In 2015, series one of Channel 4’s Chewing Gum aired. Written by Michaela Coel, the six-parter also starred Coel as the sweetly manic Tracy, a London girl just trying to lose her virginity without alarming her conservative christian family. Chewing Gum is about joy. Tracy claims the Tower Hamlets she lives in as her technicolour castle, searches for sexually fluid ‘Unicorns’ online to fast-track her sexual prowess with a threesome, and – in the haze of an accidental MDMA overdose – tries to convince the CEO of a perfume brand to hire her as a sales rep by hugging him on-stage in front of the entire company.
Even more fun, Tracy talks to the camera, through the fourth wall, right at us. She does it in the bedroom while examining her boyfriend’s crotch, she does it at the dinner table when a fight breaks out, she does it in the middle of a shift at an empty corner-shop. When she does it in Episode 5 of Season 1, to complain about her strange, flirtatious cousin, the rules of the fourth wall shatter and shift when the secondary character interrupts Tracy to talk to us too.
“Who are YOU talking to?” Tracy says (well, shrieks). No other character has noticed her silent audience until then. It’s shocking, shockingly clever – the pattern of quirky narrative rules just the decorative rug Coel knew she’d pull out from under us eventually. It’s inventive, memorable screenwriting, and it may also sound strangely familiar. That’s because a year later, Phoebe Waller-Bridge did the same trick in Season 2 of Fleabag. Sharing a scene with Andrew Scott as the now iconic love interest, the Hot Priest, Phoebe quirks a well-practiced eyebrow at the camera to clue us into her frustration. The object of this frustration himself, Hot Priest, suddenly leans over her shoulder, staring at us. “Who are you looking at?” he says, and Fleabag herself jerks in shock, wrong-footed and confused.
The reception to this episode, as with the whole of Season 2, was raucous and heartfelt. Fans on twitter praised Waller-Bridge as a genius for ‘inventing’ the joke, thinking they had witnessed a twist on the fourth wall that they had never seen before. Except it was there before, a year before, a cultural season before, in Michaela Coel’s script. Beloved by her own fans, Coel had still missed out on the stratospheric status of ‘TV game-changer’ that Phoebe-waller Bridge had. The public and the industry-at-large had a literal blindspot for Michaela’s unique writing, missing her with those big-budget contracts or opportunities but lifting up Phoebe a year later. Why, when these two shows – both funny, fabulous, witty, one-woman parties – came along in the same few years, did the collective consciousness only truly hang onto one? We know why.
Universal truths must be acknowledged. Some truths are:
- The popular and commercial British feminism is white feminism – it frequently ignores women of colour. This includes within art.
- When examining the marginalising of Black voices, the white centrism of British media and the critical reception from British media has a big part to play.
Breaking the fourth wall has a detailed history that doesn’t begin with Chewing Gum or Fleabag. It’s a major feature of Shakespeare’s work (Hamlet’s “Who calls me a villain” aside is nearly an audience Q&A). It highlights the interactions of The Office, and also plays a memorable role in House of Cards. But Michaela Coel, as always, did something special. Ignoring Coel’s riveting, challenging contribution to the trope in favour of centralising the version of it we saw in Fleabag a year later is not okay. It’s not okay that we talk about the achievements of white women over Black women. It’s not okay that the influence of Black women on the British television landscape is not nearly as equally or swiftly revered.
This isn’t about choosing one woman. Both are vital, both are brilliant; Michaela herself has never once directed the conversation towards this glaring oversight. And neither should she: Coel has far too much to say about her own craft, and her own show, to discuss anyone else.
The problem is the systemic white supremacy that leaves British television still very much racially homogenised. Even when the genius club lets a few women in – they are mostly white. Our mistake is allowing this by only praising, only forming fandom around, only hashtag-trending the female show-runners when they are white. This mistake leaves our screens barren of the talent of visionaries like Michaela for far too long. I made this mistake when I only wrote about Fleabag, and did not notice Chewing Gum. Moving forward, there must be room for both. We have talked about Phoebe, and while we were, Michaela was also right there – giving audiences the gift of Tracy, another funny friend who told us her secrets. The respect is still due.
2020 is the year that Michaela Coel returns to television, on the larger platform of the BBC this time. She came back with a smash-hit: the nihilistic, surrealist I May Destroy You, a semi-autobiographical rape-survival story directed, written by and starring Coel. I May Destroy You has been hailed as one of the best dramas of the year, praised for visuals and perspectives never seen on television before, so Coel’s shooting star finally looks set to take off on its deserving trajectory.
But this is still the same year that BAFTA failed to nominate any person of colour in its acting award categories. Some progress is there, but it is not nearly complete. The deserving success of Michaela Coel in this moment must not come with any self-congratulation on the media or the white audiences’ part. Only a few months ago we did not see her. Only last year her achievements were swept aside to make singular room for the white woman.
As conversations finally start to lean in around the phenomena of Michaela Coel’s talent, as we continue to enjoy her amazing, heart-stopping show on BBC Three – we should look at the previous under-appreciation of her as a useful signal. It is a signal of our – of my – ongoing blindspots, the white-centrism we still need to dismantle, and the harmful bias in television production and criticism that we may destroy.
by Abi Silverthorne
Abi is a freelance film + TV writer, Creative Writing graduate and unofficial biscoff expert. Her twitter is @_littlegail