Film / TVSex & Gender

michaela coel reveals she was sexually assaulted while working on ‘chewing gum’

August 23, 2018
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Literal gift to television and Black women Michaela Coel just delivered a moving address at the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at this year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival – the fifth woman to do so in its 42-year history according to Deadline. The BAFTA winner spoke about her journey as a writer, from attending drama school to writing her own award-winning show Chewing Gum. The most shocking revelation Coel shared in the address is the fact that she was sexually assaulted on an all-nighter while working on an episode for Chewing Gum.

“I was working overnight in the company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7 a.m.,” Coel told the audience, referring to producers Retort, owned by FreemantleMedia. “I took a break and had a drink with a good friend who was nearby. I emerged into consciousness typing season two, many hours later,” reported Vulture. Coel went on, stating “I was lucky. I had a flashback. It turned out I’d been sexually assaulted by strangers. The first people I called after the police, before my own family, were the producers.” The pressure Coel must have been under, having to contact her producers before her own family about something that traumatic is unimaginable. Coel mentions that she wasn’t assaulted in the officer, or by an employee. The producers funded therapy for Coel at a private clinic after she had to ask for the deadline to be moved back; she did so after taking the advice from a member of staff who said that the company wouldn’t offer the option of pushing the deadline unless it was demanded.

“Overnight, I saw them morph into an anxious team of employers and employees alike; teetering back and forth between the line of knowing what normal human empathy is and not knowing what empathy is at all,” she said. “When there are police involved, and footage, of people carrying your sleeping writer into dangerous places, when cuts are found, when there’s blood … what is your job?” – Vulture

Coel used her harrowing experience to shine a light on the rampant culture of sexual harassment that ravages the entertainment industry. Sarah Ward of Bectu union told The Guardian “Our recent survey of Bectu members working in media and entertainment found that nearly two-thirds of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment, and this rose to 82% for those who are 30 and under.” The Chewing Gum creator also explored her experience producing the show, including aspects of racial insensitivity that would have minority actors on the show all sharing one trailer while a white actor had a trailer to himself.

“I asked the actors why they agreed to share. They just wanted it to work, their belief in the job only matched by their anxiety of losing it. I apologized. I told them we were working for a reputable channel, and a reputable production company, and they wouldn’t dream of recasting anyone for wanting a private space to prepare and change. I’ve never accused anyone at work of racism but I’ve been urged to understand someone ‘isn’t racist’ on every job I’ve acted in since, just by pointing out possible patterns, tendencies. When I agree they aren’t racist, but suggest they may be thoughtless on the matter, it doesn’t go down very well. But if you’re not racist, or thoughtless about race, what other thing can you be?” – The Gaurdian

Coel’s speech was an eye-opening and vulnerable account of navigating the entertainment industry and her openness provides an opportunity for change to occur that saves future writers and creators from the trials that she has faced. Her brutal honesty is what makes her a brilliant writer and beloved warrior of social justice, who is willing to use her own trauma as fuel to light up the world around her. She’ll be continuing to do just that in the upcoming BBC drama she will write and star in focusing on sexual assault and consent. Like a said before, she is a literal gift.