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Misfits: A manifesto for change in the entertainment industry

Michaela Coel’s first book is a call to arms for those feeling excluded from the creative arts

Michaela Coel, the creator and star of I May Destroy You, was ‘the first black girl in the school’s history to join in the Irish dance team’. Photograph: Wulf Bradley/New York Times
Misfits: A Personal Manifesto
Misfits: A Personal Manifesto
Author: Michaela Coel
ISBN-13: 978-1529148251
Publisher: Ebury Press
Guideline Price: £9.99

After staging her first comedy show during drama school, “I did what I do best,” Michaela Coel writes. “I dropped out”. Coel’s not being self-deprecating. Her first book recounts her ability to tell when institutions aren’t working for her. As a student, she left. This time, as the creator of TV drama series I May Destroy You, she is staying put and demanding the industry change.

The structure of Misfits – a manifesto emerging from a lecture on carving out space in the creative industries – puts me in mind of A Room of One’s Own. Where Virginia Woolf insisted on monolithic female victimhood, Coel is more complex on identity and clearer on the purpose of personal revelation.

She writes about being the only black person at her youth theatre, “the first black girl in the school’s history to join in the Irish dance team”, turning to God in university and to the gays at drama school. Then she found success – and saw that the entertainment industry needs radical change before that success can represent anything more than an isolated breakthrough.

Coel doesn't primarily intend for this book to make you laugh, but her formal mastery of humour means you inevitably will

The “misfits” here can be individual cranks, cultural outcasts, or both. At school Coel’s friends were “commercially unattractive, beautiful misfits, who found the mainstream world unattractive”. Even if one loves that mainstream world, many are “made into misfits because life looks at them differently”.


Coel has carved out a space for herself, but she refuses to make her triumph seem inevitable, to betray those who lose by claiming they haven’t worked as hard as her. “Why are we platforming misfits,” she asks, “heralding them as newly rich successes, whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility? I can’t help usher them into this house if there are doors within it they can’t open.”


The register is well judged: precise but unpretentious, conversational without reading like the back of an Innocent smoothie. Coel doesn’t primarily intend for this book to make you laugh, but her formal mastery of humour means you inevitably will. Deadpan is second nature to her – the understatement, the elongated set-up, then the punchline: “I saw I could reach my targets if I erased the concept of weekends, and saw sleeping as something you didn’t do deeply, or every night, just some nights, like anal.”

Her beginner’s bravado gains credibility from her equal candour about moments of earnestness. She describes buying people milkshakes to get them to come to her show, and responding as most of us would to precipitous changes in fortune: “They asked if I wanted to make a TV show. ‘Yes of course holy s**t yes.’ They suggested I omit ‘Dreams’ from the title. I said, ‘Yes of course holy s**t sure.”’

Misfits is damning on the industry's handling of racism and sexual assault, and equally so on the broader cultural context

Coel’s account of the holy-s**t-sure-yes career stage chimes with my own experiences. I’ve felt thrown by the precious-sounding ways in which people ask about how I’m finding it: “Did you mind changing X? Are you daunted by Y?” The “are you certain your dainty muse can rise to these demands?” tenor of such probing betrays an assumption that young artists will be chi-chi about new opportunities. We’re keen. The “yes” leaves our lips before we’ve understood the question.

Misfits is damning on the industry’s handling of racism and sexual assault, and equally so on the broader cultural context. Coel is sharp on the many geographies of London, where the hottest agents won’t cross the river to see her show, and what’s physically close can be social stratospheres away. “A drama school in my square mile; I’d grown up walking past it my whole life, not knowing what it was, and now I was a member of its family.”


Alienated by the homogenous reference frameworks of her predominately white and middle-class fellow drama students (“I’d never watched Fawlty Towers or Red Dwarf or heard of any festival in Edinburgh, I just hadn’t”), Coel demonstrates the arbitrariness of these touchpoints by leaving her own proper nouns mostly unexplained, save for three tongue-in-cheek footnotes on Claire Foy in The Crown, Boots (pharmacy chain, not footwear) and Kat Slater from EastEnders.

Misfits is, to be clear, a manifesto – a statement of values, a call to arms. True to the form, you’ll be urging it on people. I read it in my local coffee shop and texted a friend who was on a boat in Greece. Misfits could not wait, islands be damned.

Coel’s manifesto does not attempt to be comprehensive or systemic, but it’s clear on what it wants to do and does it very well. I suspect it bears the same relation to the sum total of Coel’s intellect that The Communist Manifesto does to Marx’s. I am very glad both books exist, and hope some day we’ll see Coel’s Das Kapital.

Naoise Dolan is the author of Exciting Times