When a show succeeds in nearly every way it can often feel like a betrayal to identify its weaknesses, and this is certainly the case for Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. First released in June 2020, the show was quickly recognised as a profound and intelligent piece of cultural criticism. But scrutiny is the burden of good work, and I May Destroy You has a major blindspot worth discussing.
The series begins with Arabella, a young Black British woman (played by Coel) dodging deadlines for the delivery of the manuscript of her second book. Towards the end of the first episode, the story takes an abrupt turn when Arabella is sexually assaulted by a stranger in a London bar after her drink is spiked with a sedative. What follows over the next eleven episodes is a complex and often painful dissection of sexual violence and the myriad ways it occurs. It is sophisticated, intersectional and powerful in its study of rape culture, particularly through the prism of gender, race and class. It’s also blistering: the television equivalent of putting your hand on a hot plate in an act of ritual cleansing.
But then there’s Kwame.
Played with great compassion by Paapa Essiedu, Kwame is one of Arabella’s closest friends and the primary point of access for the show’s exploration of queer issues. In many ways Kwame, is a ground-breaking character. He possesses a rich and complex inner life, something rarely afforded to gay men on screen, and even more rarely to queer characters of colour. He is neither a crutch nor a punch line.
Kwame is assaulted during a Grindr meet, and reports it to the police. The show then proceeds to deftly highlight the differing reception of Bella and Kwame’s stories. While Bella is treated with sensitivity and diligence, in Kwame’s case the police – as a microcosm of society at large – are incapable of comprehending how a Black queer man may be a victim of sexual violence.
Yet, for all the promise of this initial character arc, a subplot in the episode Line Spectrum Border exposes an archaic and troubling perspective on queerness that is peppered through the remainder of the series.
Quietly struggling with the residual trauma of his assault, Kwame resolves to try sleeping with a woman. After matching and chatting with Nilufer online, he meets her in a London restaurant. They share charming banter about hats and vulnerability, and then on the walk back to her apartment she reveals herself to possess a fetishistic obsession with Black men.
Back at Nilufer’s flat, Kwame perseveres through his initial discomfort and they proceed to have passionate sex, jarringly interlaced with visually similar images of Kwame being assaulted. Afterwards, the pair lie together, joking and laughing. It’s in the course of this conversation that Nilufer reveals she harbours a distaste for gay men as ‘major appropriators of the female identity’. At which point Kwame identifies himself as a gay man.
An argument ensues. When pressed on why he didn’t mention his sexuality, Kwame states ‘sexuality is a spectrum. I wanted to explore –’, but he’s cut off by Nilufer, who declares: ‘You’re gay. Why would you not say that you were gay?’
Given Kwame’s deliberately obtuse answer when asked earlier in the episode what kind of girls he likes, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the ethics of the encounter. However, it is in the following episode, Social Media Is A Great Way To Connect, that the imputations of the exchange are really brought to the fore.
At a wine and painting night for POCs, Kwame recounts the evening to Arabella, who reacts with dogmatic ferocity: ‘it’s no wonder she was angry, she found out you were gay after dickin’ her and you shot a load up. I would be at least a little bit, like, surprised.’ She goes on to describe Kwame as ‘a man concealing his identity following a woman into her home.’
Disclosure of one’s sexual history is a fraught expectation almost always applied unilaterally. Heterosexuals aren’t expected to disclose their identity to anyone because heteronormativity dictates that they have nothing to disclose.
The revered british anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote extensively about pollution as a social theory and the politics of disgust in her seminal 1966 book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. She wrote:
It is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom
… In short, our pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.
As long as one stays in their own pool, there is no duty to disclose their sexual orientation. Through this lens gay men are not transgressive by their nature: the transgression instead occurs when they poison the waterhole of heterosexuality. But such a position is blatantly queerphobic. If the logic by which Kwame is judged were to apply to everyone it would leave the bisexual community in a completely untenable limbo in which they must perpetually out themselves to all prospective partners lest every encounter be a prima facie assault. It would also cast legions of straight people who have indulged their curiosity and experimented sexually as predators. It is an absurd and self-defeating double standard.
Mary Douglas also states:
If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order.
We can’t abstract pathogenicity from any discussion about disclosure in a queer context. HIV hysteria was born of a wilful blindness by the political class to the inner workings of the virus’ pathology in the early years of the epidemic. Despite the astonishing advancements in both treatment and prevention, its long shadow still hangs over the queer community – at its darkest over Black queer men. Sex between men is tolerated when quarantined within the community, but it doesn’t take much for the perception of its inherent danger, of its pathological uncleanness to surface.
The show may never explicitly reference Kwame’s queerness as a potential danger to Nilufer, but the spectre of pollution is there all the same. Why else would Arabella be so direct in referencing Kwame’s bodily fluids? It’s unlikely this allusion is malicious, but the intent is ultimately immaterial when the outcome endorses an enduring stigma.
It is possible to lose sight of the function of bad behaviour in fiction. Sometimes a character’s faults or misjudgements invite the audience to marinate in the discomfort of their choices and reflect on how they may have been handled better. The problem with the disclosure storyline in I May Destroy You is that it affords no space to consider whether disclosure actually is something that is owed by queer men. Bella’s journey is instead to recognise that everyone is capable of being both exploited and exploiter, victim and abuser – never once asking whether the behaviour in question is actually abuse. When she and Kwame reconcile, she apologises not for claiming his non-disclosure was assault, but for being ‘really intense.’ This affords Bella the last word, and upholds a queerphobic trope best left in the past.
The treatment of Kwame is not the only instance in I May Destroy You that speaks to an undercurrent of heteronormativity. In one of the show’s most powerful and dramatic sequences, Arabella plays out a series of imagined futures in which she happens upon her rapist for a second time. In the first, she is able to enact violent revenge. In the next, she helps the rapist process his own trauma. In the final scenario, she takes the rapist home and engages in consensual sex – a situation presented at once as confronting and cathartic. In the middle of the act, their positions switch: Arabella is suddenly above the man and their movements strongly suggest that she is topping him, engaging in penetrative anal sex. The scene seems to imply that this reversal is a metaphor for the reclamation of her agency, but the notion that consensually topping one’s rapist can offer some metaphysical justice is staggeringly heteronormative.
Perhaps the trouble with I May Destroy You is the extent to which it seeks to address all intersections of sexual assault at once. Were it not to feature queerness as a significant element, it would be less likely to be scrutinised through a queer lens. However, its insistence on drawing upon queer characters, culture and imagery does little more than expose a lack of understanding of the community it seeks to represent.