Risk. Romance. Reinvention” is the tagline for the hit drama, Queen Sugar, created, directed and executive produced by Ava DuVernay.

Queen Sugar is the breakout show of Oprah Winfrey’s Network, better known as OWN. It circulates around the family sugar cane farm, recently left to the three children of Ernest Bordelon after their father’s passing. The three siblings live very different lives and this creates tension when it comes to running a business together. The death of their father also forces them to deal with unresolved traumas of their childhood, mostly circulating around who they believed their father wanted them to be vs. who they have become. At its core, Queen Sugar is a show about love; love for the family you’re given as well as the one you’re building. One of the youngest examples of this on the show is Ralph Angel and Darla. Still, in their twenties, these two demonstrate the pains and joys often associated with a couple that is both growing together and as individuals. Though only a subplot, it is interesting to watch both Darla and Ralph Angel navigate supporting each other while also learning how to support themselves. Their individual struggles to reach adulthood create room for a larger discussion on what it means to be a “man” or a “woman”.

He wants to call the shots both on the farm and in his personal life, though he is the most immature of all involved.

Ralph Angel serves as one of the most consistently inconsistent characters on the show. As a father and the sole brother in the Bordelon trio, he seems desperate to assert himself as a “man”. However, as the youngest sibling and an ex-con, he is still putting the pieces of himself together in ways that his older sisters, Charley and Nova, no longer struggle with. Darla is essentially Ralph Angels only equal, though it takes him a while to see this. The viewer is first introduced to Darla when she meets Ralph Angel in the parking lot of the hospital where Ernest Bordelon has passed away. She is eager to see their son but Ralph Angel is completely against it. Eventually, the wall Ralph Angel has built up against Darla begins to break down, mostly because his son is adamant about seeing his mother. As time goes on, Darla continues to prove herself as someone who has grown. She apologizes to and thanks the members of Ralph Angel’s family, who found her high on drugs, lying on top of a man and took Blue in. She remains dedicated to her son, her sobriety and eventually Ralph Angel. She resists the urge to “play house” with Ralph Angel, opting instead to continue living on her own. The moment that most defines Darla as an adult, for me, is when she approaches Charley for a job. Her ability to ask for help is a sign of maturity. It is the humility she displays, I believe, that persuades Charley to take a chance on her. Darla desires to be better, which is an admission that she is not yet at her best. This is a very grown-up mindset to have.

It is a mindset Ralph Angel has not yet quite reached. Ralph Angel uses anger and a raised voice to assert his maturity. He is met, mostly, with the patience of his sister’s, his aunt and his girlfriend. I can hardly imagine if Darla had barged into Charley’s office demanding employment because of all the wrong that had been done to her in life. Though Ralph Angel’s exact crime remains undisclosed, it is implied that he was sent to prison due to his own wrongdoing. Yet any mention of this is met with a defensiveness that limits the room for growth. He clings to machismo and pride instead of taking a step back and realizing that is the same trap his father fell into, which led to an early grave.

Darla’s humility as she approached Charley is a much larger statement of adulthood than Ralph Angel declaring that he’ll do what he must to keep the farm running. When Charley asks him what that means, he has no concrete answer. Judging from his past, his lack of plans would be a cause for concern for anyone. Doing what he must could mean anything from robbing convenience stores to selling stolen goods. He later rescinds his statement, but considering the lights have been cut off and he can’t afford the bill, it’s more out of desperation than humility.

These glimpses of hope are refreshing in comparison to the toxic masculinity that fuels many television dramas and largely goes unchallenged.

While Darla has managed to come into womanhood by willingly accepting the help and support of those who offer it, Ralph Angel is still stumbling towards manhood because he accepts help begrudgingly. The reality is, being a man is not any different from being a woman. It requires taking responsibility for one’s actions, accepting help when needed and approaching situations with humility instead of ego. Instead of accepting this, Ralph Angel clings to a version of manhood that is borderline infantile. He demands a leadership position, though he has no experience. He wants to be the breadwinner in his romantic relationship, though he doesn’t make enough money to play this role. He wants to call the shots both on the farm and in his personal life, though he is the most immature of all involved.

Ralph Angel’s behavior speaks to a larger paradox in the culture which is that while men are proven to mature later in life than their female counterparts, women are expected to follow the lead of men. Ralph Angel’s ego is coddled in ways a woman’s would not be if she were to exhibit the same behavior, be it toward other women or toward men. Ironically, by trying to treat Ralph Angel “like a man” the women prolong his adolescence. A lot of time and energy is spent on figuring out how to make Ralph Angel feel valuable, instead of acknowledging that the value he provides is no greater than anyone else’s.

Ralph Angel’s biggest redeeming factor is his relationship with his son, Blue. I think it’s important to note that Blue’s interests do not fit into the “traditional” masculine paradigm. His favorite toy, after all, is a Barbie doll named Kenya. That Ralph Angel never seems to challenge Blue’s love for Kenya, and in fact stands up for him when other people challenge it, is a sign that there is hope for Ralph Angel, yet, in shedding the façade of masculinity that holds back his growth. Ironically, Darla is the one who resents Kenya, though not for reasons of gender identity but out of jealousy. Another redeeming factor is his treatment of the transgender police officer. We learn from this character that back in the day, even before he knew quite “who he was” Ralph Angel sensed something unique in him and offered protection. The implication here is that Ralph Angel has always had a soft spot for human differences and an understanding that the rules of gender are not set in stone, even if he has never applied this soft spot and understanding to himself. These glimpses of hope are refreshing in comparison to the toxic masculinity that fuels many television dramas and largely goes unchallenged.

Most of the tension between Ralph Angel and Darla emerges because of their separate journeys within masculinity and femininity. Ralph Angel loves Darla but he is also dedicated to a version of manhood that cannot exist in a relationship with a woman who now finds her self-worth in her independence. The necessary growth from toxic masculinity is not out of reach for Ralph Angel. Darla seems to have a patience for him that is commendable, especially considering what she’s gone through on her own. There is clearly a strong bond between them and I think, despite whatever shortcomings they may each possess, this is a love that we all can root for.

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