Read our review of Coel’s I May Destroy You here.
Michaela Coel’s name has been in circulation quite a bit over the past few weeks following the mammoth success of her new series I May Destroy You. As the writer, producer, director and lead actor in the piece, Coel’s twelve-episode series depicts the fallout and awareness that comes after sexual assault. Coel wrote the show after her own experience with sexual assault which happened during an all-nighter before a deadline for a script for another show; Chewing Gum. If I May Destroy You’s Arabella “didn’t think much about being a woman, [because she] was too busy being black and poor”, Chewing Gum’s Tracey Gordan is the manifestation of the latter. The two-season sunny series is an attempt to tell working class stories void of gang violence or drug addiction; as Tracey puts it, hers is a “fake-ass estate” without any real crime. The tone is chaotic and sparkling, a comedy that glides through issues like a wave in the ocean – without being shallow.
Chewing Gum began life as a 2013 one-woman show called ‘Chewing Gum Dreams’. This too was written by Coel and derived from characters she had begun developing when she was studying at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It told the story of a 14-year-old version of Tracey Gordan in the days of teenage innocence. The 2015 television adaptation, though very much born from the stage play, was reconstructed almost entirely for screen. Its Tracey was 24, desperately horny and living under the watchful gaze of her Pentecostal Ghanian mother. Its fourth wall breaks and undermining quips have been compared to Fleabag, but Coel’s agenda of breaking down stigma is different from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s. When she transferred to Guildhall 2009, Coel was the first black student enrolled in five years. Whether she liked it or not, her work and person were both trailblazers.
In 2016, Coel won two BAFTAs for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme and Breakthrough Talent. It was around this time too that she began to publicly stand her ground. Following the trauma of her sexual assault Coel “saw [the Chewing Gum cast and crew] morph into an anxious team…teetering back and forth between the line of knowing what normal human empathy is an not knowing what empathy it at all. When police are involved and footage of people carrying your sleeping writer into dangerous places, when there’s blood; what is your job?” The reason for Chewing Gum’s unprompted conclusion after two successful seasons was never revealed, but it is not a far stretch to suggest that there is a level of PTSD linked with this project for Coel. In 2017, Coel now-famously turned down a $1 million Netflix offer for I May Destroy You; after writing all twelve episodes and co-directing nine, Netflix would not allow her to retain any percentage of copyright. “I was told that’s not how they do things there. Nobody does that, it’s not a big deal. I said if it’s not a big deal then I’d really like to have five percent of my rights. There was silence at the end of the phone.”
It is therefore a little ironic that both series of Chewing Gum are still available for streaming on Netflix. After watching a writer’s current projects, back-pedalling through their previous work can be an interesting feat, with early versions of common themes that have become more complexly developed motifs easily identified. There can be a notable lack of nuance that only comes with later experience, as well as an achieving of goals which create a springboard to move onto the next thing. Chewing Gum was all about challenging perspectives – fully sex-positive but lacking the sinister undertones that came with I May Destroy You, allowing Tracey’s “fake-ass estate” to be place of community amidst financial strife. Coel explicitly set Chewing Gum in a council estate much like the one she grew up in, but only filmed in summer to capture the loudly sunny and warm tone of the show. Tracey’s brightly patterned shirts and youthful primary-coloured sweatshirts as well as her mother’s (Shola Adewusi) proud Ghana printed dresses bring a visual flair which directly contrasts with typical low-income settings so often portrayed as brooding and uninviting.
Like Dan Levy’s active decision to remove homophobia from the world of Schitt’s Creek, Coel does not touch on the dangers of predatory behaviour towards women in Chewing Gum. When Tracey’s younger sister Cynthia loses her virginity to a random man she meets on the street, the biggest threat is not physical safety but embarrassment. In the stage play, the character of Aaron is an abusive boyfriend to Candice, but on television their breakup is prompted by miscommunication. When Tracey accidentally takes drugs and is left alone during a trip, it is again embarrassment that is the worst fallout. Coel’s use of physical comedy, whole-body acting and elastic facial expressions (as well as fourth-wall breaks) make her the most powerful character. She is fully in control of her ability to meld the narrative around her, and easily succeeds in her decision-making. Whether or not her decision-making is wise is another question and the root of the comedy throughout the show. As Tracey says, “I’m a grown-ass woman, I just make many – and frequent – child-like decisions”.
The ease with which Tracey’s plans go from mental notes to physical manifestations is also used to override the stigma that comes with being working class and first-generation British. Her Ghanaian mother Joy is deeply religious and devoted to the Pentecostal prosperity gospel, and Coel implicitly but sharply criticises this church’s reliance on good works for salvation in a way that is rarely seen on television – from the inside and with understanding of the church. Joy, whilst strict and hypocritical at times, does love her daughters and faces her own struggles throughout the series.
The white lens by which the world is skewed is irremovably present within Chewing Gum. The beauty standards faced by the characters show how the biracial Candice is automatically seen as beautiful alongside the council estate’s white girls, whilst dark-skinned Tracey is canonically deemed odd-looking. When going for a job interview, a co-worker presumes Tracey has easy access to drugs purely because of her background. Likewise, she goes on a date with a man who uses the “n-word” and asks her where she is “from from”. Her biggest gripe with him however is him disliking Beyonce. At the same time, Coel’s writing picks up on the fetishisation of biracial children in a way that does not criminalise the white mothers, but simply lays plain the facts. Tracey’s naivety exposes the prejudices around her with comical results that do not take away the sting.
In the final episodes, Tracey reaches her long sought-after goal of losing her virginity. However, after being starved of it for the best of two series, the result is anti-climatic in every sense of the word. The fact that this is no longer the most important plot point by the time it happens is almost Shakespearean. Tracey’s melodrama surrounding it melts away in the face of a friend in need and at the end of the show, the end of innocence gives way to a type of “rose coming up from the mud” coming-of-age. The final episodes are open-ended, but the conclusion is clear and poignant in the midst of its loud humour. This story is indeed Tracey’s coming-of-age, but from a writing perspective, we can look back in hindsight and see how much Coel has grown since her breakthrough project and see that it is not yet hers.
Chewing Gum is available on Netflix; I May Destroy You is available on BBC iPlayer.
Words by H. R. Gibs