Riverdale is a fun, soapy drama with one major problem: a plot line that doesn’t recognize statutory rape for what it is.
I loved Archie Comics as a kid when Sundays meant being treated with a Betty and Veronica comic and a Slurpee after church. As an adult, I came to appreciate it as a uniquely American institution whose wholesome image belies a profound weirdness, a complex universe that chugged along under the radar for decades. Yes, Archie Andrews is an lovable, girl-crazy high schooler whose quaint hi-jinks have been chronicled in grocery store comics for seventy-five years. But the gang also time-traveled to CBGB’s to meet The Ramones and battled the Predator on spring break, Jughead came out at asexual, and Archie died taking a bullet for a gay politician targeted in a hate crime.
So if you thought The CW’s Riverdale, a dark murder mystery starring the Archie gang, was a bad idea, you underestimated the franchise. The Archie-meets-Twin Peaks formula totally works and the show is, in some ways, refreshingly progressive for teen media. With one huge exception: Riverdale‘s writers doesn’t seem to grasp that Archie is a victim of statutory rape.
While all the Archie characters have been given a modern makeover, none are as drastic as Miss Grundy, who has gone from white-haired spinster to young, sexy music teacher. In the pilot episode, Archie isn’t romantically linked to Betty or Veronica yet, instead he’s coming out of a summertime “forbidden romance” with Miss Grundy.
Except it’s not a forbidden romance, it’s rape. Archie is a child and Miss Grundy is a rapist.
Riverdale starts on the first day of sophomore year. I assume this is a strategic so if the show is successful, the characters have at least three seasons of high school drama to explore, because otherwise the Truman Capote-referencing characters don’t act like many sophomores I’ve known. Miss Grundy actively seduces Archie over the summer, when conventions suggest he would be fourteen or fifteen years old. In the pilot, at least, the encounter is played as a secret affair that adds layers of intrigue to the central murder mystery and drama to Archie’s quest of personal discovery. Miss Grundy agrees to tutor Archie in music under the condition that they keep it strictly professional, but the Episode 2 trailer implies that they do not.
Teacher-student “romance” storylines are a ubiquitous trope in television and film that rarely address the actual issue: an adult sexually exploiting a minor. Because we’re accustomed to seeing this trope used to heighten drama, display angst, or even for laughs, and because Archie looks nineteen years old (because actor K.J. Apa is nineteen years old), it’s easy to lump this plot line in with the rest of the juicy drama. But storylines like these have consequences, like the many statutory rape cases that are thrown out because the victims appeared “grown” or “willing.” Girls are perceived as seductresses, boys are lucky for “scoring” with a hot teacher. But children cannot consent to sex with adults.
Riverdale seems poised to deliver a lot of complicated, adult themes to teenagers in an entertaining, non-condescending way. The characters have been significantly diversified, there are both out and closeted gay characters, and, if actor Cole Sprouse gets his way, the show might include a groundbreaking asexual character in Jughead. And Riverdale isn’t the first star in the Archie universe to be successfully dark, edgy, and adult (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a must-read for horror comic fans). Riverdale doesn’t need to rely on a tired and damaging trope that normalizes rape.
I’ll be watching Riverdale and recapping it weekly with mini-podcast episodes on SpareMin. And I’m also hoping against hope that the show and The CW does right by its young viewers.
My recap of Chapter 1: The River’s Edge: