TITLE: Chewing Gum
STARRING: Michaela Coel (star/writer), Susie Wokoma, Kadiff Kirwan
RATING: 5 out of 5 hairbrushes upside your head
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? E4 on demand in the U.K. and Netflix in the U.S.
When I moved to London in 2003 with a head full of stereotypes about the city and its people, I first tried to find a place to live in Brixton. Brixton is a neighborhood that, back then, was where a lot of Afro-Caribbeans lived. Migrating in the early 1950s as Commonwealth citizens to help rebuild Britain after Hitler bombed the shit out of it, Brixton became known as a hub of Black British life. And also riots. There were massive riots in the 1980s. So, of course, THAT IS WHERE I WANTED TO LIVE.
Alas, the rooms and small apartments I went to look at were, IMO, CRAY. The ones where I would be a “lodger” with older Afro-Caribbean women and men were dark, with lots of heavy drapery and too much white Jesus imagery for my taste. Granted, I looked at 3-4 places so I won’t generalize to the entire populace of Afro-Caribbean landlords. But studying the evolution of Black British culture and getting to know young, Black British women made the places I looked at, and my introduction to Chewing Gum, all the more hilarious and comprehensible.
Chewing Gum is based on a stage play that Michaela Coel wrote and she brings her character Tracey to fidgety life for the TV show. She works in a corner shop part-time and most of the show takes place in her neighborhood for a fun look at Council Estate life without the hyperbole of what that life is like. Because regardless of the exterior, Tracey is fully obsessed with sex: having sex for the first time (at 24), enjoying sex and being sexy. Yet, she’s incredibly, but adorably awkward in her pursuit. She lives with her very religious mother and her sister (Susie Wokoma, star of Crazyheads and featured in Crashing), so Tracey’s randiness is constantly under surveillance and reprimand. This is especially the case with her boyfriend with whom she shares a chaste relationship, but she’s always trying to mount him like a pony.
What makes Coel’s depiction of Tracey both hilarious and forward-thinking is its opposition to stereotypes about black American women’s sexuality. To be fair, I watched the show with standard tropes of black women’s sexuality in mind (the hypersexual Jezebel, the aesexual Mammy, the tragic mulatto) and the more I watched Chewing Gum, the less certain I became about which stereotypes Black British women struggle against. I’m not saying that they don’t have this struggle, but I would say that, to my knowledge, Black British women’s sexuality is undertheorized in the context of Black British life, which includes religiosity. And that’s why Tracey’s rebellion is so great: Chewing Gum plays off the uptightness of Judeo-Christianity nicely with her relationship with her best friend, Candice, who consistently offers Tracey gender-advice straight from women’s magazines. The result is that Tracey always comes across as slightly ridiculous, but earnest in her quest to be a Sexy God.
“This ain’t CSI. I don’t know why you’re interrogating me.” – Tracey asking the chemist/pharmacist for the Morning After pill.
I’m writing about Chewing Gum now, though it’s been out for a while, because a new series is about to start on E4. I can’t wait to see what capers Tracey gets up to having had some sexual enounters that proved that you can’t really learn about who are you as a sexual being through pop culture. It’s only in the actual doing of the deed that Tracey comes into her own awkward, beautiful messiness. Not in that sad, tripping over herself Bridget Jones way, but in a high camp comedy way that resonates with women of color who don’t care about the stereotypes.
Michaela Coel’s speech, and this short interview, that she gave after winning a BAFTA award for Best Female Performance in Comedy hits all the high-notes: gracious, uplifting and emphatic that if we want to see genuine images of people of color in the media, we have to create them ourselves. AND she got her award from Idris Elba (swoon). And her dress is FLY.