“If I had £1,000, I would buy Brazilian yaki hair, like Beyonce, lip reduction, red velvet cupcakes, probably a dustpan and brush for this place. I mean, look at it, it’s boring, there’s not even crime here, it’s like some fake-ass estate, it’s like diet cola. It’s diluted.”
So says the beating heart of new E4 show Chewing Gum, Tracey (played by Michaela Coel, who wrote the series). Tracey lives with her evangelical Christian family on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, alongside her best friend Candice (“Candice is like 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 – so like, I can be best friends with her, and I’m not jealous or anything”), crush Connor (who writes terrible poetry) and a whole host of other vivid characters. The joke here is that Tracey’s home is anything but “diluted”: the estate on Chewing Gum is a concentrated burst of life and colour that’s a far cry from the stereotypical bleak portrayal of social housing in so-called “gritty” dramas.
“These brick walls, they’re dragging me back, man. I’m like a rose trying to grow out of mud. I’m very wise, you know, my mind is bare agile. I’m fast, you know what I mean?” Tracey continues, as, unbeknownst to her, a pregnant woman pretends to give birth to distract police as her friends steal two boxes of used dildos from the flat behind them. “Got my ear to the ground, so I’m alert at all times. I ain’t even being vain. I just am special.”
Rejecting the tired narrative that a bright, funny likeable character living on a council estate must be an exception in their surroundings, Coel paints a picture of a community that is in equal parts sharp and silly. Like Broad City’s New York, the estate manages to be simultaneously real and surreal: more truthful than a flat rendering of a grey tower block filled with hunched youths shuffling in monochrome sweats, yet utterly absurd. Children are named Ebony, Mahogany and Dark Knight; Turkish traders sell haemorrhoid relief creams as emergency contraception (“She made one guy wake up without a testicle!”); well-meaning mothers shout at passing girls, “command Satan to leave your nether regions today!”
A very real understanding of Tracey’s life and circumstances lies beneath this effervescent surface. For all its farce, Chewing Gum is a show that knows what it is to be young, black, female, and poor. Coel told the Radio Times, “Chewing Gum is the London that I know.” Race, religion, class and gender are all themes that pop up repeatedly in the show, but they are approached from interesting angles, never as “issues” that need to be confronted or solved. Throwaway lines like,“I always thought white people were bad kissers and it’s not their fault, it’s just that they’ve got really small lips and they can’t embrace the challenge of lips like mine,” allow Coel to incorporate these facets of our identities into the texture of her writing, without making race or class the focus of the show.
If there is one outstanding theme in Chewing Gum, it’s sex. Tracey is 24, a virgin, and very horny. Engaged to a fervent (and, we soon realise, gay) Christian who is reluctant to so much as touch her, Tracey soon becomes overwhelmed with frustration, and goes on a mission to lose her “v-card”. Misguided makeovers, bizarre bedroom tips and disappointing flirtations with porn and online dating soon follow. Tracey is baffled by both her friends’ advice and her own desire, and often tries to mask her uncertainty with an unconvincing fake confidence, straddling faces and licking noses with reckless abandon. It’s disastrous, hilarious, and occasionally a bit sad, but always achingly relatable.
Tracey isn’t the only horny woman in Chewing Gum, and seeing groups of women of all ages discuss their desire is funny and refreshing. “I throb so hard it’s like my vagina’s got epilepsy,” Tracey admits. “I’ve had more fake orgasms than I’ve had Cornish pasties. And I’ve had a lot of Cornish pasties,” jokes Candice’s grandmother. “Honestly though, most times, I just want to be alone and ride pillow,” a young mum laughs.
While sex is always used as a vehicle for humour, there’s something wonderfully warm about the way Coel pours all her character’s sexual insecurities into a script, to ultimately dismiss them. Whether someone is worried that their boobs are too saggy or their erections too erratic, Coel finds the hilarity in these situations while also allowing her characters to realise that they’re nothing too serious. When Tracey finds a girl willing to have a threesome with her and the man of her affections, she confides in her about a problem she and her partner are having in bed. “Stop making his dick the centre of sex,” she insists. “Dick-centric sex sucks.”
By the end of episode four, Tracey still hasn’t lost her virginity in the traditional, heteronormative sense (I wouldn’t be surprised if Coel rejects that predictable narrative climax completely) but she is experiencing a whole new erotic frontier, and sharing her unique perspective on it with the other smart, sexual women around her. I’m grateful that Coel is sharing it with us, too.
Chewing Gum is on E4 on Tuesdays at 10pm.
Now listen to Anna discussing the show on SRSLY, the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast.