Sexual awakening in ‘Chewing Gum’ is hilarious, awkward, relatable

[Updated January 9, 2017]

By Aayesha Siddiqui

Chewing Gum will have you laughing, squirming, and nodding in that “Yeah, I know how that goes” kind of way. The comedy — created by, written by, and starring Michaela Coel — follows Tracey, a 24-year-old woman discovering how awesome and awkward sex can be.

The 6-episode first season originally premiered on the BBC’s channel E4 in October 2015. Thankfully, Netflix brought the show to U.S. audiences in the fall of 2016. Season two premieres on E4 this January (watch the trailer).

I stumbled across the series while browsing Netflix, and I quickly binged all of season one. Here are my top 3 reasons why Chewing Gum should be next on your list.

1. The show is sex-positive and body-positive.

Despite Tracey coming from a strict Christian background, we quickly learn religion won’t slow down her journey of sexual discovery. At 24, she’s still a virgin, but she’s determined to put an end to that. In the process, we meet a variety of characters who help her along the way.

The following themes and situations surface, and it’s refreshing to see a show deal with them in such a forthright, non-shameful yet comedic way:

Sex toys – Dildos! In one very matter-of-fact scene, Tracey and her best friend Candice are scrubbing a tub full of used dildos — and it’s totally no big deal. Later, Candice hosts a small party in an attempt to sell said dildos, and I really appreciated the open acceptance and playfulness of it all.

Menstruation – Periods are a fact of life, and the show wholeheartedly embraces this. There’s a classic scene of Tracey inserting a tampon for the first time; let’s just say Jay Z provides some inspiration. And in a more heartwarming scene, Tracey’s boyfriend Connor buys her a box of panty liners.

Consent – Candice likes it rough in bed, but her boyfriend Aaron isn’t really on the same page. We see a frank conversation between the two about what Candice wants and how it’s OK and how the two of them can ease into rougher play — all this without stigma and with an emphasis on consent.

Contraception – Tracey has to visit the pharmacy for plan B, but there’s an uncomfortable interaction with the pharmacist, who is reluctant to give her plan B and instead hands her a box of condoms. Even though Tracey leaves the pharmacy in a kerfuffle, it was nice to see a scene where condom responsibility is supposed to be shared across both partners.

STIs, stigma-free – In her quest to finally have sex with Connor, Tracey manages to set up a threesome via an online service. The “unicorn” woman who shows up is full of energy and excitement — but she also has cold sores on her mouth, likely caused by herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1). But let’s just take a moment here: HSV-1 is far more common than you’d think. About 2/3 of the global population has HSV-1, and 50-80% of U.S. adults have HSV-1. The threesome is able to continue, despite the cold sores; the woman casually cautions, “Stay away from the face,” and proceeds with her sexy, slightly over-the-top moves. Life goes on without the unnecessary shame and stigma.

2. Representation matters.

Race and class are both highly visible in the show, and they’re integrated in a really organic way.

Characters are across the melanin spectrum (n.b. race is socially constructed). Tracey is black, the daughter of an immigrant. Candice is mixed race, living with her white mom and dating Aaron, who’s black. Tracey’s dating Connor, who’s white. Being able to see a variety of shades of skin is refreshing. They aren’t token characters; they are fully realized characters with complex, mutli-dimensional lives.

As for class, the show takes place in a council estate, which is similar to public housing in the U.S. Tracey, her family, her friends — they’re all poor, but we see them living dynamic lives. Their lives, their desires, their interests are not solely defined by their social class.

Want to learn more? Check out Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED talk “The urgency of intersectionality.”

3. Michaela Coel is a force.

“If there’s anyone out there that looks a bit like me or just feels a little bit out of place trying to get into performing and all this kind of stuff, I’d just say: You are beautiful; embrace it. You are intelligent; embrace it. You are powerful; embrace it.” — Coel during her acceptance speech for the 2016 BAFTA for Female Performance In A Comedy Programme

When I found out that Coel not only played Tracey but also created and wrote the show, I immediately added her to my list of heroines.

I highly recommend you read her interview with The Guardian and her interview with The Independent, both of which detail how Chewing Gum the TV series is based on Coel’s one-woman play Chewing Gum Diaries. She grew up on a council estate herself and had a 5-year period of being a “militant” Christian, as she puts it. So much of Coel’s life shines through in Chewing Gum, and I think it is this honesty and real-world experience that makes the comedy both piercing and entertaining.

What I love most is how Coel imbues her characters with vitality, and this truly inspires empathy. In her interview with Radio Times, she said, “I think something in me writes so that other people who feel like they are very different to people who live on that estate recognizes that they are the same. If you see a rude girl on that estate you might walk on the other side of the street. I want people to think, could I have a coffee with her, maybe she’s a bit quirky… If you approach something differently like that life is so much better.”

Season one of Chewing Gum will only take you 2.5 hours to watch, the length of a movie. Binge it. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

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