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Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Image: Binge/HBO

Writer characters are popular protagonists in film and television, fitting a tiresome archetype within popular media. These characters are generally emotional and sensitive, their ambition drives plot and their critical introspection allows for a deep character study. However, the formulaic onscreen depictions of writer characters are limited along gender and racial lines.

Male writers are portrayed as well-established and successful, though often experience substance abuse or appear dangerous. Their troubled nature is frequently tied to creative spirit and genius, as opposed to something undesirable. In comparison, women writers often work at gossip magazines, as sex columnists or student reporters. Narratives follow women early in their career, struggling to defy male-dominated news rooms and publishing houses. Their emotions and sensitivities are at the forefront, frequently narrated in a diarist voice over that revolves around men or their love lives. As Anna Leszkiewicz writes, ‘TV shows about male writers…see their lives as defined by creativity’, while shows about women writers ‘see their protagonists’ creativity as defined by their lives.’

What tends to be missing from this conversation regarding portrayals of writer characters on screen, is that the representation is overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly white. Lena Dunham’s Girls and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You are semi-autobiographical shows about female writers and womanhood, both celebrated for challenging their respective predecessors. In Dunham’s original pitch for Girls, she notes Sex and The City and Gossip Girl as influences that encapsulate the universal female experience of adulthood and adolescence. Her pitch proposes an exploration of the lives of ‘overeducated and underemployed’ women that ‘have that mix of know-it-all entitlement and scathing self-deprecation that is the mark of…many 24-year-old women with liberal arts degrees.’ Girls attempts to represent all ‘girls’ without closely considering marginalised identities, subsequently rendering Dunham’s bid for universality inauthentic. However, what I May Destroy You does that Girls and many other similar shows fail to do, is account for writers of colour.

In the fourth season of Girls, we see Hannah (Lena Dunham), an aspiring writer, move from New York to the Midwest after being accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Hannah ditches the program after a couple of classes, and we see her pointedly pigeon-holing her workshop peers as a tit-for-tat exercise.

What tends to be missing from this conversation regarding portrayals of writer characters on screen, is that the representation is overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly white.

Hannah denigrates the white members in the group for reasons other than their race, in contrast to her non-white counterparts. Chester (Korean–American writer Jason Kim) is referred to as a ‘tragically hip gaysian’. Hannah calls out Chandra (Iranian–American director Desiree Akhavan) for being ‘blessed with an exotic name’ and thus sarcastically ‘the first and foremost authority on third-world issues here in Iowa.’ She ends her rant by questioning D. August’s (African–American actor Ato Essandoh) relationship to the ‘streets’. ‘This is not a hardened criminal. This guy’s never been to jail. Can I see your criminal record?’

By reducing the writers of colour to their otherness, even if done deliberately, Dunham misses the opportunity to promote a thoughtful portrayal. By tokenising their racial identities and undermining their abilities as writers, Hannah strips them of their agency and consciously excludes them from having universal and relatable experiences.

Earlier in the scene, Hannah calls out the ‘patriarchal bullshit female authors have been dealing with for centuries,’ without being attuned to the racism, classism and queerphobia minority writers have been subjected to throughout history. Despite Girls perhaps doing a commendable job in serving white liberal feminism, it subsequently reinforces the idea that writers of colour are defined by their race, simultaneously questioned about their authenticity and discouraged from being authorities on the topics deemed suitable for them to write about.

Ghanaian–British writer and actor Michaela Coel disrupts this tired trend with I May Destroy You. Coel plays Arabella, a young Black writer from London who attempts to simultaneously navigate the trauma of sexual assault and the pressures of a book deal. Coel’s arresting screen presence, innovative storytelling, refined investigation into the forms of sexual violence and non-linear portrayal of the process of healing have been praised, with publications such as The Guardian, Vox and the ABC claiming I May Destroy You as this year’s best drama. What sets this series apart from others attempting to explore the writer’s point of view is that Coel’s diegesis is framed through the eyes of a person of colour.

Through her writing, Coel ultimately avoids the pedestals and tokenisms that inhibit POC representation.

It is a difficult feat to completely detach from the conventions of writer tropes, and I May Destroy You is not exempt. Like most screen portrayals of female writers, Arabella’s work is driven by her emotions and trauma. Her promising successes at the beginning of the series slowly unravel and diminish, derailing her character towards the ‘struggling artist’ type. Nevertheless, I May Destroy You maintains itself as a refreshing illustration of writers of colour.

At the Writer’s Summit coordinated by Arabella’s publishing house, three talented writers are invited to read from their upcoming books. Arabella is joined by Black British writer Allan Akambi and award-winning Indian writer, Zain (Karan Gill). The audience is introduced to this prestigious line-up, all of whom are writers of colour. This demonstrates their success and respectability within the white-dominated literary space, which is further emphasised when we are first introduced to Zain as a Cambridge-educated mentor.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Image: Binge/HBO

Upon meeting Henny House executive Susy (Franc Ashman) for the first time, Arabella jumps excitedly, immediately holds her hands and says: ‘You’re Black?!’ with a smile on her face. In relaying the encounter to Zain, her delight is sustained. ‘Susy’s Black! That’s like wow… Big boss is Black!’ The emphasis of surprise towards Susy and her Blackness is relative to her influential and dominant status, which in turn acknowledges and thus challenges the systemic racial inequalities rampant in the publishing industry. Arabella’s surprise reflects a specific experience for writers of colour, wherein people who look like them are not mirrored in positions of power, highlighting a nuanced understanding of race that Girls does not possess.

While Dunham responded to criticisms about racial representation by slotting Donald Glover in as her Black Republican boyfriend for two episodes, Coel creates textured dimensions and complexity for her characters of colour. These characters hold positions of power within the very white literary scene, but are also flawed—as seen when Zain is revealed to be a manipulative and sexually abusive. Through her writing, Coel ultimately avoids the pedestals and tokenisms that inhibit POC representation.

Coel does not write towards the notion of universality but through specificity, by exploring what has been consistently excluded.

As she reads from her incomplete draft to her agents, Arabella touches on the notion of womanhood and the ‘chronic racism’ of the police force, providing insight into the racial adversity she encounters. She expresses a critical awareness of the struggles of other women through her own hardship. She acknowledges the complex intersectionality of class, gender and race:

I never took much notice of being a woman; I was busy being Black and poor. Daring to observe the hazard my gender may pose to my freedom and survival feels like a betrayal to the council flat I was born and raised in, where hardship was no respecter of genitals, and a little brother was as starved of food and love as his sister…

Arabella questions her validity as a struggling woman, comparing her experience to girls around the world who are stoned to death, have their genitals mutilated and are systematically raped. Contrastingly, Dunham’s character exclusively underlines ‘sexist bullshit’ throughout the series, dangerously ignoring other issues faced by marginalised audiences.

In the first episode of Girls, Hannah suggests that she’s the voice of her generation, ‘Or, at least, a voice of a generation.’ The powerful thing about I May Destroy You is that Coel does not write towards the notion of universality but through specificity, by exploring what has been consistently excluded. Coel doesn’t attempt to simplify the experiences of being a writer, woman, victim of sexual assault or person of colour. She teases out the everyday forms of sexism, racism and trauma that pervade the lives of those around her, leaving audiences to fend for themselves as they look inward. ‘Are these facts a humbling reminder not to be so loud of my experiences or are they a reminder to shout?’ Arabella says, reflecting on the hardships of other marginalised people. ‘Can my shout help their silent screams?’ I May Destroy You encourages non-white storytellers to continue creating from their refusal to be silent. It also urges editors, publishers and executives to listen to the voices that are forced to shout.

I May Destroy You is available to stream on Binge.