When The CW announced that it was bringing an adaptation of Archie comics to the small screen, I’ll admit that I was intrigued. Though the network has almost become synonymous with the words “teen drama,” Archie was certainly outside the typical genre fare that we’ve come to expect from their programming.
Later, when reports surfaced that Riverdale would have a Twin Peaks-esque twist and was being headed up by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the current Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics, I ear-marked it mentally as a show to watch out for. There’s a lot about the Archie comics that I admire, even if I consider myself more of a casual reader. The potential for the show, especially when it came to queer representation, was an exciting prospect.
Clearly, I should have known better.
On the surface, there’s a lot that Riverdale appears to be doing right — from seemingly nipping Betty and Veronica’s love rivalry over Archie in the bud, to casting an all black Josie and the Pussycats, to openly gay character Kevin Keller featuring heavily across the first season. But when you start to look closer, beyond the smokescreen of Riverdale’s eerie, murder-mystery core, the cracks begin to show.
Over the course of Archie Comics’ 75 year history, it has made it several times over, most notably with Kevin Keller’s introduction in 2010’s Veronica 202. Keller’s debut was so hugely popular that Archie Comics gave him his own series the following year, making him the first openly gay character with a solo series in mainstream comics.
But where Archie has arguably made its biggest strides when it comes to representation is with the recent revelation that Jughead Jones — long-time best friend of Archie Andrews — is aromantic asexual. It wasn’t anything too surprising, even to a casual reader. Jughead, from his introduction in 1941, had always seemed to be more interested in burgers than embarking on any kind of relationship with women or otherwise. For a time, this led to speculation amongst fans that the character might be gay, but once Chip Zdarsky confirmed Jughead’s asexuality, everything suddenly seemed to make a perfect kind of sense.
“They just didn’t have a label for it, so they just called him a woman-hater. But he’s not a misogynist — he just watches his cohorts lose their minds with hormones,” Zdarsky told fans during an Archie panel at New York Comic Con in 2015. “People have asked me if there is going to be a romance if I’m writing Jughead, because I’m very romantic, and the answer is no, because there is enough of that in Archie. I think something like asexuality is underrepresented, and since we have a character who was asexual before people had the word for it, I’m continuing to write him that way.”
It was little wonder, then, that there was more than a kernel of hope amongst fans that Riverdale might just take its cue from the source material and take a positive representation of aromantic asexuality from the page to the screen. Certainly, Jughead’s actor, Cole Sprouse, was throwing himself behind the idea wholeheartedly. And his enthusiasm, and willingness to learn and explore asexuality in preparation for the role was emboldening.
So, when a recent interview with Sprouse revealed that, rather than being aromantic asexual like his comic counterpart, Jughead would instead be embarking on romances — yes, plural — with women, it wasn’t surprising that fans were angry and more than a little disappointed. On several occasions throughout the Archie comics, Jughead has made it explicitly clear that not only is he asexual, he is also averse to dating and romance. That erasure of the aromantic aspect of Jughead’s asexuality, in favor of making him a ‘heartthrob,’ is more than disappointing. It’s egregious.
But Sprouse, whilst conceding that the decision was out of his control, reassured fans that he would continue to fight hard to represent Jughead the way that the character deserves. “Asexuality is not one of those things in my research that is so understood at face value, and I think maybe the development of that narrative could also be something very interesting and very unique and still resonate with people, and not step on anyone’s toes,” Sprouse said. “I think sexuality, especially, is one of those fluid things where often times we find who we are through certain things that happen in our lives.”
And though Sprouse’s comments to Hollywoodlife may keep a small spark of hope alive, those underrepresented by the media, as anyone identifying as aromantic, asexual, both or otherwise certainly is, knows with an almost grim certainty that it will remain a distant hope — though it by no means should be, considering the precedent set by the comics themselves. But where Sprouse has been vocal about Jughead’s sexuality, Riverdale‘s creators have been suspiciously silent in the face of fan outcry — and that silence continues to speak volumes.
That Jughead’s aromantic asexuality is not something that Riverdale has embraced is more than a missed opportunity. It’s symptomatic of a far larger issue across the television landscape. That when it comes to a perceived alternative lifestyle, outside the societal norm of heterosexuality, that there is only room for one version of it at any given time.
We need only look at the way Betty and Veronica have been treated within the promotional material for Riverdale, the premiere episode, as well as comments made during press for the show, as further evidence for that.
When a Riverdale trailer titled ‘Stranger’ debuted, it didn’t escape the notice of fans that Betty and Veronica appeared closer than we’d ever seen them before, sharing a fairly charged kiss. It kicked into high gear a conversation that we might see a more fluid sexuality for them both, one that they would explore together and outside of their love for Archie.
But before the show had even had a chance to debut, that possibility was shot down by actress Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty.
“They’re soulmates in a friends’ way. Our show is not meant to be fan fiction,” Reinhart told HollywoodLife. “We give them a taste of it when they kiss, but that’s all it is. People love Beronica and they want to see them together, but that’s just not our show.”
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that two characters with a friendship as close as Betty and Veronica’s might consider each other platonic soulmates, but when the show included their kiss within their promotional material it chose to bait fans that might be invested in seeing a more complex, perhaps queer, representation of that relationship.
Queerbaiting isn’t an unfamiliar concept for those of us searching for more encompassing, nuanced representation of sexuality. As someone who is rather fluid in her attractions, I am constantly and consistently fighting and hoping for more from my media, and the dismissal of the importance of what Betty and Veronica’s relationship could represent left a bitter taste in my mouth. Especially the idea that anything outside of heterosexuality for either of them should be left to the realm of fanfiction, delegitimizing the idea that they could have attractions that are more complex than a heteronormative expectation of romantic relationships.
Kevin Keller need not be the only queer character on Riverdale. Betty and Veronica can be attracted to each other, and Archie, at the same time — those attractions are not mutually exclusive. And Jughead can experience confusion about his lack of sexual or romantic attraction to either the same or opposite sex, without needing to explore it in a way that requires him to conform to the expectations of a sexually charged teen drama.
Of course the chance still remains, as Sprouse espoused, that should Riverdale continue past its freshman season it might embark on an arc exploring Jughead’s sexuality, before eventually revealing that the character is aromantic asexual.
But for now, Riverdale is sending a very clear message that there is only room to explore one facet of queerness within its show. And though we can be thankful that Kevin Keller appears to have a significant part to play during the series, he certainly shouldn’t be the token representation within a cast that has the potential to be more diverse than its allowing itself to be.
Riverdale has a unique opportunity to take the gauntlet that Archie has thrown down, and explore teen sexuality in a way that we have yet to experience on a primetime television series. Confusing, questioning, and not nearly as straightforward as the media would have us believe.