Michaela Coel’s refreshingly hilarious Netflix series Chewing Gum tells the story of a black woman that I can relate to. The narrative follows Tracey Gordon, an endearingly awkward virgin living in the British projects. Underneath the risque hijinks and almost impenetrable accents are universal truths about what it means to be a black woman.
Every dark skinned black girl can remember the exact moment when she first realized she was dark skinned and therefore not considered pretty. Maybe it was hearing “Stay out of the sun, you’re black enough” during the summer months. Or hearing your own male friends say they would only date girls who could pass the paper bag test. For me it was getting called Whoopi Goldberg on the playground in kindergarten, which sparked a very visceral reaction to episode 3 of Chewing Gum‘s latest season.
After a horrible break up, a forlorn Tracey starts the episode with worries that she’ll die alone because men don’t find her attractive. Her friends assure her the lack of attraction is because she looks like Whoopi Goldberg. Viewers are constantly thrown hints like these, hints that we’re not supposed to find Tracey attractive either. Her goofy, conservative clothing and complete and total cluelessness towards sex are evident of this. But the real implication is that her dark skin and “Whoopi Goldberg-esque” African features make her less than desirable.
This is more than an implication considering how Candice is portrayed. Initially in a committed relationship with a boy who loves her, and constantly trying to teach Tracey how to “be sexy”, Candice is clearly the epitome of desirable. Throughout the series Tracey routinely refers to Candice as the most beautiful girl in the world. In season 2, episode 3 Candice gets into an exclusive party on the strength of her gorgeous face alone, a party where suitors fall all over her. Viewers are verbally reminded that Candice is mixed at least ten times per episode. In an otherwise extremely tender and intimate conversation with her boyfriend, Candice boasts that she’s been “breaking hearts” since middle school because of her light skin and long hair. And in the final episode of season 2 a potential lover confesses that he finds Candice attractive specifically because she’s “nice and light” with long hair.
The stark contrast between the way Candice and Tracey are treated, based on their looks alone, is a reflection of real life attitudes towards dark skin. There is little room in the beauty canon for girls who look like Tracey, like me. That’s why Storm is dark skinned in the comics but played by Halle Berry in the movies. That’s why child models are bullied for their skin color, and why black athletes and rappers have to have a non-black wife at the most, a Beyonce at the very least.
The obsession with eurocentric beauty standards places lighter skin on a pedestal and heavily affects the way darker skinned girls navigate the world. For the majority of the series Tracey is ignored and even treated downright rude by the same black men who fawn over Candice. Candice’s boyfriend treats Tracey as more of a nuisance than an actual person, relegating her to the trope of pretty girl’s ugly and annoying sidekick (think Pam in Martin or Dijonay in The Proud Family). And though she was the girl who originally expressed interest in him, Tracey is nothing more than an invisible background prop to the man who eventually praises Candice’s “nice and light” complexion. Black men specifically see having a light skinned/foreign/mixed girl as evidence of a successful life, like a trophy. Lighter skin represents a certain proximity to whiteness, just the way it did when lighter slaves worked in the house, and darker slaves worked in the fields. Many Black men still see whiteness as the epitome of success.
On the other hand, dark skinned girls have to be a hypersexualized, fully objectified caricature, with ballooned out proportions to be considered universally attractive. A Bria Myles look-a-like. There are only two instances where Tracey is genuinely desired and they both revolve around complete and total objectification. The first one is that weird situation with her cousin that we’re not going to talk about. The second one involves a fetishistic white boy who loves her breasts because they’re “very black” and makes her don full tribal regalia while singing and dancing as he jerks off to her.
It’s clear, however, that Chewing Gum raises the question of colorism in order to punch it in the face. In the same episode where she gets compared to Whoopi Goldberg, Tracey realizes her own self-worth and that real beauty is more than physical. Finding herself at the center of a party that’s a little more than she bargained for Tracey asserts: “For the first time in my life all I can do is aim and click a finger and I can have anybody I want. And I don’t want to! You don’t see me. My charm, my personality, how I look like Beyonce from certain angles..”.
To further defang colorism, Coel designed a relatively well constructed character in Candice. Despite being the light-skinned trophy girl, Candice’s own struggles with her weight keep her from feeling beautiful. She spirals into depression after losing her enviable hair, until Tracey once again reminds her that the performative aspects of beauty are fake and the real thing goes beyond the outward appearance. It’s a unifying sentiment that makes pitting light skin against dark skin seem pointless, at least in Tracey’s world. If only the real world could follow suit.
Chewing Gum also exposes the intersection of religion and sex. At the point in time in which viewers enter the narrative, Tracey has already discovered that female sexual autonomy is a healthy and necessary part of existing as a living human being. Her choice to exercise total control over her own body ultimately leads to her ultra-religious mother kicking her out of their home. However, Tracey is already past the point of doubt when this happens. Tracey never once questions whether wanting to have sex makes her “evil”, even as she’s forced to move with her limp dick boyfriend into a homeless shelter.
When Tracey moves out it’s Cynthia, Tracey’s hyper devout sister, who has the emotional and sexual breakthrough. In Cynthia, see myself the most.
A reclusive and friendless, bible thumping, goody-two-shoes, Cynthia equates sex with evil, as I did for most of my life. Like a sponge she absorbed her mother’s fanatical teachings and condemned those who didn’t to hell for the entirety of season 1. Then her life changes when she accidentally discovers porn on the internet. As Cynthia begins to indulge her curiosity she discovers that giving into her sexual urges creates a shocking lack of hellfire raining from the sky. The revelation culminates with Cynthia confronting her almost husband in season 2 episode 4. After seeing he hasn’t changed his horrible ways, Cynthia monologues that having sex doesn’t make you a bad person, but the way you treat people does. She loses her virginity in the next episode.
The kind of stigmatization that darkened Cynthia’s opinion of sex is prevalent in the black community. We are plagued by zealous, religion driven misogynoir. Using Christianity to police women’s bodies and sexuality is a staple in black families. “Your body is a temple” scriptures only seem to apply to how short a girl’s skirt is and how tightly she can cling to her virginity. There’s no emphasis placed on male chastity in the church, but if a girl loses her virginity before marriage she also loses her worth. The church teaches that your morality is not mutually exclusive from your sexuality, but only if you’re a woman. Consequently, women who have sex with whoever they choose are seen as bad people.
Tracey and Cynthia’s storylines illustrate the idea that your identity is in any way affected by your body count. With Cynthia, the show illustrates that women are not objects whose value can be depreciated; especially not by something as natural as sex.
The show as a whole provides quality life lessons through a remarkably humorous lens. Every black girl can see at least a sliver of herself reflected in Tracey, Candice or Cynthia. If you can’t, you’re really lucky. Colorism and religion driven misogynoir create rifts between us that Michaela Coel’s well-constructed black girl characters are trying to mend.
Michaela Coel is trying to show us that morality and female sexual autonomy can coexist, and that there’s no one way to be beautiful.
We should listen to her.