The omission of Michaela Coel’s ground-breaking series I May Destroy You from any of this year’s Golden Globe award nominations is a stunningly blatant example of just how far the TV industry has to go in terms of celebrating true diversity and representation both on screen and in production. Despite receiving widespread critical acclaim for its portrayal of the complex intersections of racism, sexism and classism in modern rape culture, the HBO series was shut out in favour of Emily in Paris, Netflix’s wholly uninspiring fantasy about a young, white American woman working in marketing.
I May Destroy You was nominated for several UK television industry awards in 2020 and was predicted to make history at this year’s Golden Globes with double wins. Coel was also named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and she made the list of British Vogue’s 25 most influential women of 2020. These notable achievements are not commonplace. Rather, they are a signal of how Coel has successfully navigated an industry that subordinates and devalues the work of Black women creatives through exploitative ownership policies, a general lack of diverse representation in production, and a hostile working environment. Yet, the Globe nominations overwhelmingly white biases seem to reinforce institutional oppression and have failed to consider the power of ownership and creative control for Black women in television.
Industry standards of racism and sexism
In 2018, Coel was the youngest and first non-white industry player to deliver the prestigious James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. In her speech, she addressed her decision to turn down a $1 million offer from Netflix in order to maintain the intellectual property rights and creative control of I May Destroy You. She also spoke out about the racism and sexual assault she experienced in the television industry, and the ways in which young writers are exploited for their talent with lump sum acquisition deals. “Money is nice, but I prefer transparency,” she said. “My stories are my babies. I want to look after them.”
Recent studies of the UK and US film industries reveal that racism and sexism continue to impede Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women’s abilities to thrive and succeed as writers, producers, actors and in other creative positions. According to a 2020 report commissioned by the Film and TV Charity in the United Kingdom, BAME women were most likely to have experienced bullying and sexual harassment at work. In the US, a recent study revealed that 68 percent of underrepresented writers have experienced discrimination in the industry and only 32 percent of underrepresented writers are assured creative leadership. This lack of diversity in the writers’ room and behind the scenes can make it difficult to develop complex characters of colour that do not match the enduring stereotypes of Black characters in television that are rooted in racism and sexism.
Countering exploitation and maintaining creative control
After she refused the lucrative Netflix deal, Coel took her show to the BBC in 2017, where she was able to maintain full creative control, including explicit depictions of sex, drug use and violence. In doing so, Coel reasserted her creative authority to perform authentic characters that situate and build upon relatable subject matter and provide critical social and racial commentary that subverts stereotypical representations of Black people on screen. In an interview with GQ, she said: “I think sharing IP [intellectual property] is one thing, but our industry can be quite exploitative in that it wants all of the IP from the artist and if the artist is generating the idea, I just don’t think that’s fair.” As the scholar K.J Greene writes, a feminist critique of intellectual property rights “recognizes that rights governing cultural production did not arise in a social or cultural vacuum, but in a crucible of gender and racial subordination, the embers of which still burn today.“
Moreover, film scholar Caitlen Benson-Allott argues that Coel has reinvented rape television, and that I May Destroy You meets “a need for more artistically ambitious television about black life and for feminist-of-colour critiques of rape culture on television.” If Coel had forfeited her creative control to a streaming giant such as Netflix, these deeply personal and emotional scenes and storylines could have risked becoming trivialized or unauthenticated as they are in other Netflix series about rape, which Benson-Allott argues privilege white victims, perpetrators and investigators and fail to address the intersectional oppression, trauma and healing of sexual assault.
Empowering future generations
Coel is an important champion of the movement for racial equality in the UK television industry. She has used her success as a Black woman in television to empower future generations of young creatives and build a more fair, inclusive and diverse working environment. In her MacTaggart lecture, she called for greater transparency in the television industry and she used her experience to encourage other writers to fight for creative ownership. She said: “This isn’t about me. Luckily I’ve learned. This is for the new writers coming after me so the process of learning isn’t harder than it should be.”
This year’s Golden Globe nominations reflect the widespread lack of diversity in the British and American television industries that is rooted in sexism and racism, and offer further evidence that there is still a long way to go in achieving equality. Though it is a shame that I May Destroy You will not get the formal recognition it deserves in Hollywood, it is no less important to recognize Coel as an inspirational figure demonstrating the power of ownership and the possibility for self-representation, autonomy and empowerment of future generations of young, Black, women creatives. I May Destroy You is still among the best examples of television’s unfulfilled potential to bring future generations of marginalized and oppressed figures at the helm of production to deliver powerful and poignant works of art.
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes