“Ex-boyfriends have accused me of giving them away, universities have accused me of never dating them, but my relationship with that word has a renaissance,” writes Michaela Coel of the word ‘lecture’ in Misfits: a personal manifesto, its first publication.
The book originates from the Edinburgh International Television Festival MacTaggart lecture she gave in 2018. It’s a candid chronicle and a galvanizing cry, flanked by an introduction and epilogue.
Coel is the creator – actress, screenwriter, director – of two series: Chewing gum (2015-2017, in which the main character is most eager to lose her virginity) and I can destroy you (2020, in which the main character recreates an evening in which her drink was spiked and she was sexually assaulted, struggling to put herself back together afterwards). This last series is at the same time raw, confrontational and funny; he has won his BAFTAs and is currently nominated for nine Primetime Emmy Awards, while Time The magazine named Coel, 33, one of the “100 most influential people” last year. Both series are based on his own experiences.
She begins the MacTaggart lecture with a poem by John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”, in which the English romantic implores readers to “put an end to your sorrow”. Coel respects this saying. “Like any other experience that I have found traumatic, it has been therapeutic to write about it and actively transform a story of pain into a story of hope, and even humor,” she says, capitalizing on what she describes as “my habit … of telling the horror with a smile. Ultimately, she says,” I think transparency helps.
The lecture – and therefore the book – is a mixture of memory (“Once, I passed my main tyrant in the corridor, one of the oldest who would lock me in the music room”), the indignation of the ‘entertainment industry (“How many other potential artists with stories we want and need have we lost for financial gain”), comedy (“sleep… something you haven’t done deeply, or every night, just a few nights, like anal “), process notes (“What I write does not change, but How? ‘Or’ What I write that it changes radically “) and banality (“I like TV, I like to burritos and I like my friends”). All these elements lead to his reinforced wish: “Death to the habit of compartmentalizing pain and avoiding emotions, death to be faced so successfully that I put my ability to manage life and to mourn in danger. “
Raised in a social housing estate built in 1970s London, out of sight amid modern corporate skyscrapers and the headquarters of international banks, her trajectory to cultural recognition and widespread celebration was not obvious. She was raised by a single mother from Ghana who “I discovered that a theater would allow children from low-income families to participate in their youth workshops for free. Free was cheaper than childcare. Young Coel was the only black child, but she loved it. She attended a Catholic school “in which student prostitution was not a shock, but wonderful gossip to spread” and calls her classmates “the twelve year old generation with the Nokia 3310s”. She notes that she was ignoring references to British pillars, such as Fawlty towers or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; rather she quotes Moesha and Buffy as influences instead. A period of evangelical religiosity transformed into a broader love of storytelling (“I still love the character of Jesus”, she notes with insolence.).
The term “misfits”, which gives the title to the book, “takes on a double meaning,” Coel remarks. A misfit may look at life differently, but a misfit can just as easily be someone who is looked at differently: someone who does not come from being inherently different but from being seen as such. In Western pop culture, the misfit is often misused as an outlier. In Coel’s estimation, a misfit is an exceptional person, in the best sense of the word. She describes her own circle, the people who shaped her, as “a huge gang of handsome, commercially unattractive misfits who found the mainstream world unattractive.” She became the first black girl her London drama school had selected in five years and had to overcome the isolating discomforts of being both a racial and social minority.
She nonetheless embraced her own story without conformity or compromise, which has always served her creatively and transformed her into an activist fighting for her own validity. “Lately, chains, production companies and online streaming services have found themselves looking for misfits… realizing that they could be very profitable,” notes Coel. This apprehension of previously ignored perspectives, which suddenly! “We were told at [drama] school, if we were to pursue this we would have to be ‘yes’ people and expect to be poor for the rest of our lives, ”she recalls.
“Without a healthy editorial team and a great story, what do you have onscreen to inspire the fringe? Oh, ‘Love Island.’“
– Michaela coel
Coel refused to capitulate to a system that excluded him. Representation and authenticity are important to her not in a “waking speech” way, but in a “this is my truth” way that she carries both casually and categorically. “I wondered why, if 95% of us didn’t match something, we would encourage each other to aspire to it, to emulate it? Instead, she implores, “As they light you up, with TV stories you can’t film or write without them, light them up.” Because the alternative, she stresses, is grim. “Without a healthy editorial team and a great story, what do you have onscreen to inspire the fringe? Oh, Island of love. “She cites several major American series canceled by networks that have in recent years been championed by fans actively enough to be relaunched: Brooklyn nine-nine, Sens8, Development stopped. “This confirms that a media outside of television is starting to take control,” she said eagerly.
When asked to give this prestigious lecture, Coel reflected, “Having the ability to speak, to be heard without interruption during that time (about an hour), has certainly changed me as a person. It is a privilege; who can go that long without the threat of a challenge or a retaliation? The same can be said of creating a series honoring an individual’s vision. Unsuitable, which is a slender text and a quick read, may seem a bit thin to existing fans of the British multi-hyphen, but it still clarifies Coel as a bold figure who has paved and will continue to lead the way for others and to add to what success can look like on its own terms. This is no small feat in an industry that desperately continues to catch up on diversity, idiosyncrasy and inclusion.