Michaela Coel is the creator, writer, and star of British sitcom Chewing Gum, which revolves around Tracey Gordon, an evangelical Christian, Beyonce-crazed virgin who’s stuck in the middle of navigating a world of sexual discovery, interracial dating, and identity crises. After two successful season of the series, Michaela has decided to take a break in order to focus on other projects. In the mean time, she did an interview with Elle Canada about the importance of black women writing their own narratives and sharing their stories early on.
Chewing Gum and Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure are compared all the time. Do you see the similarities? How do you feel about the comparisons?
I love Issa Rae. I adore her. I’ve hung out with her in LA and we clearly have a kinship and not only her but also Yvonne [Orji] who plays her best friend in the show. And Danielle Brooks from Orange is the New Black. I think that there is some kind of weird thread running through a lot of us black women on TV and that’s something I’m proud to stand in the middle of beside Issa Rae and be like, ‘yas Queen.’ I have nothing to say but extreme excitement. The thing I noticed [about the similarities] is that in Insecure season one Drake is referenced loads and in Chewing Gum, I reference Drake all the time. It was really weird. Like, yoooo, why are we both referencing Drake so much? Drake doesn’t give a shit about us. Why do we keep referencing him? [laughs] It’s an awkward black girl thing!
What is the “weird thread” running through black women on TV that you mentioned?
You know what, I don’t know whether it’s to do with [the fact that] no matter what continent you’re on, there’s some kind of thing as someone who is born both black and with a vagina, there is something that we all seem to… I don’t know what it is. Like Lena Waithe [Master of None], for example. I love her. It’s like an organic magnet. I can’t explain what it is. Maybe there is some kind of very vague, very small common experience [that] has to do with having the double situation of being born without the penis and without the Anglo-Saxon skin that somehow makes you have a similar experience and tone of your life. I do think there is something there – something peaceful.
You wrote every word of Chewing Gum. Why is it important to have black women write for black women?
I think it depends on what kind of black girl you’re talking about because right now I’m doing a show that isn’t written by a black woman but it’s about a black woman. This black woman is just very different to me. However, I think the idea is very similar to the fact that women should write women’s stories. It doesn’t mean that only women should write women’s stories so I don’t think that only black women can write about black women. I will say that. But I think there are hardly any black female writers and the black female experience on every continent – you know whichever that person comes from- does not exist on TV. Especially in Britain. I don’t see the experience of the black woman on TV. In order to write that, you have to understand it and I think it’s really hard to understand what it is to be a black woman unless you’re a black woman. It’s really hard. When I say black, I’m talking black, my dark– darker than paper bag skin. To live this life and for me, a working class, black female’s life, you can’t write that story unless you live that story. I think that we deserve to add our portrait to the gallery of life, to the gallery of television and we want that portrait to be accurate. In order for that to happen, we have to write those stories ourselves.
What still needs to be done to have black women fully represented on TV?
In Britain, we need to start presenting the option of being a writer in front of black women. We need to present the idea of being a writer into poorer communities because the majority of black people in this country are working class. We need to let working class people know that their voices are important. We need to encourage black women to know that they are authors of their own destiny, that they have important stories to tell and that they are capable, so magically capable, of writing them and creating important pieces of work that will live forever in history. We are never taught that. For me, this was never an option. I found myself here by complete and utter mistake. Imagine if I knew from when I was young I was going to be a writer? Imagine the shit I would be writing. How old was I when I started writing TV? 25? 26? Once we plant the seed into the heads of young black women and young poor people then we will start to see our stories more prevalent on screen.
You tweeted a while ago that as a black writer that you get criticism from black women about Tracey and the character and how she should act. Tell me more about that and how that has affected you and your writing.
I don’t know what it’s like in America or Canada but here, we are still very much – our parents are first generation immigrants. We are the first generation of black people born really in this country so we’re carrying a lot of stuff on our shoulders. This is our parents telling us that we should never have sex, we should never mention anything to do with sex. “Don’t come here talking about boys, don’t bring any boys back here. Don’t look at boys. Do your studies, do your studies, do your studies! Go to church, go to church, go to church!” This is what we know. It’s not cool to be sexual. All of this is just oppression. I think Chewing Gum is like a mockery of that entire thing. I think people struggle with the idea of black women being sexual. I had someone come up to me and say, “why do you think it’s OK to write a story about a 23-year old girl who just wants to have sex? I’m 25 and I’m still a virgin. I kept my virginity.” Keeping your virginity is like keeping a plastic bag after you go to Costco. It’s like, so what? It’s all bullshit. Tracey is so free and so unoppressed and so unaware of everything and I think it’s very uncomfortable for some women to watch. Her sex scenes are not sexy. This is a comedy. Her sex scenes are embarrassing. It’s the kind of embarrassing that everyone has gone through once and they don’t want to remember it. So when they see it on screen, it’s like “no no no no no shut that shit down.” [laughs]