"I'm a grown-up woman," protests Tracey (Michaela Coel). "I just regularly make childlike mistakes." That's one way to sum up Chewing Gum, a British E4 series (also created and written by Coel) which recently premiered its second season on Netflix. At 24 years old, Tracey is straddling the line between childish and teenage impulses with an adult life and desires—and that's not even getting into the series' wonderful, and often filthy, balance between Christianity and sex.
Tracey and her family—strict mother (Shola Adewusi) and uptight older sister Cynthia (Susan Wokoma, performing exorcisms in both this and the also-great Crazyhead)—are Evangelical Christians living on a council estate. Much of Chewing Gum follows the conflicts between Tracey's religion and her somewhat-desperate mission to lose her virginity. Her upbringing contradicts with her current desires. While her mother prays for strangers' vaginas and Cynthia dreams of a life where the three of them continue to sit around a table playing boring games, Tracey is busy trying to convince her also-religious boyfriend to stop praying long enough to sleep with her. It doesn't help that Tracey tends to have bad nosebleeds whenever she's turned on.
The brilliant pilot episode sets up the hilarious, awkward, dirty, and sometimes sad series: Tracey attempts to seduce her boyfriend ("Rub your parts on my private parts!") but he throws a bible at her and calls her poison. Later, a new love interest Connor (Robert Lonsdale) is baffled while, still clad in her pajamas, Tracey literally sits on his face. "I don't remember if I was supposed to wear clothes for this bit or not," Tracey explains to the camera.
One element of Chewing Gum that especially rings true is Tracey's lack of knowledge about sex. It's portrayed throughout the series, particularly the first season, and is reflective of many young women (and even men) who grew up in religious households or religious schools that didn't provide proper sex education. Being sheltered in religion means having to look elsewhere.
Tracey seeks answers from her best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie), the girl who neglected to tell her the specifics of sitting on your partner's face. Cynthia, on the other hand, uses the internet—her "becoming sexual" searches lead her to step-by-step instructions on how to masturbate. Chewing Gum finds humor in this awkwardness, whether it's Tracey explaining to a pharmacist that she needs the morning after pill even though she only jerked off a guy, or going to the extreme and resorting to voodoo and Diet Coke to end a pregnancy that definitely doesn't exist. But even when the antics are exaggerated, they remain believable. Being forbidden to use tampons until marriage, as Tracey is, was a common refrain in my Catholic High School; the majority of my sex ed took place in LiveJournal comment sections.
This relatability works tandem with the surrealism that pops up throughout the series. Chewing Gum, similar to last year's other breakout sex-positive British sitcom Fleabag, is a fan of breaking the fourth wall and having Tracey speak directly to the camera in her infectious, rapid-fire narration. This device simultaneously brings viewers closer to her experiences in the most humiliating of moments. And Chewing Gum loves to portray the humiliating, grosser, and more awkward parts of sex that most TV shows that skew young tend to skip over in favor of romanticized, perfectly-soundtracked sex scenes.
Whether it's Candice arguing with her boyfriend that being interested in BDSM doesn't make her weird or Cynthia's highly clinical and researched version of her own sexual awakening ("I broke my hymen in preparation"), Chewing Gum offers viewers brutal and refreshing honesty. But the best material is saved for Tracey, with actress Michaela Coel embracing all of the gawky eccentrics of her semi-autobiographical character. In one scene, Tracey humps the pillow while complaining about the unrealistic aspects of porn. In another, she compares her boyfriend's dick to "raw chicken skin." As Tracey struggles to portray the right expression while taking a sexy selfie, Candice asks, "Do you want to suck his dick or smile at it?" Tracey, legitimately confused, responds, "Neither?"
Chewing Gum is much more than sex plots. The second season emphasizes the female friendship between Tracey and Candice and it depicts the awkwardness of navigating your first break-up—especially when you're still hanging out with your ex. One episode even finds anger and humor in the white fetishization of black bodies.
It's clear that Chewing Gum's main goal is to remain deliriously weird, honest, and charming (and to commit to a Ja Rule-heavy soundtrack) throughout its run. And it succeeds—not in spite of Tracey's childlike mistakes, but because of them.
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