The Riverdale Universe Has Always Been Trash At Representation
Riverdale has everything I'm looking for in a television show: melodrama, abs, three serial killers working together, a gritty reinterpretation of beloved oaf Jughead, a gangster named Sweet Pea, and evil nuns. It's my favorite bit of escapist fluff, which is why I was so disappointed when I recently realized that their treatment of people of color on the show is hoo boy, not good.
In a statement on Twitter, Vanessa Morgan, who plays Toni Topaz on the show, said that as the only black series regular, she is also the lowest-paid actress. She went on to say she was, "Tired of how black people are portrayed in media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous or angry people. Tired of us also being used as sidekick non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show."
Morgan's statement gave me that Usual Suspects mug drop moment where I looked back at all of the minority characters on Riverdale and realized the Archie Comics universe is still not a great place for people of color. The original Archie Comics were whiter than the audience of the 700 Club, so when they converted the show to television, the Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a gay Latinx man, vowed to make them more inclusive. They changed many character's races from their original incarnation, but most of the time, when they chose to make a character a person of color, they also made them a villain.
The Lodges were changed from snooty WASPS to Latinx mobsters. There are seven black male characters across the three Archie TV shows currently airing (Riverdale, Katy Keene, and The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina). Two of them are drug addicts, one starts the show in prison, and one is in the wizard version of prison, one is a dubious businessman, and one is a huge misogynist. The most positive portrayal of a black man in the Archie TV Universe is, I guess, Pop Tate, whose name is pop because he pops up once every ten episodes to give some beautiful white kids advice and then magically disappears into the basement of the diner until needed again.
Chuck Clayton was the only black man in the Archie comics, and he's been a recurring character since 1971. In the comics he was an artist, a football player, and a good friend of Archie's. Riverdale made him into a misogynist pervert and then kicked him off of the show after two seasons. Chuck's longtime girlfriend, Nancy Woods, was one of only two black women who appeared consistently in the Archie Comics, and she never even made it onscreen.
Black women don't fare much better in the Archie TV universe. They yeeted Sierra McCoy right off of Riverdale when Josie left even though she's still the stepmother of a remaining cast member. The two other black women in Josie And The Pussycats also unceremoniously disappeared from the show at the beginning of season two even though Val was a pretty prominent character in the first season. She dated Archie before she poofed into nonexistence.
Josie, by far the most prominent black character in the Archie TV universe, didn't get a lot of interesting story arcs on Riverdale. It wasn't until she crossed onto Katy Keene and was a member of the central cast that the character was really done justice. And when Vanessa Morgan announced that she was the lowest-paid series regular, I was honestly surprised to learn that she was a series regular. Her character mainly serves to stand behind her white girlfriend, nodding. I can't recall a single Toni Topaz central storyline ever in her three seasons on the show.
She's the only teenage series regular whose parents have never been introduced. Her relatives on the Riverdale wiki are listed as unnamed great great grandfather, unnamed uncle, and Thomas Topaz, her grandfather who shows up for one episode and then ... dies? I guess. He was never heard from again.
Even the POC that are front and center in the show every week (like the Lodges) just aren't as fleshed out as the rest of the cast. Betty and Jughead's white parents both started the show as antagonists. Jughead's Dad was an absent alcoholic, and Betty's Mom was mean and uptight, but later she was a straight-up cult member (because, well, Riverdale). They've both been given redemption arcs in recent seasons.
Jughead's Dad cleaned up and became sheriff of Riverdale. Betty's Mom is still terrible, but her behavior is usually contextualized as a "she'll do anything to protect her family, even treat her family like shit" mentality. The Lodges are just evil--no real reason, just generally bad people who love money. For two seconds this season, it seemed like maybe Hiram Lodge was going to get redeemed, and then he straight up shot a guy.
The Lodges are the chewy soap opera center of Riverdale. If there is a main antagonist of the show beyond serial killer after serial killer that keeps getting thrown at us, it's Hiram Lodge. Mark Consuelos is so good at giving bad-guy monologues that it's all they've let him do. His character hasn't had the opportunity to grow because they keep throwing more layers of evil on top of the performance. One more season and the man will be a Batman villain.
I'm not saying that all minority characters should only be good guys. That wouldn't make any sense, especially on Riverdale, where most characters have an evil streak in them. It's just that Betty's mom's behavior is contextualized by her past. She grew up in a poor part of town and wants to reinvent herself as the impossibly perfect WASP she idolized growing up. Jughead's dad was abandoned by his father and struggled to connect with his own son because of that. Hiram was just always kind of a dick. That's his backstory.
I believe that Archie Comics thinks it's doing a great job at representation; arguably, it's doing way more than predecessors like Gossip Girl, Awkward, and Dawson's Creek where all of the black people were invisible, I guess? That said, making a show more inclusive shouldn't mean adding a bunch more drug addicts and gang members so that people of color have roles to play. Or, adding people of color as side characters and then promptly forgetting about them forever when they no longer serve to prop up a more important lead. Or forgetting to give them any motivation or background.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa posted a public apology to Vanessa Morgan on Instagram. "She's right. We're sorry, and we make the same promise to you that we did to her. We will do better to honor her and the character she plays. As well as all of our actors and characters of color." Hopefully, this is true, and we can see some growth in season five of Riverdale. If they can keep bringing Jason Blossom back from the dead, I'm sure It won't be that hard to get The Pussycats back on the show?
Top image: Warner Bros. Television