Riverdale’s Confusion About Feminism, Sexuality & Rape Culture

(Several disclaimers: I admittedly have no frame of reference of the original Archie comic source material. Also, mild spoilers abound!)

I am an unabashed lover of most CW series. Whether it’s from the D.C. universe, a relatable zombie, or a telenovela that boasts some of the best writing on television, I am here for it. The repeated ads on my CW app for “Riverdale” clearly meant I would have to give the show a shot. I am not an Archie comics fan and my knowledge of the original is limited to: Betty = Nice Girl and Veronica = Vixen.

The pilot begins encouragingly enough with an equal opportunity ogling of girl-next-door Betty and her literal boy-next-door Archie. When I first saw Betty shirtless, adorned in a lace bra, I wanted to check out. But this moment of male-gazing is quickly replaced with a little female-gaze in the form of Archie’s abs. Coupled with a “Twin Peaks”-like style and mystery, I was intrigued enough to keep tuning in.

Instant rivals, Betty and Veronica, form a bond stronger than their short-lived competition over bland Archie. Throughout the first half of the season, “Good girl” Betty shows moments of danger that are far more unsettling than anything ruined rich girl Veronica has hiding in her Louboutin-filled closet. My expectations for these female characters have quickly been turned upside down, much to my pleasure.

We discover in the pilot that the town’s golden boy, Jason Blossom, has been murdered. We also learn that a female teacher, Miss Grundy, is having an affair with the teenage male protagonist, Archie. This statutory rape gender swap is in opposition to the more common “Pretty Little Liars”-style we’ve seen on TV in the past. But instead of taking the opportunity to make a statement about influence, power, and coercion no matter gender, we’re led over and over to think that Archie and Miss Grundy’s relationship is a great romance snuffed out too soon . . . that because a teenage boy has obvious hormones, he cannot be the object of a predator. I hate to break it to you world, but girls have hormones too. Whether the predator is a woman or man, their prey are still the victims.

It is only with the exit of Miss Grundy, music teacher and sexual predator, does the show wink at what kind of danger she might truly be. Clad in a short skirt and Lolita glasses, we see her leer at two student-athletes as she takes off in her VW bug. The episode’s narrator (the narrator rotates per episode among the young cast members, in this instance, it was Betty), wonders if perhaps Miss Grundy was a potential danger after all. But this is to incorrectly assume that she hasn’t already been proven a danger. She slept with Archie, her underage student. Yet, almost everyone sees this as simply unseemly.

Now, maybe this is all a case of rape culture subversion. How often do those in positions of power turn a blind eye to teenage girls being raped? When Archie comes home, upset after his relationship is revealed to his father, his dad hugs him and reassures him that he did nothing wrong. We have seen this play out countless times on Lifetime movies of the week or “Law & Order: SVU,” almost always with the genders flipped. A mom reassuring her teen victim/daughter that she did nothing wrong. However, I take issue with the lack of concrete action by the adults on the series. Why are they not taking this to the principal, much less the police? Why is it that the only character who suggests Miss Grundy should be criminally punished is Betty’s “unhinged” mom, (she is overruled by Betty, who threatens emotional blackmail)? Ultimately, the adults allow Grundy to leave, perhaps to do this all over again in another small town.

In fact, it reminds me of a strikingly similar storyline on “Dawson’s Creek,” which aired on the CW’s precursor, the WB. I distinctly remember rooting for Pacey and his teacher’s illicit romance during season one, now nineteen years ago (boy, that statement made me feel old). Under the cover of “boys have hormones,” the criminality of this relationship did not register to my teenage self. Maybe (probably) teens of today are more savvy than I was, but I would hate for them to see the lack of consequences to Miss Grundy’s actions as tacit approval.

Rape culture is addressed in other “Riverdale” story-lines. We learn that the high school football team has been ranking girls and slut-shaming them on social media. When Veronica is shamed and accused of giving the star quarterback a sticky maple (don’t try to picture what that is), she doesn’t shrink in fear. Instead, she devises a plan to expose the boys responsible. With the help of Betty, Veronica learns which other girls have been victimized and shunned by the football players. This includes Ethel Muggs, otherwise known to viewers as #justiceforbarb on “Stranger Things.” She is one of several girls who, despite not doing anything sexual with one of the jocks, was cruelly ranked and ostracized by the football players.

In theory, the revenge scenario and take-down of these disgusting boys is viscerally exciting and feels like it could have been a feminist call-to-action. Coupled with the solidarity between the female characters in this episode, my immediate reaction was to praise the series. It brings to mind the feminist fierceness of Veronica Mars. But where “Riverdale” fails, is that each of these incidents involve girls who did not have any sort of sexual dalliance with the jocks. This is to say, it is only slut-shaming and worthy of a takedown if the girls in question did nothing that one could refer to as “slutty.”

Why can’t a girl enjoy a sexual experience with a boy, and still call that boy out for slut-shaming her? If he gains points for his “conquest,” why does she inevitably lose? I would have much preferred Betty and Veronica champion a girl who engaged in sexual acts with a boy. I would have loved for them to acknowledge that this girl shouldn’t be shunned, and that it is the boy’s behavior afterward that should be punished. One realistic element is said boy’s return only a few episodes later. In a culture where a Stanford swimmer’s future is more valuable than that of the unconscious victim he violated (or his potential future victims), this seemed spot-on.

The show’s attempts at intersectional feminism are clumsy at best. It is encouraging to see an African American female mayor, especially in a post 2016-election world. When the mayor’s daughter, Josie of the Josie and the Pussycats, comes on screen, you instantly want to see more of her and her squad. They proudly wear their cat ears like Pussy Hats and strive to find their artistic voices. But as soon as generic white-boy Archie comes to band practice, he ruins everything with his mansplaining. He then changes the lyrics to their song for the (admittedly) better. This scene moves the plot forward, but it also removes agency from these young women of color in the process. Later in the season, Archie’s romantic and artistic connection with one of the “cats” causes in-fighting among the young women; this pitting of women against each other is well-tread (and tired) territory. The only plus side is that Archie eventually gets dumped.

When it comes to sexual identity, there is Kevin, Betty’s out BFF. I wanted him to be more than the stereotypical gay best friend trope. So far, he’s the gay best friend whose sexual moments have only served the plot (and have often been interrupted by dead bodies). He does seem to have a supportive Sheriff father, which could lead to some rich stories, but for now I can only hope there’s more potential to this character than just as the snarky sounding board for Betty. And let’s not forget Jughead, who began as an asexual hero to an underrepresented audience, but whose character is now in a heteronormative (albeit, very chaste) relationship with Betty.

Finally, we have Cheryl Blossom, twin sister to the murdered Jason Blossom. The Regina George of “Riverdale,” she wields her popular-girl power for good and evil, often in the same episode. Cheryl brings to mind Cordelia Chase, she is a rival and antagonist that may become one of the Scooby Gang before too long. It’s unclear if she will ultimately prove to be villain, hero, both, or neither. Her tenuous friendship and rivalries with Betty and Veronica evolve in each episode. At least she is allowed a level of complexity and power not often seen in female characters.

In this first season, which comes to an end on May 11th, the show takes one step forward, two steps back. Without knowing what the last few episodes hold, I can only say that I wish its small strides tackling rape, gender, feminism, and sexuality were instead large leaps. The opportunity for something more groundbreaking is there, but again and again, the show punts. Lastly, can we please see more of Josie and the Pussycats? Especially if those scenes have nothing to do with milquetoast Archie.

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