, how it is represented in fiction.

Is there a proper way? The goal is always to think of fiction from a gender perspective, to change the pre-established narrative that legitimizes violence, to question the patriarchal and oppressive social order, and to break stereotypes. “Take a critical look at it, so as not to revictimize, or fall into common places full of stereotypes about abusers and victims,” ​​Guzmán reflects.

Bianco adds: “It has nothing to do with the stories that are told but with how they are constructed, what is the look we give to those stories. It’s about starting to unlearn all those things that were imposed.” For this, the role of women and dissidence behind the cameras is key, which although they do not guarantee a feminist vision, they do allow a more inclusive view of the stories and ensure other voices on screen.

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Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

Daughter of a Ghanaian father and mother, at 35 years old Michaela Coell studied theology, literature, music, poetry, and dramatic arts in London. To graduate from the university he presented the play “chewing gum”, that would be transformed into a television series with which he won the award BAFTA by “Best Female Performance in a Comedy” and “Revelation Talent”.

It was during the recording of that series that he was the victim of sexual violence in real life by two men. “After that experience, I started talking to my friends and realized that they, too, had things they wanted to share about sexual consent. That motivated me to take this story further, “he said in an interview for Golden Globes, where he added:” The trauma had become my narrative and what this process did was to dominate that narrative instead of letting it dominate me. my”.

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Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

This is how she wrote the series for two and a half years, where she managed her own rules, script narratives and creative process, in co-production with HBO and BBC. Guzmán highlights the work he did on the series and discusses: “I highly recommend it. It is not impossible that a man can portray the experiences of women with respect, but in my experience it is difficult to find, especially in mainstream cinema. For this reason, the incursion of women in the cinema and sexual dissidence is important, because they broaden the panorama, not from a stereotyped view of their identities, approaching a more diverse public and bringing the audience closer to other experiences.

“We need to be narrated by ourselves -explains Bianco and continues- for this they have to occupy spaces of power. For example, it has happened to us to be in a script reading with men and they have not detected and even laughed at sexist jokes, and with women and dissidence there is something there that makes noise and that bothers. That does not prevent us from having sexist practices either, but there is more room for debate. Now the game opens up a bit more, with female characters empowered and male from a different place.”

Now, how does all this apply to “I May Destroy You”? How do you tell the story and how do you break stereotypes?

***

We said that the series follows Arabella Essiedu, a young writer who rose to fame after publishing her first book, “Chronicles of a fed up millennial”, inspired by the tweets he posted daily. So much so that he gets a contract with a publisher to develop his second novel, although he still has to find out what he wants to tell and what it will be about. She is an independent woman, who takes advantage of every opportunity to party and have fun, who lives in debt and who shares every moment of her life through social networks. A profile with which more than one person could feel identified.

But everything changes when one morning he wakes up with a blow to the head, with his cell phone broken and without remembering what happened the night before. Something was wrong. “I have this image of a guy in the bathroom doing something weird,” she describes to her friend about the man she sees through flashbacks. Like a puzzle, she begins to put it together piece by piece and trying to remember what she really prefers to forget: that she was drugged and sexually abused.

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Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

“There are hungry children, there is a war in Syria, not everyone has a cell phone, there are worse problems,” she says to herself, to the psychologist, to her friends; she even looks for tutorials on Youtube that explain why sometimes memory can make us believe that we live something that never happened. But it did happen. She signs up for yoga classes, crafts, gymnastics with her friend and painting workshops, she finds refuge in the networks, where she becomes a reference for hundreds of women. However, as much as she wanted to, nothing seems to work. And she knows it because the images of that night continue to appear, always showing only the face of the aggressor in a zenithal shot.

The series breaks stereotypes on different levels: it does not focus on the police investigation of the case, but instead focuses on the point of view of the victims; specifically on sexual violence and the different ways of going through the subsequent trauma. We see a woman who is damaged, contradictory, with mistakes, who is not sad all the time, who at times empathizes and at others we don’t, but who just doesn’t care if we love her, because it is a very personal process; to overcome her pain there is no single possible way, and she does not paralyze or define her.

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Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

“It is very transgressive, it breaks with the stereotype or common place that we have in mind of what a woman is like, how she behaves after experiencing a traumatic event,” says Guzmán, and Bianco points out: “She also talks about the night, and it seems to me that this makes us think a lot about the relationship that we have with the party, of claiming our right to enjoy and have fun in the greatest possible safety. At the same time, it seems to me that it helps to understand that one speaks when she can, to what extent and how she exposes herself”.

This also applies to your friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who also go through traumatic experiences: what happens when two friends pretend to be strangers and ask you to have a threesome, which you think is something casual but was previously planned, would you have done it anyway? What happens if you have consensual relationships and, when you decide to stop, the other person does it again against your will? What happens if the other person removes the condom in the middle of sexual intercourse without warning you?

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Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

Each of the stories explores the different types of abuse and the gray areas of consent in post-war relationships. #MeToo, the importance of marking the limits in these confusing scenarios, in respecting the ‘no means no’, of collective exit and support networks. She approaches everything from a natural and everyday nature with which she also deals with other taboo topics, such as seeing the protagonists in the toilet, using wipes, talking about menstruation in the middle of the sexual act, as well as racism: “Before being raped I never I paid attention to the matter of being a woman. She was too busy being black and poor,” Arabella says midway through the series.

In addition, the series not only breaks stereotypes in the representation of the victims, but also with the perpetrators. As we have seen so far, “I May Destroy You” it does not work on the extremes, being good-bad, but rather shows how the aggressors are not necessarily monsters or animals, but can be people we already know, and even questions such as the role of accomplices in the face of different types of violence.

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Photo: Instagram @imaydestroyyou

“It is important to include men in this discussion and discomfort, because they have to question their masculinities and break agreements of silence and sexist complicity. The violent is not necessarily someone who appears out of nowhere, they are healthy children of the patriarchy, they are our parents, boyfriends, friends, “explains Bianco.

In fact, when Arabella meets her rapist we don’t see a single ending, but we meet him in three different versions; because there is no single way to experience trauma, nor to begin to overcome it. Meanwhile, she closes her book: she finally knows what she wants to tell. “You are not under my pillow, you are here with me, so you do not scare me. I immersed myself in that darkness and that darkness is in me now looking at you, ”says the protagonist near the end of the series towards one of her abusers.

***

“I May Destroy You” is one of the series that comes to revolutionize the way of telling stories about sexual-affective relationships in the era in which we live (as “Insecure” or “Unbelievable”), which comes to put on the table the importance of generating debates and that may be a horizon for the treatment of sexual violence on the screen.

“I believe that a film can save someone’s life, it can be a warning to someone,” says Bianco and closes: “Culture has to invite us to think of ourselves as a society and try to generate questions that lead us, little by little and hopefully sooner rather than later, to certain answers, and that this will take us to a safer and freer place.

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