Tracey Gordon, the protagonist in the Netflix hit show, Chewing Gum — a British comedy about a 20-something Christian woman on a quest to lose her virginity and find herself — is weird. The fact is, if I knew her in real life, she'd probably irritate me a lot. And yet, I love her.
I don't just love her because we're both British-born Africans. Or that, like her, I lived in public housing for part of my childhood, or that we both have dirty laughs. I love her because she, mostly, succeeds in breaking free from what society and her faith have told her she should be and how she should act.
Like all of us, Tracey wants to be loved and validated. Society has told her that as a Black, working-class woman, her job and love prospects are limited, because she is neither intelligent nor attractive enough (neither of which are actually true). She has the added burden of having to impress God. "This religious fervor" as Priscilla Owusu, a London-based writer and co-host of the podcast "This Christian Life" points out, "leaves little room for you to make choices for yourself, because you're constantly being told what you should do." Owusu, who is of Ghanaian heritage, says she understands how challenging those restrictions can feel for a young person.
Tracey's quest to lose her virginity is just the start of her journey of self-discovery. In season one, she spends most of her day thinking about how to have sex, and when she gets close, the results are cringe-worthy. She sits on her boyfriend's face, overeager and fully dressed, and tries to seduce him with disastrous results. When she finally does lose her virginity, in season two, it's with a school boy. Most people would have written her off as "loose," but as Owusu says, you can't help but see her as a "good girl, trying to find herself."
Tracey's lack of shame when it comes to her sexuality is revolutionary. Rarely do we get to see a Black woman openly wanting sex, and being fully in control of her own sexual choices. That's probably why in the moments that she isn't in control of what happens to her, we get a deeper understanding of the ways sexism and racism can have a negative and lasting impact on her.
Case in point is her short-lived relationship with the affluent and handsome Ash. On their first date, Tracey discovers that Ash is attracted to her in an anthropological way: "This face, these features, it's like...it's like you've been kissed by God!" He also says her breasts are "so black" as they make out. Hearing all of this gives the audience, and Tracey, pause. She rushes out of his apartment, but not before he says, "...this is my first black girl experience. I do not know what I said, but I wasn't in control of it."
In the very moment we're left to wonder, "Does Ash really think Tracey will forgive him?" she turns to us, her friends, and says, "How you gonna look that deep in my mouth and breast and tell me 'black'? Look at my mouth, does my mouth look black? Look, there's actually nothing black in my mouth, look: look, pink, yellow, brown." Then, she says what we're all thinking: "What's wrong with this guy, man?"
We learn what's wrong with him when she returns to his house days later, against her better judgement, where she discovers his ex-wife is black and that watching half-dressed black women dance for him arouses him.
The show's creator and star, Michaela Coel, does not appear to be critiquing interracial relationships, but she says she did want to explore the potential pitfalls of dating someone who can't see past a person's skin color and acknowledge their humanity. The inspiration for this story line came from her own experience.
"I spent a lot of time in Europe, so a lot of these guys were white. I noticed that the guys that were attracted to me were guys who either only liked, as they termed it, 'exotic' girls, and didn't like girls the same color as them; white. I find this type of racial prejudice toward people of your own color problematic. And if I was to ever fall in love with one of these guys I would have to ask the question 'If my skin was white, would you still love me?' If the white guy [you're] dating only dates non-whites, I think the answer to that question might be kind of scary," Coel said.
Rather than explore it in her own life, Coel decided to examine the question through her fearless protagonist Tracey. This is where Coel's genius as a writer lies. She explores scenarios, and pushes them to their extremes in a bid to reveal the truth. By creating a character who appears to be a naïve woman-child, she gives herself, and her fans, the freedom to raise questions that people often ask themselves privately, like "How can I get the person I like to like me back?," "What would happen if I really told people what I thought" and — the show's most fundamental question — "What's the worst that could happen?"
For Black women, there is an added benefit to watching Tracey's weirdness in all its glory.
Carmen Rosenzweig, a realtor based in Santa Monica and fan of the show, says "[Tracey] has the freedom that almost restricts a lot of conscious black folks. We always have to be striving, we always have to make a big point.... She just gets to live." Robin Boylorn, a professor at the University of Alabama, and member of the creative organization Crunk Feminist Collective, says the show has become important because through Tracey's romantic and sexual relationships we're reminded that "Dark-skinned women are being recognized as beautiful, too. Not in a way that seeks to diminish or discredit the beauty of other women, but beauty standards are being expanded to be more inclusive."
In season two, Coel isn't satisfied with challenging beauty conventions by just playing Tracey. She has asked direct and pointed questions and examined their impact.
During a rare crisis of confidence, Tracey asks her friends why the men she wants aren't interested in her. She also asks them if she's ugly. They tell her she's "niche" and that she's beautiful in a "Whoopi Goldberg in the Color Purple" kind of way, which is unfortunate, because all the boys want Rita Ora. Without saying it explicitly, her friends have told her she's undesirable. The narrative isn't new and the statement on colorism is clear: Women who have African features can't be attractive. This exchange is powerful because, by understanding the comparison to Whoopi Goldberg, you also understand why Tracey isn't considered conventionally pretty.
This realization might make some people feel uncomfortable, as Coel did when she got those comparisons in her own life. She wanted to "fit into the definition of beautiful that the commercial Western world shoves down our throats...I think that part exists in all of us, and it's a part we have to actively dismiss every day; for some, every hour. And it's fickle and based on nonsense..."