Through a doll, ‘Queen Sugar’ explores the effeminization of the Black man
Viewers are fully engaged in season two of OWN’s Queen Sugar, written and directed by Ava DuVernay, and the drama series couldn’t be any better. The show following the Bordelon’s trials and tribulations growing a sugar cane mill business and farm, intersected with the complexities of the Black family dynamic, has crafted television magic that’s never been seen before.
In particular, the storyline of Ralph Angel’s son, Blue, and his affinity for his doll, Kenya, is now coming front and center. What’s more, it appears to be positioned in a such a way that forces the Black community to finally address its shame around sexuality, and the complexities of gender expression, masculinity and, more importantly, why children should simply be allowed to be children.
Throughout the first two seasons, the story of Blue and his Kenya doll has grown to become one of the more prominent discussions from week to week. Season one depicted Blue and his doll regularly in minor scenes, without many of the family members commenting on it. It seemed to mirror the position of most Black families on issues surrounding boys and masculinity, such as the he will “grow out of it” rationale.
In season two, however, Blue’s relationship with Kenya has become one of dependency as a means of survival, with the separation of the two bringing trauma to a boy who is simply trying to exist as he is.
In an interview conducted by L.A. Times writer Tre’Vell Anderson, DuVernay sheds light on why she decided to include this storyline which doesn’t appear in the book, which the series is based on.
When asked about it, DuVernay said:
I want to start to interrogate the ways in which we embrace our identity, and that’s happening with all the characters. Everyone is upside down with who they are and what it means to be someone else. It felt like there was a good opportunity with Blue to do the same, particularly around issues of identity as it relates to the ways in which we conform to certain notions of masculinity in the black community.
The filmmaker explained why she decided not to simply relegate the doll to a “special episode” and instead made it ongoing storyline. “I really want to start to seed it in. Literally for much of the first season, no one’s paying attention to the doll except Ralph Angel [played by Kofi Siriboe], his father, who’s very aware and very protective. As Blue becomes older, and as other people in the family notice [the doll], it will start to become a point of conversation. This is a commitment from me and the writers to really explore this story line in a long-term way.”
DuVernay’s main goal is to let the storyline challenge how we as Black families begin to talk about this boy and his doll. Season two is now beginning to do just that, as others start to notice Blue and his doll, and have adverse reactions to it as he develops throughout his boyhood.
In one episode, a waiter questions Blue on why he wouldn’t much rather play with a Transformers doll, something a heteronormative society would obviously deem more ‘appropriate’ for young boy. Ralph Angel, in his normal protective manner, addresses the waiter and orders ice cream for Blue and for the Kenya doll, showing how far he will go to protect his child’s developing identity.
That episode was followed by the most conflicted scene between Blue, Kenya, and Blue’s mother Darla (played by Bianca Lawson). Darla takes Kenya away while Blue is asleep and throws her away. When she arrives at the house the next day, Blue is having a tantrum and destroying the house looking for his doll. Darla informs Ralph Angel that she took the doll and threw her out. As an argument ensues, it becomes clear that Darla is struggling with her son’s apparent effeminate expression with the doll, as well as jealousy of the dependent nature of her son and the doll’s relationship. One wonders if this fear of dependency is based on her own struggles and dependency on drugs, or the Black family archetype that struggles with children who show signs of LGBTQ identity at a young age.
As a boy who grew up much preferred double-dutch than play football, Blue and the his doll represents more than just a fictitious tale. Children are often shaped and conditioned to embrace a direction toward the gender binary before they ever speak their first word. Gender reveal parties using phrases like “is it a truck or a tutu”–pink for girls, blue for boys– have all become the norm, inevitably removing the agency for a child to be child. Unfortunately, sex is determined at birth based on genitalia, allowing gender to be forced and assimilated from that moment on. Realistically, until we watch a child begin to grow, we are doing a disservice by assuming what their gender or gender expression will be.
In an unusual twist, the dynamic of Ralph Angel (the ex-con) having the greatest understanding and capacity for who and what Blue might be is the most telling part of this narrative. The “be a man” and “big boys don’t cry” narrative is something that is engrained in society to be synonymous with manhood. That Ralph Angel serves as the protector of Blue’s identity, whatever that may be, is a 101 on unconditional parenting, and how one should react when faced with the reality of a child exhibiting behaviors that don’t align with a heteronormative society. Darla being the one who ultimately takes issue with her son’s doll is atypical at best, as usually society sees the role of the mother as the understanding and loving nurturer.
But in Queen Sugar, viewers witness what happens when you let nature take its course and you nurture what you have, removing projection of what one forces their child to be.
The storyline of Blue and Kenya the doll will continue to evolve, according to DuVernay, as more and more characters start to notice it and take a stance, whatever stance that may be. One can only hope that the show will continue to challenge our imaginations and authentically depict what it looks like when a child is provided unconditional love and nurtured to be who they are as they are–no matter what that looks like.
George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, TheGrio, JET, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson