What sort of sexual encounters happen on a TV show about a 25-year-old sex-obsessed virgin? The answer, for those who haven’t watched Netflix’s Chewing Gum: Very, very bad ones.
Probably that’s no surprise, of course. But what is surprising is that no matter how weird, awkward, gross, and bad all of it gets — and it gets bad to the highest degree — it is still freeing and charming to watch.
The BAFTA-winning British sitcom (originally on BBC4, with two seasons currently streaming on Netflix) follows the coming-of-age of Tracey Gordon, a recently lapsed Christian, living with her Über-religious mom in East London, who has decided to embark on her first-ever post-adolescent sex romp. And Tracey, created and played by the infinitely talented Michaela Coel, is one of the best television characters right now. She’s wryly funny, eager, enthusiastic, honest, and vulnerable. Even though sex is a complete mystery to her, she possesses a sexual confidence that rivals her idol Beyoncé, and never falters in any situation that arises as she tries to find herself — even those that edge the boundary of incest, or involve washing used vibrators. By subjecting her audience to two seasons of truly riotously horrible sexual encounters, Coel has created one of the most sex-positive shows on television, (genital) warts and all.
There’s a moment early in the first season that sets the tone for Tracey’s two-season long quest to lose her virginity. She begins flirting with Connor, a man in her apartment building, which leads where all TV flirtations lead: hooking up in a bedroom during a party. Chewing Gum’s version of this, however, includes Tracey stripping down to an enormous, maximum-coverage white bra, climbing on top of Connor, and then licking his ears, nose, chin, and stubble by way of foreplay. It’s played for slapstick: You see Tracey’s tongue straining, they make weird faces, their bodies are gross, the close-ups are too close. As I was watching, I wanted nothing more for that scene to end, swiftly (it didn’t) — and that was one of the more palatable erotic moments. It wasn’t a real success, in that she doesn’t manage to lose her virginity then, but it does kick off a journey of sexual self-discovery. From there, Tracey runs headfirst into every experience she can: she attempts a threesome on a dirty mattress with a girl with a fresh herpes outbreak; there’s a botched night at a sex club; she accidentally goes to an orgy with her cousin, Boy Tracey; she dresses up in tribal gear and dances like an African for a white dude who has a black-woman fetish. Observing these ordeals made me briefly consider celibacy.
But in each terrible situation, Tracey’s guiding principle is her own desire. She blunders, she grosses us out, but she’s adventurous and generous with her experience. She’s figuring out what she likes and doesn’t like, what she wants and doesn’t want, what’s confusing and makes sense. She’s curious about desire and anatomy and hymens, so she asks questions. And rather than telling us, “Look how fun and exciting sex is even when it is ‘imperfect,’” she allows us to wonder alongside her: What does it feel like to be fetishized? Are threesomes from the internet ever a good idea? Why shouldn’t what I want be the most important thing? The exploration that follows makes you cringe, but it also makes you want to exclaim, “Get it, Tracey.” It turns out that there’s something very liberating about watching a woman roll around on a dirty mattress for a sustained period of time and still emerge convinced she is a sex goddess.
Tracey offers up a new perspective on sex and sexuality — first, because she’s a black woman, the experiences of whom are still underrepresented when it comes to shows about sex and dating. But it’s more than that. Coel has written a character totally unencumbered by any sort of social expectations, who truly seems to ignore any sort of blueprint for who gets to experience love and sex and weird sex clubs in pop culture and how they get to experience it.
As a result, the scenarios are genuinely surprising, the perspectives are unfamiliar, and while you’re cringing, laughing, and maybe repressing your gag reflex, you’re also considering sex from entirely new point of view.
Does Tracey lose her virginity this season? Spoiler alert: Yes. And it’s exactly what you’d imagine — confident, exuberant, and accompanied by a weird poem she makes up about her hymen.