In an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday, Michaela Coel – the writer and lead actor of the acclaimed series I May Destroy You – made some thought-provoking comments about her experience of leaving Christianity:
Many interviews with Coel skate over her religious background, and in doing so ignore an important aspect of her past. Coel has already explored her youthful experiences of celibacy and Pentecostalism in the delightful comedy Chewing Gum, and in this new project, she draws again from her own life, this time depicting the process of recovering from sexual violence. I May Destroy You has been almost universally praised, and rightly so. There is an elegance, wit, and complexity to Coel’s writing that is rarely found elsewhere.
Most reviews have focused on the show’s interest in sexual consent and trauma, two themes that are certainly prominent. But there are other, more provocative themes that have not caught the attention of commentators, and it’s here that we see the continuing influence of Coel’s lapsed faith.
A recent interview with The Economist triggered a brief flurry of controversy when Coel suggested the word “responsibility” should not be taboo in discussions of risky sexual behaviour. She also went on to describe her protagonist Arabella’s hedonistic pursuit of casual sex and drug-taking as “unhealthy and scary and dangerous.”
Reading the shocked and angry responses to these comments on twitter, I wondered have any of these people actually watched the show? Have they noticed, for instance, that every single character who has casual sex suffers in one form or another? That the two women who seek out threesomes both end up betrayed by men they trusted? That Arabella is raped during a boozy night out, and then raped again when she returns to hooking up?
Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous young characters, magnificent soundtrack, and graphic (although curiously unsexy) sex scenes. I May Destroy You is not a show about the joys of sex-positivism – in fact, it carries a cautionary message, perhaps even a conservative one, that retains some trace of Coel’s former commitment to faith and celibacy.
This isn’t a criticism of Coel. In fact, her success in smuggling such a message past the likes of Cosmo only increases my respect for her. I May Destroy You is a masterpiece, and a feminist one too, since it pays such careful and compassionate attention to the reality of sexual violence. But it’s also a show that makes some precise and stinging criticisms of our modern sexual culture.
I’m convinced we are due a reaction against a porn-saturated hook up culture whose harms are increasingly apparent, and that swing of the cultural pendulum could take many forms, some of them unwelcome. The tradwife movement, for instance, urges women to return to a world in which they are ‘barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen’. The anti-porn community NoFap is determinedly male-orientated. Elements of the far-Right openly lust after the male supremacy of the classical world.
Women need something else, a means of rejecting the “unhealthy and scary and dangerous” aspects of hook up culture without stumbling into another culture that is far worse. The subtly reproving message of I May Destroy You suggests that Michaela Coel, at least, is thinking deeply about this. And attracting millions of fans in doing so.