What Emmy Winning Michaela Coel’s Series Teaches Us About the World

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Months after being left out at Golden Globes, Coel’s win at Emmy 2021 reaffirms our faith in the television industry.

Actor-Director Michaela Coel took home an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series for I May Destroy You, a critically acclaimed HBO drama that shook the world with its nuanced social commentary and structurally novel storytelling.

Coel started her Emmy Acceptance Speech with a message for her fellow writers – “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you.”

Perhaps that’s what she did. Based on her own sexual assault experience, she made a semi-autobiographical show about a young woman, Arabella, who works to redefine her life after being drugged and sexually assaulted at a nightclub.

Coel has also dedicated her award to the survivors of sexual assault.

I May Destroy You takes the complicated issue of sexual assault and builds a riveting tale around it by highlighting dynamics of gender, race, sexuality and how they influence the understanding of consent.

The portrayal of interpersonal relationships further adds the missing element of Pathos to the story structure.

Arabella is a writer in the public eye and has a rich social life. As she navigates her post-sexual assault life, she goes on a journey of piecing together the fragments of the night she got assaulted.

Arabella has her best friends Terry, an actress and Kwame, a fitness trainer. Their stories navigate their lives, deadlines, and relationships in a similar realm of social life in London.

Through delving into the lives of this creative professional and people she associates with, Coel explores multifaceted themes of Trauma, Assault and Consent through her brilliant writing and visual storytelling.

Among many issues, Coel’s concept in the show is the problematic character of social media platforms.

As Arabella tries to process her trauma being a public figure, maintaining her identity through bloated social media presence starts to form a significant part of this writer’s personhood, which highly distorts her perception of her environment.

In her acceptance speech, Coel urged her fellow writers to find rest away from social media’s polarised and hyperactive spaces.

“In a world that entices us to browse the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear.

From it, from us, for a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.” Coel said in her speech.

Coel created, wrote, and co-directed the show with Sam Miller. Coel also earned Emmy nominations in three other categories for producing, directing, and acting in the series.

Why Representation Matters

Race is a social factor that dominates a significant part of world institutions. Earlier this year, Golden Globes snubbed I May Destroy You and instead gave a nomination to Emily in Paris, an average show about a white protagonist.

It fueled a controversy that led to a Times investigation of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association revealing that the organisation had no Black voters.

Along with having a black creator, I May Destroy You is a show that centres its nuanced commentary on these contemporary issues around the lives of black characters.

It has also gained praise for its culturally accurate depiction of life for the black British population, a rare feat in the entertainment industry.

A 2017 report by Color of Change stated that 91% of showrunners are white. Hence when Coel became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a Limited Series, she wrote her name proudly on the Palimpsest of oppressive history.

However, Coel’s achievement is as much about her artistic brilliance as racial representation in art. Win a richly deserved show like I May Destroy You also restores our faltering faith in the television industry.

Anushka Sharma
Anushka Sharma
A lover of stories and people, you can always find me analysing and romanticising some form of art. As I try to make sense of the world around me, reading and writing about Geopolitics and Law with a cup of chai is something that keeps me sane on most days. Conversations on Films, History and Literature make my haven. I observe, listen and think a lot. Aside from organising and educating myself, articulating those thoughts through words is what sates my soul. Hence, writing makes up a good chunk of my personality, and I aim to use it for my surroundings as much as possible.

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