- 04 Feb 21
The 2021 Golden Globe nominations illustrate which narratives the Hollywood establishment is willing to hear – and from whom. CW: sexual assault and trauma.
Well, the Golden Globes have done it again.
Six months ago, I didn’t think I could ever be as in awe of a television series as I was of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Perfection from start to finish. Finally, a nuanced discussion of the woes of modern dating from a complex, completely unreliable female narrator, who was wittier than I could ever dream of being and more deeply flawed than I’d ever admit to being.
Waller-Bridge engages in a brilliantly choreographed dance between the poetic moments of the script and her knack for sharp comedy. One moment is flooded with poignancy, the next with cheeky and exquisitely timed to-camera glances.
Then I saw Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. It felt like the floor had fallen out from under me. The HBO dramedy about working-class black writer Arabella Essiedu (played in the series by Coel) is brilliant. The show spends its time meticulously unpacking the vicious ins-and-outs of consent and sexual assault in the Internet age. More inclusive and certainly more sardonic than Fleabag (to which it is often compared), I May Destroy You painstakingly follows its heroine as she pieces together the events leading up to her own rape – and the audience is left to watch her deal with the immediate and lingering aftermath of her trauma.
Fleabag and Arabella, though they come from different parts of London and have distinctly different backgrounds, share some similarities. Both characters make horrible mistakes many times over, causing audiences to question who we’re rooting for in nearly every episode.
While Fleabag is a lost, upper-middle class white woman whose main trauma stems from the death of her best friend, the two share experiences of sexual assault. Fleabag may not delve as deeply into the subject as I May Destroy You, but you get the sense that, if their protagonists met in a certain guinea pig-themed café for a chat, they might both have a laugh and a cry about that particular set of shared experiences.
The journey undertaken by both women from their respective pilot episodes to their finales is about personal growth. But Coel’s untethered revenge fantasies in the final hour of I May Destroy You – quite different to the heart wrenching last moments of Fleabag’s second season – were hauntingly similar to another 2021 film.
Promising Young Woman, the fantastic directorial debut of writer-director-actor Emerald Fennell (known for her recent turn as Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown), follows Cassandra (played perfectly by Carey Mulligan) as she goes to clubs and bars, feigning intoxication to the point of falling over, lying in wait for the first man who assumes he can take advantage. She allows him to lead her to his home, where she sits unresponsive, making feeble protests, while he essentially force feeds her drugs and alcohol and tells her everything’s going to be alright. Then, she lets the penny drop, revealing that she has been stone cold sober the whole time.
Flipping the victim/attacker narrative on its head can be a dangerous tactic that runs the risk of creating viewer apathy on both sides, but it works in Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You, posing a question rather than providing an answer. Promising Young Woman is a relentless revenge thriller, one that places the actions of every character under a microscope for nearly two straight hours. It’s imperative that I don’t give too much of the film’s plot away – the movie's efficacy lies in the element of surprise.
So I was disappointed when the 2021 Golden Globe nominees were revealed – for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I was upset that I May Destroy You – and by extension Michaela Coel – did not get a single nod from the Hollywood Foreign Press in this year’s nominations. In 2020, Fleabag’s second season won two of its three nominations: one for Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical, and the show itself won Best Musical/Comedy TV Series.
This year, Promising Young Woman rightfully earned itself four nods, for Best Drama Motion Picture, Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture.
What’s interesting is that Michaela Coel’s series goes further into examining the intricacies of consent than Promising Young Woman. So, when completely ignored by awards ceremonies like the Golden Globes, it seems not only emblematic of the kind of narratives Hollywood is ready – or willing – to hear, but also illustrative of who they are ready to hear them from.
The public, or informed members of it at least, may have acknowledged that Hollywood has a diversity problem, but I have yet to see the solutions being put into effect. When a show as groundbreaking as I May Destroy You is snubbed in favour of mediocre fluff like Emily In Paris, it’s bitterly irritating.
It was groundbreaking when Fleabag swept up its two Golden Globes last year – but only moderately so. If Promising Young Woman wins anything (and I sincerely hope it does), all Hollywood will have proven is that it is finally – after several decades – ready to accept feminist narratives about sexual assault. As long as that narrative is written, directed and/or created by a white woman, that is.
But the reality is that black women are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime than their white counterparts. 22% of black women in the United States alone have experienced rape. According to the ACLU, a report published by Georgetown Law Center, “adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.” As such, black girls are perceived to be more independent, more knowledgeable about sex, and in less need of protection, and this harmful stereotype continues into their adulthood.
And for every black woman like Arabella who reports a rape, there are fifteen who do not. So why are we still barring black women in the film and television industry from the conversation? The snubbing of I May Destroy You makes it obvious that Hollywood finds it easier to listen to and accept white women’s rage; and, by extension, that its racial prejudices are still thriving.
Promising Young Woman and Fleabag are necessary narratives. When Carey Mulligan was accused of playing an unsympathetic character in Wildlife, she responded by saying: “I’ve certainly been offered these roles, of the dutiful, earnest, supportive wife. They’re usually long-suffering, but they don’t act out. They fall in line. And that’s what we’ve come to expect, that women are either absolute saints or they’re crack addicts who ruin your whole life. We get the very best and the very worst, but nothing in between.”
She also added that we’re “all too used to only seeing women behaving really well [in movies], and “seeing real humanity on-screen can be really jarring from a female perspective.”
Bearing that in mind, all three of these portraits of messy, female rage offer important perspectives on pressing social issues. But in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it is completely unacceptable for the Hollywood Foreign Press – and indeed for the Golden Globes – to continue to ignore black narratives, and creators like Michaela Coel.