Time of the Month: TRACEY GORDON (CHEWING GUM)

Michaela Coel, the mastermind behind one of the UK’s funniest TV shows right now, openly confesses that she really enjoys making people uncomfortable . Well, the truth is that she is extremely good at it. Chewing Gum, as well as being disgustingly funny and refreshingly honest, has moments that made me cringe so much I wanted my sofa to swallow me up.

Tracey Gordon, Coel’s creation, is a naive 24 year old on a mission to leave her religious upbringing behind and get on with discovering her sexuality. With the help of Beyonce (because of course), Tracey gets into many sticky (some quite literally) situations, not limited to accidentally going to a swingers party, trying to lose her virginity at a homeless shelter, rejecting advances from her cousin Boy Tracey and almost modelling for human/dog pornography. So if any of that sounds like something you want to watch, you are going to love Chewing Gum.

We meet Tracey as she is embarking on her new life. Though still living with her fanatically religious mother and sister, Tracey has decided that the #Churchlife is not for her. She’s dating a closeted gay man named Ronald (John MacMillan) who is determined that their relationship not be sullied by sinful desire. Tracey, at the beginning of her sexual revolution, is determined to change that. After a small (read: big) misunderstanding in the bedroom, Ronald and Tracey go their separate ways (not before Ronald is hit by a car) and Tracey realises that the world of men, dating, sex and sin is now open to her.

Due to Tracey’s mega religious upbringing, she’s a bit on the naive side for a 24 year old. She both dresses and behaves a lot like a child who has never had any real experience of the world, because of course she hasn’t. Because of this small quirk, she doesn’t shy away from any scenario, no matter how cringe-worthy or embarrassing. It’s almost like Tracey has been sullied by the realities of life yet. Even in series 2, where Tracey ends up almost dating a man who clearly has a fetish for black women (he asks her to ‘tribal’ dance for him??), she sees an opportunity to get some money out of him. Of course, the entire episode is laced with truths about powerful white men who fetishise women of colour (and are generally racist) but Tracey knows how to roll with the punches and make the most out of an otherwise pretty tragic situation.

Her naivety about life also makes her a phenomenal role model when talking about sexuality. Though inexperienced, Tracey is uninhibited – something that is very rare among young women on TV. She feels that she is entitled to a sex life, most definitely a sex drive, and she isn’t ashamed of her sexual desires. When things get heated with her soon-to-be-boyfriend Connor, Tracey takes charge of the situation despite never having had any kind of intimate contact with anyone before. As she makes the executive decision to sit on his face, talking us through her thought process the whole time, she isn’t sure whether what she is doing is right or wrong, but fuck it – she’s doing it anyway.

Race may not be the sole focus of Chewing Gum, but Tracey’s character definitely pushes the stereotypes of black women out of the water. Black women are usually portrayed as sassy, voluptuous, sexual beings and whilst Tracey is certainly sexually driven – she is also a virgin who doesn’t even really like penises (“pink balloon”). Sidney Fussell at Paste explains it best:

Black women have so long been accepted into pop culture primarily as sexual provocateurs that seeing a Black woman explicit in her failure to be a sexual queenpin is almost revelatory. Tracey leans into and explores a sexuality that’s weird, cartoonish, and ultimately doesn’t even involve penetrative sex…

Tracey, most of the time, has no idea what she is doing. Okay, screw that – all of the time. But it doesn’t deter her. She looks to Beyonce for advice, and dives headfirst into any given situation. I think we could all use a little of Tracey’s faux confidence in our lives!

Though Chewing Gum has intrinsic themes of race, gender, class and sexuality – Coel is keen that she is representing the ‘London that I know’. What we see is a melting pot of different cultures, traditions and ethnicities, rather than a dialogue from someone who has never even lived on a council estate in their lives. Coel has lived it, and understands the communities, so although Chewing Gum sometimes feels surreal, it’s also incredibly authentic. 

Representations of council estates and the working class on British TV are pretty dismal. They are portrayed as depressing places, awash with grey. Coel takes the opposite approach to the estate which Tracey lives on the fictional Pensbourne Estate (somewhere around South East London). She talks about her deliberate use of primary colours throughout the estate, to give the place a warm and inviting feel. Everything is colourful and bright including the characters who Tracey interacts with. The estate is a community who help each other and need one another. There’s a wonderful humanity throughout Chewing Gum, especially in scenes in Candice’s Nan’s flat. There’s a sense that there is always something going on, schemes being hatched, relationships being built. Coel has turned the stereotype of the British Council Estate on it’s head, turning it into a warm, inviting home with a solid community living there. 

Tracey and Candice’s friendship is another interesting dynamic in Chewing Gum. The two girls could not be more dissimilar (Tracey alludes to Candice having the looks and her the brains, so it’s all okay) but they definitely raise the bar as far as on-screen female friendships go. Tracey has a second home at Candice’s, a first home as well when her Mum kicks her out when she finds out about Tracey and Connor’s ‘sinful’ relationship. Though it doesn’t work out living at Candice’s (lesson here is never, ever live with your best friends because you won’t be for long), Candice and Tracey always have each other’s best interests at heart. Candice may be sexually experienced, but she doesn’t judge Tracey for her lack of knowledge in that department. Tracey is also more than happy to give Candice advice on just about anything – whether she is an expert or not.

In the last episode of season 2, Candice and her boyfriend Aaron go through a pretty tumultuous  break-up which climaxes in Aaron cutting off Candice’s hair as she sleeps. Candice, someone who prides herself on her hair, make-up and general aesthetic, is understandably devastated. It’s one of those comedic yet sensitive moments that Chewing Gum manages to pull off so well.  In the final scene of the series, Tracey shows up to a christening on the Estate having chopped her hair off too, in an attempt to make Candice feel better. The two of them embrace each other, short hair on show to the world. This is about as sentimental as Chewing Gum gets, but it shows Tracey for the kind, loving person she is. 

Coel bases much of Tracey’s character on her own life, Chewing Gum actually came from a semi autobiographical stage play written and performed by Coel. It gets a bit hard to know where one ends and the other begins with Coel and Tracey as so many of the outrageous things that happen to Tracey really did happen to Coel. Yes, even accidentally going to a swingers party. Wherever the line is drawn, though, we should be eternally grateful to Coel for bringing Tracey and Chewing Gum into our lives.

Tracey is the feminist hero we both deserve and need.

A Year With Women – Identity in 4 Films

Over the past year watching one film a week by women (52 films by women), I watched a bigger range of diverse, progressive and interesting films than I have done previously in my life. So much so, I am doing the 52 Films challenge for a second year in a row.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2017 – I’ve pulled together four of my favourite films that celebrate female identity, and explore what that means in a wider context.

Enjoy!

Movern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

Movern Callar is Lynne Ramsay’s second feature, after Ratcatcher. Based on the Alan Warner novel of the same name – the film opens on a tragic scene, a dead body. The body in question belongs to Morvern’s boyfriend, an aspiring novelist, who has killed himself on Christmas eve. It emerges that he has left Morvern his completed manuscript to send to publishers.

I remember that opening scene more vividly than any other film I’ve ever watched. The persistent changing of the coloured lights, constantly flashing is perfectly juxtapositioned with the pool of blood around the body in the foreground. Morvern, silent in her grief and anger, holds his hand. Morvern Callar is never loud, rather it’s strength comes from it’s moments of quiet. Morvern grieves inwardly, never expressing what has happened – even to her best friend. Her actions after the death prompt questioning, yet at the same time they make perfect sense. The anger, frustration and deep pain at her boyfriend’s death (and consequential abandonment) are all bought into play.

There is a really interesting discussion of class throughout Morvern Callar. Morvern is working class and she works at a supermarket. There is an implication that her boyfriend was not working in order to write his novel and his comfortable Glaswegian flat suggests that he was far better off than Morvern. Her decision to sell the manuscript with her name on it seems like a callous one, but is also contextualised by this exploration of class. He has no use for the money, but it would fundamentally change Morvern’s life.

Ramsay’s control of the design, camera and sound make for a truly unique film. Understated but with so much to pick apart, Morvern Callar is a film that changes and evolves with each viewing.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2000)

A masterpiece in animation, Marjane Satrapi’s auto-biographical film Persepolis is both funny, entertaining, political and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Closely following Satrapi’s own story, Persepolis focuses on events which happened in Iran during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s/early 1980s. The films protagonist, Marjane, is reflecting on her life as a child and teenager, and the devastating effects that the Iranian government, the uprising and destabilisation had on her and her family.

Persepolis is a bold film and, by its very nature, a political one. From a relatively peaceful childhood, to becoming separated from her family, to homelessness and clinical depression – Marji’s story is riddled with sadness and horror. Through the eyes of a child and then a teenager, the injustice and inhumanity of the Iranian government can be witnessed. Satrapi’s voice is strong and clear throughout, guiding us to identify with Marji on her journey. As Marji’s identity becomes fraught and confused, Satrapi’s directorial voice shines through. Persepolis combines the political with the personal, essentially threading together complex social issues with a coming of age story. Marji also explores how she feels that has lost parts of who she is – she is trans-national as opposed to her parents who have never left Iran.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the darkness of Persepolis, it is also a charmingly funny film. Young Marji ‘s love of communism is adorable, and her interactions with adults provide wonderful opportunities for humour – which Satrapi makes the most of.

Persepolis is engaging, thought provoking and stunning. With the refugee crisis, and the recent rejection of the Dubs amendment in UK parliament, it is also perhaps more relevant today than ever before.

 

Paraíso (Mariana Chellino, 2016)

Representing fatness in cinema has traditionally, always been an issue. Representations of fat women in cinema specifically has always been downright awful. The only fat female characters in cinema that I remember growing up were Ursula from The Little Mermaid (who was kick-ass but also incredibly evil), and Rosemary from Shallow Hal (who was imagined to be skinny because Jack Black’s character wouldn’t date fat women). Not ideal.

Mariana Chellino’s Paraíso is one of the first films I have seen which doesn’t depict fatness as a sin. Carmen, our protagonist, is a fat woman. Her partner, Alfredo, is also fat. The opening sequence depicts the two engaging in sex. It’s sensual, soft, loving and sexual  – what we see is a loving environment between two people. Their size is irrelevant.

The film focuses on the couple starting on a ‘weightwatchers’ style diet, complete with group weigh ins and diet plans. It is Carmen who initially wants to lose weight, after hearing two women talking about her in a bathroom at Alfredo’s company party. Before this, Carmen seems happy with herself, or at least does not seem insecure about her size. And why should she? This is the tipping point – and important to realise that it is not Carmen’s own insecurity that is the catalyst to lose weight, but judgement from others who don’t even know her.

Naturally, the dieting sparks confusion and misery in Carmen and Alfredo’s relationship – but Carmen remains a strong and convicted character. Though the diet is the catalyst for the conflict in the film, Carmen’s journey of rediscovering herself, food and cooking is the main event. Paraíso raises a lot of questions about food, size and  identity, especially in relationships.

 

Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)

A runaway success of 2014, Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood was released cinemas globally after a phenomenal run in France. It has often been praised as the ‘female equivalent’ to La Haine, but this is a complete oversimplification. Though it’s true that both films explore the ideas of poverty, racism and growing up – Girlhood explores uniquely female experiences and handles its characters completely differently to La Haine, which results in two almost oppositional films.

Marieme wants to be someone other than a punching bag for her brother or a carer for her sister. She sees the gang as the only real opportunity to escape her own life, the life which is full of disappointment and lacking in any kind of support. Marieme sees the girls as a symbol of hope, of happiness. The ‘diamonds’ bedroom scene is beautifully staged to explore this idea. The authenticity of the scene is breathtaking. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary.

Rather than portraying the girl gang (incidentally, ‘Girl Gang’ is what ‘Bande des Filles’ directly translates to) as a bad decision on Marieme’s part, the embrace of friendship is shown as something to celebrate. Marieme feels happy, secure and wanted when she is with her friends – which is hugely important in the transition from child to adult.

Marieme’s gender is also huge part of her identity, and is also something which is constantly being reaffirmed throughout the film. We open on a shot of a group playing  American football, and at the end of the scene,it is revealed they are a women’s team. Likewise, the last few scenes of the film see Marieme sporting male clothing and a typically male hairstyle – leading to confusion about her gender. Pitched somewhere between childhood and adulthood, Marieme flows between ideas of femininity and masculinity throughout  and her visual style is a huge part of her identity.

As I Open My Eyes: Not Your ‘Average’ Coming of Age Film

Farah, a curious and bright eyed eighteen year old on the cliff edge of adulthood, wants to be a singer. Her mother, worldweary Hayett, wants her to study and become a doctor. Whilst the two of them battle it out in an age old story between mother and daughter, the country they love is being ripped apart around them. As I Open My Eyes paints a portrait of Tunisia, months before the Arab Spring, and Farah’s love of singing could lead her into places that she doesn’t want to go…

 

Read my full review of Leyla Bouzid’s fantastic film here at Film Inquiry.

 

Raised by Wolves: on the cancellation of one of the greatest shows ever

Channel 4 has announced a few weeks ago that they won’t be renewing the utterly hilarious Raised by Wolves and I am mad as hell.

Fortunately, it’s not just me who is mad as hell – the show has a beloved following – and Caitlin Moran (the show’s writer and creator) has already drummed up a lot of noise online to try and save it. Raised by Wolves is Caitlin Moran’s , along with her sister Caroline Moran, TV comedy of their childhood lives. More specifically, their teenage years living in a run down in house in Wolverhampton, being home schooled by their mother. Both Caroline and Caitlin have admitted that aspects of their lives have been embellished (as is the nature of television) but if you’ve read Caitlin’s ‘How to Be a Woman’ or ‘How to Raise a Girl’, you’ll know that despite the differences, a lot of Raised by Wolves is true in essence to Caitlin’s memoirs. The biggest alteration is the present day setting (Caroline and Caitlin grew up in the 1970s), but it’s hard to imagine bringing in audiences if Raised by Wolves hadn’t been modernised slightly.

Caitlin and Caroline also adopt different names for their onscreen characters – Caitlin’s likeness is Germaine (played by the incredible Helen Monks) and Caroline’s is Aretha (the equally incredible Alexa Davies). In the fictional world of Raised by Wolves, matriarch of the family,Della (Rebekah Staton), has named all of her daughters after influential women. We have Germaine, Aretha, Yoko, Mariah and baby Cher. Della is a hard working, DIY, do-not-cross-me mum who single handedly does absolutely everything for her six children (she also has a son named Wyatt). She’s a beer drinking, cigarette smoking whirlwind who has complete and utter control over her kingdom. In short, she is almost definitely the best mother I have ever seen on a television show. We’ll delve into just why a bit later on. Also in the Garry household, on most occasions, is Grampy – unsurprisingly, the kid’s grandfather. 

Raised by Wolves is a perfect mix of feminist rhetoric, conversations about masturbation and sibling wonderfulness that we so desperately need in the UK comedy scene. It’s a complete travesty that it has been cancelled, but it isn’t that hard to see why. It’s about powerful young women striking out in the world, taking control of their situations and expressing their deepest desires outwardly. Well, for Germaine anyway. If this is the last hurrah, let us delve into the things we love best about those Garrys. #upthewolves

 

Sex Positive

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Though our Germaine is named after a Germaine who was very prominent in second wave feminism, her values and ideas about femininity and sex are very, very different. In fact, it’s probably better that we don’t talk too much about the car crash that is Germaine Greer, and focus more on the wonderful young woman whom Germaine. She’s confident, sexual, curious and maybe a tiny bit batshit crazy, but she always has her heart in the right place. The greatest thing about Germaine is that she knows she is something special, and doesn’t let anyone forget it.

To see such confidence in a young teenager is comic, yes, and also slightly unnerving. We are so used to seeing teenage girls upset and horrified by their bodies and sexuality, but our Germaine bucks this trend with style. Self confident, sexual and ready for some action of the male variety – Germaine doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her. It’s super refreshing.

In ‘The Dorchester’, we get to witness Germaine’s first throes of passion – making out with any boy available in the nightclub. Germaine’s realisation that she has something they want, and she can get what she wants by giving it to them (kissing) leads her to snog her way around the club, pretty much. In a subversion of the very typical image of a horny teenage boy working his way round all of the girls – it is Germaine who uses the boys to satisfy her newly discovered sexual desires.

It is unsurprising that Germaine has such a sex positive attitude when she has Della as her mother. Della, whilst balancing both the roles of mother, father, DIY maestro, life-coach and  teacher to all of her children, also has a very healthy and liberating sex life. In season 1, Della meets and dates a breakdown vehicle driver, and she isn’t afraid to tell him what she really wants. Layered in innuendo, the two of them eat scotch eggs in Tesco car park and spin doughnuts in the middle of the street. Della knows what she wants and isn’t at all afraid to get it. Despite their extreme difference, you can see where Germaine gets it from.

 

Working Class Women

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Where are the working class women on British TV? I’ve tried looking, but there’s a distinct lack nowadays. We had Shameless, and we had the Royale Family, and Raised by Wolves filled the gap in the market for a short time (at least for being as wonderfully rude as the other two contenders). One of the saddest things about the cancellation of Raised by Wolves is the loss of a television show which is made by and is about working class women. Not just that, but regional working class women. The Garry’s are proud of their midlands identity (“we’re not southern twats, we’re not northern twats, we’re midlands twats”), and there is very little else on British television that even comes close.

 

Body Image

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Another wonderful moment from ‘The Dorch’ will, if you’ve ever been a teenage girl, l have you in stitches about your first time underage clubbing.  If you haven’t been an underage teenage girl, you’ll still probably laugh a lot, so it is totally worth watching. To get ready for their Big Night Out, Germaine decides to hack away at Yoko’s full length skirt, turning into a new and improved (and very short) miniskirt. Germaine tells Yoko to embrace her legs – because it turns out she does have incredible pins. The three girls enter the club, Yoko with her legs out, Germaine in her faux Victorian lace garb and Aretha in her oversized jumper and they have the time of their lives.

Though the three Garry girls are of very different sizes, and have very different interests and ideas about fashion – there is an overwhelmingly positive message about body image in Raised by Wolves. Germaine, not what we would typically view as ‘model material’ (thanks internalised misogyny) is an uber confident teenager – a rarity on television.

As confident as Germaine is, Aretha is quite the opposite. However, her own sense of style and her reservations about her own body (“I haven’t even seen myself naked”) are respected. There is an understanding that, although Aretha may not be entirely comfortable in her own skin, this is perfectly normal and many teenagers go through it.

 

The rituals of growing up female

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The entire show is rooted in feminine milestones. Yoko’s first period, a first bra fitting, first kisses and first crushes. Events that are (in society’s patriarchal brain) life changing and life defining for women. I mean, everyone knows that your first time changes you forever, right? (wrong. So wrong, incase anyone didn’t get the sarcasm).

Raised by Wolves takes these seemingly important milestones and makes them seem not quite as traumatic. The trauma comes from having Germaine as your sister (if you are Aretha) or your mum making you go out and forage for food. Or, god forbid, having to work in the pound shop to earn your keep. It’s true that Yoko starting her periods is terrifying for her, and not everything goes to plan, but ultimately the realisation is that every woman goes through this. That it is going to be okay and there’s nothing to be worried about. As Germaine says about tampons, ‘I just put it in my lady mouse hole’.

There’s also the exploration of first loves and first heartbreaks. In the final episode of the second season (and potentially ever, sob), both Aretha and Germaine are dealing with their first heartbreaks… in two very different ways. Though the two sisters are unlike in many, many ways, they reconcile at the end of the episode and help each other get through the pain of being dumped, and that of unrequited love. It’s touching and sweet, and just another reason why this show is just so damn good.

 

 

The cancellation of Raised by Wolves is a fucking tragedy. It’s funny, feminist and unique in every way. Still, Caitlyn Moran has launched a facebook page to save the show, so if you are still grieving like me – so go on, join the rebel alliance, bab. 
Also – both seasons are still available to view on 4OD at the moment…

 

 

Parched (Leena Yadav, 2016): Feminism, Friendship & Freedom

In the beautiful desert landscape of Gujarat, India, director Leena Yadav introduces us to a world of friendship, suffering and heartbreak within a story of four women, trying their best to overcome their individual struggles.

Parched explores the ideas of tradition, culture and misogyny in the heart of rural India but with a compelling characters and strong friendships that feel universal to us all.

 

Read my full review of Yadav’s masterpiece at Film Inquiry.

Thelma and Louise: 25 Years Later

I am about to make a very embarrassing confession. Well, two actually. The first is that before this week, I had never watched Thelma and Louise before. Continue reading “Thelma and Louise: 25 Years Later”

Stop the Fridging! The Invisible Feminism of ‘Arrow’

Is TV series Arrow feminist? Being brutally honest, it almost certainly is not. Does Arrow have characters with feminist undertones, or female characters with more depth than meets the eye? Well, that’s where it gets more interesting. Continue reading “Stop the Fridging! The Invisible Feminism of ‘Arrow’”