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Get Lust in Translation with Chewing Gum

Brit phenom Michaela Coel hilariously explores sex and topples stereotypes in Netflix’s cult show.

When we meet Tracey, she can barely complete a sentence without being interrupted by one of her own sex fantasies: She straddles her boyfriend, he’s groping her chest, her lips are attacking his face. (The Netflix closed captioning just says, “[both moaning].”) But back in reality, when we meet her boyfriend, Ronald, he’s on his knees thanking the Lord for preserving the couple’s virtue: “We will wait until we die, if it brings you glory.” Although she too was taught to “save herself” for marriage, Tracey turns to the camera with a look like she might vomit—or, worse, remain a virgin forever.

This is the world of Chewing Gum, the British comedy series that quietly arrived in the U.S. last year and will begin its second season on Netflix this month. Adapted by 29-year-old Brit Michaela Coel from her hit 2012 play, Chewing Gum Dreams—which garnered her last year’s BAFTA for best female comedy performance—the show stars Coel as Tracey Gordon, a 24-year-old London shop clerk raised in a restrictive household and dreaming of a bigger, flashier life. Tracey is blindly confident, lovably misguided, and the most wonderfully libidinous woman on TV.

Over the course of the first season, Tracey’s sexual hijinks include an attempt to sit on her partner’s face, with her pants on; a disastrous threesome; and literally blowing on a man’s penis (because that’s clearly what a blow job is, right?). It’s in these moments of unfettered sexual exploration that Chewing Gum becomes (hilariously) transcendent.

“Tracey is ashamed that she lacks so much experience, but I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed about,” Coel tells me. “When Tracey sits on Connor’s face—that is a moment of purity! She’s not holding back; she feels it’s what she must do; she does it. It’s the happiest you see her.”

Despite the Peak TV influx of realistic female characters—from 30 Rock‘s powerful but pained Liz Lemon to Orange Is the New Black‘s dozen-plus flawed and dynamic inmates—Tracey still feels radical as a black woman driven by unvarnished lust. While we’ve become familiar with sex-obsessed characters on Broad City and Fleabag, those women are white. And though we’ve gotten to know black women with sexual dimensions—Viola Davis on How to Get Away With Murder, Kerry Washington on Scandal, Issa Rae on Insecure—sexual liberation is just one facet of these complicated career women. For Chewing Gum‘s Tracey, grappling with sex is not only her chief occupation, it’s her raison d’être.

Through Tracey, Coel smartly engages with the two onscreen stereotypes of black female sexuality—the promiscuous jezebel and the sexless, maternal, and often spiritual mammy. “Tracey’s constantly pulled between those two ideals,” Coel says. “I made her the way she is because I saw a massive gap with women of color, especially dark-skinned women.” In Chewing Gum, the “jezebel” is Tracey’s best friend, Candice, a BDSM enthusiast; her younger sister and mother, on the other hand, brim with religious zeal (“My dear, your vagina is holy. I will command Satan to leave your nether regions today!” her mother shouts to a passerby). Coel leaves Tracey to navigate the complicated in-between: an inexperienced black woman with a large sexual appetite who is both excited by—and a little scared of—actually partaking in the act.

 

GRAPPLING WITH SEX IS NOT ONLY HER CHIEF OCCUPATION, IT’S HER RAISON D’ÊTRE.

This character rings true because, in part, it is: Coel says she herself became an evangelical Christian when she was 17. (“I’d masturbate and then want to slit my wrists, I felt so bad.”) She’s since cooled on organized religion (“Looking back, I’m like, Jesus Christ, Michaela!”), which has allowed her to turn that period into such poignant and entertaining television. And lucky for us, at the start of season two, Tracey, despite her best efforts, is still a virgin.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of ELLE US.

This post originally appeared on elle.com