Michaela Coel, the creator and star of I May Destroy You, keeps being compared to Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Here’s why that’s a problem.
The comedy-drama tells the tale of social media star and author Arabella (Coel), who pulls an all-nighter with her friends when she finds herself struggling to meet a publishing deadline. Thanks to a heady combination of drugs and booze, the evening quickly spirals out of control, leaving Arabella with the hangover from hell and very fuzzy memories of the night before. However, as the day progresses, she begins experiencing a smattering of intrusive, frightening flashbacks – flashbacks that indicate she’s been the victim of a sexual assault.
Essentially, I May Destroy You is the kind of breathtakingly brilliant TV show that will make you laugh out loud and snap your heart in two. It’s unsurprising, then, that it has been praised for its unwavering exploration of consent, race, and millennial life. Neither is it surprising that Coel has seen her name shared far and wide across social media.
What is surprising, though, is that so many have labelled Coel “the new Phoebe Waller-Bridge”.
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We get that there are some similarities, obviously. Both Waller-Bridge and Coel write and star in their own productions. Both broke out with a one-woman stage show that would become her signature TV series. Both are excellent writers – not to mention beautifully obscene geniuses. And, yeah, both have a knack for dealing with the millennial experience.
But they are not comparable. At all. And framing Coel’s achievements within the restrictions of Waller-Bridge’s isn’t just lazy and incorrect (fun fact: her other critically-acclaimed TV show, Chewing Gum actually preceded Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag) – it’s seriously reductive, too.
Why? Because doing so undermines Coel’s achievements. Her efforts. Her hard work. Her creativity. It suggests that there’s just one way for a woman to make a name for herself. And it implies, too, that we’re allowed just one great female TV writer, and that anyone else is… well, that anyone else is just lucky to share a space with her.
To quote one weary social media user: “Are we really gonna spend the next month comparing Michaela Coel to Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Can we not let them both just exist?”
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Obviously, we need to remember that there’s enough space to celebrate more than one woman’s achievements. However, it’s also important to note that there’s another, more insidious issue with these “Michaela Coel is the new Phoebe Waller-Bridge” reviews and tweets.
And that’s this: too many Black women in the public eye see themselves compared to already-famous white women.
Take, for instance, Candice Carty-Williams, the author of the bestselling book Queenie. Her award-winning book tells the tale Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman whose life begins to unravel following a miscarriage and “break” from her long-term boyfriend. And yet, somehow, it has been branded “the Black Bridget Jones” more times than we care to count.
“Everyone has made the comparison to a black Bridget Jones,” Carty-Williams previously told Stylist. “But this book is also naturally political just because of who Queenie is. She’s not Bridget Jones. She could never be.”
Then there’s the magnificent Viola Davis, who’s easily one of the most lauded and respected actors in Hollywood, who has seen herself dubbed “the Black Meryl Streep” on more than one occasion. Despite the fact that, y’know, she’s a) her own force of nature, and b) being paid nowhere near as much as Streep.
“I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver,” Davis recounts in a 2018 clip that recently went viral. “They all came out of Yale; they came out of Julliard; they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me. And yet I am nowhere near them, not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities. Nowhere close to it.
“People say, ‘You’re a Black Meryl Streep. You are, and we love you! We love you. There is no one like you.’ OK, then if there is no one like me, if you think I’m that, you pay me what I’m worth. You give me what I’m worth.”
It might seem harmless to describe someone as the Black version of something else. And, sure, doing so may help that same person’s successes reach wider audience. However, it’s language such as this which perpetuates the idea that Black voices are only relevant to everyone if they are shared in a way that’s familiar to their white predecessors.
As Black fantasy author LL McKinney revealed in her #publishingpaidme thread on Twitter: “When books by white authors don’t perform, they’re likely to get another chance and another 100k advance.
“When books by Black authors don’t perform, the ENTIRE demographic gets blamed and punished. Black authors are told our books don’t sell. No one wants them.”
With all this in mind, then, please start celebrating Coel in her own right. Become a vocal Coel ‘stan’ on Twitter. Recommend her TV show to others.
And, if you still think she’s the new PWB (despite everything you’ve read here), then please show her the same respect you would the Fleabag creator and praise her work on its own merits.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.