Riverdale: blending teen drama & diversity

Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, K.J. Apa as Archie Andrews, Ashleigh Murray as Josie McCoy
Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, K.J. Apa as Archie Andrews, Ashleigh Murray as Josie McCoy Image: http://junkee.com/riverdale-diversity-teen-tv/103523

I read a lot of Archie comics growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s, specifically the Betty & Veronica Double Digests. I used to trade them with my best friend. So, despite being a grown woman, I was intrigued by the CW and Netflix’s series Riverdale. I may or may not have binge-watched the entire first season of this teen show in less than a week.

I had a huge attachment to the characters in the Archie comics. However, I didn’t always see my family or social circle reflected in them (except for Archie #403 where Archie and the gang attend the Calgary Stampede). The only recurring people of colour in Archie’s group of friends were Valerie Smith, Chuck Clayton, his girlfriend Nancy Woods, and his dad Coach Clayton. Chuck and his dad were athletes, with Chuck having artistic aspirations. I remember my dad chuckling and saying to my Mom, “of course the black guy is an athlete,” not a fan of the stereotype but still encouraging me to read something I loved. Riverdale, where the Archie comics are set, was not exactly diverse. However, this changed in the 2000’s with the addition of characters such as Raj Patel and Kevin Keller.

I was a bit dubious when I first heard that they were making a television adaptation of the comics. I just assumed it would be another boring high school drama. There would probably be beautiful, white actors with a one or two token minority friends. Betty and Veronica would probably be catty frenemies. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is the executive producer of Riverdale and the chief creative officer for the Archie Comics. He is also the son of Nicaraguan parents. In Riverdale, the whole mainstream Archie universe has been reimagined. It’s filmed with saturated colours, dark themes, absurdities that are taken seriously, and with a more diverse cast of characters.

“If we’re going to do a show in the real world, it has to reflect the real world. And the real world is not 100 percent white.”

Many characters who were Caucasian in the comics are now visible minorities. Veronica Lodge is Latina. Reggie Mantle and Dilton Doiley are of East Asian descent. All of the members of Josie and the Pussycats are African American. K.J. Apa, who plays Archie, is half white half Samoan; although he does play a white character. In an interview with CBR, Aguirre-Sacasa said, “If we’re going to do a show in the real world, it has to reflect the real world. And the real world is not 100 percent white.” What I love about the inclusiveness of the cast and characters, is that none of it is on the nose. The characters are not defined by their ethnicity, but it still plays a role in their identities.

Stereotypes are often thwarted in how the families of colour are portrayed on Riverdale. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Camila Mendes who plays Veronica Lodge said, “The Lodge family is a much-needed departure from the underprivileged, sleazy Latino drug-dealers we’re used to seeing in entertainment. It’s rare that you see Latin families being portrayed as intelligent, sophisticated, and powerful entities.”

There are also many people of colour in positions of authority on Riverdale. The mayor of Riverdale is an African American woman. Principal Weatherbee is an African American man. The captain of the football team is a handsome guy of East Asian descent, so is Dilton Doiley the head of the local Ranger Scouts. Hermione Lodge, Veronica’s mother, is loving, intelligent, and capable.

There are a few times where racial identity has been dealt with head on. In the episode Chapter Three: Body Double, Josie puts Archie in his place when he offers to write songs for Josie and the Pussycats. She gives a very good explanation of white privilege, explaining that her group has to work harder to be taken seriously than a young Caucasian male like Archie. She ends by asking him “You think you can write my experience?” In the scene Archie appears to understand what Josie is saying, and both move forward with a deeper respect for one another. There has been some criticism that Josie has been relegated to token minority status; however, this may change as Josie’s role is expected to get bigger in season two.

No one bats an eye that the mayor is African American or that the handsome captain of the football team is of East Asian descent.

One notable exception to Riverdale’s overall inclusiveness is the treatment of Chuck Clayton’s character. In the series, Chuck is an entitled misogynist, playing into the notion of the sexually aggressive black man. The racial coding in a scene where Betty and Veronica force Chuck to admit to sexually harassing girls with the use of handcuffs and lingerie is problematic. Not every character of colour needs to be a protagonist, but there have been concerns raised over the reinvention of Chuck’s character as remorseless villain.

In Riverdale, everyone simply coexists and no one bats an eye that the mayor is African American or that the handsome captain of the football team is of East Asian descent. This is accepted as reality because it is reality. Facets of our multicultural society are being reflected in this teen drama. So when season two of Riverdale premiers on October 12th on Netflix, I will watch it. As a grown woman in her thirties, I will do my part to support inclusive casting and diverse storytelling (I will also enjoy all the drama, but let’s keep that between us).



Author: Maya Mohan

Maya is a writer, musician, and co-founder of Mosaic Times.