The writer-actress looked stunned when the announcement was made, taking a while to get up from her seat, which may be partly responsible for her rather bulky outfit.
When she finally took the stage and received her award from Patrick Stewart, she gave a brief speech that went viral.
It might have lasted less than a minute, but she said, almost in one breath, “Write the story that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that is uncomfortable.” I dare you. In a world that prompts us to walk the lives of others to help us better determine what we think about ourselves and, in turn, to feel the need to be constantly visible – because visibility these days, somehow seems to be synonymous with success – don’t be afraid to fade away, for us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence. Before leaving the stage, she dedicated her award to “every survivor of sexual assault”.
The series draws heavily on Michaela Coel’s own life. Protagonist Arabella, played by Coel, is a social media influencer turned novelist, with a book title that screams for and social media fame – Chronicles of a Tired Millennial.
The show’s first season, for which HBO says there won’t be a sequel, almost at first had Arabella raped in a bar bathroom. Much of the series is all about social media stardom, even as various suspected survivors of sexual assault try to either come to terms with what happened to them, or plan their revenge, or both.
As the series ends on an ambiguous note, its creator’s speech raises the question of whether we can really afford to disappear, even “for a while”. If Arabella, or even Michaela Coel herself, weren’t already a social media star, would her story have garnered the attention it garnered?
Stories that draw on the writer’s real-life experiences tend to elicit well-worn questions from reporters. How autobiographical is the story, they usually want to know, as if it could be answered with a percentage. Writing the story was cathartic, they ask, as if revisiting the trauma each time you write and edit could somehow take one away from the event itself.
When the #MeToo movement started, attention first shifted to those accused of sexual assault. Slowly, and as accounts of personal experiences morphed into screenshots of direct messages where the accused would be “named and humiliated” and the identity of the accuser masked — usually with a disclaimer clause. disclaimer that details were unverified — attention shifted to women at the forefront of the movement. Most of them were already influencers on social media, and those who were not became influencers with their hashtags. They will, in all likelihood, forever be associated with #MeToo, and if any of them created a work of fiction that draws on their experience, it would be lapped.
Would Coel’s series have been so well received, one wonders, if it wasn’t already some sort of icon? Could OTT platforms have been interested in her story as well, with Netflix making a million dollar offer that was only turned down if Coel hadn’t mentioned in 2018 that she was writing a series based on her own experience? sexual assault?
TV and web series, and even movies, often claim to be based on true stories. It appeals to the voyeur in the spectator.
Something may be created in silence. But won’t it fall on deaf ears unless its creator has already gathered, or strived to bring together, an audience by dint of visibility?
Does the silence that Michaela Coel speaks of exist without the noise, one wonders.
While the lives of others lie at the heart of non-fiction, writers are constantly encouraged to tap into their own experiences for fiction. And yet, are they allowed to disappear from their stories once those stories are there?
We live in a world where the sales figures of various forms of entertainment, from box office collections for movies to subscription bases for OTT platforms to book readers, are manipulated in order to project certain trends or their creators; where reviews can be bought, and influencers proudly enter “paid partnerships”, regardless of irony; where Robert Galbraith quickly and conveniently revealed himself to be JK Rowling just as his first book launched. Under these circumstances, is it not self-destructive to “disappear” without first ensuring that its absence will be noted?
Also by the author:
GOAT debate: do trophies make people?
Messi and Barcelona: selfish or sane?
Elite sport: where the mind doesn’t matter
The lessons we need to learn from the Olympics
Dale Steyn: The Life Cycle of a Star
Cristiano Ronaldo: Should personal life affect careers?
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Its website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com