** Includes spoilers for Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You.
The Golden Globes oversee a handful of bewildering nominations almost as an annual tradition. 2021 was no different, the nominations announcement spurring dissent almost immediately upon publication. Every year there is a collective lack of surprise at the homogeneity of the nominees—majority white, majority male—which is why I hate to be negative in light of the surprising inclusivity of this year’s nominations.
Three women were up for 2021’s Best Director slot: Regina King for One Night in Miami, Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. While this female-forward nominee list does come as a welcome surprise in the midst of other untenable nominations, I noticed a similar sentiment echoed throughout the film/TV community: where is Michaela Coel?
Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You”
Michaela Coel’s enthralling, quasi-autobiographical 12-episode HBO series I May Destroy You is a dizzying exploration of sexual assault and healing, one that relentlessly pushes the boundaries of what had previously been deemed appropriate for television. Coel’s creative autonomy as the series’ writer, director, and star reverberates throughout each scene in the manner of a true auteur, addressing imperative problems we see infrequently explored through television/film: “stealthing” (non-consensual condom removal), social media toxicity, the crisis of forgiveness versus revenge, and the preternatural way in which many women must begin their own path to healing in a society that repeatedly proves their safety and emotional security take lowest priority.
Arabella, the show’s heroine played by Coel, heals honestly, messily, sometimes backwards, stumbling and regaining footing as she explores the remedial potential of social media activism, friendship, localized fame, support groups, drugs, family, and everything in between. When juxtaposing I May Destroy You with some of the other more frivolous nominees, the snub becomes more evident—even a writer for Emily in Paris confessed her disbelief following Emily in Paris’ two nominations, writing, “How anyone can watch I May Destroy You and not call it a brilliant work of art or Michaela Coel a genius is beyond my capacity to understand how these decisions are made.”
“Promising Young Woman” vs. “I May Destroy You” and Golden Globe Nominations
A comparison that has repeatedly been drawn, especially post-nominations announcement, is between I May Destroy You and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, which received four Golden Globe nominations. Both are about sexual assault, and both are filmed through a more intimate and feminist perspective than some comparable films of the past.
While I May Destroy You is a series, it plays more like a long, sprawling film, without providing tidy answers within neat episodic structures, instead using its elongated runtime as a theoretical space to introduce a multitude of questions about identity, sexuality, and culture, allowing Arabella (and Coel) to explore them all in turn. Its final episode is a hallucinatory, dreamlike dive into Arabella’s subconscious, cogitating on a series of hypothetical situations in which Arabella confronts her assaulter, often playing with gender roles and the idea of radical compassion.
While Promising Young Women is a film, it plays more like a series, with commercialized action-movie pacing and “gotcha” moments interjected in spasmodic bursts. Its ending is perhaps its most controversial attribute, one Fennell stands behind firmly.
Differing Depictions of Sexual Assault in “Promising Young Woman” and “I May Destroy You”
My problems with Promising Young Woman do not only exist comparatively with I May Destroy You, although I genuinely think I may have enjoyed the former more had I not watched the latter first, and I am not suggesting that Coel should have been nominated instead of Fennell, or that Fennell’s work isn’t at least deserving of cultural recognition and deep discussion.
There is an obvious difference between the perspectives of the respective heroines—Cassie was on the periphery of the assault she wants to avenge, as a friend of the victim rather than the actual victim, whereas Arabella is a direct victim of assault. Both works are interesting explorations of sexual assault and its aftermath, and both are significantly more feminist and less exploitative than grindhouse rape-revenge films of the past.
However, I feel it must be said that Promising Young Woman still perpetuates the thesis at the core of rape-revenge films, while I May Destroy You incites an overhaul of it, presenting a new (and much more realistic) character arc entirely. “I May Destroy You” is about Arabella’s growth, about the incipient stages of trauma, and about how the assault eventually becomes integrated into her life—in her friendships, her work, and her own self-philosophy—in a way that she eventually learns to live with and accept, radically, as an intrinsic part of herself. Promising Young Woman is about Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) interminable vigilantism in search of revenge, a vigilantism that takes precedence over her own health or healing.
We are introduced to Cassie’s character years after her best friend Nina was assaulted, and she is still trying desperately to avenge her without furthering her own life in any way. There is a scene where Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon), Nina’s mother, begs Cassie to move on—not to forget about Nina, not to undermine the tragedy of what happened, but simply to allow herself to experience life outside the assault, without identifying everyone as a villain and everything bad as a direct consequence.
She begs her, not only for Cassie’s sake, but also for hers, implying that Cassie’s vengeful odyssey has impeded the mother’s quest for closure as much as it has her own. In the words of NPR’s Aisha Harris, “If I May Destroy You is an exercise in how one chooses to learn how to keep living (and not merely existing) in the face of such trauma, Promising Young Woman is about what happens when someone actively resists living.”
Fennell said in an LA Times interview that she wrote the entirety of Promising Young Woman in her head before putting pen to paper. This is not horribly surprising. It feels insular, disjointed, and even a little cold. It turns sexual assault into a glorified game. In comparison, I May Destroy You refrains from presenting women with stagnant truths, instead introducing a story of dynamic interpersonal and intrapersonal reflection.
It is a personal narrative that doesn’t exist to be embossed with a glittery, hyper-feminine soundtrack and peppered with “gotcha” moments. And while being deeply personal, I May Destroy You still manages to feel universal and plural, with recognizable characters and realistic crises.
I am not asking that Promising Young Woman not be considered for awards, or firmly disagreeing with all of its (very widespread) praise. I am only asking this: if we can appreciate Promising Young Woman, how can we not appreciate the genius of Michaela Coel? And if we accept the message of Promising Young Woman at face value, how can we not find some revelatory honesty and painful truth within the seemingly endless bounds of I May Destroy You?