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Why The Period Scene In 'I May Destroy You' Was So Important

Why The Period Scene In 'I May Destroy You' Was So Important

I May Destroy You has rightly been labelled groundbreaking for many reasons, from the way in which it encourages viewers to examine consent, to tackling casual racism and sexual identity.

But there's one moment of Michaela Coel's painstakingly honest drama that nobody can stop talking about. That period sex scene.

It goes without saying that showing the realities of menstruation in 2020 shouldn't be seen as brave or daring. But it's the unflinching way in which the series handles the topic that's got people talking - casually depicting Arabella's exposed sanitary towel and a literal blood clot in a way that no TV show has ever done before.

Let's take ourselves back. Arabella and Biagio are in the moment. The mood is set. He takes out her tampon and then out comes the clot, which he proceeds to pick up and examine, wide eyed, with the curiosity of a kid being handed play-dough for the first time.

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Creating a scene so viscerally relatable to half of the UK's population, and showing it authentically, is no mean feat.

Of course, it's down to Michaela's writing, first and foremost; then there's the props department, the actors and the production team. But the one woman tying all of those departments together was the show's intimacy co-ordinator, Ita O'Brien.

Intimacy co-ordinators are a pretty new phenomenon, only emerging in TV and film in the wake of #MeToo, with a long way to go before their use is standardised.

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But their work couldn't be more essential; not only ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the actors, but choreographing the sex scenes down to every fine detail, and ensuring that every tryst looks as real and honest as possible on screen.

During the creation of I May Destroy You, Ita worked with the cast in rehearsals where they'd discuss each scene moment by moment, ensuring "every touch had intention".

And, as she tells Tyla, it's for this exact reason that scenes like the period sex ring so true.

Biagio is seen taking the tampon out (Credit: BBC)
Biagio is seen taking the tampon out (Credit: BBC)
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"With I May Destroy You, it was amazing having Michaela there [on set]," Ita tells Tyla. "Because she's seeing it play out detail for detail and we were discussing everything. I'd be like, that's amazing - why is that not happening here?'

"And she'd reply: 'Oh it felt too much'. We always had that dovetailing back and forth."

In the past, on-screen depictions of periods have warily cowered away from this very notion of being 'too much' - after all, it wasn't only recently that sanitary commercials stopped using blue liquid instead of red on screen.

And when films did dare to show blood, it would be used as a somewhat icky or shameful plot device - like the shower scene in Carrie, or when a horrified Emmeline thinks she's bleeding in Blue Lagoon, only to discover its just her time of the month.

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But, Ita explains, I May Destroy You does quite the opposite, relishing in its own realism and showing us Arabella's blood so matter-or-factly we're left wondering why any TV producer had ever raised an eyebrow at such moments in the past.

"Isn't it incredible that half of the population spend 480 weeks of their lives in menstruation?" Ita says. "And yet think about how little we see it."

In the past, TV and film have struggled to get period scenes right (Credit: Always/ Sony Pictures)
In the past, TV and film have struggled to get period scenes right (Credit: Always/ Sony Pictures)

"Michaela had written that Biagio's response was just curiosity and responding with almost a sense of beauty at the clot," Ita says. "What I love about the scene is it's not sensationalised, it's just natural and normal."

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To achieve this naturalism in this scene and throughout the whole series, Ita had to ensure there was an understanding from everyone on set - from the actors to the prop department to the directors - with regard to the impact they intended it to have.

She says that, from the start, they established the blood clot wasn't there to surprise or to entertain, but merely to show the reality of the female experience.

As Michaela explained in an interview with The Express: "How can something that happens once a month still cause shock and discomfort?"

"When I first read the size of this clot, we all had different senses of it," Ita recalls. "But the props were very authentic. It wasn't over the top, which might make it unpalatable, it was just enough."

Biagio examines the clot (Credit: BBC)
Biagio examines the clot (Credit: BBC)

She also took the time to speak to Marouane Zotti, who plays Biagio, and discuss the realities of period sex, ensuring he felt comfortable depicting what was about to play out and had an understanding of what women went through.

"It's all about interrogating the scene, why is it there? What's the storytelling behind it? And making sure that that actor is behind that storytelling," she says.

"It was great when I was talking Marouane through the scene and I was saying, 'Okay, this happens wearing tampons and wearing pads,' and he was going: 'Really? Does this happen?'

"I was having to explain: 'Yeah, when someones got a really heavy flow at the start of their period sometimes this happens..', and it was so lovely because we were having this conversation and it translated [on screen]."

Having spent six years working on intimate scenes in film, TV and theatre, Ita is no stranger to depicting these 'unspoken' and lesser depicted realities of sex on screen, be it Marianne exploring BDSM in BBC's Normal People, or Tanya Reynolds' character Lily's experience with vaginismus in Sex Education.

Ita also worked on BBC's Normal People (Credit: BBC)
Ita also worked on BBC's Normal People (Credit: BBC)

Going into scenes like this, she always does her research - whether that's reading books or going out and talking to people from those communities - and makes sure she understands the intricacies of what she's choreographing.

"It's all about honouring the details [of their experiences] and their physicality," she says. "All of that absolutely goes into making sure there's an authenticity".

This studying also helps Ita to realise the cultural importance of the scenes she's depicting, and allowed her to see instantly just how special I May Destroy You's period scene really was.

"I had been doing research around sex while menstruating [on screen] and there's quite a few scenes where it's discussed but very few where it was actually shown," she says.

"It felt it was groundbreaking, and I was really proud and really excited for that scene to be out there. Its not even bravery, that's just what Michaela brings. She just brings life. Let's hope it does actually change things."

Featured Image Credit: BBC

Topics: BBC, TV Entertainment

Joanna Freedman

Joanna is a journalist at Tyla with a particular interest in highlighting women's issues and telling inspiring first person stories. She's also their resident foodie, and loves covering exciting new beauty launches, too. Contact her at [email protected]

 

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