6 Things To Note From Michaela Coel’s Grounded Convo With Louis Theroux

Here's what happens when two of the greatest minds in British television sit down for a chat.

by Alice Broster
Louis Theroux/BBC, Mike Marsland/Getty

Louis Theroux has just dropped series two of his podcast Grounded and, unsurprisingly, it’s brilliant. Using the show as a vehicle to speak to speak to some of the most interesting and influential people in pop culture, the latest series takes it up a level with Michaela Coel. The actor, writer, producer, and double BAFTA award-winner is his first Grounded guest for season two. In true Theroux fashion, no stone was left unturned.

I May Destroy You was – naturally, as one of the standout shows of 2020 – high on the agenda. Coel revealed that while she hoped the show would begin some much-needed conversations about consent and sexual assault, the events of this year added a whole new dimension to her work. “Because of the pandemic, I almost felt like I was watching this show take a whole new life as it was morphing and growing and becoming a public show. I also felt like a spectator – in a good way,’” she said.

In their hour-long chat (which is available to listen to right now on BBC Sounds), the pair talked about identity, consent, and the experiences that have shaped Coel's work. Here are six things to note from their conversation.

On The Appropriation Of Black Culture

Race and identity are two key topics in Coel’s work, she told Theroux, reflecting on how she first came across terms like “shadeism” whilst studying Sociology at school. (Also known as colourism, it is defined as prejudice based on skin tone, typically among people of the same racial group, and usually favouring lighter-skinned people.) “This is a difficult conversation because it all seems to be routed in this divide and conquer tactic that is centuries old,” explains Coel.

Discussing Rachel Dolezal, a white professor and activist who identified and passed as Black while touching on the topic of the appropriation of culture. Coel said: “A white person can do some braids and dress in a way that they think Black Americans dress and can travel into a different racial group and adopt the struggle of a different race and that’s really interesting. I don’t get that kind of tourism, I can’t pretend to be white.”

IMDY Is About The Nuances & Impact Of Consent

I May Destroy You explores the ways that consent can be stolen. This cut close to the bone for many, and Coel explained that the idea was rooted in the fact that in 2016, while she was working on Chewing Gum, she had her drink spiked and was assaulted. Like her protagonist Arabella, she remembers very little of it, but hazy moments and details return to her, as they did to Arabella on the show. A 15-month police investigation followed. The perpetrators were never apprehended.

"When something like that happens, maybe habitually, I want to write about it. That’s where it [I May Destroy You] came from. As I continued to think about it I realised this isn’t just a ‘me thing’ and there are so many different ways that theft of consent happens.”

She explained that while she wanted to document the big impact that assault can have, she also wanted to explore the more subtle ways that theft of consent can be really damaging.

She's Asking Questions, Rather Than Providing Answers

When Theroux asks Cole about the meaning behind a few of the show's most memorable scenes, she pushes back somewhat. “When you really watch it and you just sit down and stop using your gut reaction, you realise you don’t have an easy opinion. There isn’t any right or wrong,” she says. “What I think is really interesting is how we look at the actions of somebody else and based on our experiences, we see it a certain way. Depending on our trauma, we deem the person bad, good, right, wrong.”

The Issue Of ‘Liking a Particular General Group’

“I find it really strange when people say ‘Hey you know here's my thing, I just love South Asian girls,’" Coel tells Theroux. "Each of them is a human and I imagine that they're all probably different and they vary in their feelings, their thoughts, their bodies are different their faces. How can you just like a group like that? I find it quite strange.”

Coel links this back to how dehumanising dating apps can be and categories in porn, where people are reduced to their features, or colour of their skin. But it isn’t just strangers on the internet that view people in this way. “I have to learn because some of the women that I adore In my life have these views," says Coel. "I have to sort of draw a line and go, You know what? I don't have a Black d*ck for you to fetishise. This is actually none of my business. It's not my Black d*ck that you’re desperate for."

On Being Aromantic

Though Coel has kept her private life exactly as such – private – Theroux questioned a comment she made in an interview as a joke, about being "aromantic". While she admitted this may not be strictly true she said, “sometimes I feel slightly alienated by ‘oh my god look at the ring he got me.’ It’s hard for me to connect with the excitement of it which is what maybe led me to feel something is wrong with me. Because I can’t get my head around holding a hand up with a ring.”

But she loves a wedding! “Weddings are the day you get to support the union of two people and if you’re part of the couple you get to plan this huge task and the more you plan the more the stakes rise,” she offered. Theroux argues he's potentially more aromantic than her after all.

She Wants To Pass On The Mic

To end the interview, Coel was keen to share the spotlight and "pass on the mic" as it were, to Dr. Denis Mukwege. "He works in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and he helps repair the wombs of women after they have been raped with machetes, as a systematic act of war, and his job is really, really hard," she says. "This is a type of sexual assault that exists outside of our dialogue about sexual assault and what it means. And I think it always important to remember that that is happening right now and that there are real heroes. People always say 'Michael, you are doing so much', but I'm like 'there is always Denis Mukwege.'"