What Archie and Riverdale Have to Say About Sexuality

The comic turned series has some hidden messages.

by Anne Rodeman

Archie was a comic book digest that debuted in 1941. It was set in the fictional town of Riverdale and followed the exploits of a red-headed teenage boy, the two girls who loved him, and their gang of pals. It has since been rebranded as a soapy CW drama that fancies itself Pretty Little Liars meets Twin Peaks and is trying to do what all CW shows have done: push the (sexual teenage) envelope. Let’s see how they’re faring.

Jughead Jones: Asexual for the Ages
Not surprisingly, the original Archie Comic series featured a very wholesome and binary take on teen sexuality (every character had a love interest or crush on a member of the opposite sex, end stop). The one exception was Jughead Jones, best friend to Archie. Jughead is famous for his signature hat, his ability to eat as may hamburgers as you can put in front of him, and his total and complete lack of interest in women (or men—more on that later). Over the years, the combination of his sartorial sense, his devil may care attitude, and his lack of interest in the female species granted him unofficial Queer Icon status. Now that the comic has been spun into a CW teen soap it’s not surprising that Riverdale is suddenly rife with mysterious happenings and a ton of horny teens. But Jughead???

Notorious loner and eccentric, Jughead Jones never had any time for women. He walked to the beat of his own drum and lived his life free of labels. For years, super fans had taken to message boards claiming that Jughead was gay (hot for Archie), asexual (not hot for anyone), or object sexual (hot for hamburgers). So people went nuts when Jughead kissed Betty Cooper in episode 6 of Riverdale; they screamed “Asexual Erasure” and “Heterowash” and pointed to the fact that Jughead’s asexuality was outright named in a 2015 comic (the Archie series that Riverdale producers have most pointed to as show-inspo). In the last few years, asexuals have become more visible as a sexual minority, but many television characters who display asexual behavior are often painted as broken. This could be the CW’s chance to have the first mainstream asexual character on television, but despite the hopes of Dylan Sprouse, who plays Jughead, the CW has promised that this season Jughead will have “romances with women.” The show has 7 episodes remaining and was just renewed for a second season, so asexual or not, here’s hoping Jughead gets the space to figure himself out.

Kevin Keller: The Gay Best Friend (with game)
Back in 2010 when Archie Comics rebranded (to keep the series current, hip, and inclusive), they launched a brand new character as part of their promotional campaign: Kevin Keller. He was to be the first openly gay kid in Riverdale. This was a huge deal since the comic was known for being such a sweet slice of wholesome 1950s American pie. The comic quickly folded Kevin into the Riverdale gang: he casually came out to Jughead over burgers, was accepted by the town, eventually got a boyfriend, and then his own comic book series: Life with Kevin. So I was pleased to hear that Riverdale would include Kevin and I hoped that Kevin’s sex life would get the same treatment as a straight character’s.

So far, so good:
In the pilot, Kevin tells Betty that Moose (a local lunkhead from the football team) propositioned him in the bathroom. Later that night we see Kevin & Moose at the edge of Sweetwater River, pre-hookup:

Moose: For the record, I’m not gay.
Kevin: Obviously not, Moose. You’re on the football team. But if you were gay what would you want to do?
Moose: Everything but kiss.
Kevin: I love a good closet case. So, let’s start with skinny-dipping and then see what happens?

Later, Kevin reveals that Moose has a girlfriend named Midge and wonders aloud to Betty and Veronica: “Sexuality is fluid, but can someone named Moose be that fluid?” It’s refreshing to see the Kevin-Moose hook-up handled so candidly. Teen dramas have had gay boys, but rarely are their exploits discussed so casually and without judgment.

In episode four, Kevin tells his dad (Sheriff Keller) that he’s taking Veronica to the drive-in to see Rebel Without a Cause. His dad looks puzzled and asks him:
“Is there not a nice gay kid at your school?”
“Yeah, there is. Me.”
Sheriff Keller chuckles and responds, “All right. No cruising guys tonight.”

I’m awarding Sheriff Keller “Best Use of Gay Vocab By a Dad”

While at the drive-in, we see Kevin getting the eyes from a member of the Southside Serpents (a gang from the wrong side of the tracks), who then corners him for a make-out session against the fence–and the camera doesn’t cut away. Teen dramas have historically concentrated on exploitative girl-on-girl liplocks (more on this later), and shied away from any real boy-on-boy action, so here’s to Riverdale: a show that introduced 3 queer characters (Kevin, Moose, and the mysterious Serpent, Joaquin) in the first four episodes.

But before you get too excited, it’s worth noting that despite Kevin’s undeniable gayness, the town’s comfort with his gayness, and the show’s commitment to making sure we know Kevin’s gayness equals sex with men, Riverdale still hasn’t figured out how to make him an important part of the action. Other than being the Sheriff’s son, Kevin isn’t a major player (truly 5th banana behind Jughead) and so Riverdale (like so many teen soaps before it) has fallen victim to an all too familiar trope: pigeonholing its gay character as the Quippy Best Friend (“And where did you get those thigh-high boots? They’re amazing!”). But at least Kevin is the Quippy Best Friend—Who’s Getting Laid.

The Lesbian Fakeout

Betty and Veronica of the comic are the original frenemies: best friends (blonde and brunette, natch) who are caught in a love triangle with the klutzy, red-headed, All-American Archie. Whether this slightly clueless copper-top is worth fighting over has been the eternal debate, but the BVA triangle is the foundation of the Archie comic universe so if you’re going to watch Riverdale, you’ve got to get on board. But in a slight twist, Riverdale has refashioned its heroines as allies rather than rivals (at least for the first 7 eps). And in its very first hour, Riverdale managed a scenario for B&V that the comic–in its nearly 80 years of publication—never once broached: a Betty-Veronica kiss.

Which isn’t to say the series is trying to redraw these two bedrocks of Archie loving Americana as lesbians, bisexuals, queer women, or even questioning women. No, Riverdale is trying to do what all soapy shows attempt to do: tease, titillate, and boost ratings with “the lesbian kiss episode” (OC, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl: I see you). What sets Riverdale apart from other teen soaps is that it gets its cake and eats it too—sure, the show used the “lesbian” kiss to cheaply add some sex to its trailer, but hey, it also knowingly commented on the tackiness of the kiss within the context of the episode. After watching B&V kiss at cheerleading tryouts, a severely uninterested Cheryl Blossom retorts: “Check your sell-by date ladies, faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.”
And Cheryl’s right, it hasn’t. The world took notice when Mariel Hemingway kissed Roseanne on Roseanne back in 1994–I should know, my mom knew the kiss was coming and made sure we sat down to watch the episode as a family (thanks for knowing you had a little gay girl on your hands, Mama J!). But since then, faux lesbian kisses have become so ubiquitous, they’re practically yawn-worthy (Madonna, Britney & Christina at the VMAs seems downright quaint, doesn’t it?). The Betty-Veronica kiss was a cheap ploy, but the Riverdale writing staff knew it, and offered up some color commentary.

Conclusion: B&V appear to present as heterosexual for now, but that won’t stop the Betty & Veronica shippers from doing their god given work (see: #Beronica).

Josie Got a Shawty
In episode 2, “A Touch of Evil,” Josie & the Pussycats—who have always been a part of the Archie universe (a la Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Cheryl Blossom) cover Inner Circle & FloRida’s “Candy Girl (Sugar Sugar)” at the pep rally. This song choice was a nod to the #1 Billboard hit from 1969, “Sugar Sugar” which stemmed from the cartoon series, The Archies. It could have been a simple Easter Egg for any Archie comics fan, but there was something else cool going on: the lyrics of the song had Josie singing about a girl she loved: “Shawty you’re my candy girl, the kind with the swirls//Oh so good, baby out of this world// look so sweet, fell in love with your curves.” A small moment, sure, and maybe it means nothing (after all, Josie had a few, clearly flirty moments with Archie in the pilot), but Riverdale has already proven itself comfortable with its out and proud male gay character so I’m hoping the same goes for any woman on the LGBTQ spectrum. Josie might still be solidly on the periphery (the Pussycats are currently only being used to reaffirm Archie’s talent and focus his ambition), but Riverdale made sure Josie was singing about her shawty and it was just another thing that happened in the episode. NBD, but like…can Josie be bi at least?

Riverdale meets Cougartown

Miss Grundy was a nagging taskmaster in the original series, complete with long prairie skirts and the body of an asparagus stalk. She spent her days diagramming sentences and chasing Archie Andrews to turn in his homework. Not so here. Geraldine Grundy has been re-branded as a cello-playing music teacher (it’s the most sexual of all instruments?), and the resident Mrs. Robinson of Riverdale. Is she hot? It’s hard to tell under that ponytail and pair of prop glasses! Grundy first spots Archie working construction: when he lifts his shirt and reveals his chiseled abs and that ever elusive V-cut, Geraldine gives him the classic eyes over lowered sunglasses. She and Archie proceed to steam up her VW bug, the music classroom, and the banks of Sweetwater River; but their forbidden romance is irrevocably tied to the mystery of this first season (the death of Cheryl Blossom’s twin brother, Jason), and Miss G (like all of the characters Riverdale) has a secret or two herself.

But let’s be honest, secret or no, the illicit affair arc was mostly included to ensure that from the start, Riverdale proved that it had the kind of steam and scandal CW viewers have come to expect. The show has caught some flak for glamorizing what would legally be classified as statutory rape, but this isn’t HBO, it’s TV. Which is to say that Riverdale isn’t hard-hitting television and it’s not trying to be. These soapy high school dramas have always thrived on the “teen boy seduced by hot teacher” plotline (Dawson’s Creek, Beverly Hills 90210) and Riverdale is hardly breaking new ground. But it knows what it’s doing and that Grundy is just a (hot) flash in the pan to generate buzz for the new series. **SPOILER ALERT** (gratefully) she’s gone by episode 5.

These crazy conspiracies all revolve around the Academy Awards.

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