Problems in Riverdale: Formulaic Tropes, Bad Boys Edition
When I first saw that The CW was going to produce a show around my favourite childhood comic, I was thrilled but hesitant. I love a good teen-drama show — the melodrama and high tension mixed with angsty love connections is my jam. However, these shows — typically airing on The CW, MTV, or ABC — all follow common problematic character archetypes and plot devises, and Riverdale is not an exception.
My first thought with Riverdale, before the show premiered, was “how are they going to play the love triangle?” It’s a dated concept that, even before the reboot, the comics didn’t really want to play with. Betty and Veronica were sometimes friends or sometimes rivals who hung out together. It never stuck either way. And growing up with Archie comics, it felt like you had to choose a favourite of the girls…and for what? Archie’s favour? It never made sense to me why I would want that competition over a guy who was “a catch,” but was honestly my least favourite character. As a young, female reader of the comic, I never understood the appeal of Archie; He’s a boring guy who seems swell, but is a closet narcissist (he named their band after himself, for god’s sake). Both girls could do so much better than him!
So colour me impressed when the first episode aired and the Betty and Veronica relationship became the best part of the whole show. Veronica, in the classic comics, was a stuck up rich girl who never seemed to fit into the small town environment of Riverdale. In the show, that’s the old Veronica. She saw that, after her white-collar criminal father was imprisoned, she also needed to change her ways. And when she meets Betty, she immediately takes a shining to her and respects Betty’s lifelong crush to step away from Archie. Sure, Veronica had her slip up at the end of the first episode, but she also apologized to Betty and admitted it was the worst thing she could have done to someone she wants to be friends with.
In episode three, “Body Double,” the girl power continues when Betty and Veronica team up to end the serial “slut shaming” certain members on the football team partake in. When Veronica’s date with footballer Chuck Clayton ends with him shaming her on social media, Betty finds several girls at school, including Ethel Muggs, who have been through the same thing with Chuck and other members of the sports team. They also find out that that the boys keep score over all the girls they “date” in a book — think the Burn Book from Mean Girls and the Pi Sigma frat basement tally board in Veronica Mars combined into one shitty, exploitative nightmare.
Riverdale has taken liberties in changing some things from the white-bred comics to be more inclusive: Veronica Lodge is Latina, Reggie Mantle is Asian-American (and is more of a jock than practical joker), and our favourite band Josie and the Pussycats consists exclusively of Black girls. All of these changes are fantastic and represents a more inclusive landscape that the earlier comics didn’t. But the changes they made to Chuck are not something that I can excuse.
In the comics, the character Chuck Clayton was one of a handful of African-American characters in the town. Like in the show, he’s a great football player whose dad happens to be the coach. He was friends with fellow teammate Archie, and in the early 1990s, the writers added an interest in cartoon illustration to add dimension to him as a character. Chuck was also the only one in a steady, committed relationship. So to see him changed into a one-dimensional jock, serial dater, and sexual predator is absolutely appalling. The writers of the series chose to alter Chuck so much that he only resembles the sweet character he is in the comics by superficial standards.
I get that Riverdale is a “gritty,” realistic take on modern teenage life, but so far it has relied on the old and played out teen-drama trope of star athletes only wanting power and sex. (Of course, our boy Archie is the exception to this and is blamelessly ignorant of the team’s actions against women.) The show’s version of Chuck isn’t even a justifiable copy from his character in the comics — he’s a completely different person. So, I ask, why choose Chuck to be this menace?
Riverdale is a hub of references to the comics; nothing really deep that only die-hards will get, but still heavy with character callbacks. When an Archie comic fan sees Dilton Doiley or Ethel Muggs in passing, it is meant to bring on a surge of nostalgia that the writers want from these viewers. Readers of the comic will see Chuck, know about his connections to football (Kevin Keller in the show says dating the varsity football coach’s son in Riverdale is “like dating a Kennedy”), get the reference, and move on. That’s clearly all the work the writers needed to do to hook fans and acknowledgment his identity in the comics.
My problem with this episode is not only the drastic changes they made to Chuck Clayton, but how the character changes center around the story of Betty and Veronica taking down those involved in the “play book.” After Betty publishes in the school paper the article she wrote about the attacks on the girl, shit obviously hits the fan. The voice over (by Jughead) says that,
“…given Betty’s article, [Principal] Weatherbee needed a sacrificial lamb, needed to make an example of someone. So after Hermione Lodge negotiated a lesser sentence for two avenging angels, coach Clayton — to save his job, to save the school’s reputation — was forced to cut his own beloved son and his goon squad from the team.”
And that’s exactly who Chuck Clayton was to the showrunners; a sacrificial lamb. Riverdale’s version of Chuck is served to amplify Betty’s story and not standout as his own character. What Chuck and the other football players in the show did to their female classmates is absolutely unforgivable, but there was no reason for it to be Chuck Clayton, known for being the only black male student in the comics, to be the villain. Reggie Mantle, Moose Mason, and the deceased Jason Blossom were all a part of the “play book,” but none of them were mentioned or cut from the team as a part of the “goon squad.” They must matter more to the overall story than Chuck.
And it could be noted that this has become routine for The CW, where on The 100, a blonde, white girl took authority from a man of colour and knocked him down a peg in the process.
Betty’s heroics are not the only moment in the episode where a white saviour came in to the rescue. A side story in “Double Take” was Archie learning some tools of the trade from Josie and the Pussycats by observing their practice sessions. Lead singer Josie McCoy has a great moment when she tells Archie that, because the Pussycats are a group of African-American women, they have to work twice as hard as he does as a white man to be noticed for their work. It’s an amazing moment that was handled simply, yet so well…but didn’t last. When the Pussycats are having some problems writing lyrics, Archie interjects (after Josie told him to watch silently) with some words of wisdom and saves the song! Thank god.
Riverdale has been a great program for showcasing girl power: Betty and Veronica are an incredibly strong duo and best friends, every promotional photo we get, Josie (played by Ashleigh Murray) is included, and each episode so far has featured the Pussycats rocking out! The story of boys bullying girl by “slut shamming” them is a real problem young people face, which I’m glad they did (in theory). But the series so far still has its missteps that are typical for shows of a similar style, and the good can’t always outweigh the bad.
This show is meant — not even for the casual reader of the Archie comics — but people who have only leafed through a double digest and have a loose grasp of who are the characters, their relationship, and their roles in the comics. The series is meant to deliver for everyone — from super fans to people who have only heard about the Archie canon in passing. And that’s okay! You shouldn’t have to start a new television show knowing the background and almost 80 year history of the comics. However, by reaching for a broad audience, The CW and Riverdale writers are relying on dated concepts that hurt a portion of that audience they are trying to amass.
I’ve had some issues with Riverdale since the series started, the big one being the teacher/student relationship Archie has with “Ms. Grundy” and her manipulating him. The t.A.T.u.-esque, faux lesbian kiss between Betty and Veronica — that was only meant to grab attention during the promos — was insulting and ridiculous (even with Cheryl Blossom calling them out for it). And with The CW’s history with gay characters, I’m not hopeful that Kevin or Moose are safe from a write’s wrath. All of these problems, including switch-Chuck, are systematic of the production companies following tired formulas that are, in the end, abusive to minorities. Everyone needs to know that this is not the real Chuck Clayton. He is not, as Betty put it, one of “those guys.” He was made that way for no reason other than ratings.
Originally published at womenwriteaboutcomics.com on February 28th, 2017