by carmen & natalie
Last night, Ava Duvernay’s critically acclaimed drama Queen Sugar concluded its third season. Drawn from the best selling novel by Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar is the story of the Bordelon family, forced to reunite after the loss of their patriarch. At the heart of the show are the three Bordelon siblings: Nova, Ralph Angel and Charley, each of whom – three seasons in – remain haunted by the ghosts of their pasts. The show is imbued with all the splendor that Southeast Louisiana has to offer, thanks to the work of an all-female team of writers and directors, including queer talent like Tina Mabry, Cheryl Dunye, Aurora Guerrero, and Amanda Marasalis. Nova Bordelon, played by out actress Rutina Wesley, is a pansexual black writer, making the transition from telling other people’s stories to telling her own.
On screen, Nova’s queer sexuality was a celebrated part of Queen Sugar’s early run, but more recently, the show has allowed Nova’s sexuality to recede from public view. Something that once made Nova feel free now barely earns a mention, much to our frustration. To mark the end of its third season, Carmen and Natalie got together to hash out the show’s recent direction and the realities of bi/pan erasure for black women characters on television.
Carmen: When I first wrote about Queen Sugar for Autostraddle, I called it a black feminist masterpiece. That declaration felt right at the time, you know? In 2016, the year of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, black southern womanhood was at the forefront of pop culture discussions about blackness and feminism. Right on time, here came Ava DuVernay with Queen Sugar! An Academy Award-nominated black woman director, taking her first large scale tv project to a cable network that’s owned by a black woman (Oprah’s OWN), and then centering her show around a Southern black family. All done breathtakingly, I might add.
Natalie: Do you think there’s been a shift since then? Has our expectation for stories about black women changed since then?
Carmen: Well what do you think? Here’s a big ass question: Where is black feminism on television in the year of our Lorde Beyoncé 2018? We lost Scandal this year. I suppose that’s one part of the landscape.
Natalie: Good question! I’d point to How To Get Away with Murder, Insecure…
Carmen: Do those show impact our critique of Queen Sugar? For me, a place where all three connect is the lack of clear representation for black queer women – and my increasing frustration towards shows that talk about black women’s lived experiences without taking black queer women into account.
Insecure is its own animal, obviously, because it doesn’t have a queer female character on its roster at all. That remains one of my biggest critiques of the show. It strains credulity that a crew of four millennial black women – in 2018 – in LA!!! – have no queer girl friends among them, even as acquaintances. They’re adding a bisexual black male character this year, so that’s something at very least. Still, it’s my major point of contention.
Natalie: Right. Especially after they had that terrible storyline in the first season, where Molly broke-up with a great guy because he’d sexually experimented with another guy back in college.
Carmen: I still haven’t forgiven Issa Rae for that move! It was a low blow.
Natalie: Would you put How To Get Away With Murder in the same category of disappointment as Queen Sugar? I’m not sure. To do that, I’d want to define what qualifies as queer erasure vs. what just represents the experience of a bisexual or pansexual woman.
Carmen: Yes, let’s go there! How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) is one of your central shows, so I’ll let you take the lead.
Natalie:: First, let’s be clear about one thing: neither HTGAWM nor Queen Sugar are engaging in queer erasure solely because Annalise or Nova haven’t had relationships with women since Eve (Annalise’s ex) and Chantal (Nova’s ex). There’s nothing about either of those pansexual characters dating men – even trifling men like Remy – that qualifies as erasure.
But, looking back to Queen Sugar’s second season, when Nova doesn’t acknowledge her sexuality to Dr. DuBois, her then-boyfriend, even while Chantal’s standing right there in front of them — literally, right there in front of them — that is erasure. When Nova is single and she’s out in the community and she doesn’t ever even glance in the direction of another woman, that’s erasure. When her family pre-genders her new relationship, despite the fact that they know she’s queer, that’s erasure.
In Season One, Nova’s being coy about who she’s dating and Charley asks directly, “is it a boy or a girl?” By Season Four, it’s tossed out as some flippant aside. Bisexual, pansexual – it’s never mentioned. If you just started watching Queen Sugar in Season Two, it’s entirely probable that you’d believe that Nova Bordelon is a straight woman. They’ve erased her identity.
HTGAWM has its moments of erasure too, but nothing nearly as egregious. Queen Sugar is a show rooted in relationships, both familial and romantic, in a way that HTGAWM is not.
Carmen: Whew! Girl, you ain’t said nothin’ but a word!
This is another point for an entirely separate article, but HTGAWM hasn’t done as well a job of dealing with Annalise’s queer sexuality as I would like them to, especially when Eve isn’t around to remind the audience directly. There’s serious room for improvement in both shows. You’re right; Queen Sugar’ driving focus is the intimacy of relationships. That makes their lack of exploration of Nova’s established sexuality pungently blatant. Let’s revisit the show’s glory days. What first pulled you in about Nova?
Natalie: It was the fact that she was queer… and intentionally so. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s a good encapsulation of how the show has changed. Nova wasn’t a character from Natalie Baszile’s book, she came directly from Ava DuVernay’s imagination. She was designed to be a reflection of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement: black queer women. It was a subtle allusion to the movement that anyone familiar with its roots could know and appreciate. Generally speaking, the show’s has since stopped being so subtle.
Carmen: That’s an excellent point! I also definitely read Nova as a tribute to the queer women at the roots of BLM. Taking it even further, I found her to be a tribute to the queer black women I knew in my life – so many of us are activists, we’re at the roots of our community and our community’s movements. We have been for generations. Nova really exemplified that. She was a queer black woman who primarily lived and loved and worked for black liberation.
It mattered to me that she wasn’t a queer black woman in white spaces. That set her apart from basically almost every other queer woman of color on television (save Survivor’s Remorse’s M-Chuck or Black Lightning’s Anissa Pierce, who came after Nova). I found that infinitely relatable.
So, what went wrong? And when? I think it started in Season Two.
Natalie: Oh yes, it did! On some level I get what they were going for, right? Nova had this relationship with her father that wasn’t fully authentic, so she’s spent the last two seasons really trying to make amends. I get that. I think the not-so-good doctor from last season (Dr. DuBois) was about her embracing the sort of man that her father would’ve been happy to see her with. Then this season, with Remy (her sister’s ex-boyfriend), she’s embracing a guy who’s like Ernest’s long lost son. She is clearly still trying to win her father’s favor and, unsurprisingly, it’s not working. How do you see her relationships?
Carmen: I’ve found Nova’s romances to be all over the place! It’s hard to make sense of them. You found a solid through line with “Nova working through her relationship with her father.” If we follow along with that pattern, then we have to grapple with Nova’s other past love interests, Calvin and Chantal.
Natalie: I feel like show’s made it clear that Ernest knew about Nova’s sexuality and that he wasn’t comfortable with it. Maybe I’m giving Queen Sugar more credit than it deserves. Nova tells Remy this season that she doesn’t want to be judged – that she just wants to be free – both those things can’t be true.
Carmen: Well, “freedom” is an ongoing theme for Nova, tracing all the way back to Season One. She told Chantal that she felt “free” the morning after they first had sex.
Natalie: That’s another reason I really hated this relationship with Remy! If Nova is truly chasing “freedom,” she had it and (more importantly) she KNEW she had it with Chantal. It’s these kind of missed moments of continuity that make me wonder if Queen Sugar’s rotation of writers and directors and, subsequently, showrunners, are impacting the characterizations we’re seeing on screen.
Carmen: Looking back at this summer, what could Queen Sugar have done differently to be more successful in terms of representation? What would it have looked like for Nova’s sexuality to remain centrally tied to her and the show? Are there ways they could have accomplished that without Nova necessarily dating a woman? I don’t think dating is the only way sexuality is expressed.
Natalie: The simplest thing to do, of course, is just to say the words a loud, right? For Nova to acknowledge her sexuality out loud to Remy or for Aunt Vi to acknowledge out front that Nova’s mysterious partner could be a man or a woman.
This season we got to see Nova take a step forward with her writing career, including centering herself and her family history in her work. That requires a lot of emotional excavation and it would’ve been nice to see Nova vocalize that process with her circle of friends or even with a therapist. Surely, because Nova’s been grappling with her daddy issues for two seasons now and part of the tension between Nova and her father was about her sexuality, it would’ve been part of those conversations. That would’ve been a simple way to affirm Nova’s identity and move the storyline about her book forward.
Carmen: I’d like to see if Nova has any queer friends! Her circle thus far has been demonstratively straight. And here’s another idea! Given how community oriented Nova is, what about having her mentor a young queer girl?
Natalie: Oh, how great would it have been for the new girl in Micah’s friend group to have been queer?
Carmen: YES!! She was exactly who I imagined when I was hypothesizing this theory.
Natalie: My dream has always been to have Ralph Angel and Nova fall for the same woman. Then they could really have it out with each other, in part about the woman, but also it would allow the show to better explore their relationship as siblings and their history.
Carmen: That would be a new take on a love triangle for sure! Though I prefer if none of the Bordelon siblings get involved with each other’s significant others for all of the known future. (That said, GIVE NOVA A GIRLFRIEND 2k19!!) Anyway.
Natalie: Hahaha. Agreed. Ava, hire us! We can help! I accept payment in the form of cash, check, or dates with Bianca Lawson.
Carmen: Here’s the real question that I can’t stop circling in my head: Should we even still be following Queen Sugar so closely? Given that Nova had… one girlfriend… for a handful of episodes… THREE full years ago.
Natalie: Probably not.
Carmen: Is there still value in including Queen Sugar in conversations around queer television? Are we, as LGBTQ+ black women viewers and critics, still finding our needs met in the conversations put forth by this show?
Natalie: On an emotional level, I want to say, yes, right? First, Rutina Wesley is important, as a queer black woman in real life. It’s rare that we see a black queer character on television but a black queer character played by a black queer actress? That’s unheard of.
Carmen: Yes! Absolutely.
Natalie: Second, Bianca Lawson is someone who I still value (team EMAYA forever). She’s an actress who I think is capable of great things, some of which we’ve seen on this show. However, when grappling with the actual substantive work put forward by the show? This year in particular? No, our needs aren’t being met. Also, it has to be said, the storytelling has been predictable and not nearly as engaging as it used to be. Still, I think you engage with the work and have conversations about it, in part to celebrate representation, but also to critique it. I think Ava DuVernay’s someone who can listen, learn and get better.
Carmen: Ava DuVernay won a GLAAD award this year. As much as I admire her as a filmmaker, which I absolutely do, and as much as I respect her as a mentor – seriously, we have Ava to thank for giving Lena Waithe one of her first big Hollywood gigs as a Production Assistant – I found myself frustrated by her win, in large part because of Nova’s ongoing erasure on Queen Sugar.
We opened our discussion with you asking me “What in the TV landscape has changed your expectations as a viewer?” My first answer is that black television is still lagging behind where I want us to be in terms LGBTQ+ representation, particularly for black women. At the same time, in the last year there is so much great representation for queer women of color on television. Three seasons ago, I fell in love with Nova Bordelon hard and fast. It breaks my heart that now I can’t include her in that wave. There were times this summer that I had to actually force myself to watch the show, just to keep up with my work commitments here at Autostraddle. I’ve become disenchanted. It’s hard to invest my energy into programing that’s made it so abundantly clear they are not interested in investing back in me. That burn is even greater for a show like Queen Sugar, which began its run with a brazen queer character like Nova Bordelon.
The truth is that I can’t turn my back on Queen Sugar, because there are so paltry few options to begin with. And because I love it so much, despite myself. Which is why it has to do better.