How Chewing Gum's Michaela Coel is crashing the patriarchal party
Americans are fortunate enough to have the likes of Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Rachel Bloom, and Pamela Adlon as leading voices amid the country’s feminist television movement. Each of these women have created, written, and starred in their own successful television shows over the years, retraining the industry’s gaze on stories by and about women and people of color. According to Chewing Gum creator-writer-star-all-around-badass Michaela Coel, however, the same can’t be said for the state of women on British TV, and (thankfully) she’s crashing the patriarchal party with another season of her hit comedy.
Set to debut its second batch of episodes this Tuesday, April 4 on Netflix, Chewing Gum follows a 24-year-old shop assistant named Tracey (Coel), the daughter of an immigrant family living in a London apartment complex with a colorful cast of neighbors — from Tracey’s best friend, Candice (Danielle Walters) to her aspiring rapper boyfriend, Connor (Robert Lonsdale) — that reflects the diverse faces Coel sees on the streets of London, but, according to her, are rarely given a fair shake on the small screen.
Across Chewing Gum‘s first season (available now on Netflix), Coel mixed her unique brand of physical comedy (one episode sees her sucking on Connor’s nose, licking his eyebrows, and chewing on his hair as foreplay) with some of the wittiest writing this side of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock, chronicling Tracey’s romantic woes (she’s raised Christian, but longs for a mate) and struggle for sexual liberation amid a string of comedic mishaps — and a few heartfelt prayers to Beyoncé — along the way.
Ahead of season 2’s stateside premiere, Coel chatted with EW about ruffling a few feminist feathers as she pushes women and minorities into the media spotlight, how a particular encounter at her high school (let’s just say it involves a classmate chomping on her own breast) laid a small brick along the foundation for Chewing Gum, and why it’s important to recognize that former Destiny’s Child frontwoman is — for millennials like Tracey — “our Jesus.” Read on for the full conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you pitch Chewing Gum to American audiences who haven’t heard of it yet?
MICHAELA COEL: I am s— at pitching. [Laughs] But, this is a comedy about a Christian girl who wants to discover herself sexually, but she’s really awkward. She’s as awkward as this f—–g pitch!
It’s okay! But why do you think that story is relevant today?
Women are tired of “presenting” themselves; we just want to be who we are. This is a show about a girl who has no filter. She didn’t learn to put up the pretense of being an acceptable female, and I think that’s funny, endearing, uncomfortable, disgusting, and cringeworthy to watch. It will prod parts of you that aren’t prodded all the time, and it’s nice to feel that awkwardness. But, she’s also [a very happy girl], you know?
It’s an infectious happiness. Going into season 2, will that continue? Since abruptly leaving home after ruining her sister’s wedding at the end of season 1, has she found a new place to live?
Tracey is single when the second season starts, and she’s living in the stock room of the shop she works at!
I don’t even know what to say to that.
[Laughs] She’s made a real mess.
Is she at least somewhat happy in this mess she’s made?
I don’t think she’s happy. What’s making it worse is that Connor has moved on, unfortunately, so that’s not helping matters. This is the first time we’ve seen Tracey’s life as quite s—. She doesn’t have a place to live, she’s single, she ran away, and she deserted her friends and family without saying goodbye. People are kind of pissed off! She doesn’t have anybody on her team right now, apart from one guy who you’ll meet. Well, you’ve met him already, but not as much. He’s all over season 2, and he’s the only guy who’s a friend to her.
So Connor is completely out of the picture?
No! He’s definitely in the show.
Oh, the plot thickens! I do want to go back, though, to the inception of the series. Can you explain the title? Why did you choose to call the original play Chewing Gum Dreams and why is it an appropriate name for the show?
[I wrote a poem] about two completely different substances sticking together, like what the [London housing estates are like]. You’ve got such a mix of people, which is very London. You have people from all walks of life stuffed together inside of this council block [like Tracey’s]… that mesh of cultures and the fact that you end up sticking together, you end up getting by! When you run out of milk, you knock on the next door, and you get milk! Then, you end up being a godmother to somebody’s children.
You have such a firm grasp on this material, and the show is brilliant, but so is your performance. The scene in season 1 where Tracey is sucking on Connor’s nose is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV. How do you tackle balancing such interesting physical comedy with sharp writing?
I write every single word of my show by myself. I can see everything. In the action, it already says Tracey sucks Connor’s nose, she eats his eyebrows, and she eats his hair; it’s all in the lines. I went to drama school, where you learn to clown around a bit. You’re walking around in leotards every day for three years, and you’re taught clowning and mask work… it’s something I really took on, the idea of it being okay to be hideous [in those moments].
[Robert Lonsdale] and I rehearsed that scene the first day we met. We exchanged names, and then I was literally sucking his face. It’s a show about having actors who are willing and ready to drop the mask and not give a f—.
Do you think that’s an unwritten rule, to “not give a f—” as a means to make something stand out these days?
You shouldn’t give a f— in life, full stop! [In terms of TV], I still see incredible work by people who write careful, reserved shows that are still funny, so I don’t think it’s a rule… because I don’t think everyone is naturally like that. You have to be true to your instinctive way of writing. You have to find your identity. If you haven’t led the kind of life where you’ve given zero f—s, you’re not going to write that way. I’ve pretty much been a zero f—s kind of person since I was three.
What do you think made you that way?
I never know what to say. Maybe my mum fed me something weird? I really don’t know. I went to a really crazy school. It was a girls’ school, and it was mental. I once sat in class while a girl ate her breast.
Wait, she ate what?
Like, she was sucking on her nipples in class!
Oh, my God… well, I want to move on to talking about TV in general. Do you think the U.K. market is shifting to expand its focus on more stories by and about women and people of color?
I don’t think so… We love a period drama! We love a bit of Downton Abbey! [Laughs]. We know you guys in America love it, too, so we keep making it and you guys keep buying it. So, we’re going to keep doing it… I hope that’s going to change, but I’m always seeing a new period drama [or] cop shows about a bunch of middle-class white people. We just love that s—!
Do you try to push the discussion on race and gender in a new direction with Chewing Gum, then?
Not even just race and gender… I need to have someone who’s in a wheelchair; I need to have someone who’s black, gay, and male; I need to have a lesbian; There’s such an absence of all of these things, so I have to try and cram them into my silly little 20-minute series! I can’t just make a show solely about black girls. Of course, I‘m the protagonist, so that’s going to be there, but I try, even with [the character] Esther. She’s in her 60s, and now she’s got story lines of her own in the second season… because I don’t even see a 60-year-old with sex scenes. Why is that? [Again] I see a lot of shows with middle-class white people where they make jokes about every minority, but [minorities are] not on the show… That’s not really helping. We want jobs!
Recently, you tweeted, “I, as a black writer, am occasionally asked (only by my sisters) to go backwards. To stop being so crazy.” What do they mean, “go backwards?” and why is it important for you to break away from those expectations?
There’s a section of black women who aren’t digging the idea of sexual liberation… [they think] you have to make sure you don’t sleep with too many people. [They think you should] keep the number under six if you want anybody to love you. This is a real thing people believe in the black community in the U.K. It’s freaky… some people are actually like, “How dare [you] write a show about a black woman who wants to lose her virginity! Why couldn’t you write someone who’s a lawyer or studying in university?” All I can say is: Why don’t you write that show? I’m going to write mine.
Well, you’ve said in the past that all you want to do is play a character that’s a little bit like you. It’s funny to me that the network gave you freedom to do that, but it’s actually these other women who’ve tried to place you in a box.
When you’ve “pretended” [femininity] for so long and someone says, “You know you don’t have to do that?” it’s quite scary. Men are trained to like this version of womanhood, and when someone comes along smashing the table and messing up the party, it’s a bit like, get out, why are you disturbing the peace?
There are a lot of people who find [Chewing Gum] uncomfortable – so uncomfortable that they’re against it. At the same time, not every show is for everyone. If you find a show so uncomfortable you can’t watch, it just means it’s not for you or it’s not for you right now; maybe, at a later point in your life when you’re a little bit freer, you might be able to enjoy it.
That’s the last thing I feel when I watch this show is uncomfortable, so that’s crazy to me.
Maybe it’s the point you’re at in your life. Some people are so [bothered]. It’s like secondhand embarrassment… It makes me think like, Jesus Christ, what’s going on in [their lives]? It’s knocking on them this much that they have to change the channel?
Most people won’t change the channel on Beyoncé, though, and she plays an important role in season 1. What’s the significance of including her above anyone else as an idol for Tracey?
I don’t know where she’s at right now with the whole Jesus thing, but, back in the day, she was really pro-Jesus. She’s gotten sexy, but she manages to do it in a way where Christians are able to hold on to her, even though she’s hella sexy right now! For Tracey, Beyoncé represents the version of herself that she wants. She wants to have God, but she also wants to be sexy; she wants to have sex, and at one point she’s masturbating and calling Jay Z’s name! She wants to have Beyoncé’s life. I think Beyoncé represents the pinnacle… she’s so graceful. Did you see her [at the Grammys reacting to Adele’s speech]?
Yes, and I read the essay you wrote about it!
I’m so pro that whole situation. She’s so graceful and she’s sexy and she’s angry, too. She’s everything. I get why Tracey makes swift, low-key moves from Jesus to Beyoncé… Beyoncé is kind of like our Jesus. I’m not even going to laugh at the end of that because I mean it.
I’m laughing because it’s true.
I think we listen to Beyoncé more than we read the Bible!
There’s no doubt about that.
I’m not trying to offend the church! Beyoncé is now our little pinnacle of human completion!
Chewing Gum‘s second season premieres April 4 on Netflix.