Okay, so I’ve watched the first three episodes of Riverdale, the new CW drama based on the Archie comics. Now, I remember Archie comics from when I was a kid in the 1960s, and frankly, they seemed archaic even then, with clean cut teens riding hot rods and hanging out at Pops Chock’lit Shoppe. In recent years, though, the comic books have been much more interesting and experimental, culminating in what I guess you would call a reboot that somehow manages to preserve what was best in old-time Archie while re-imagining the characters and their world into people and places you might actually believe existed in real life.
The funny thing is, I can recall people joking about a steamy Archie-based TV series on the CW called Riverdale since at least 2010. And now it’s a thing. The most recent episode, 1×03, is called “Body Double.” The main plot line of the episode revolves around slut shaming. I don’t want to focus on this plot line right now, so I’ll just say it didn’t work for me, though I will cut the show some slack, because it seemed their hearts were in the right place. Better luck next time.
I want to focus instead on the ongoing story line about Archie having had an (apparently sexual) relationship with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, who is a 30-ish hottie in this version of the Archieverse. The relationship is apparently over, although sometimes Archie and Miss Grundy look at each other in ways that suggest the fire is not entirely quenched. Miss Grundy is primarily concerned that Archie not tell anyone, for the sake of her career. Archie firmly insists he won’t, apparently out of a misguided sense of chivalry, but he wants Miss Grundy to give him lessons, because Archie has dreams of a songwriting career. In the most recent episode, Miss Grundy speaks with Archie’s father about Archie’s music, and persuades Mr. Andrews to support his son in his pursuit of his dream. We also learn that “Miss Grundy” has stolen the identity of an older woman (more like the Miss Grundy we know from the comics), and it is implied that she is involved in something shady, probably criminal. (In addition to sleeping with Archie, I mean.)
I used to practice law in the field of child protection, so I have some opinions about all this:
1. Thirty-year old adults taking sexual advantage of sixteen-year old high school students is a thing that happens. It’s deplorable, but it happens. Given that it happens, it is better if we as a society acknowledge that it happens, rather than pretend it doesn’t. Telling stories and performing dramas depicting it is part of the way we as a society acknowledge that it happens, and encourage discussion about how to deal with it. So, good for Riverdale.
2. That being said, you can’t ignore the flip side of this, which is that Riverdale is serving up the sexual exploitation of a teenager as mass entertainment. If Riverdale, or anyone else, wants to do that, it’s on them to prove that their purpose is more than mere titillation. A good way to prove that would be to: a) depict such a relationship honestly and realistically, and b) depict the consequences honestly and realistically. And with regard to consequences, if a show has a teen audience, its producers owe it to those teens to model some good advice on what to do if they or someone they know is being exploited by an adult.
3. The Archie/Miss Grundy storyline isn’t over yet, and we owe Riverdale the benefit of the doubt until it finishes telling the story. So let’s all hope that the best work Riverdale does in terms of informing and enlightening its audience is still to come.
4. All that being said, I’m troubled up front by the fact that in this storyline, the adult is a woman. Do some older women take sexual advantage of teens? Yes, they do. This is undeniable. But it is also true that in over 90% of cases of sexual exploitation of teens, the adult is male, irrespective of whether the teen is male or female. Riverdale is reminding me of the days of Fatal Attraction, which inspired so many other movies and TV episodes about crazy, violent, stalker-y exes who were women threatening men, in utter defiance of the fact that crazy, violent, stalker-y exes are overwhelmingly men threatening women. Why would anyone even do this gender reversal thing? Is it that hard to admit that stalkers and abusers are overwhelmingly male? Why?
5. This brings us back to the issue of depicting sexual exploitation of teens honestly and realistically. A male perpetrator is much more realistic. Period. If that makes you uncomfortable, Riverdale, maybe you should just stay away from the topic of sexual exploitation altogether, since it’s apparently more than you can handle. What you should most definitely not do is shy away from realism and resort to a much more unlikely (admittedly not impossible) scenario for the sake of your own comfort, at the cost of potentially sending misleading messages to the teens in your audience (and the adults who care about them) about what kinds of risks they need to be aware of.
6. Or is there some other reason why the writers and producers of Riverdale want to tell this particular story? The scenario of a 16-year old boy who is such a hottie that his 30-ish teacher can’t keep her hands off him sounds suspiciously like a horny middle-aged male TV producer fantasy. Now, being a (more than) middle-aged man myself, I understand the allure of fantasizing about how great it would be to have a young, strong, virile, 2%-body-fat body again. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, Mr. Middle-Aged Man, you are not, in fact, a 16-year old boy. You have much more life experience, confidence, wisdom, and a very different set of life circumstances. And that is why 16-year old boys are typically not willing to do the kinds of things you like to fantasize about, and playing out a middle-aged man fantasy using a teenaged character in front of a teen audience is, well, pretty skeevy. Riverdale, I sure hope that’s not what you are doing.
7. If you really want to be brave and honest and groundbreaking, try this: imagine the victim is, say, Betty. In Riverdale, Betty is interested in the school paper. So how about if the perpetrator is a 30-ish male teacher who is the faculty advisor to the school paper? Let’s suppose he’s talking to Betty’s mother about what a promising future Betty has in journalism. Let’s suppose Betty’s mother likes and respects the teacher. And here’s Betty feeling like a) maybe she really does like the guy, b) maybe he’s good for her and her career ambitions, and anyway, c) if she tells anyone, there goes her career, and maybe even d) she’s afraid her mother won’t take her word over the teacher’s, seeing as how her mother respects him so much. Also, e) if it gets out, everyone in Riverdale will think she’s a slut. Now imagine Veronica finds out about this. Then Archie. Then Jughead. What will they say to Betty? Will any of them report the exploitation themselves?
8. Or, if you really mean to be brave and honest, and since Archie is your central character, how about Mr. Grundy instead of Miss Grundy? Same scenario as I just described, except: e) Archie is straight, but now confused about his sexuality and afraid if the town finds out, he’ll be pegged as gay. Bonus points for exploring the question of whether we think the exploitation of boys is a more heinous crime than the exploitation of girls, and whether that implies that a lot of us, deep down inside, still believe boys are born into the world to achieve great things, while girls are born into the world principally to gratify men.
9. Are these two storylines I just laid out too much for you, Riverdale? It wasn’t my idea to take on the topic of sexual exploitation, you know. It was yours. If you can’t bring yourselves to be honest, I mean, really honest, maybe it would have been better to tell some other kind of story?
Again, Riverdale hasn’t finished this storyline yet, and its creative people deserve the benefit of the doubt until they do. So I don’t mean to be passing judgment here, only to lay down some markers for what I consider the right and wrong ways to tell this kind of story. Frankly, three episodes in, I’m feeling pessimistic, but, hey, Riverdale could still surprise me. Here’s hoping.