‘I May Destroy You’
At the end of the first chapter of Émile Zola’s 1887 novel La Terre, a sower looks on encouragingly as an adolescent girl helps a thrusting bull to mount and ejaculate into the enormous cow she has walked over from a nearby town. The book is full of sex, violence and sexual violence; its first English publisher was prosecuted for obscenity. A few years earlier the Daily Telegraph had denounced Zola’s writing for its ‘unnecessary and offensive grossness’.
The BBC’s striking new miniseries, I May Destroy You, written by and starring Michaela Coel, neatly observes Zola’s three principles of naturalism: faire vrai, faire grand and faire simple. The plot follows Coel’s character, Arabella Essiedu, and her friends as she pieces together the events of a night out that ended with someone spiking her drink and raping her.
Millennial women’s perspectives have in recent years been given greater prominence on TV – Lena Dunham’s Girls, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag – but, as Rebecca Liu observes, this has led to ‘the elevation of upper-middle-class white voices to the level of unearned universalism’. Coel cuts through this, decentring whiteness to tell a story that really does feel universal. Almost all the characters are people of colour, and the series depicts an interracial couple in which neither partner is white – the first I can recall seeing on British television. We are all invited to see our stories in Arabella’s, and so Coel begins to answer Jia Tolentino’s complaint that‘I would see myself in Jo March, but the world’s Jo Marches would rarely, if ever, be expected or able to see themselves in me.’
In one of I May Destroy You’s most memorable – and most discussed – scenes, Arabella is in bed with Biagio, an Italian drug dealer (played by Marouane Zotti), who asks if he can remove her tampon. He carefully tugs out the plump, blood-soaked plug. Setting it aside, he plucks a blood clot from the towel she’s lying on, and rolls it carefully between his fingers, marvelling at its size and softness. We also see Arabella perched on the toilet seat, peeling the backing from the sticky strip on a menstrual pad and pressing it into her knickers while sharing the bathroom with her best friend – invoking a stab of nostalgia in these times of social distancing.
When I was a teenager, one of my favourite writers was Henry Miller, whose sparkling prose led me to forgive such moments as his imagining a woman ‘dangling on the end of my cock, a fresh, hefty piece of meat waiting to be trimmed and cured’. And who can forget the ‘big purplish piece of raw liver’ that Alexander Portnoy‘rolled round my cock in the bathroom’ to simulate a vagina. (He later eats it with his family.) But realism, being real, necessarily comes with positionality: it matters whose realism it is. So much of my teenage canon was told from the perspective of white men, whose riskiness almost always related to sex in ways that now seem brutal and alienating on rereading.
There’s plenty of sex in I May Destroy You (as there is in Fleabag and the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People), but the realism has less to do with the sex itself, and more with the conditions under which it occurs, and the previously uncharted particularities of the bodies involved. Menstrual blood is conspicuously absent from most film and television, even though so many viewers deal with it every month, while blood from other parts of the body is spilled freely in drama, horror and crime.
Advertisements for tampons and sanitary pads show how well they absorb an inhuman blue fluid. (Think how the epithet ‘red-blooded’ is conventionally applied only to men.) An advert depicting blood-stained underwear aired for the first time in Australia in 2019, and was met with more complaints than any other ad that year. Similarly, women in razor adverts never actually remove body hair. Instead, smiling actors slide razors across smooth, hairless skin. The taboo against seeing women’s body hair compels its removal, but is so strong that companies baulk at the chance to show how well their products do exactly that.
I May Destroy You happily made it through production before the pandemic set in, and has reached our screens just as the urgency of the conversation on race gathers wider momentum, and the #MeToo movement awaits the social upheaval it deserves. My enthusiasm for Coel’s remarkable series is tempered only by the serious regret that I missed out on hearing these voices in my own most impressionable years.