Secondhand Embarrassment in ‘Chewing Gum’

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This is a guest post by Giselle Defares.


At the 67th prime time Emmy Awards, Viola Davis dropped several truth bombs during her acceptance speech after becoming the first African-American to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” Well, when no doors open you have to kick them in. In the UK there has been an underrepresentation of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) actors in TV and film; most shows give an incorrect reflection of the British society, especially when it’s filmed in London, where 40 percent of the population is non-white. There are several initiatives such as The Act For Change Project lead by Danny Lee Wynter that campaigns to strengthen diversity in live and recorded arts. The lack of diversity is especially noticeable when it comes to British comedy. There were only a handful of comedy sketch shows in the last 20 years from Desmond’s  to The Real McCoy to Little Miss Jocelyn, and that’s about it. Black British humor is underrated, period. Some artists venture out on their own thus leading the way. Enter Michaela Coel.

The Ghanaian-British actress/writer/poet Michaela Coel has forged her own path in the industry whilst being vulnerable and honest in her creativity. Coel was “discovered” by playwright and director Ché Walker during one of her poetry slams. He invited her to visit the masterclasses he held at RADA and from there she later obtained her degree from the Guildhall School for Music and Drama. In her last year, Coel created her own graduation piece, a 15-minute monologue that became the first version of her one-woman show Chewing Gum Dreams, which she later performed at the National Theater in London. In an interview with The Evening Standard, Coel explained that she wanted her show to reflect “the sort of life you don’t see very often on TV. Tracey’s sexual naiveté, for example, reflects [my own] celibacy between the ages of 17 and 22… I had a massive conversion to this very Pentecostal, demon-exorcising church. Getting to the point where I started to do not such a good job of being celibate, was awkward and horrible. So much guilt. Psychologically, I was in a whirlwind.”

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Chewing Gum centers round Tracey Gordon (Michaela Coel), a 24-year-old who grew up on a council estate in east London in a strict religious environment who’s trying to alter her path in adulthood. She’s innocent and wise and equally adores her idols Beyoncé and Jesus. She stumbles her way through London and finds out the hard way what she should and shouldn’t be doing. While Tracey is trying to broaden her world, her sister Cynthia (Susan Wokoma) is content with their solemn life as long as she can play the board game Ludo with her family every night. Her overly religious mother Joy (Shola Adewusi) sermons innocent bystanders on the street with quips such as: “My dear, your vagina is holy. I command you to leave your nether regions be.” Tracey’s best friend Candice (Danielle Walters) and her grandmother Esther (Maggie Steed) are more worldly and they often gives her disastrous life advice. Tracey has been in a six-year relationship with her Pentecostal Christian boyfriend Ronald (John MacMillan) and is eager to lose her virginity with him, while Ronald says in his prayers, “We will wait till we die if it brings you glory.” Luckily for Tracey there’s the neighborhood poet Connor (Robert Lonsdale), who seems to really like her.

The first episode was enjoyable, filthy, funny, and loaded with secondhand embarrassment, but the balance between all the characters wasn’t quite there. Before Coel got the greenlight for her six episodes on Channel 4, she got the opportunity to create two comedy blaps to present her idea (unfortunately Channel 4 made them private on YouTube). She changed certain elements from the shorts and at some moments they worked better than what was aired in the first episode. It’s especially noticeable with the new Connor. The old Connor (Morgan Watkins) was slightly better at pulling off the dumb yet dorky character in a less self- conscious way. The new Connor feels a bit out of place (and dorkier) in the first episode, but it seems that Lonsdale will improve in the upcoming episodes. However, the addition of her Christian boyfriend Ronald is a great move.

Chewing Gum is refreshing since it breaks the mold of the overriding limited representation of minorities in the UK. Coel shows us a protagonist who deals with love, religion, classism, pop culture, and it’s set against the background of a council estate. Yet Tracey isn’t the archetype of the Black girl who’s often portrayed as either: unhappy, uneducated, poor, highly sexualized and surrounded by aggression and criminal behavior or other tropes that seem to be prevalent when it comes to the portrayal of the Black British experience within the media. – see Top Boy (fun fact: Coel had a small part in this show). The factor that binds the people on the estate together is, according to Coel, “class and community.”

Coel shines in her leading role. Tracey is kind, grounded and sweet whilst her best friend Candice has a more distinct personality: brash, bubbly and definitely more experienced when it comes to sex. Her advice to Tracey on her date with Ronald: “Just sit on his face.” Well, it went from innocent to filthy (yet funny) real quick. The relationships and the conversations that Tracey has with her friends and family are natural, see for instance the scenes where Tracey discusses her upcoming date with Candice:

Tracey: “ Candice, I’m 24, I’m a virgin. Yes. That doesn’t mean I wanna have sex with my boyfriend, yeah.”

Candice: “ You don’t have to. Bag someone on Tinder. It’s free. Set the thing to find someone in your borough, and walk. A tinder bang is not even a bus-fare, bruv.”

Tracey (looks into the camera): “Candice is like the buffest girl I’ve ever seen on the whole of my estate but she has learning difficulties so it sort of balances it all out. I can be best friends with her and I’m not even jealous or anything.”

Candice: “ You know if you leave it too long, you tear when he enters you. You need stitches.”

Tracey: “Yeah, well, thank god for the NHS then, innit.”

Tracey gives us a glimpse how awkward (extremely guarded) twentysomethings can operate. Comparisons are made with Girls by Lena Dunham or that the show is the British equivalent of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae. While Rae and Coel both managed to create their own space when there were no opportunities that’s where the similarities end. It’s fair to say that Chewing Gum stands on its own.

The appeal of Chewing Gum lies in the humor, the familiarity and quite frankly the second hand embarrassment when you see Tracey trying to fulfil her sexual fantasies. Coel gives us a Black female lead who doesn’t shy away from graphic (offensive) sexual humor. Susan Wokoma shines as the religious, younger sister Cynthia. The character could be one note but Wokoma shows her comedic chops. There’s great chemistry between Tracey, Candice and her grandmother Esther, hopefully their relationship will be explored. All the characters are well cast, but Candice and Connor need to be more fleshed out in the upcoming episodes.

Chewing Gum is the comedy with a Black female lead some of us have been waiting for. It’s not the representation of Blackness but it’s certainly nice to see a Black leading character who isn’t molded in archetypes, which can be damaging society’s perception of Black women. Tracey is open, vulnerable, filthy, funny and just trying to live life the best as she can. Chewing Gum is a gem and let’s hope that this is a good indication of the bright future that’s ahead of Michaela Coel.


Giselle Defares comments on film, fashion (law) and American pop culture. See her blog here.