‘Riverdale’s’ Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right?

March 31, 2017
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Riverdale is still in its first season, but it’s done well enough in its freshman year to garner a second season order from the CW. The show, led by showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Ashleigh Murray, Casey Cott and Ross Butler, has already made headlines for being an edgier take on the classic Archie Comics characters. People have likened the show to a Twin Peaks-meets-Archie, but I’d say it’s more like Twin Peaks-meets-Archie-meets-Gossip Girl-meets-Glee. It’s a murder mystery, but it’s also very aware of pop culture. Riverdale definitely lets you know the latter through the plethora of pithy witticisms (Maybe, if I’m being honest, the sheer amount of witticisms is sometimes to the show’s detriment.).

Coupled with Riverdale’s edginess and extreme self-awareness is its intense wokeness. I’m not just talking about the fact that the show has been on the right side of representation by portraying non-White versions of Josie, Reggie, Dilton, and Veronica (and technically, if we’re going by the casting of half-Samoan Apa, a non-white Archie as well). I’m talking about the show’s awareness of Black cultural and social issues as well as its representation of Black characters. I’m a fan of the show, but even I have to admit that it desperately wants to be liked. But does it deserve it, particularly where its treatment of its Black characters are concerned? As a Riverdale watcher and as a superfan of Archie Comics in general, let me lead you through a grading process to see just how woke Riverdale is.

Riverdale’s portrayal of Black characters

The show wants you to know that the town of Riverdale isn’t the Whites-only city it used to be in the comics during the ‘40s. Case in point are Reggie and Dilton being Asian, Veronica being Latina, and Josie and her Pussycats being Black. Even Pop Tate has been racebent into a kindly old Black man, and long-suffering school principal Mr. Weatherbee is now a thin, bald Black man instead of a portly White one.

The Black characters in Riverdale aren’t just the remixed ones, either. Classic characters like Chuck and his dad, Coach Clayton, and recent additions to the comic book canon like Valerie’s brother Trev have been added, as well as new characters like Josie’s mom, Mayor Sierra McCoy, and Josie’s father, Myles. Overall, the show is the picture of inclusion. However, Josie has been the most layered Black character yet; most of the others either haven’t been fleshed out enough (or at all), or they’ve been so completely altered that their core character traits are unrecognizable.

Take for instance, Chuck. Chuck is one of my favorite characters, and after seeing how he was portrayed, I was so mad I had to blog about it. In the book, Chuck is a guy who wants to be a comic book artist when he grows up and becomes so defined by his artistic abilities that he had a spin-off graphic novel solely about his misadventures in the world of cartooning called The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton, written by Black comic book writer Alex Simmons. Chuck’s girlfriend Nancy is also artistic (and also Black), and is usually the more reasonable one to Chuck’s whimsy.

But in Riverdale Chuck is portrayed as a creep who’s close to becoming a sex offender. He makes out with girls, then he harasses them all over social media. This kind of portrayal of Chuck is extremely irritating since the original character was far from this type of person. But what makes it even more egregious is that Chuck is the first Black teenage boy we meet–at least one with actual lines–in Riverdale. Why did that character have to be our first entryway into Riverdale’s Black side?

Funnily enough, the second Black teen boy we meet, Trev, is also in the same episode as Chuck. Yet, he’s made out to be the polar opposite; he’s kind, nice, and seemingly the sweetest boy you could find in a 30-mile radius. The penchant for showing Blackness in a virgin-whore duality doesn’t help Riverdale’s fervent wish appeal to all viewers.

Even worse is that in that same episode, Betty gets revenge on Chuck for all of the pain he’s caused, but she does it in the most obscene way possible. She chains Chuck to a hot tub, puts muscle relaxers in his drink, nearly drowns him, then when he finally caves and says what she wants to hear, she says, “Good boy.” Saying, “Good boy,” to a Black kid who’s been handcuffed is super problematic. I get the scene was supposed to be about female empowerment and girl power, but the optics—and the history of White women’s ability to wield life-ending power over Black men by virtue of their word—made the whole thing icky. Add to it the fact that Chuck was portrayed in a Mandingo-type way throughout the episode, and we have a mess on our hands.

That was probably the lowest point of the series thus far (well, if you’re not counting the tragically awful storyline of a fake Ms. Grundy committing statutory rape against Archie and both of them claiming it’s love). But there are other things to hold the show’s feet to the fire over, chief of which being the lack of development of the other Black characters who aren’t Josie.

Out of the Pussycats, Josie is the one who has been given the most screen time; Valerie has only just now started coming up the ranks, but only because of her relationship with Archie. Meanwhile, Melody still hasn’t spoken more than two words during the run of the series and Pop Tate and Mr. Weatherbee may have been racebent, but they also don’t say much either—and in the case of Pop Tate specifically, nothing at all. Pop Tate is a conundrum; even though it’s great to see more representation on screen, it’s also puzzling as to why he has to be characterized as a silent, kindly butler of sorts, even though he’s the owner of the teen hangout, The Chocklit Shoppe. Basically, Riverdale’s Pop Tate reminds me too much of Uncle Ben, and I don’t like it.

Also, where the heck is Nancy? Can we get Nancy in the show? Can we get other Black characters who aren’t in the Pussycats, related, or dating someone to be a part of the show? That’d be cool.

The inclusion of social issues

One area where Riverdale does well is its inclusion of social talking points. In one episode, Archie barges into a Pussycats practice session (in the dopey, well-meaning way Archie does things) to ask them if he could write their songs. Josie takes it upon herself to school Archie on the White privilege that allows him to think that he can just write songs for a Black group as if he understands the point of view the Pussycats are coming from. Josie breaks it down to him that he can’t understand what a group of three Black girls trying to make it in an industry that still rewards Whiteness might be going through, and she’s right. Archie wisely backs down, and I smiled at the entire exchange.

This is not the only time the show has made Archie out to be the archetypal White guy, what with Josie’s dad calling him out for not knowing some of the Black jazz greats. It’s in these moments where the show gives a sliver of what it could be if it decided to actually embrace more of the cultural melting pot it has within its own cast.

It would be great to see a show that dealt less with the murder mystery and more on just what Riverdale is like through the eyes of its non-White citizens. Despite the show’s multi-racial casting choices, it seems like Riverdale is still a mostly white town. It would be interesting to see slice-of-life episodes in which more of the issues affecting its non-White characters are brought to the forefront. To go back to Chuck and Nancy, one thing I loved about them in the comic book was that they, in their own semi-wordless way, showed what it’s like to be made into a “token” based on where you live or where you go to school. That kind of experience has yet to be portrayed in Riverdale, and I think there are plenty of characters on the show who could speak well to the feeling of isolation. Even more interesting would be to see life through the eyes of Josie’s mom, since she’s the mayor of a majority-White town and has alluded in a prior episode about the politics of running—and winning—in that kind of environment.

The treatment of Archie and Valerie’s relationship

Archie and Valerie are iconic canon comic book characters, so seeing them together is fun. Seeing Archie and Valerie as the main couple instead of Archie and Veronica or Archie and Betty is also refreshing. Heck, it was just as refreshing in the comic book, since writer/artist Dan Parent seemed as intent as many of his readers to do away with the outdated Betty-Archie-Veronica love triangle.

What would have been great, though, is if Valerie had been characterized before she got with Archie. As stated above, she only began to garner screen time the closer she came in proximity to Archie. But Archie shouldn’t be what makes Valerie interesting to us. She should have been made interesting to us on her own merits, so for me, there was a lost opportunity there.

Still, I love seeing Archie and Valerie together. If anyone can temper Archie’s cute-yet-occasionally-frustrating-airheadness with a loving, guiding hand, it’s Valerie.

Final verdict and where Riverdale can go from here

Overall, I give Riverdale a B. It probably sounds generous after everything I’ve written, but I believe the show is currently in the “finding itself” stage. The growing pains are still ongoing, and I’m hoping that by the end of this season and the beginning of the next one, the show will figure out where exactly it wants to go.

My wishlist for Riverdale’s second season is that they come with Black characters who are defined by their personalities and merits (or even their flaws) and not just by who they’re dating or if they’re important as a plot point. What I’d love to see are more characters like Josie; the ones who are well-rounded, multi-layered, and just as developed as the show’s main cast.


Monique Jones is the owner of JUST ADD COLOR, an entertainment news site focusing on race and culture.

The post ‘Riverdale’s’ Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right? appeared first on EBONY.

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