Writing by Claire Shankie. Illustration by Paola Valentina.
Content Warning: sexual assault, racism
The reactions to the exclusion of I May Destroy You, a TV show created by and featuring Michaela Coel, from this year’s Golden Globes have been far-reaching from public figures such as actress Emmy Rossum and comedian Kathy Griffin. My personal favourite came from actor Dylan O’Brien, who tweeted to Michaela Coel: ‘we don’t deserve you’ - which I preach all day, every day. Yet perhaps the most surprising reaction came from Deborah Copaken, one of the writers of the Netflix show Emily in Paris, who wrote a scathing article in the Guardian asking how I May Destroy You could possibly have been excluded and her show nominated. For some context, Emily in Paris follows a perfect, ambitious, white American woman, Emily (played by Lily Collins), who moves to Paris to work in a high-end marketing company. She uses her arrogance and entitlement to get her way, which the writing rewards at every cost, with her becoming increasingly ‘successful’ with several job promotions and ‘liked’ with various chauvinistic lovers as the show progresses. In her article, Copaken stated that I May Destroy You is her “favourite show ever” and proceeds to demonstrate exactly how the fact the show was snubbed symbolises everything wrong with the world. She offers the statistic that in every writers room in Hollywood, 91% of showrunners are white and 80% are male (2017 ‘Color of Change’ report).
So what is it that everyone, myself included, is so frustrated about? The thing is, I May Destroy You is revolutionary in every single way. I don’t want to spoil any part of the show for anyone, but I would like to give a relatively brief outline of the storyline that it follows. We are introduced to the main character Arabella (played by Coel) who experiences a sexual assault after being spiked at a bar. As the show explores the aftermath of the event in a tragic, honest and messy view, Arabella’s two closest friends, Terri (played by the fabulous Weruche Opia) and Kwame (portrayed by the wonderful Paapa Essiedu) either experience a sexual assault or realise that they are a survivor of one. In exploring the impact of sexual violence, the writing covers an array of themes and topics. There is a scene where Arabella can be seen to casually change her pad and there is another depicting period sex. There is a moment where a doctor mislabels Arabella’s heritage and there is a bit in an audition where Terri is asked to take off her ‘wig’ by a subtly racist advert producer. These are things which we have never seen depicted on a platform like the BBC before – a Black female creative, a majority Black cast and a modern and raw depiction of trauma and discrimination. Coel also depicts the concept of consent in a revolutionary way. She shows how consent is only complex because we as a collective society are unsure of what it actually means. This is not because the concept itself is massively complex, but rather because it has not been a topic of conversation or a meaningful part of our education at all.
Coel has said that the show is loosely based around her own experience of sexual assault and that she found writing and acting in it both traumatic and cathartic. The masterpiece that she created out of her own trauma has provided clarity to other survivors, as well as a sense of understanding and unity. This remarkable piece of art not only deserves to be recognised – it deserves to be celebrated and praised by platforms and institutions like the Golden Globes that will give Coel’s work the publicity that it warrants.
To me, the main thing that Coel managed to achieve was the way she humanised and normalised the survivors of sexual assault. There are many figures thrown around when discussing the rate and frequency of sexual assault (i.e. 1 in 6 as the Crime Survey of England and Wales inferred in 2017). Yet, these figures are pretty insubstantial when we look at life experiences. In a group of 3 friends as depicted in the show, all three were assaulted. Some may argue that this was squashed into one story line so that Coel could offer different perspectives and angles to assault, but this is mere speculation. Rather, I would argue that it is the reality. I know from speaking to various friends, groups, social media pages and students that sexual assault is not only more nuanced than those statistics suggest, but more frequent too. I am not saying this to scaremonger people, in the same way that Coel’s often horrific depiction of sexual assault did not have this intent. The idea is to shock people into understanding that sexual violence is endemic and that we must do something to stop it.
What is most important about the humility conveyed in Coel’s work is that it made many survivors of trauma realise that what they went through is real and that it was wrong. Trauma, especially that which goes hand-in-hand with sexual violence, is debilitating in every sense. You lose yourself and sometimes the people around you, in a very particular way. You lose an understanding of what is real about yourself, your entire world and most importantly, the event causing the trauma. Generally, survivors don’t recognise this for long periods of time after the traumatic event – months and even years. Yet, Coel made this idea visible to many survivors. The implications of this are huge, as making survivors aware is at the core of the healing process. It is important to note that everything I have said thus far is very sweeping and generalised and Coel also addresses this. She explores and shows how each character deals with their trauma in very different ways and that no two experiences of trauma are exactly the same.
Yet, Michaela Coel or any of her cast or crew do not appear anywhere in any of the categories for the Golden Globe awards. Instead, for both categories of Best Actress (for television motion picture and television actress – drama series) all ten actresses nominated are white. Oh, and all of the male actors nominated in the same categories are white too. Think this is just a coincidence? Let us look at the Best Television Actress – Musical/Comedy Series category, and here we have five more white actresses (including Lily Collins for her role in the TV show that shall now not be mentioned so I can remain calm). Don Cheadle is the one Black representative in the male version of this category. When we turn to the nominations for the supporting role, we see exactly the same thing – five white females nominated and four white males and one Black male (John Boyega for Small Axe, which is another stunning, must-see piece of work created by Steve McQueen in the form of five short films on BBC iPlayer).
I May Destroy You is so deeply affecting and invaluable that it angers me beyond belief that we live in a world where this essential story is ‘snubbed’. Not only is it overlooked, it is ignored while a show like Emily in Paris is celebrated. Even worse, James Corden received a nomination for his offensive portrayal of a gay musician, Barry Glickman, in the Netflix film The Prom.
Now, you may be thinking: yes, they may be all/majority white people, but what if that is because they deserve those nominations? What if they are actually good actors and actresses? The thing is, whilst most of them may be, there are a good few who do not deserve the nomination and I think that most people would agree. Moreover, what Michaela Coel achieved despite all the limitations and barriers she faced and continues to face, is better than what any of those nominated have done.
At first, what really bugged me was that I could not comprehend why the show didn’t deserve to be nominated. Then, when it occurred to me that the show likely wasn’t nominated because it had a majority Black cast and explored sexuality and sexual assault in a radical way, I was absolutely livid. The fact this show was snubbed should outrage all of us. It reveals everything that we are and everything that we are not. By we, I mean all people with privilege and power. We are eager to secure white supremacy and patriarchy and we continue to oppress marginalized groups with next to no accountability. We are ignorant. We are not listening. We are not changing. We are not doing enough.
We must listen to the Black community and other ethnic minorities and celebrate their successes. We must educate people about what our history really involves and take accountability. We must educate people so they understand what consent is. We must listen to survivors of trauma no matter what.
This leads me to the question: how on earth do I cure this fury that is engulfing me? How do I get past this? It is important to understand that there is a positive to all this. This scandal has publicised two things. Firstly, it has shown how out of touch and archaic these powerful creative institutions really are; and secondly, it has blown up on the internet, thereby generating more publicity for the show. This means that more people will feel compelled to watch it and that is a resounding positive. With a show of this calibre, it is so inexplicably important that as many people as possible, from all walks of life, watch it. This is what we must focus and capitalise on.
Ultimately, I May Destroy You is undoubtedly the best show of 2020, if not the last decade. It achieved its impact via the combination of brilliant writing, acting and also costume design and music. The fact this show was snubbed by one of the biggest award organisations shows just how unequal, racist and misogynist the world we live in is. Most importantly, it has highlighted how far we still have to go. Michaela Coel has offered us a route to a more empathetic and egalitarian world by creating this show – it is this fact that we will recognise her for and cherish for the foreseeable future.
Services for survivors of sexual violence:
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