Queer and Loathing in Riverdale
Minor spoilers for the Riverdale episode “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” ahead.
I started watching The CW’s Riverdale out of morbid curiosity and because I am inexplicably drawn to glossy teen garbage. The trailer made it out to be a teen drama murder mystery in the vein of something like Pretty Little Liars, an idea I was already pretty sold on, but it also featured one scene in particular: very quickly, Betty and Veronica share a kiss. Suddenly, I absolutely had to see it.
The scene is almost as quick in the episode as it is in the trailer, and has just about as much context. Betty and Veronica are trying out for the cheerleading team and, after the head of the team, Cheryl Blossom, is unimpressed with their performance, Veronica tells Betty to trust her before grabbing her face and kissing her on the lips. While I admit that my heart did flutter at seeing a bewildered Betty standing there with Veronica’s lipstick on her face, there is no justification for this act aside from a snide comment from Cheryl about how “faux-lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.” As the episode goes on, it’s never mentioned again.
Don’t get me wrong, I was never under any impression that Betty and Veronica would actually be romantically involved in the show; it would be too good to be true, and the show was clearly setting up the famous Betty/Archie/Veronica love angle (not love triangle—all three points connect in a triangle). What did surprise me, though, was the actress for Betty’s response to the idea that Betty and Veronica might get together.
“Queer-baiting” is a term used to describe when an LGBTQ+ character or relationship is teased or hinted at in a work, but without any intention of that implication ever paying off. This is generally done to appeal to or entice an LGBTQ+ audience without running the risk of alienating the presumed heteronormative audience. It is rare that a show will out and admit that it is doing this, but by explicitly saying, “there’s a group that very, very much wants it. It’s just in our show, they’re not romantically involved … They’re soulmates in a friends’ way. Our show is not meant to be fan fiction. We give them a taste of it when they kiss, but that’s all it is,” that’s exactly what Lili Reinhart has done.
The CW is no stranger to queer-baiting, just ask any fan of their hit series Supernatural. Even when they introduce LGBTQ+ characters, such as on The 100 or The Vampire Diaries, many of them often meet an untimely and tragic death (which is another issue entirely, but one I won’t be getting into here). When queer-baiting happens, LGBTQ+ identities are used like sprinkles, something interesting and attractive to be sprinkled onto the surface of the story; they should be used more like seasoning, integrated into the story with the purpose of enriching and deepening what is already present.
As for Reinhart’s statement, there’s another element of it that needs to be addressed: “Our show is not meant to be fan fiction.” I can look past the massive shade being thrown here at fan fiction as a concept—many people have very little respect for unlicensed derivative work, even if Riverdale is hardly anything more than sanctioned fan fiction itself. What I take issue with is the implication that two women would only become romantically involved in a fan work.
I’m willing to give Reinhart the benefit of the doubt: I don’t think she’s homophobic based off this single statement. She may not have meant that women would only date each other in fan fiction, but it is what she said. Lots of crazy things can happen in fan fiction, but women dating other women happens in the real world, too (and in our TV shows or movies, when we’re lucky).
This, in combination with the news that the character Jughead will not be asexual (as he is the current run of Archie comics), is not shaping up to be a good look for you, Riverdale. I’ll probably keep watching, though, because I watched all six seasons of Glee as an adult and thus have lost the capacity to feel pain.