Riverdale Gets Social Justice Wrong

Riverdale, the campy, teen drama on Netflix, takes a stab at conveying a message of social justice… with a dull butter knife.

Veronica Lodge, a lead character, decides to momentarily utilize her position as an alpha to stand up to Cheryl Blossom’s (the head cheerleader of the River Vixens) bullying of the other girls, by commanding her to no longer address them as ‘sluts’.

Early on we see that ‘Riverdale’ is attempting to deviate from traditional “mean girl” teen dramas by incorporating a sense of moral responsibility in some of the characters.

There are some inconsistencies to the writing, however, that suggest these sporadic outbursts are more likely pandering rather than lending credibility to having an overall social justice objective.

In my personal opinion, fiction writing doesn’t require political correctness at any level. Free expression is paramount to artistic creativity, however, once you summon a political agenda via a piece of writing, it’s imperative not to contradict yourself– that is, unless you can take the criticism.

In the opening episode, Kevin Keller happens to spot Archie Andrews in the house next door from his friend Betty Cooper’s bedroom window.

Kevin, being openly homosexual, exclaims that “Archie got hot” over the summer.

We then take notice that Archie has muscles, 6 pack abs and fits an archetypal image of media perpetuated ‘attractiveness’.  In fact, all of the lead characters fit a magazine standard of beauty, which rallies against, in some way, the ‘body positive’ movement’s struggle to dismantle these conceptions.

Veronica Lodge, who quarrels with her former NYC queen bee status and her new and unfamiliar feminist recreation, trips over her own hubris when confronted with the rape of a teenage boy by his older teacher Miss Grundy.

The writers of ‘Riverdale’ mimic a detestable normalization of child sex abuse in our actual society by underplaying the severity of Miss Grundy’s offenses. Veronica’s (and most of the other character’s) attitude towards the situation is playful and upbeat and act as it was no big deal.  Miss Grundy, you raped a child, you can’t just leave town and pretend it didn’t happen!

Aside from perpetuating unrealistic standards of beauty and downplaying child rape, ‘Riverdale’ doesn’t forget to deliver a bit of racism either.

Veronica decides to take a shot with Chuck Clayton, a black football player at Riverdale. Initially it seems as if ‘Riverdale’ is cruising the coastline of racial tolerance, but quickly jumps ship by almost immediately demonizing Chuck’s character as a stereotypical “jock” with no other interest but to humiliate and defile women.

In the process of retaliating against Chuck, Veronica and Betty Cooper seduce him, drug him, handcuff him in a hot tub and gradually increase the temperature in order to make him confess he was lying about sleeping with Veronica.

At a cursory glance it seems like female empowerment is “smashing the patriarchy”, however, amidst Betty’s somewhat psychotic break from reality where she envisions herself as her sister Polly, she asks Chuck if he’s ready to “be a good boy” and confess.

Be a good boy? Riverdale? Really?

Another overarching racism that the show encompasses is the marginalization of the minority characters.

Cheryl Blossom seems to be in it with her “buddies” Josie and the Pussycats, an all female, all black music act, but we rarely see any interaction on a social level with the band members and the all white clique. That is, until Archie takes an interest in Valerie.

Overall, I like the show, but it’s a little cringe-inducing when writers feel compelled to be overtly “hip” and “progressive” when they obviously fail to understand what hip and progressive actually are.

Aside from some pedantic, seemingly improvised writing, the show is entertaining despite its flaws.

Riverdale has officially been renewed for Season 3 and we look forward to watching.

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