How ‘Queen Sugar’ helps us talk about rape culture
One of the most nuanced depictions is on a network whose audience is chiefly composed of women
How is it that Queen Sugar’s exploration of rape culture feels both extraordinarily timely and strangely quaint? OWN’s hit drama from co-executive producers Ava DuVernay, Melissa Carter, and Oprah Winfrey entered its midseason break with its central character, Charley Bordelon-West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), deciding to leave her pro basketball-playing husband, Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), after finally coming to grips with the fact that her spouse facilitated a gang rape.
In real life, four days before Charley said, “boy, bye,” The Washington Post published a video of a presidential candidate admitting to groping and kissing women without their consent. Since then, more than 10 women have accused said candidate of sexual assault. (He says they’re all liars, and he’s going to sue them after the election.) Oh, and a 28-year-old NBA star was found not liable for gang rape allegations in a civil trial. He testified in a sworn deposition that he didn’t know the definition of “consent.”
Queen Sugar was taking us on a nuanced, thoughtful journey through the mind and emotions of a woman whose rich, famous husband is publicly accused of rape. Meanwhile, the presidential election and debates have launched the country into another stratosphere of a national discussion around sexual assault, leaving us counting down the days until “the Rape Election” — try saying that without shuddering — is over.
It’s all enough to make us overlook the value and significance of the first seven episodes of Queen Sugar.
Queen Sugar’s treatment of sexual assault feels grounded in how most people actually think and talk about sexual assault, rather than the language of a first-year gender studies class. From the beginning of the series, DuVernay shows how rape is so often casually trivialized, and how accusers, especially when the alleged perpetrator is wealthy, powerful, or both, are smeared and discredited.
More significantly however, the series illustrates how personal relationships can cloud a person’s eyes and their judgment, making it difficult to see what may seem obvious to others. In doing so, she not only lobbies for compassion and understanding for the tragic women who stand by their toxic, compromised men, she reveals how these women are created in the first place, from Camille Cosby to Melania Trump.
But she also tosses out a bit of wish-fulfillment: Finally, a woman who leaves. See what I mean? Quaint.
Charley is manager and wife to Davis, a veteran star professional basketball player on the Los Angeles Gladiators. They share one teenage son, Micah. Practically the entire Gladiators starting lineup is caught in what the gossip press on the show characterizes as a “sex scandal”— they’ve been accused of rape. Initially, Davis insists he didn’t have anything to do with his teammates’ actions. Charley is mercenary, acting as a crisis manager for the younger players. And orchestrating talking points such as “private lives of players should remain just that — private.” It’s as if the woman who has come forward (whose name, we later discover, is Melina Goludian) is a willing actor publicizing a tawdry affair, not a victim of sexual assault.
Charley’s biggest concern is that Davis’ rookie teammates are squandering her husband’s chances at a championship ring until security video footage emerges showing not only was Davis present during the alleged assault, but that he carried Goludian, thrown over his shoulder, into a hotel room. Even then, Charley, who holds an MBA, continues to actively manage her husband’s career. She’s angry at him for cheating, but she still can’t entertain the thought that he’s a rapist.
“People don’t delve into it, so just the idea that we challenge — the way that I set it up, I don’t want to give away what it is, but the way that we set Davis up in the beginning is like these guys are set up, the golden gods,” DuVernay said during a sit-down earlier this year. “You don’t believe when there’s a fall. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t do it. You want to blame the woman. It’s really trying to, episode by episode through Charley, challenge ourselves and what we think.”
Throughout Queen Sugar, DuVernay illustrates the small, unthinking ways modern society is complicit in rape culture. She does it when Charley says Davis couldn’t have raped his accuser because she’s a prostitute. Not only does she automatically believe Davis, Charley doesn’t even bother to ask him about consent. In another scene in episode three (“Thy Will Be Done”), Davis comes to the house of Charley’s Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford), where Charley has been staying with their son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) in St. Josephine’s Parish, Louisiana. Davis has been publicly accused of rape. It’s all over cable news. Yet the men in the house — Aunt Violet’s boyfriend Hollywood, Charley’s brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) and Micah all willingly engage with Davis as if nothing’s happened. Only Aunt Violet sours on Davis, refusing to allow the men to offer him so much as a glass of iced tea.
It’s evident that DuVernay wasn’t just interested in having a theoretical exploration of the subject; she wanted to ensure it was accessible, and she felt passionate about the subject. In the process of adapting Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel for television, DuVernay added characters and story arcs that would allow her to build upon the world Baszile created and expand it into one that could last through multiple episodes and seasons. It was DuVernay’s choice to add an alleged gang rape by a group of pro basketball teammates as a central storyline.
“Sports is one of the last spaces where things that would normally never be allowed are allowed because of the privilege and the power of the players, and the money, and the profit that’s involved,” DuVernay said. “Some of the things that happen, some of the things that are swept under the rug, some of the things that I’ve heard about personally just being in Hollywood, some of the things that we know that have come out publicly, it just needs to be commented on.”
Charley is not an easy protagonist, but she is a familiar one, a stand-in for so many women who dismiss rape allegations against rich and powerful men as the wily machinations of opportunistic temptresses seeking a payday. It’s not even until we’re four hours into the series that Charley even appears willing to acknowledge a rape might have taken place.
In the space of one episode (“The Darker Sooner”) Davis’ accuser evolves from a grainy security camera abstraction making waves in the Wests’ personal economy to a real person with a name. It’s in her home office that Charley finally asks Davis the prostitute’s name. “You have me out here looking crazy over a ho named Goldie?” she explodes.
Later, Goldie (Estrella Nouri) becomes Melina Gold, and then Melina Goludian in the office of the Wests’ high-profile attorney, Estelle Peterson. Peterson blithely reveals that she’s hired an investigator to dig up dirt on the accuser. “It won’t take much to discredit a call girl with priors who offers group sex on her agency’s site,” Peterson says. “But, on occasion, I have clients who use back channels to make cases like this disappear. Melina’s a prostitute. She’s gotta have a price.”
Still, it takes coming face to face with Davis’ accuser in a mediation room for Charley to come to terms with the idea that not only is her husband a flawed person — a liar and a cheater — he is a terrible one, one whose contempt for (certain) women is undeniable.
DuVernay offers a window into the negotiations that take place behind closed doors, the ones that leave just enough room for plausible deniability for fans who cannot bring themselves to see their heroes as monsters. The Wests have agreed to a $3 million settlement to make Goludian disappear from their lives, but she insists on reading a prepared statement before signing a settlement agreement that bars her from discussing the assault. It’s a small moment when the voice of the victim is actually centered.
Goludian reveals that Davis unilaterally dubbed himself as proxy for her consent when she was incapacitated, offering her up to his younger teammates like she was nothing more than a rented blow-up doll or a party favor, then left her with them, defenseless. She plays a recording of a phone call with Davis corroborating as much. Horror and shame creep across Charley’s face as she realizes that her husband and the father of her son is a very tall, very handsome rape pimp. Only then does she apologize to Goludian and drop Davis.
In Davis, DuVernay offers a devastating indictment of rape culture simply by making the point that you don’t have to touch someone to do immense harm. You don’t even have to be in the room. You only need to lead. Similarly, when a public official says “some girls, they rape so easy,” he is complicit in making the world less safe for women, even if he’s never laid a nonconsensual hand on a woman in his life.
The visual restraint DuVernay exercises around assault is noteworthy. She’s not interested in using rape as vehicle for shock or horror, which is evident in her treatment of the act itself. The audience is only subjected to security footage showing West toting Goludian into a hotel room as he smacks her bottom. Television often mirrors broader conversations taking place in society, which is why depictions of rape on TV in the 1970s were so pivotal. They were a reflection of the efforts of the feminist anti-rape movement, with Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape acting as a central flash point for the decade.
Not unlike the current era of television, there was a wide range when it came to skill in execution. “Many [depictions] geared toward some degree of exploitation, but some of them also tried very hard to represent this as a crime of violence, and not an act of sexual desire,” said Elana Levine, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. “You can really see in that period — hindsight helps — the culture trying to figure out what is going on with this crime that in some ways wasn’t even considered a crime previously. Marital rape was not a crime until the late ’70s.”
As we’ve hit Peak TV in recent years, it can also feel as though we’ve been struck by a period of Peak Rape, too. But it’s not a coincidence that the television show that offers one of the most nuanced and incisive depictions of rape culture comes on a network whose audience is chiefly composed of women. In that sense, OWN is a lot like Lifetime.
“Daytime TV and made-for-TV movies such as those on Lifetime, in their low-budget, melodramatic glory, was far more likely to offer a woman-centric narrative of rape,” critic Sonia Saraiya wrote last year in her terrific and comprehensive look at rape on television. “Where mainstream TV ran away from topics like domestic violence, prostitution, abortion, and of course rape, soap operas and Lifetime films almost reveled in it; presumably there was some cathartic release in watching crimes suffered mostly by women in the real world play out in exaggerated glory on television. … You could count on violence and exploitation in these films. The crucial difference is that you could also typically count on the point of view of the victim being central to the story.”
OWN’s ratings have soared to new heights on the wings of Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, with 2.4 million people — most of them black women — tuning in to Queen Sugar’s two-night premiere. OWN announced in September that it closed its third quarter with the highest ratings in the history of the network — it’s the top prime-time cable network among black women of all ages.
Even before the first episode aired, the network announced that the show had been renewed for a second season, with an expansion to 16 episodes following season one’s 13-episode run. Former Nashville co-executive producer Monica Macer will take over showrunning and executive producing duties in season two as DuVernay returns to feature filmmaking.
With four episodes left this season, it’s not yet clear what else is in store. But one thing is certain: When it comes to rape culture, Queen Sugar offers society a much-needed vehicle for self-examination.