There’s still a lot to love about Riverdale, but its problem with people of color can no longer be disregarded.
The following contains spoilers for seasons one and two of Riverdale.
My dad recently told me a story of how, in kindergarten, I would only take White Barbies to school. The other girls wouldn’t play with me if I brought the Black ones.
From the time I was six until 12, I attended a predominately White Bel-Air private school alongside the children of celebrities. They had personal nannies who picked them up in Range Rovers and backyard tennis courts and swimming pools. I had curly hair that I tried to tug downward, attempting to force it to become straight and medianoche sandwiches that my Puerto Rican godmother made me.
Growing up in the ’90s with a mom who appeared to be White and a dad who clearly wasn’t, I received a lot of confused looks and questions from both classmates and strangers. Until I reached my teenage years, I was asked constantly: “That’s your mom?” and “Are you adopted?”
I know what it’s like to navigate the spaces where whiteness is inevitable.
Since the series finale of Gossip Girl in 2012, there’s been a void in the world of teen soaps. Admirers of the genre were at a loss for trendy music and fashion-driven dramas where girls stalk through their high school in heels and short skirts, spitting out somewhat-clever one-liners. In the spring of 2017, The CW answered our prayers with its rendition of the Archie Comics, Riverdale – retooled as though by Alfred Hitchcock’s millennial surrogate.
On paper, it doesn’t sound like it would work. But to my surprise, it did. The tagline might as well have read: Mischief. Murder. Milkshakes.
Shortly after Riverdale’s premiere, the show’s popularity exploded, becoming the obsession of audiences worldwide. They gawked at the return of former Disney Channel darling Cole Sprouse, now dark-haired and brooding with his own seething voiceover as Jughead Jones. They swooned over the positively-portrayed female friendship between Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendez). In the comics, Betty and Veronica consistently fight for the affection of Archie Andrews. But, in this rendition, their friendship blossoms with a determinedly feminist attitude.
“Now that it’s just us girls and–at the risk of failing the Bechdel Test – are you legit cool with Archie and me?” Veronica asks, one afternoon, post-cheerleading practice. It’s these fourth-wall-breaking lines that caused fans to obsess over “B and V” so much.
However, not everything is perfect afternoons, sipping strawberry milkshakes and solving murders in Riverdale. Besides the plot holes that rival Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars for most nonsensical, the program has another obvious problem: how they address race. They make it clear that Veronica Lodge is Latina, her recently-freed-from-prison father, Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos), peppering sentences with Spanish to remind you. But other than her, the only other minority speaking role of note is that of Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray), the mayor’s daughter, aspiring singer, and overall badass. I instantly resonated with Josie – a bright and ambitious girl of color, still constantly marginalized by her environment.
“At first glance, CW’s highly addictive, self-aware series Riverdale … felt like a show that finally allowed people of color, including black girls, to be more than window dressing or vehicles for lessons about race,” Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for Vulture, earlier this year. And I, too, experienced this same false impression.
Although Josie was featured in the promotional photos for season one of the show, she barely made an appearance throughout the thirteen-episode season. And, when she did, she was portrayed as somewhat of an antagonist, insisting on excluding others from her girl-group, The Pussycats and begrudgingly teaching Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) about music. She flitted in and out of scenes with sassy zingers, fulfilling the prophecy that if a Black woman is confident, she can’t be friendly too.
In the second episode, “A Touch of Evil”, The Pussycats perform a cover of “Sugar, Sugar” at a pep rally, quite literally backing up Riverdale High’s cheerleading squad, the River Vixens – the majority of whom are White. And, to make matters worse, it’s somehow relevant for self-proclaimed HBIC of the squad, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) to join Josie onstage for the bridge.
On to season two, in which Josie is inexplicably indoctrinated into the River Vixens, although Betty and Veronica had to go through an intense series of auditions in the prior season. This image was just the beginning of many in which Josie trails dutifully behind Cheryl. Yes, Cheryl is supposedly queen of their high school – but must they really portray a character of color, especially one as self-confident as Josie, uncharacteristically following in her wake?
In the season two episode, “Chapter Fifteen: Nighthawks”, consistent do-gooder Betty decides to make it her mission to save her own precious space, Pop’s Chock’lit Shop. (Her boyfriend, Jughead, said exasperatedly, “I can’t take on any more social issues right now.”) Josie and her bandmate Melody (Asha Bromfield) approach Betty angrily, asking why she “told everyone on social media” that The Pussycats were going to be performing that night, without asking her first.
Betty quips, “I knew that if I asked you, you wouldn’t have said –”
“No!” Josie finishes, indignant.
And thus began the set-up for The Pussycat’s quasi-doo-wop, somewhat-acapella, fully-whitewashed cover of Kelis’ “Milkshake.” Although Veronica is a member of The Pussycats, for some unexplained reason she does not perform with them, but Cheryl steps in to. The three shake their tiny-short-and-thigh-high-boot-clad bodies on the roof of Pop’s, performing a rendition that no one asked for. Veronica, Archie, Jughead, and Betty look up at their friends from the parking lot adoringly; Veronica even mouths the words.
Is there no space sacred from the overwhelming whiteness that is Cheryl Blossom?
“Black women sharing their spotlight — or pushed out of the limelight altogether, [is] confined as backup for someone who hasn’t worked half as hard to be there.”
– Aly Hickerson for Refinery29, Why Won’t Riverdale Let Josie & The Pussycats Have Anything?
Filled with dramatic set-ups that could easily be avoided, the second season moves along, paling in comparison to the first. Archie wields a handgun and films a shirtless anarchist-adjacent-adjacent video in a Pussy Riot-esque ski mask to claim some sort of rebelliousness. Betty begins to unravel as she corresponds with a serial killer and ignores her own need for anxiety medication and talk therapy. Fairly early on, the world of the Southside Serpents, a local gang that Jughead’s father is the leader of, expands. They’re introduced in all their glory: tattooed, bandana-and-leather-jacket-wearing, lurking behind chain-link fences menacingly.
Although the elder Serpent members seem to be mostly White, those that become Jughead’s classmates at Southside High are mostly of color. These teens live on the “wrong side of the tracks”, therefore underprivileged, therefore not White – isn’t that how it should be? One particular light-skinned Serpent, Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan, who is Petsch’s real-life best friend), takes a particular interest in Jughead, which caused the actress to receive death threats from the fans of the show who “ship” Betty and Jughead’s near-perfect, milkshake-sipping relationship. In this case, art imitates life – the fans of the show also feel there is no place for people of color on the Northside of Riverdale.
Cheryl Blossom puts this mentality into action in the episode “Chapter Nineteen: Death Proof”. As Toni takes her place at the starting line to raise a red flag, Cheryl stomps forward in her six-inch heels.
“Uh, I usually do the honors,” Toni says, perturbed and confused.
“Not today, Cha-Cha,” Cheryl responds, pursing her red lipstick’d pout and squaring her hips, veiled in tiny red shorts. “I was born for this moment.”
As the program reaches its midseason finale (this Wednesday, December 13th), can it make up for the undeniable lulls that have hole-punched their way through these first thirteen episodes? Although it only took 20 episodes for Josie to finally receive her own character-driven storyline, it will take more than an unrequited longing for her (from both the only other Black teenage character and Cheryl Blossom) to make her relevant to the show as a whole.
And now that we reach the end of 2017, is it terribly unrealistic to expect every show to treat people of color the same as This is Us and How to Get Away with Murder do? Understandably, the show intentionally juxtaposes the reminiscent sock-hop, cheese-fries-at-the-diner retro vibe of the original cartoon – but does their portrayal of people of color have to be that way too?
I still hold hope in my heart that the writers can find Josie’s footing among the teens of Riverdale who have, until late, forced her to the sidelines. But, if the show does not make a valid attempt to address all of their Black characters with the same love and affection as they do others, they may find themselves ousted in our newly woke society.
Although, if they don’t invest in better writers soon, (“Take your male gaze and your male privilege and get out of our locker room!”) they may meet that fate sooner.