Content Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual assault.
Stereotypes are tiring, especially for Black women. There’s the Jezebel trope, which posits that we’re inherently hypersexual to the point where it supersedes our suffering and emotional needs, the angry Black woman, and the sassy best friend. For darker-skinned Black women, the reinforcement of these tropes upholds colorism: a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982 that describes the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their skin color.”
The non-Black shows and films that feature Black people are selective about who gets a fleshed-out story. If we’re not sacrificial, we’re servile props, which explains the recent surge of dark-skinned Black women as therapists for non-Black characters like Niecey Nash’s character in Never Have I Ever and Noma Dumezweni as the one-dimensional counselor in Normal People. As a dark-skinned Black woman who loves TV, I’m almost always ready to give up, maybe life as a bibliophile is more promising.
Black people aren’t a monolith; to be inclusive in our call for representation, our multifaceted identities deserve to be handled with care. So, it’s important to uplift the few stories that pull us out of our cynicism and help us feel seen. That’s everything that Michaela Coel creates, which is why she deserves all of her flowers.
In her first series, Chewing Gum, Coel stars as 24-year-old Tracey Gordon, who wants to find herself and experience all that life has to offer — including having sex. Unlike the repetitive ‘white male seeks to lose his virginity’ narrative, Coel’s coming-of-age comedy series is a haven for late bloomers who exist in the margins.
Culturally and religiously, Tracey is not supposed to have sex. The pilot episode, ‘Sex and Violence,’ opens with Tracey and her fiancé Ronald (John MacMillan) thanking God for their relationship. Amid this prayer, Tracey’s thoughts are far from holy; she stares at Ronald’s crotch and fantasizes about him fondling her chest. Coel sets up the conflict off the bat: Tracey is in a celibate relationship but wants to lose her virginity. Straying further from expectations, she wants a hookup, not sex with her long-term boyfriend, she informs her best mate, Candice (Danielle Isaie). It’s not the “correct” choice but that doesn’t matter to her, because the act of losing her virginity on a whim will liberate her. Candice dismisses sex as something that’s not particularly exciting, but Tracey thinks it will make her feel alive.
Breaking the fourth wall in a later episode — as she does throughout the series — Tracey tells us “These brick walls, they’re dragging me back. I am like a rose growing out of mud.” She’s yearning for connection and experiences in a colorist world that tells her she’s undeserving of them. That’s why she’s quick to agree to Candice’s Beyoncé-inspired flop of a makeover — to present herself as desirable and worthy of being seen. For Candice, who is lighter-skinned and in a committed relationship, sex and dating are simple waters to navigate. Tracey’s desperation, however, is relatable. Feeling invisible and unwanted because of where you’re from and what you look like is universal but there’s an added layer of nuance for Tracey, a dark-skinned Black woman living in a predominantly white environment. A common theme throughout Chewing Gum is struggling to place yourself in a world that neglects you, and this is useful to Coel in her future endeavours.
I May Destroy You, the riveting British drama series inspired by Coel’s real-life assault, follows Arabella (also played by Coel) as she tries to piece together what happened the night she was drugged and raped. The issues of consent and assault permeate the show, but its characters are never solely defined by their pain or reductively redeemed by it. Coel’s characters aren’t heroes or villains. It would be too easy, formulaic, and dehumanizing to box them into limiting archetypes. Instead, Coel refuses to choose and allows them to just be.
The fourth episode, ‘Don’t Forget the Sea,’ flashes back to a time before Arabella’s assault. On a solo writing getaway, Arabella travels to Italy and her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) visits her. High on party favors, they live it up at a local nightclub, where we begin to see violations in multiple forms. For Arabella, there’s the emotional betrayal of Terry abandoning her at the club while she’s severely faded. For Terry, it’s the realization that the two “strangers” from the threesome she had actually know each other and set her up. But these events intertwine with moments of joy; Terry and Arabella are sexually liberated and happy. This episode is before Arabella’s assault; we see her being carefree and lively.
Coel refuses to label Arabella as broken beyond repair, hence Arabella’s emergence from the ocean at the end of episode eight — a symbolic rebirth. In a world that brands Black women as strong, especially dark-skinned ones, it’s refreshing that Arabella is not relegated to being either a superwoman or weak person. She’s multi-dimensional.
After Arabella begins her healing process and publicly stands up to one of her rapists, we’re reminded that she’s not a perfect victim. She joins a support group, which reveals how she contributed to another woman’s harm. Arabella grows in her understanding but she also continues to stumble and violate other people’s consent: locking her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) in a room, breaking into the home of a drug dealer and former hook up, Biagio (Marouane Zotti). Coel is not excusing Arabella, but she’s not placing blame on her either — the nuanced depictions of every character help establish that Arabella isn’t at fault for what’s happened to her. To the viewer, it’s clear that none of the characters are perfect, because everyone is human: we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, we heal.
In an industry that continues to perpetuate colorist and racist harm, Coel dreams up stories that mend. It’s liberating for dark-skinned Black women to see people who look like them reclaiming their agency. Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You are unique, vividly specific tales that aren’t trying to be comprehensive — Coel imagines a world beyond flat representation, one where dark-skinned Black women don’t need permission to relay our stories.