Maygan Eugenie Forbes
Editing by Rianna Walcott
Art: ‘Relax Yourself’ by Olivia Twist
The first episode of Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum opens with Tracey staring longingly at the crotch of her righteous boyfriend whilst he prays away impure thoughts, a scene frequently intercut with a frenzied montage of Tracey in orgasmic throes with her lover. She is swiftly brought out of her fevered daydream and shoved back down to Earth, when her celibate partner ends the prayer with a clipped “Amen”. As she is leaving her boyfriend’s house, Tracey turns to the camera and says, “sometimes he lets me stay and watch him sleep, I could never do that though because when I sleep I get wet dreams.”
The theme of repressed sexuality is a primordial part of the adolescent experience, a theme that has been covered extensively. Young women addressing their sexuality in a patriarchal world is a popular cinematic theme, long considered worthy of study within academic milieu, in literature and film courses about coming-of-age novels and adolescent writing. However, there’s a problem. There is a chronic lack of representation in these courses for showcasing the experience of Black British women.
My university endeavors began in September 2012 with a BA in History and Film Studies at Keele University. I entered my degree as a seasoned cinephile, armed with an extensive amount of television and film viewing that placed the likes of Girls (Dunham, 2012) and The Virgin Suicides (Coppola, 2000) as figureheads for the female adolescent experience. My past viewing experience was unhealthy. By exclusively digesting stories of people who did not look like me, I was internalising a ‘normative’ experience that I did not fit into.
When Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha, 2002) was introduced to the course curriculum, one of eleven other films, I couldn’t help but think: is that all? Is that the only tokenistic representation I and other minority groups will be afforded? The images that we digest contribute to hierarchies of oppression; the erasure of the vulnerable reinforces ideas that those stories are not worthy of scholastic study. If it’s not being studied, if there are no conversations being generated on the art of people of colour, that reflects a wider societal narrative that deems us unimportant.
As a young black woman, I rarely see myself represented in fiction, and even these precious few depictions are heavily drenched in racist sentiment, littered with toxic rhetoric that promulgates dated stereotypes. This problem is supported by the tendency to conflate all black experience with the African-American experience; when black women are represented in fiction, they rarely sound like me. Enter Chewing Gum (Coel, 2015), a show that revolves around sex, relationships, and other youth-driven anxieties. It is the story of Tracey, played by Michaela Coel, the show’s writer and creator. Tracey is a working class black woman who lives in a council estate in London with her single mother – the perfect set-up for a stereotypical depiction. However, Coel is crudely brilliant: though it concerns this demographic, Tracey is not a caricature of a black woman, but a real person, flaws and all. Her voice is unique amongst a sea of British shows that seldom feature a positive minority story. By focusing on universal teenage experiences, Chewing Gum is not in the business of exclusion. It is a black woman’s account of her sexual awakening, a story that rings true for young women across the black diaspora and globally.
In the episode Binned, TLC’s The Creep sets the soundtrack for an awkward sexual encounter between Tracey and her new love interest Connor (Robert Lonsdale). Whilst the two do not end up actually having sex, Tracey is convinced that she might be pregnant and seeks the help of a “Turkish voodoo witch doctor” to help her. Tracey’s mother is a devout Christian who stands on the corner of the estate preaching “Fornicators! Film watchers! Fashionistas! Single mothers! A demonic spirit is working in your life!”, so understandably Tracey feels she has no other option but to seek advice from a lady in a car garage who believes that sperm “can indeed swim from the leg into the vagina, upwards, like salmon really.” The witch doctor concludes that in order to avoid pregnancy, Tracey must rub Anusol cream (for hemorrhoids) on her stomach eight times, and drink twelve sips of diet coke.
Whilst this episode has a great deal of comedic value, it represents deeper issues in societal attitudes towards sex, the severe lack of school sexual education in the UK, and the damage done by parents who openly shame sexuality. Every year of my academic study has introduced several films and television shows discussing sexuality within young women and societial repression, but rarely in terms of how this impacts non-white British women. By avoiding the condescending clichés of urban working-class characters, Chewing Gum uses the power of comedy to relay familiar problems faced by young women in Britain. There is depth to Tracey’s character; she is a rare treat within British television, and how refreshing it is to not have to look across the pond to find representation!
There is a reason why Chewing Gum is an internationally recognized show; television shows and films that portray minorities outside of negative stereotypes are few and far between. After studying film and television for four years, it has become evident to me that there is currently little academic interest in the Black British experience. Instead, minority students are left to piece together their own stories from jagged fragments of the current syllabus. Chewing Gum would fit on any existing course concerning coming-of-age, adolescent sexuality, race or gender. I propose that new courses allow the study of television shows from different parts of the world, directed by and featuring more diverse people. There should be no room for exclusion in a world so rich in diverse narratives, and Chewing Gum is a shining example of how a marginalised voice can speak volumes to a global audience.
Bend it Like Beckham. Dir. Gurinder Chadha. UK, 2002. Film.
“Binned” Chewing Gum. E4. 13 Oct. 2015. Television.
Girls. HBO. 2012. Television.
“Sex & Violence” Chewing Gum. E4. 6 Oct. 2015. Television.
The Virgin Suicides. Dir. Sofia Coppola. USA, 2000. Film
About the author:
Born in London, Maygan Forbes has spent the majority of her higher education studying in cold cities and defending the spelling of her name. She is currently studying an MSc in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh; her research interests include representations of feminine adolescence on-screen in Hollywood and World Cinema. A lot of her work aims to highlight the beauty of intersectionality, and the power of women to exist in more than one space at once.