Spoilers for Riverdale seasons one and two.
Last night Riverdale approached a social issue with a new level of gravity. For the most part, the show handles realistic issues as elements of melodrama: almost everything that happened in season one traced back to the overarching murder mystery. The show introduces Polly’s teen pregnancy, Ms. Grady’s pedophilia, and even Cheryl’s quest to reclaim her independence all within that frame.
There is, however, one issue that both seasons attempted to tackle: sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. In season one, the story unfolded in a stereotypical way, painting with a wide brush and introducing a new character (Ethel) before personalizing it. Some of the male jocks at Riverdale begin slut shaming Veronica, Ethel, and others all over the school. The girls get their power back through blackmail, public shaming, and a weirdly sexualized physical attack. Promos for the episode focused on Betty and Veronica in their bathing suits and lingerie. Kevin references the incident as part of Betty’s “BDSM sexuality” during season two.
Cheryl Blossom And The Very Bad Day
SPOILER ALERT: ⏰ This topic is something that really hits home for me, and I felt it was important to address the issue and provide resources… So I made this PSA. Head over to my YT channel for more on why this is important to me & BTS. Thank you @bioreus for the help! ❤️ pic.twitter.com/wA9FvVsw57
— Madelaine Petsch (@madelainepetsch) November 9, 2017
Episode 2.5, titled “When A Stranger Calls”, does what season one couldn’t: it shows assault without fetishization. Nicholas St. Clair, Veronica’s New York ex, shows up with a pocket full of drugs and a head full of dark intentions. He then attempts to sexually assault first Veronica, then Cheryl.
Choosing Cheryl and Veronica as victims of the attempted assault shows that assault affects everyone. Both girls are in control of their bodies, extremely confident, and unafraid of their sexuality. The choice shows that assault can happen to anyone—the only stronger choice would be a male victim. Cheryl feels anger even though she was “saved” before her attacker could “do anything”. Veronica immediately feels guilty for allowing Nicholas into their lives. Veronica and Cheryl react very differently, but neither is right or wrong.
Betty Cooper: Assistant to the Vigilante
Betty sends the black hood after Nicholas when she discovers what he tried to do. The audience then must choose between cheering for Betty (which by extension means cheering for the Black Hood to murder someone), and mourning that Cheryl will not get the justice she so desperately needs for closure.
Betty attmepted to help Kevin similarly two episodes ago in “The Watcher In the Woods”. She went over his head to tell his father that he was cruising in the woods while the unknown serial killer was on the loose. This episode had a happier ending. Sheriff Keller started talking honestly with Kevin about his homosexuality, and showed that he cares for his son. This particular topic can easily become part of the melodrama or kept as a “personality quirk”, but Riverdale is inching towards open communication about something that still presents a challenge for many teenagers struggling with their identity.
Riverdale is not necessarily a smart show, however it is certainly a fun one so far. If it keeps taking steps in this direction it could even become a good one. Considering its target audience it certainly has somewhat of a responsibility to do so.