The premier of Riverdale this month confirmed what I have intuitively known since I used to devour the comics my mother bought for her classroom — Archie is a feminist story1.
Although the premise of two smart, confident ladies endlessly pining after one goofy and indecisive boy is, on its face, demeaning — the Archie universe seems a lot more female friendly when you consider the choice and flexibility of characters, what really drives each story, and the wild diversity of plots forced by artistic constraints.
A feminist story is one that shows female characters2 that have agency and make significant choices about their life and desires. Both women and men are shown as full humans with various emotions, hopes and dreams outside of strictly defined gender norms. Basically it’s a story that accepts and shows that there is no one right way to be a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’.
To be sure Archie is not without its problems. How could it not, when at 78 years old it is the “most successful, longest running brands in the history of the comic industry. Archie Comics have sold 2 billion comics and are published in a dozen different foreign languages and distributed all over the world.”3 You don’t get that kind of ubiquitous reach without being universally family friendly and acceptable to the churches, teachers and other moral gatekeepers that buy the digests for their libraries. Until 2008, Archie seemed frozen in time and that was on purpose, with strict design and content restrictions set by the owners John Goldwater and Louis Silberkleit4. So while I cannot, and will not try, to defend the entire Archie cannon – I do believe that it has always had the underlying structure to grow into the feminist interpretation that we see in the 2015 Archie, 2016 Betty & Veronica and the Riverdale TV series.
It doesn’t take long when reading Archie to notice the surreal frozen and forgetful quality of Riverdale. The individual comic arcs are almost entirely self contained, with the events and facts of one having no effect on another (almost like they are in different universes…Archie Earth 2 twist!?). In part this was because the Archie comics were aimed at younger readers who were meant to be able to pick up any issue and understand the jokes without backstory, but it also aids in maintaining the strict character, design and plot restrictions.
Noah Berlatsky wrote for the Atlantic5 about Archie’s weird reality and comics scholar Bart Beaty’s study Twelve Cent Archie6 and I can’t say it better “As Beaty writes, ‘Since the comics lack any real sense of continuity, any given character may be a great bowler one day and a complete novice the next.’ In one comic, Betty and Veronica are incompetent bowlers, and Archie and Reggie have to teach them from scratch. In another story, Betty is ‘an expert bowler,’ Beaty says. In a third, she’s not an expert, but is nonetheless a good bit better than Archie. ‘As all Archie stories exist independently of all other Archie stories … this is not a case of Betty having improved her skills over time,’ Beaty explains. Rather ‘it is a reflection of the fact that different stories have different needs, and if it is narratively useful to have Betty excel at a sport, it is just as easy as having her fail at it.’ …There’s no history and no memory in Riverdale; the characters are archetypes adrift on an amnesiac gag-reel.”
In the endless reiteration of the Archie multi-verse allows us to see more sides of Betty and Veronica, as well as the rest of the gang. All of the characters, including the boys, are allowed to be simultaneously consistent and diverse versions of themselves – you know how they fit with each other but the details are allowed to vary. Most often Betty and Veronica are fighting over Archie rather than taking over the world – but almost just as often they are friends supporting each other, standing up for themselves versus the boys, pursuing non-Archie goals and trying out new skills7. In the repetition of characters that are recognizably themselves, but able to try and experience different things, be an expert bowler today and not tomorrow. I think it allows the reader – whether a young boy or girl – to also imagine themselves in a variety of contexts and versions of themselves. Over time it reinforces the idea that you can try new things and still be you; that external roles or a reputation as the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ girl, do not define/imprison you.
I’m actually with Archie here, why choose? Both characters at their most archetypal are fairly shallow reflections of the other, neither complete. The dichotomy between a sweet, wholesome girl and the sassy seductress has been repeated over and over in movies, books and TV, but what if instead of viewing Betty and Veronica as black and white choices, we saw them as two sides of a coin that make a complete woman — which is why Archie can’t bring himself to choose. (Though seriously Archie…wtf?) We can be a Betty or a Veronica whenever we choose – both have value.
I always got a thrill when Veronica would clearly and smartly state what she expects out of life and refuse to accept anything less. She is loud, demanding, willing to show her rage and express her opinions and then more often than not she wins socially – she gets the guy. Which of course shouldn’t be the only thing that a woman can want – but I think we can respect that Veronica is actively going after her desires – she is making a choice, and since it is over the strong objections of her father – a financially risky one.
Veronica thinks and expects a lot of herself, and, by extension, it gives us permission to do the same. The negative consequences of her scheming, manipulations and sometimes downright meanness are low. I think we are meant to laugh at, or dislike her, but in the endless reiteration of pratfall, predictable plots she consistently comes out on top through, cleverness, strategy and using every advantage at her disposal. She tells us it is ok to ruthlessly go for what you want, be annoyed and angry when you don’t get what you believe you deserve and demand that certain standards of treatment be met. Perhaps we all need a WWVD bracelet to bring out our inner Lodge.
On the other hand Betty challenges stereotypical femininity with her failures. She is defined by how hard she works at being perfect and how often this does not get her what she wants. She does everything ‘right’, she is agreeable, attentive, adoring and able to easily ignore her own needs. She is always available and understanding to all her friends, including Veronica who is often the cause of her pain. And while I think most of us admire these traits and believe that they are important to being a ‘good person’, Betty’s commitment to being sweet doesn’t seem to help her win Archie’s heart. Perhaps subtly telling all of us that we shouldn’t depend on the kindness of strangers either, that strictly adhering to feminine gender roles won’t get us what we desire.
This could position Betty as a bit of a doormat, but I admire Betty for the very same reasons. She is able to compete with another woman without vilifying or shaming her. Depending on the plot needs of the particular arc she sees Veronica not only as an opponent, but also as a person deserving of friendship and support. She is able to hold two conflicting ideas and emotions about a person simultaneously – this alone makes her a potentially complex and interesting character. Her understanding is not weakness, but shows strength of character and commitment to her ideals – despite seeing another way succeed. Though, in the endless retellings of the Archie-verse – sometimes she is just as manipulative and scheming as Veronica! Which is an upending of feminine ideals in its own way.
Betty, Veronica, Midge, Ethel, Cheryl, Josie, Valerie, Melodie and Sabrina in the comics, the women of Riverdale have always driven the plot with their choices and desires. Imagine if Archie were only conversations between Archie, Jughead, Dilton, Reggie, Chuck and Moose. Beyond Jughead’s desire for hamburgers and Reggie’s desire for chaos – the plots would be fairly dull and directionless.
Nowhere is this more true than in the latest iterations of Archie’s world. In the 2016 re-releases of the Archie and Betty & Veronica series as well as the just premiered Riverdale TV series it is obvious that the women are driving the story. In Archie, the series explores the complicated nature of friendships of all kinds. The story starts with Betty and Archie as a couple that has recently broken up and grown apart and though Archie moves on with Veronica, Betty doesn’t wait around – it was her choice to break up and she finds love elsewhere. In the Betty & Veronica series the conflict is not Archie but rather the Lodge takeover and closing of Pop’s, growing up and gentrification. Not only are these new series beautifully illustrated – they are deeper, more expressive and emotional retellings of classic relationships. I love them.
The deliciously snarky and campy Riverdale (streaming on the CW and Netflix internationally) is definitely led by the ladies. The believable friendship between Veronica and Betty, the surprising depth and angst of their characters with actual backstories and problems other than Archie, it shows the full realization of the characteristics I described above. My favorite encapsulation of this is when Veronica strongly comes to Betty’s defense while Betty struggles to maintain a pleasant demeanor while she is egged on by Cheryl during their River Vixens try out. Three strong women not even vaguely talking about a boy. Then right after this scene, when Betty is all too understanding of Archie’s refusal of her dance proposal and Veronica declares it “unacceptable Archiekins.” UHH I love it. There are also so many smaller nods to the changing times – Mr. Andrews accountant is out on paternity leave, Betty has already left town for the summer and met her literary hero, Toni Morrison, Josie is unapologetically ambitious and fiercely defends the right to tell her own story, and Veronica’s present parent is Hermione Lodge (not Hiram!). To say nothing of Archie’s sensitive non-manly brooding, Kevin’s confidently out persona and the potential for a TBA asexual character in Jughead — Archie is a feminist story that challenges gender norms and is just hitting its stride.
Catch Riverdale on The CW, Thursday Nights at 9pm, or on Netflix, with new episodes every Friday.