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

By Rebecca WanzoSeptember 22, 2020

Rethinking Rape and Laughter: Michaela Coel's "I May Destroy You"
I SUSPECT THAT SOME PEOPLE decided to delay watching Michaela Coel’s HBO/BBC One series I May Destroy You for 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.

Julia Havas and Maria Sulimma would likely describe I May Destroy You as an example of recent women-led dramedies that blend cringe comedy and prestige drama — shows such as Girls, Insecure, and Fleabag. The generic hybridity of these series contributes to the emotional ambivalence with which we’re meant to evaluate people and episodes in their lives, episodes shaped by their blended economic and emotional precarity. All of these shows often blend realism with quotidian absurdity, but, despite I May Destroy You’s stylistic similarity to the other series in that genre, its focus on sexual violence leads to its default categorization as a drama.

That so many critics label it simply as a drama is illustrative of how situating the comedic in proximity to rape — and vice versa — has been seen as an ethical, representational failure. Rape has often played a role in misogynist comedy routines, and there are many examples of sexual violence in film and television that have not aged well.  If you think on it, you can probably recall a few scenes like the one in the 1959 film Pillow Talk, in which Doris Day fighting off a man in the car (“I’ve never seen a boy with so many arms before”) is crafted for laughs. There’s a long history of making attempted date rape a joke. Marital rape has also been treated humorous: it is jarring to look at the horrific 1978 Barney Miller episode “Rape,” in which the running gag is that a woman comes in to file charges against her husband for rape and is met with ridicule.

While it’s common enough for main female characters in TV dramas to experience rape that the trope has come under criticism as a lazy form of character development, rape in sitcoms is traditionally thwarted. All in The Family’s “Edith’s Fiftieth Birthday” in 1977 was a groundbreaking episode in which Edith fights off an attacker. Sitcoms in the 1980s frequently had “very special episodes” about sexual violence in which central characters escape assault.  A return to the comedic may quickly follow the escape, as in a 1989 episode of A Different World in which the character Dwayne learns that an athlete who is going on a date with his friend Freddie has sexually assaulted other women. While Freddie is fighting off her date in a car, Dwayne leaps on top of it to the sound of cheers from the studio audience as he tells Freddie to get away, only to be pulled into the car and then cry out for her to come back as he is now the one fighting with her date. This is greeted by laughter.

That the threat of physical violence to Dwayne from the rapist is treated a joke is symptomatic of how violence toward men — and sexual violence toward men in particular — is often treated as humorous. Jokes about the prison rape of men are ubiquitous and often come from protagonists. Bella’s queer male friend Kwame is also sexually assaulted on I May Destroy You. The unexpectedness and graphic depiction of the attack after a consensual encounter and his struggle with the invisibility of it are some of the more painful aspects of the series. Not once does the show allow the audience to see Kwame’s rape as anything other than horrific.   

Feminist comedians have challenged the taboo against the rape joke. Cameron Esposito did a well-received stand-up show, “Rape Jokes.” A Canadian comic tour, “Rape is Real and Everywhere,” also features rape survivors telling jokes about their experiences.  Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is a transgressive performance piece that mines rape scripts for laughs, as she stands on stage in a denim jacket and nude from the waist down. MTV’s short-lived Sweet Vicious was a vigilante dramedy about a rape survivor seeking revenge against offenders on her college campus. Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi takes on sexual violence when a producer in the presence of Tig’s girlfriend (reportedly a reference to the behavior of an erstwhile producer of her show, Louis C.K.) and Tig describes her grandfather sexually abusing her as a child.

When Notaro begins the story of her grandfather’s abuse, she says, “this is not a hilarious story,” with her typical dry and deadpan affect.  The deadpan facilitates the movement between humor and seriousness in that show, but Coel dives headlong into both unsparing representation of rape and unrestrained comedic swings. I May Destroy You is artfully crafted around whiplash-inducing changes in generic modes. The show moves fluidly between its comparatively fearless representation of trauma and Coel’s own fearless wit and physical humor. At any given point, the comic register of the show might be dry  (“Is it self-care if it is not on the list?”),  cringey (a lover’s examination of clotted menstrual blood), or slapstick (bodies falling and moving manically). In the finale Arabella entertains multiple fantasies as she imagines what she might do if she saw her rapist again. Coel, as we saw in Chewing Gum, is an impressive  physical comedian, and in the second fantasy scenario, Terry tells her that she must be high on cocaine to combat the drug that her rapist gives her again, and as we watch Bella move with kinetic energy, it is both funny and horrifying as we feel like this can’t possibly end well. We move rapidly from the humor of Bella high to her vulnerability with the rapist and him hurling a nasty misogynist diatribe against her. Coel anchors all of that with an extraordinarily controlled physical performance.

We experience affective disorientation with the finale in many ways, and we could focus on any number of aspects it. But these moments of comedy are of the most interest to me, because they are all connected to moments of friendship through variations on an absurd caper plot with Bella’s friends. Friendship is the primary site of joy in the series. The joy, specifically the Black British joy of these friends who celebrate themselves and each other through the rhythm of their intimate communication, music, dance, and acceptance even when they may fail and disappoint, produces such pleasure when you’re watching the series that it disrupts the generic expectations of a “rape drama.” Throughout the series we always return to their communion and pleasure in each other.

Coel found the show, “therapeutic to write about it, and actively twist a narrative of pain into something with more hope, and even humor.” To transform a narrative of sexual assault into something that can contain humor has often been considered taboo. But it is a twist that is part of the realism of the show, not in a demand of how survivors should feel or be, but in hopeful recognition of the possibility of laughter and celebration despite trauma’s recurrence. Coel has said that she likes making people uncomfortable with her work, and part of the discomfort here is both the joy and laughter, participating in the feminist humorist violation of the taboos of how survivors might talk about rape. She does this even as the show is a devastating indictment of bodily violations that are ignored or treated as insignificant. The generic instability is the point — demonstrating how form can teach us something about living.


LARB Contributor

Rebecca Wanzo is Professor and Chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling and The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging. Her research interests include African American literature, history, and culture; theories of affect; popular culture (particularly the history of popular genre fiction and graphic storytelling in the U.S.); critical race theory; and feminist theory.


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