A lovely friend of mine expressed misgivings about the quality of the E4 comedy “Chewing Gum” compared to the recent BBC hit “Fleabag”.
Here is what they said:
“The setting for Chewing Gum is a council estate, uneducated people, and no real place to explore a world that relates to the majority of the viewers. It was really degrading as it pictured black culture as one dimensional. If I had directed and set this, she would be a high flyer that had a family from the estates. She could cross over and broaden the comedy of errors. Not all black women are sex mad, God-fearing….hang on, are they?
Fleabag was even more base, but the shock of an upper-class girl in different worlds actually made it sillier. The concept that white girls are good girls and the whole stereotype was smashed. “Chewing Gum” reinforced a low standard of stereotype for black girls.
I guess what I feel is that if she (Coel) had made Fleabag for Black People without stereotypes it would have been a bigger success…”
My thoughts were thus:
I get what you are saying totally except for one big thing.
Michaela Coel is an amazing comedy and creative talent doing HER and HER Life. She is not Phoebe-Waller Bridge nor has she lived her life. Coel’s sitcom is based on her background and her experiences and the comedy stems from that and her myriad of associated friends and characters.
Many people do this – even Black people – which is, try to make one person the voice for a whole Culture or people.
It is true about stereotypes. There is a stereotype about black women. That they are sexually experienced or oversexed. Think back on Cat woman played by Eartha Kitt. With her tight outfit and purring aggressive voice.
She symbolizes danger and predatory sexual behaviour and that stereotype goes back even further than that instance from the sixties.
However, Michaela’s character, Tracey, is a twenty-four-year-old virgin. She hasn’t had sex. She doesn’t have multiple partners. She can’t even get one! Also if you look at her sister Cynthia played by Susan Wokoma she is the complete opposite of Tracey. She hasn’t had sex and is happily waiting until she gets married. Unfortunately for her, she ends up engaged to a gay Christian (Tracey’s ex-boyfriend) who jilts Cynthia at the altar. These characters hadn’t been seen on TV before in 2015 which is why they were so refreshing and why the show was such a success both in the UK and across the pond.
If I wrote my personal “Fleabag”, or “Chewing gum,” it would be different to both Waller-Bridge and Coel’s stories. We are all different and unlike white people on British TV, Black people are seldom allowed range. If you had twenty sitcoms about twenty black girls, they would all be different.
I love Michaela’s version and it is undeniable because it is her truth. She’s not trying to be Phoebe’s Fleabag and I’m sure Waller-Bridge would say she is not trying to copy Chewing Gum and become Coel’s Tracey.
If there were fifty more comedy shows like Chewing Gum that reflected the Black experience on broadcast television (or just out in general), there would be more range and more variety of characters shown. Then there would not be a concern about Coel “reinforcing stereotypes” because there would be balance provided by other creatives and other characters.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge showcases a middle-class world most white people are familiar with and that is because, in the UK, white people have access and more range of characters shown on British TV. The working-class world of Chewing Gum is seldom seen on TV and that is why when we do see these stories, as portrayed in shows like “Shameless” and “Clocking Off” they stand out and we can’t get enough.
White people are shown as varied people with different life experiences. We (black people) are varied too but commissioners pick and choose the life experience they think an audience will want to see or be able to handle.
Furthermore, look at what Michaela has done since Chewing Gum. See her personal range in Black Mirror, Star Wars, Been So Long, Black Earth Rising and now the breakthrough hit of 2020 BBC and HBO’s – I May Destroy You.
She is a force of nature and with the first series of Chewing Gum, she wrote several episodes before Channel 4 told her she was allowed a Script assistant or Script Editor. She worked through the night for weeks!
The last point is in regards to success. Chewing Gum cleaned up at the BAFTA, ScreenNation, Black Reel, and the RTS Awards both for Comedy Performance, Comedy Writing, and Production. For that youth audience, class, and demographic it was extremely successful.
Fleabag was successful too. Forty-nine Awards and fifty-three nominations across BAFTA, Golden Globes, and many others for a different class and demographic. Therefore I don’t think we can compare their success. The Fleabag upper-class demographic was easier to promote in the US because Americans love posh Brits, also because the Production Company and Network had the money to enter Fleabag into every conceivable award that was out there; it had an added advantage. Fleabag was, on paper, more successful due to the might behind it and all the Distribution deals it acquired both sides of the Atlantic. Both shows were successful and they were both different and one should not be taken from the other. If anything, Chewing Gum punched above its weight because it came from a smaller channel, a smaller Production company with fewer connections worldwide.
Once again I appreciate the analysis and it’s not the first time those misgivings have been heard. However, I don’t believe Coel can be responsible for the lack of range on the TV or in the Film Industry or life in general. As a Black Creative, my job is to redress the balance by offering more Diverse Stories so that Michaela can carry on being her and people like me can carry on being me.
The Black Female MD