It’s no secret that I have fallen head over heels in love with the new CW drama Riverdale, which is very loosely based on the Archie Comics (and by loosely, I mean the characters share little more than names with their comic archetypes). Thanks to Veronica, it has the glamour and high-fashion references of Gossip Girl. It’s “small town on a river” setting give it an updated Dawson’s Creek dimension. And the mystery surrounding the death of Jason Blossom gives it a little hint of Pretty Little Liars. In short, it’s the perfect teen drama, in a world filled with almost loves and an overabundance of superhero shows.
Even more than CW finally hitting the nail on the head for the first time since the end of Gossip Girl (long live Blair Waldorf’s headbands), Riverdale is quietly transgressive. In the third episode, Body Double, viewers are introduced to the football coach’s son, Chuck Clayton, who goes on a date with Veronica. After their date, he posts a poorly edited selfie of him and Veronica and claims that she was given a “sticky maple,” which is purportedly a “Riverdale thing.” Veronica, Betty, and Cheryl team up to get revenge and their search leads them to a group of girls who were all publicly accused of sleeping with guys on the football team. Veronica says, when hearing about the sticky maple (which they never do explain) “It’s a slut-shaming thing. And I am neither a slut nor am I going to be shamed by someone named, excuse me, Chuck Clayton. Does he really think he can get away with this? Does he not know who I am? I will cut the brakes on his souped-up phallic symbol.” In their search for more information about Chuck, Betty and Veronica find a black book, began by the deceased Jason Blossom, that keeps track of the teams “conquests.” These conquests are not girls the football team members have raped or had sex with. These conquests are girls they have spread sexual rumors about.
Riverdale makes it clear that the girls did not have sex with these football players and inadvertently slut shames girls who have had sex (or were raped) by men in similar situations. The girls are only worth defending because they didn’t engage in sexual acts, not because they are humans who shouldn’t be tallied in someone’s book, regardless of their sexual histories. Even still, after finding out about the book, Betty and Veronica go on a quest to get revenge. Betty discovered that her sister Polly, who has purportedly gone off the rails, was hurt by Jason Blossom. Betty’s desire for revenge ends in an odd scene, in which she holds the football player in a hot tub and pours maple syrup on his head, after giving him a muscle relaxant infused drink. Even Veronica thinks she has gone too far. Regardless, Riverdale shows Betty, an earnest teenage girl, taking on a powerful football player for his misogynistic sexual harassment. The depiction isn’t perfect, but it’s a powerful statement for a teen drama to make about the power of women (especially one that is chock full of statutory rape). For some, I would guess, this scene seemed like the visual reproduction of a revenge fantasy and a clear allusion to the Steubenville High School rape case of 2012. Football players and social media postings, but with retribution this time. A teenage girl spiking the drink of a football player to get revenge. Betty and Veronica took control of their situation and showcased an agency uncommon in depictions of teenage girls.
Riverdale, for all it’s problems, now sits aside Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as transgressive, feminist CW dramas. While relatively few (as ratings go anyway) people were watching, the CW has chosen to showcase women as single, career driven, and ready to take on their sexual harassers head on. It features women of color. And women who want to be writers and business people and mothers at the same time. And women, and importantly teenage girls, who stand up to their sexual harassers. While not fully sex positive, Riverdale’s allusions to Steubenville and sexual harassment revenge plot are refreshing.