Since the advent of Girls, many moons ago back in the heady days of 2012, TV producers over in the UK don’t seem to have been in a huge hurry to replicate its success with a similar young female-led comedy of our own.
Drifters, on E4 headed up by Jessica Knappett springs to mind, and a BBC short called Vodka Diaries which didn’t get commissioned into a full series by the very excellent Rachel Hirons, too. But, other than that, interesting and intelligent twentysomething women that represent us on UK telly have remained few and far between.
Enter Michaela Coel with her new show Chewing Gum that’s based around Tracey, a 24-year-old girl living on an estate in London. The show started off as a play. ‘It was a one-woman monologue called Chewing Gum Dreams and I put the show on myself,’ explains Michaela when we ask her about it.
‘By some miracle every one of the five shows sold out and seeing the reaction of people crying and laughing and clapping made me go, “That’s what I want to do!”’ After the show a TV producer got in touch, and the rest fell neatly into place.
‘She’s kind of like 14-year old but she’s 24.’ Explains Michaela when we ask her to tell us about the character that she both writes and plays. ‘She’s grown up in a strict religious household that’s kept her from the world that we’re exposed to in our late teens.’ As a result, Tracy, who’s in a long-term relationship, is a virgin. Something she’s keen to change ASAP.
‘She feels sexual urges arise and she decides that she wants to be a bit more normal. I guess the entire series is about this girl trying to be normal in a world that she doesn’t really understand.’
One of the most interesting things about the show is that when it comes to issues of sex (there's a lot, and it's hilarious), it’s the women leading the charge. Tracey’s uptight boyfriend is strictly against sex before marriage while Tracey’s mate Candice is desperate to get her outwardly alpha boyfriend to be more forthcoming in bed.
‘To be honest with you, that kind of just happened!’ says Michaela, when I ask if she was trying to make a point about women owning their sexuality. ‘I got worried once that there wasn’t enough masculinity in the show and then I was like, “No there’s loads!” It’s just the women being “typically” masculine.’
Michaela’s character Tracey obviously comes from a very specific background; one that’s overly restrictive when it comes to female sexuality. But being stigmatised for liking sex is something that most women can relate to; find me a guy who has loads of sex and he’s a lad, find me a girl who has loads of sex and she’s a slag. Times are obviously changing but you don’t have to dig very deep to find these outdated ideals about sexuality.
‘Yeah, a lot of women I know feel like they can’t do certain things because a man won’t like them or will view them in a certain way and that colours your perception of what’s appropriate’ agrees Michaela. ‘One day though, I just went, do you know what? “I don’t give a fuck. As long as I’m a good person I’m not hurting people and I’m having fun with my life then I don’t give a fuck!”’
Has she found her sex-filled writing come under scrutiny for this? ‘When I’m writing I will continue to bump into people saying “Oh you can’t do that!” Am I’m just like, “Why?” It’s all about social constructs and constraints on women that shouldn’t exsist. They’re so ingrained that we can’t unknit them but I think it’s time we tried.’
Michaela herself is older than her character. Tracey’s 24 and, as a result is slightly more worldly when it comes to straddling girlhood and adulthood. So, has she got any advice to pass onto those who are still in Tracey’s boat? ‘Here’s one,’ she says firmly. ‘Ultimately, it’s Do What Makes You Happy. Try things you’ve never tried before but once you’ve realized what doesn’t make you happy, you don’t have to do it.’
She continues, ‘I don’t do one night stands because I know from the ONE that I had, that it doesn’t make me happy. I might enjoy a flirt but once that’s done, I’m done. I know some girls can do it and have fun but for me it’s a no. It’s a bit like when you’re on a diet and then you have a ton of chocolate and when you’re done you’re actually bit like, “Oh, my self esteem feels a bit knocked right now.”
So, do what makes you happy!
And there you have it kids. Do what bloody makes you happy.
Chewing Gum starts on E4 on Tuesday 6 October at 10pm
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.