Riverdale gives Archie comics a sinister makeover; an intriguing take on sexism, race and bullying
By Sharanya Gopinathan
Given its 70-year run, every 90s child remembers the Archie comics and its iconic characters Archie, Betty, Jughead, Reggie and Veronica.
The new CW noir drama that takes place in the fictional town of Riverdale (also the name of the series) however, is much more sinister than anyone would associate with the Archie comics. Its first season is all about solving the mystery of Jason Blossom’s death, the captain of the football team. It’s quite addictive, maybe partly because of how intriguingly dissonant it feels in its very, very studied darkness. The other reason could be how interestingly the show has treated many of its characters, especially its women, and the relationships the characters have with each other.
Everything about this show is designed to be sinister.
It’s always dark in Riverdale, even during school hours and pep rallies, and scenes of football practice and calisthenic running are casually accompanied by horror-movie background music. Jughead, the show’s narrator, imbibes everything that happens with a dramatic import thanks to his overzealous comments at the beginning and end of every episode. Nothing is exempt from Riverdale’s creepification: I’m fairly sure the show’s makers imply for example, that twins Cheryl and Jason Blossom had an incest vibe going on.
The show also makes several valiant attempts to be conscientious, and goes out of its way to address issues like bullying, slut-shaming and race. This isn’t entirely surprising. The mainstream American teenage psyche seems, now more than ever, to be tuned into social and political issues, with magazines like Teen Vogue recently inspiring praise and surprise for how overtly political they’ve become. Many shows aimed at American teenagers are taking on socially-relevant issues, and Riverdale is no exception to the trend.
The most exciting and obvious development is the show’s portrayal of the friendship between the almost alarmingly angelic but secretly (slightly) disturbed Betty Cooper, and Veronica Lodge, who looks like Wednesday from the Addams family. Although the show had every opportunity to makes it seem like it will, it doesn’t fall into the usual Gossip Girl trap of pitting two girls (everyone in the show is about 15) against each other.
Veronica’s dialogue in Riverdale definitely seems to take more inspiration from Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf than the drawling Veronica of the comics. She’s full of sass and employs the kind of dramatic phrases teenagers love (like describing her revenge as going “full dark, no stars”). In one episode, she mentions she won’t be taken for a ride by someone with a ridiculous name like Chuck Clayton. Given her mother Hermione Lodge’s pithy phrases on the show, it’s clear that Riverdale’s Veronica got it from her mama.
Betty and Veronica (of the comics) are almost always shown to be infatuated with Archie, and declare frequent war on each other over his affections.
Although the Betty and Veronica of Riverdale seem to have different kinds of feelings for Archie (Betty is seriously in love, Veronica seems attracted), after some initial tough times (and an ill-fated round of ‘7 Minutes in Heaven’), they make a pact to never let a boy damage their newly-forged friendship. So far, Veronica’s been supportive of Betty and even tries to help Betty work a relationship with Archie.
Archie is a weird fit for a hero. As the main character based on a comic series that’s named after him, you’d think that he’d be the highlight of the show. But he isn’t, at least, certainly not in the way you’d expect him to be.
He is portrayed as sexy and attractive, with several scenes giving you the opportunity to see him objectified, which male characters are rarely subject to. His best moments (aside from where he’s going at a punching bag sweaty and shirtless) are when he’s interacting with other characters, like the teacher (spoiler alert: Miss Grundy!) he’s sleeping with or Betty and Veronica. On his own, he mostly tends to talk mournfully about how much he loves music.
The female characters on the show, however, have characters and backstories that are shown with more complexity, with my favourite part so far being the casual revelation that Betty takes Adderall, which is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
The highlight so far has been Episode 3, Body Double, which deals with the issue of slut-shaming, and touches upon whatever issues Betty tries to keep an angelic lid on, clearly something to do with her mysterious sister who suffers psychological problems and was ill-treated by Jason Blossom. Veronica goes on a date with Riverdale High hottie Chuck Clayton, only to find that the next morning, pictures of her with maple syrup on her face are being circulated among students.
The show doesn’t specify what this means, but it’s meant to denote a sexual act, referencing the disturbing trend of “revenge porn” where vindictive ex-lovers blackmail women by posting nude pictures of them online. Veronica isn’t having any of this for a ‘New York minute’. Some digging reveals that this isn’t a one-off incident after Ethel speaks out, and the girls find out that the football players maintain a points-based record of girls they have “scored” with in a playbook. Several of the girls, who have been varying degrees of friendly with each other thus far, unite to destroy the playbook and punish Clayton.
Considering how big these issues are in the US, with recent stories fixing ugly stereotypes about college boys, it’s exciting that the third episode dealt with a relevant issue, and resolved it by having female characters set aside their differences and working together, without appealing to authorities that wouldn’t give them the support they need.
The show also tries to make some socially-conscious points on race. There’s a scene where Josie (you know, and the Pussycats?) says that she can’t have Archie writing songs for the all-Black band because he wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be able to give voice to women of colour (never mind that she lets him go ahead within ten minutes of her speech). Reggie is Asian (in the comics he’s white); and it’s casually implied that Veronica is Latina when her mother strokes calls her mija. Neither of these are accompanied by hackneyed stereotypes.
The same cannot be said, however, for Kevin Keller. While Moose being in-the-closet is a fun surprise that lends interest to the proceedings, Kevin Keller fulfils every lame stereotype of the done-to-death trope of the gay best friend: He is literally just Betty and Veronica’s fashion-forward gay best friend. So far, there hasn’t been an episode where he hasn’t commented on either a girl’s fashion choices or a boy’s hot body.
For a show that’s ticking so many of the right boxes, they could’ve done without the in-your-face stereotyping.
As bold as the show is about Keller’s sexuality, disappointingly, they seem to have no problem obscuring Jughead’s. The creators of the comics revealed in the canon that Jughead is asexual, even though some strips have him chased by girls. No mention is made of Jughead’s asexuality on the show, and both the actor who plays him and the show’s producers have made it sound like Jughead would have his own relationships with girls soon enough. It would have been cool to have an openly asexual character on the show, not just for the story, but also because it’s a sexuality that’s nearly unknown and badly misunderstood.
It’s clear that Riverdale tries hard to solve problems of sexism and a lack of diversity in the Archie comics of yore. While it looks like it’s trying too hard sometimes, and at some others it isn’t trying hard enough, credit is due for it being a compelling show that’s still in its early episodes.
For the show’s sake, it would be fun to see more of Archie as a person and less as a hot body with musical aspirations, and how the show’s makers deal with Jughead in the episodes to come.
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