This year’s BBC One and HBO series I May Destroy You is rightly being described as a seminal work, but it is not the first in Michaela Coel’s canon to irreversibly change the televisual landscape. Her BAFTA-winning breakthrough Chewing Gum predates it by five years – but doesn’t get paid its full due as the groundbreaking production that it was.
Chewing Gum was adapted from Coel’s tonally much darker one-woman play Chewing Gum Dreams, from 2012. It was clearly based on the writer’s own adolescent experiences, raised in social housing in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, albeit laced with a heavy dose of surrealism. And, at first glance, it might seem like so much that’s come before it: a – ahem – cumming-of-age comedy about a young oaf trying to get laid. Yet it broke every mold.
The series was immediately disruptive, starting with its representation of class: you’ll be hard pressed to find a more thoughtful and, crucially, cheerful depiction of life on a British estate on TV. And it continues with its representation of race: the goofball protagonist Tracey Gordon is a black female character who is funny because she’s funny, not because she’s black. There was no reliance on lazy tropes, no “sassy black female” inserts – simply expertly executed gags and physical comedy.
All tired tropes were turned on their heads. A dark-skinned woman as the protagonist was – or, rather, is – uncommon. Black women are more often “black best friends” on screen. Even in all-black ensemble casts, darker-skinned women generally play second fiddle to other, lighter-skinned, characters. Think the McDowell sisters in the 1988 film Coming to America. Or think of the ongoing television series Dear White People, in which the main character Samantha White has had both a dark-skinned nemesis in Coco Conners and a dark-skinned sidekick in Joelle Brooks.
By contrast, in Chewing Gum, the fairer friend Candice is captivating, but this isn’t her show. As Tracey puts it: “She’s the buffest girl I’ve ever seen on the whole of my estate, but she’s got learning difficulties, so it sort of balances it out.”
And how about another stereotype of black women – that they’re hypersexual? Tracey is like the vast majority of young women I grew up with: Christian, chaste, straddling their fear of eternal damnation with the odd dry hump as a kind of sexual loophole. Like the show’s plucky protagonist, Coel was once a Pentecostal Christian, a constant complication in Tracey’s desperation to be deflowered.
These distinctions matter. As rare as it is to see issues of class and race addressed on TV – and accurately – it is rarer still to see these themes addressed by somebody that is actually black, working class and female. Coel is the embodiment of “having to work twice as hard”; writing every episode of both seasons of Chewing Gum herself; writing and performing the theme song, as well several other songs throughout the first season; and, of course, starring in it as Tracey. With her, she created a female character that was equal parts charming and cringeworthy in a way that paved the way for Arabella in I May Destroy You and, yes, for Fleabag (which was similarly fond of fourth-wall-breaking monologues).
To this day, Coel still gets flack for not writing a third season. Black women across the diaspora are stewing at its abrupt end. But more than anything, we’re thankful it happened and for the more diverse, fertile television landscape its existence helped create.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill