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Riverdale frames statutory rape as a sexy forbidden romance

It’s 2017, there’s an Archie TV show, and it has a statutory rape plot

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The cast of Riverdale The CW

This week, the CW premieres its new teen drama, Riverdale, based on the Archie Comics characters who first appeared in 1941. We’ll see Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica in a new light as they toss their cheerful, child-friendly comic origins for a grittier, sexier Gossip Girl feel.

For anyone who’s kept up with Archie, they’ll know this isn’t totally out of left field for the gang. Like with all comic series, the kids of Riverdale have been reincarnated in so many forms it’s hard to keep track. The Life with Archie comic series saw Archie marrying either Betty or Veronica and getting shot and killed by the close of the final issue. They’ve met the Punisher, Barack Obama, the cast of Glee and fought off the Predator and Sharknado. The Afterlife with Archie series even sets the gang in a horrifying zombie apocalypse not unlike The Walking Dead.

Betty: Miss Grundy! I just lost a man! Miss Grundy: Only one? Ha! Amateur!
Miss Grundy, as depicted as the classic spinster stereotype in classic Archie comics.
Archie Comics

For fans of the classic faux-1950s world of Archie Comics and its cutesy teen drama, these spinoff series and the new Riverdale TV show might rub the wrong way. Riverdale opens with the death of Jason Blossom — the twin brother of Cheryl Blossom, a classic secondary character. This throws the group into a Pretty Little Liars-esque who-done-it murder mystery with a significant dash of Twin Peaks weirdness. The original Archie comic series has always had a bit of a flirtatious vibe as Betty and Veronica fought over the goofy and likable Archie and Jughead rolled his eyes at all the drama. And, of course, a CW TV series can’t be complete without tossing in a little sensuality. We see snippets of Archie running shirtless and what appears to be Betty and Veronica making out in the ads for the show.

However, the sexiness of ads for Riverdale becomes iffy when the TV series decided to frame a situation of statutory rape as a sexy, forbidden romance. The character of Archie will be presented in Riverdale as a high school teen, football player and musician — as he’s appeared across the majority of the Archie Comics storylines. He’s a total dreamboat that all the girls admire … but in this show, some of them aren’t high school girls. Miss Grundy — who’s appeared in the comics for decades as an older woman and a teacher who has known Archie since childhood — will be an attractive music coach. The narrative goes as follows: Archie wanted music lessons and Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats, another Archie Comics series) was too busy, so he went to Miss Grundy for help. Miss Grundy then engages him in a sexual relationship.

Sarah Habel as Geraldine Grundy and K.J. Apa as Archie Andrews
The CW

K.J. Apa, who plays Archie in Riverdale has stated, "I guess that's a really inappropriate kind of romance he has going on there.” The word “romance” keeps coming into play in all of the ads, articles and commercials for the series, with none of them calling it what it truly is. That is not a “sexy,” “forbidden” romance. It’s statutory rape.

Whether or not Riverdale’s showrunners take this plot in another direction is to be determined, but the commercials treat the storyline as a major one. A shot from the trailer depicts Miss Grundy looking like the traditional “sexy librarian” trope, and another shows her and Archie in a steamy car. Riverdale's series description states that Archie will end his, “forbidden relationship with Riverdale’s young music teacher, Miss Grundy,” which suggests it won’t last long and is more than likely a plot device to pull viewers in. Even still, it is in poor taste and throws teenagers dealing with sexual abuse under a bus for ratings.

Real situations of a male teenager being taken advantage of by a female teacher regularly appear in the news, and comments immediately arise across the board that the student should be “thankful” because “she was hot” or simply that the situation should not be taken seriously because the victim was male. Nobody takes into consideration the long term psychological effects it may have on the victimized teen in question. In a 2014 viral video titled “Why Rape is Sincerely Hilarious,” a man speaks of his experiences being sexually assaulted by a female teacher. He describes repressing his feelings of being “less than human,” due to egging on by his peers. If the genders were reversed in the situation, and we had an adult male teacher and a female teenage student, would it be taken as lightly?

Freeform’s The Fosters took a similar scenario to Riverdale, that of an adult woman taking advantage of a teenaged boy, when the character Dani coerces her fiancé’s son Brandon into having sex with her. Dani chooses a time when Brandon is upset to initiate this, a common practice with predators. At first Brandon’s father lays the blame for the incident on Brandon, but when he realizes that he would feel the opposite had it been one of his step-daughters being taken advantage of, he presses charges for statutory rape.

This is one of the few times a television series covered this double standard with such patience and understanding. It was not made out to be sexy or romantic in commercials, and it was depicted as the situation often plays out in real life: manipulative and mentally taxing on the victim of the assault. Both male and female students have been assaulted by female teachers and the trauma these kids face is often overlooked due to the gender of the perpetrator. To deny that a woman can be a predator is to ignore that women can be in a position of power — a twisted form of sexism in its own right.

An Archie Comics-related TV series is not the place you would expect to see such a problematic storyline occur. In recent years the franchise has been creating many progressive plots and characters in hopes of appealing to the modern teen and presenting a more diverse outlook on the world. The Archie franchise even made headlines after their inclusion of gay character Kevin Keller in 2010, who dealt with issues of coming out and homophobic bullying. This past year, Jughead came out as asexual in his solo series. Archie Comics have also had the occasional feminist critique in issues of Betty & Veronica even decades prior to those.

Despite comic characters having many reincarnations and facing various storylines, writers and publishers still have an obligation not to deface known characters in problematic ways. This is why Batgirl’s sexual assault in DC Comics’ The Killing Joke film adaptation upset so many fans of the series, along with her out-of-character sexual relationship with Bruce. Not only are they creating a problematic storyline, but they’re taking a beloved character along for the ride, much like Riverdale is doing with Archie and Miss Grundy.

The cover of the rebooted Archie series, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Fiona Staples.
Archie #1 (2015)
Fiona Staples/Archie Comics

Archie Comics created an awesome revamp of each of their classic series starting in 2015, which modernized the gang while still keeping their original characterizations. The 2015 Archie series follows Betty, who is still crushing on Archie as he lusts after Veronica, while Jughead goes on hilarious adventures with Sabrina the Teenage Witch in his. They’re filled with crushes, pranks, friendship and nostalgia — and there are no statutory rape scenarios to be seen.

The CW’s main audience is teenagers, and to show this situation in the light they’ve chosen tells all of these young viewers that what they’re seeing is sexy and desirable. It also sends a very troubling message to all of its viewers who have been victims of sexual assault. Another comic-based CW series, Supergirl, recently gained positive attention for helping a young LGBTQ woman realize her identity after the show depicted the title character’s sister coming out as gay, which goes to show the power these shows do have. The CW network must know its target audience is teens and young adults.

To send a message like the one Riverdale appears to be sending is a bad move. If the series chooses to take their Archie and Miss Grundy situation in a different direction like The Fosters had, then that’s great — but the commercials and released descriptions are more than enough to raise an eyebrow.

Damian Alexander is a Boston-based writer and cartoonist.

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