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Riverdale is in a position to rethink color-blind casting

The well-intentioned practice has faced a reckoning

Vanessa Morgan as Toni in Riverdale Photo: The CW

At the end of May, Riverdale actress Vanessa Morgan vented her concerns regarding the series’ storytelling, and how she, the only Black actress among 12 current series regulars, was the ensemble’s least-paid star. In a tweet, she added, “Tired of how Black people are portrayed in media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous or angry scary people. Tired of us also being used as [the] sidekick [and] non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show.” Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa later apologized for the oversight.

In season 2 of Riverdale, Morgan’s character, Toni Topaz, was introduced as a powerful player in the Southside Serpents gang, and depicted as one of the few high-ranking women in the group. But as time went on, and the Serpents were all but disbanded, the show lost focus on Toni’s individual path. While characters like Reggie Mantle (Charles Melton) and Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) got storylines to explore their home life and sexuality, Toni’s less-involved arc was defined by a romance with Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), fanning the fire of one of the biggest ships on the show.

Morgan’s statements combined with Toni’s course on Riverdale bring to light an issue of representation that isn’t necessarily nefarious, but is widespread. Over the last decade of teen dramas, shows like Gossip Girl to The Vampire Diaries have reduced Black actors through a well-intentioned practice: color-blind casting.

“Color-blind casting” refers to the casting of actors without assumptions over the race of a role. The casting philosophy is meant to bring diversity to a series and give opportunities to Black actors. In practice, that can mean casting people of color as characters invented whole cloth, either for an adaptation or a new project, or for characters who’ve been “racebent,” meaning the show has changed the race of a character whose background was a known part of the source material. The term racebending was first popularized amid the controversy surrounding M. Night Shyamalan’s universally panned live-action film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which drew controversy for casting primarily white actors in an animated series with the characters thought to be either Asian or Indigenous. Now racebending can work in the more positive direction, when colorblind casting, in theory, is working.

From Zendaya as Mary Jane in the current Spider-Man franchise to Jeffrey Wright in the upcoming The Batman film, color-blind casting is an increasingly common practice. But there’s skepticism over whether it’s productive; in 1996, the famed Black playwright August Wilson slammed the concept. “Color-blind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection,” he said.

With so many character lives to explore, and parts of the heightened world to discover, creators have naturally introduced a new wave of non-white characters to the teen drama genre. But the reflection of the modern teen experience, even soapy ones like on The CW, make the shows more susceptible to the pitfalls of color-blind casting. Many of the network’s shows are based on established IP (like the Riverdale franchise and The CW’s Nancy Drew and Roswell, New Mexico) with characters that were mostly white in their previous incarnations. In turn, the shows racebend the characters to appeal to diverse audiences and not seem out of touch. As depicted in the Archie Comics, Toni’s identity is not deeply explored in racial terms.

Vanessa Morgan as Toni in The CW’s Riverdale season 4 Photo: The CW

Color-blind casting in all forms risks the creation of Black characters who are not fully realized in regard to their own identity and culture. While a teen drama character may be portrayed by a Black actor, often the roles feel color-blind, as if they could be played by a white person reading the same script and nothing would be different. The color-blindness leaves room for harmful stereotypes to come into play. Without acknowledgment of race and culture, something that may not be problematic if a character is one race may instantly become an issue when the character is portrayed by a Black actor.

Take Toni in Riverdale: Morgan, who is a Canadian of Scottish and Tanzanian descent, is written as an abstract person of color until an episode in the second season codes her as an Indegenious American with the introduction of her grandfather, played by Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene. Reflecting on her years on Riverdale, Morgan also called Toni the show’s “token biracial bisexual,” noting the genre’s penchant for casting mostly biracial actresses in these “diverse” roles and the continued fetishization of Black men and women on television.

The show came under similar fire in earlier seasons with the introduction of Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), another character who was non-Black in the comics and racebent for the series. The character was written into the series as a villain and arrogant jock who treated women poorly, notably spreading a rumor that he did more than just kiss Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). To get back at him, Veronica and Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) drugged and handcuffed him in a burning-hot jacuzzi until he admitted to his misdeeds on video. Had this been a white Chuck Clayton, the scene would have played differently. Instead we got the image of Betty, a white woman, handcuffing and drugging a Black man, an eerie evocation of violent stereotypes. There’s no shaking that image from, say, the Emmett Till case, when a Black boy was lynched for whistling at a white woman.

Riverdale is not the only teen drama that leans into such frustrating implications. The CW series Legacies (the third entry in The Vampire Diaries franchise) perpetuated similar, questionable imagery by making two out of the three main Black characters on the series vampires in a school with witches/warlocks and werewolves. Having Black men lust after the blood of witches, primarily white, and biting their necks without them knowing, is an example of either stereotypical complacency or unknowingness.

There’s more to a Black character than having a Black actor in the role. While casting can be blind to avoid biases, the steps after securing an actor can’t be blind to the context of race. Teen dramas do have the ability to do this, as we’ve seen in Freeform’s The Fosters spinoff, Good Trouble. The show gave its Latinx and Black characters agency with their own storylines, including one in which it was able to integrate the current Black Lives Matter movement into a character who is a social justice activist. Netflix’s On My Block, a diverse coming-of-age dramedy with young Black and Latinx leads, not only acknowledges racism, but also colorism, classism and more, all while recognizing the background of the characters.

Color-blind casting doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There needs to be more opportunities fo Black actors and other underrepresented demographics. However, if the writing of the character lacks nuance or is full of stereotypes, or simply treats the characters as if they have a lived experience of a white person, then there’s no point in adding diversity, because the characters aren’t actually exemplifying this diversity that we see in our everyday life. With Morgan being one of the first actors to very vocally come forward with the issues on their show, and in the lead up to Riverdale season 5, the teen drama space has hopefully received the jolt that it needs to do better.