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.