Spotlight on the Weird Black Girl: Chewing Gum and Insecure
By Taylor Steele @poetofsteele | Illustration by Camilla Ru @thecamru
I am awkward. My awkward lacks grace and is often not cute. My dry wit wouldn’t elicit a single clap from an audience, even if someone turned an applause sign on. When I’m tired, overwhelmed, anxious, or dazed, I sing my thoughts out loud accompanied by a shoulder shrug dance. In addition to all of this weird I carry, I am still human. I still contain multitudes and feel deeply. I’ve never seen that girl on TV. I’ve seen a (vapid) semblance of her. The quirky friend who is as emotionally vulnerable as a charming quip allows. The drama geek no one talks to because she can only relate to others through quotes from her favorite musicals. Then there’s the quintessential, mysterious or ditzy best friend whose backstory is about as deep as a puddle.
And when I do see her, she’s typically white. For a long time, whiteness owned the paradigm on eccentricity; you can veer from the social standard of normalcy as long as you were a middle-upper class white woman. But, in the tradition of 2016 giving us the Blackest art, two Black women created their own shows centering on themselves and their brand of unconventionality. Writers, Michaela Coel and Issa Rae, not only showed us weird Black girls that our stories are worthy of telling, but also that Black femmes exist outside of the stereotypical, one-dimensional, and violent representations of us as vixen, mammy, angry, and/or incapable of finding love.
Michaela Coel is one of the best things to happen to me and my lifelong struggle with my brain’s lack of a filter. Her London-based Netflix Original “Chewing Gum” follows Tracey Gordon, a young woman with sex on the brain. However, she’s a virgin who was raised and continues to live in an incredibly religious household, showcased most by her repressed older sister Cynthia. Worse off, she is betrothed to Ronald, a man who plans to save himself for marriage. Basically, no sex for her. After getting a faux Beyoncé style makeover from her best friend Candice, Tracey goes to try to seduce Ronald but ends up getting dumped and watching him get hit by a car. I mean, to be fair, he did ask for God to strike him down. Now, Tracey is free to search for sex in any and all places. Like, an elevator with a white boy who writes terrible poetry. What's universal about these relationships is how often we try to get something from someone without wanting to use the words to get it.
Tracey Gordon breaks the 4th wall to disclose to us all of her questions, desires, and blind optimism. These asides make it clear that she is the kind of awkward that is unaware of itself. I mean, I don’t think she would at all categorize herself that way. I think she simply doesn’t internalize shame, which is evident in how little religion presents itself as a burden for her. She knows waiting for sex is “the right thing to do,” but she lets herself want and search for it anyway.
Though the show seems to center around Tracey and her misadventures in learning about sex, she also has tender moments where she is coming to understand love. After dating Connor for a while, she realizes that she's not in love with him despite him being in love with her. And she tells him. Point blank. Though she knows her truth can be a hurtful one, she does not hesitate to tell it because she knows it is the right thing to do, that it is necessary.
Michaela creates a new and absurd world within an established one. But, that's what's so important about this show. Tracey is so unreal in such a human way, she allows us weird Black girls to interrogate whatever shame we might have in how we relate to our religion, sexual desires, (interracial) relationships, and career goals. What “Chewing Gum” lacks in realism, it makes up for in how it leaves space for anything to happen. Because life isn't always predictable.
Though Issa Rae’s “Insecure” doesn’t lack unpredictability, it doesn’t toy much with the absurd. The closest we get to that is her projecting a daydream of Ty Dolla Sign into a bathroom mirror. However, it makes up for any deficit in its warm earnestness. Issa reveals and fills the gaps that exist within a recognizable world with a grounded relatability. The unpredictability she brings to the screen isn't based in randomness, but in the very real ways people react to the people in their lives and the situations they find themselves in.
The show starts with Issa confronting the fact that she is in an unfulfilling relationship with an unemployed Black man with big dreams, and works an unfulfilling job. But her friendship keeps her afloat. She and her bestie Molly rely on each other for the hard-to-swallow truth about each other, which always ends in a loving joke. They celebrate together, cry together, and get into real and honest fights. Because friendship, just like any other relationship, takes work and patience, and sometimes we fuck up. What Issa shows us, though, is that, when it comes to how much you love and respect the people in your life, you must be willing to empathize, admit fault, express that with humility, and be open to critique.
One way Issa preps herself for these moments is by giving herself pep talks in the medium of freestyle rap. And this can happen anywhere; in her car, bathroom mirror, and wherever else she feels her anxiety might take over her decision-making. Speaking of her making decisions, she also daydreams alternate realities to the ones she's living. For example, her co-workers say something racist about the kids they're meant to support, and she loudly talks at them about how problematic they are. A moment later, we find it was in her head and we see her, instead shake the comments off. And how real is that?
Having attended predominantly white institutions for most of my academic life and being a teacher and youth organizer myself, I understand the intersectionality of her experience as the only Black person in a room of ignorant white people who think they know what's best for a community of marginalized youth. And how often do Black femmes, in general, feel it is necessary to choose silence or a smile or a nicety over the emotional labor of a teaching moment that could result in dire consequences? Often. I relate so much to swallowing microaggressions for the sake of other people's comfort.
“Insecure” gives us a naturalistic panorama of the life of an ordinary Black woman; we watch Issa begrudgingly attend staff meetings and go furniture shopping with her boyfriend. On the flip, “Chewing Gum” gives us pronounced nuance; we watch Tracey accidentally get high off of cocaine at a party at a retail store and ungrudgingly tell a customer at the corner store she works at that they’re actually not allowed to steal.
What these two shows have in common, though, is the fierceness with which they portray the kaleidoscope that is Black femme friendships, work life within different social classes, and the fight to get and keep love. They show us weird Black femmes that we are not alone. They show us that the things that make us different — our hobbies, aesthetics, loves, goals, coping mechanisms, lust, and sense of humor — are things we can take pride in. So, if you need me, I’ll be cry-singing into a pint of ice cream in my Stitch onesie. This is how I survive being Black in this world. This is how I know I love myself — I give myself permission to be exactly as I am.
Taylor Steele is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work can be found in such esteemed publications as Apogee Journal, HEArt Journal, Rogue Agent, Blackberry Magazine, and many others. Her chapbook Dirty.Mouth.Kiss will be available Fall 2016 on Pizza Pi Press. Taylor is a content writer for The Body is Not an Apology, Drunken Boat Journal, and Philadelphia Printworks. She is an internationally ranked spoken word artist, but, more importantly, she is a triple-Taurus. If you'd like to support Taylor's writing please consider making a donation via cash.me/$Steelewriter.