Rethinking Rape and Laughter: Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You

Rebecca Wanzo is chair of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies and affiliate professor of American Culture Studies, both in Arts & Sciences.


I suspect that some people decided to delay watching Michaela Coel’s HBO/BBC One series I May Destroy Youfor fear that it would, well, destroy them. I did. Many of us choose to forego media that represents sexual violence. More often than not I watch something about rape out of professional obligation — that was the case with both the controversial first season of 13 Reasons Why (2017) and Unbelievable (2019), the latter of which is a thoughtful challenge to rape scripts.  But I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would feel compelled to watch something like Gasper Noé’s Irreversible (2002), for instance, a film that notoriously features an extended violent rape scene that has been described as gratuitous. In navigating this spectrum of representation, many people work to find the “right” way to represent sexual violence onscreen.

One way, or mode, that many people have understood as wrong, is the comedic. Such foreclosure has been most prominently displayed with the claim that “there is no such thing as a rape joke,” which has been used to combat the misogynistic routines of Daniel Tosh and other comedians. While much of I May Destroy You is emotionally shattering, one of the staggering accomplishments of Michaela Coel’s second television creation is that it manages to provoke real laughter, even as it focuses on various kinds of sexual assault.  Sexual violence is both commonplace and disruptive of the everyday. But Coel is defiant in her refusal to let I May Destroy You be entirely about despair.

Coel’s comic sensibility — which many of us were introduced to in Chewing Gum (2015-2017) — remains present in her sophomore effort. At the center of the zany excesses of Chewing Gum was Coel’s exquisitely expressive face and embrace of cringe comedy as she told the story of a twenty-four-year old woman, Tracey,  seeking to lose her virginity in a diverse council estate community. In I May Destroy You, close-ups of Coel’s face are essential both for humor and for communicating the devastating effects of rape trauma syndrome. Tracey’s vacant stare in Chewing Gum was indicative of her sexual naiveté and frequent lack of comprehension. Arabella’s vacant stare in I May Destroy You is about her knowing too much. Tracey maintains an endearing innocence. Arabella is a brilliant and charismatic figure intent on making sense of what happens to her, and in the end, processing the experience through her art…

Read the full piece at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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