If you have ever had a sexual encounter that left you uncomfortable or confused, the new drama I May Destroy You may make for unsettling viewing.
But that is one of the goals of its creator, director and star Michaela Coel, a British writer and actress getting glowing reviews for her examination of sexual consent and assault.
The subject is a personal one for Coel, who had her drink laced with a date-rape drug a few years ago. And she tells The Straits Times this is why she wants to start a conversation around these topics.
In a video call from London, the 32-year-old says: “In 2016, my drink was spiked and I was sexually assaulted. And I know because I had a flashback, so I knew to go to the police, who launched a three-month investigation.”
This is similar to what happens to Arabella, the up-and-coming writer Coel plays on I May Destroy You, which airs on Mondays at 10.30am on HBO Go and 11.30pm on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601 and Singtel TV Channel 420).
Arabella and several of her friends are then forced to confront how they and society at large have defined sexual consent and assault, each struggling to process encounters they have had.
Coel worked in the real-life stories of others who had been victimised in this manner.
“Through speaking to other men and women who had experienced sexual assault in some way, I realised that the trauma around sexual consent was very common.
“So this 12-episode show begins somewhere real but lifts off into the land of fiction,” says the performer, who also created and starred in the acclaimed British sitcom Chewing Gum (2015 to 2017).
How common are such incidents? A character in I May Destroy You states that one in two women has been the victim of sexual assault or harassment, but Coel points out that “we don’t really know how many there are because I think so many people don’t say anything”.
“And with drinks being spiked, most don’t remember anything.”
Since the series premiered earlier this month, viewers have told her how it is making them reappraise their own pasts.
“I’ve gone to the supermarket and bumped into people who’ve said they’re watching the show and shared a little bit (about their experiences).
“And I think that’s amazing. Communication around these subjects is important for your individual sense of well-being, so it’s been nice to hear there’s been a conversation happening.”
She adds: “People have been talking to their friends and opening up to people they know about these things in their past.
“It’s really important because we put these things in a box sometimes, and we don’t even realise we are. And I think the show is calling for introspection in that regard.”
The series has also drawn praise for its critique of social media, which is explored through Arabella being an online influencer who then discusses her experiences of assault online.
“What I thought about was how we engage with social media and, when we’re going through trauma, the good and the bad of what that does to us.
“Arabella is sucked in and the concerning thing is she really has no idea, which begs the question: Do we really know what our engagement on social networking apps is doing to our brains?”
Coel observes: “Because we are the first (generation) to trial this relationship with these algorithms. There are many wonderful things about them – we are aware of many more things than we were in the past – but there’s also a lot of social comparison.”
The show hopes to prompt some introspection here as well.
“We already know advertising can make us feel like we lack things and need to aspire to have more, and social media is like advertising times a billion,” says Coel.
“We’ve forgotten how to engage with things outside of these apps. And I think we might need to disengage and have a break because we don’t quite know what it’s really doing to our perception.”
This article first appeared in The Straits Times.