I May Destroy You also included a telling storyline about 'cancel culture'

·6-min read
Photo credit: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery
Photo credit: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery

From Digital Spy

I May Destroy You spoilers follow.

Arabella scribbled down her thoughts and splayed them out across her bedroom wall, a carefully constructed diagram of causes and effects, mapping out her experiences and piecing them together for her book.

These scenes in I May Not Destroy You no doubt mirrored Michaela Coel's own writing process for the BBC/HBO series. It's been said that the creator wrote a staggering 191 drafts before getting to the impeccable finished product, and it shows. With layer upon layer of nuance and grey area, there's so much detail to be found in every inch of each frame, and just when you thought you've reached the destination that Coel had been guiding you to, she'd swiftly re-route you to another.

There's a lot to unpack in the show's 12-episode run, but particularly in its powerful final outing. We're convinced that I May Destroy You is one of those shows that will be an entirely different experience each time you watch, no doubt noticing additional callbacks, Easter eggs or themes each time.

Now we've had time to digest, there is one moment in the penultimate episode that we feel needs to be given a little more attention – particularly when in the light of current discourse around the concept of 'cancel culture.'

Photo credit: HBO/BBC
Photo credit: HBO/BBC

Arabella was put in a position where she had to confront Zain, a man who had violated her during a previous sexual experience. In an earlier episode, Zain had removed a condom without her knowledge during an otherwise consensual encounter. Its inclusion in the show's storyline tapped into a horrifying real world act known as "stealthing" (you can read more about that over on Cosmo UK).

In I May Destroy You, Arabella inadvertently arranged to meet with Zain, believing that she'd instead reached out to an impressive newly-published writer who she'd wanted to swap notes with. But Zain was that author, having used a pseudonym.

After she outed him as a rapist at an industry event, Arabella (and viewers) had assumed that the social media backlash and subsequent attention surrounding Zain's actions would have left him a pariah in the industry.

But it soon became very clear that he had not suffered severe consequences for his actions. Sure, he was hiding behind a new name, but his work was still being published and (presumably) he was still making his profit from it.

Photo credit: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery
Photo credit: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery

Most notably the book was garnering both attention and praise, and Arabella ended up unknowingly supporting her rapist on social media as a result – yet another form of deception.

Much has been said recently about 'cancel culture' – the idea of boycotting, or publicly shaming, an individual based on their immoral or illegal behaviour, or terrible opinions. The trouble is, in practice, it is more of a spooky campfire story than anything of real consequence.

Let's take JK Rowling as one of the most recent, and most vocal, examples. Her speech against the Transgender community has caused widespread outrage among the LBGTQ+ community and allies alike, and has been condemned by former fans and the famous cast of her movie franchise.

But make no mistake about it; Rowling has not been silenced (or 'cancelled', if we are to feed into this narrative). She retaliated against her critics with a lengthy essay detailing yet more of her misguided beliefs regarding Trans people, and this was given even more attention when it was widely re-printed by media outlets.

Rowling is arguably one of the most famous women in the UK. Her net worth is estimated to be around $60 million, according to Forbes, and she's also the world's second highest-paid author. Rowling also has a social media platform that reaches over 14 million. What's more, despite initial reports (via Variety) that Rowling's book sales had suffered as a result of the controversy, Bloomsbury has said that its children's division grew by 27% and they still highlight Rowling as a bestseller (via Guardian).

And yet Rowling was one of the most high-profile names to sign a recent open letter against 'cancel culture', published in Harpers; a hollow retaliation to open criticism in the name of free speech, something that has become the battle cry for those who are now starting to experience correction or pushback against offensive remarks.

Just last week, Piers Morgan took a break from his prime time slot on breakfast television to announce to his seven and a half million Twitter followers that he'd secured a new book deal – about the 'war' on his free speech. The irony seemed lost on him.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

While the discourse around 'cancel culture' has spilled into all sorts of different areas, for the sake of this article let's re-focus this specific discussion on the issue of sexual assault that was raised in I May Destroy You.

In the real world, it feels there is an entire roster of high-profile men who have been accused of rape, violence against women or sexual assault and yet their careers continue to flourish.

In June, Digital Spy published a feature criticising the announcement of a Mike Tyson biopic for this very reason. As Gabriella Geisinger wrote at the time, "Cancel culture is a myth, especially when it comes to some powerful, famous people."

The fact that a man who was once convicted of raping an 18-year-old, and then later reportedly admitted to punching his wife, was not only able to continue a high-flying career as a boxer, but is now getting a film dedicated to telling his story from his perspective, speaks volumes. And this is the rule, rather than the exception.

The list of celebrities accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment who have not been charged, let alone convicted, nor suffered significant effects on their career, is endless. You already know the names, which is lucky, because we'd probably be sued if we named them in this context.

They continue to make money, win accolades and carve out successful careers in their chosen fields, despite the allegations against them. Is this a consequence of their steadfast denials of wrongdoing, with many people believing them (rightly or wrongly)? Or because of society's tendency to demonise and undermine victims of sexual assault, when they do come forward and speak up? Perhaps to the first – and undoubtedly to the second.

But as important and relevant as this conversation is, when it comes down to the notion of 'cancel culture' or finger pointing 'ruining people's lives and careers', the evidence just doesn't back up this theory.

It's incredibly telling that this particular IMDY storyline feels so relevant to the zeitgeist now, given the lengthy development and writing process we referenced earlier.

It's almost as though Michaela Coel was tapping into something that's been bubbling away for a while...

I May Destroy You is currently airing on HBO in the US, and is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK.

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