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The over sexualization of teens in the media: as seen in Riverdale

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The over sexualization of teens in the media: as seen in Riverdale

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“Riverdale” is one of the CW’s many TV dramas, and it has gained a massive audience since it first aired in January of 2017. The show is loosely, with a strong emphasis on loosely, based on Archie comics. While the show and the comics both feature the same lineup of characters, the show has a much darker tone than the wholesome plotlines of the comics. There are new versions of the comics now, complete with revamped art styles and edgier topics more akin to the show, but the series originated in 1939 as the story of a wholesome, hopeless romantic teenager named Archie and his adventures with Betty, Veronica, Jughead and more.

Nowadays more “conservative” plots can be seen as prudish or boring. While I certainly agree that the media should not suppress darker themes completely in favor of continuously pumping out plots of minor inconveniences that are solved in ten minutes, but I also think that there is such a thing as taking it too far.

“Riverdale” is a perfect example of taking it too far.

Betty Cooper

Let’s start with Betty Cooper. She was created as a happy-go-lucky, “girl next door” sort of character that juxtaposes with Veronica, the wealthy and sometimes snob-ish new girl. The show presents new twists on old characters, so it seems pretty obvious that they would give Betty a dark side. The creators of Riverdale took this quite literally, as they gave Betty an alternate persona called “Dark Betty”. This is where we get into the over sexualization that this show is unfortunately littered with.

“Dark Betty” is obviously the manifestation of some sort of mental illness that the ponytailed teen struggles with. Mental illness is an extremely prevalent issue in today’s society, but there is a stigma that comes with it that leaves it largely unmentioned or inaccurately represented in the media, which is sadly exactly the case in “Riverdale”.

The way that “Riverdale” treats “Dark Betty” is an appalling depiction of mental illness. The first time she appears, Betty is assisting Veronica in getting revenge on Chuck, a character whom is seen to have a rather perverted view of girls and had “slut-shamed” Veronica.

Betty intices Chuck in order to get him to ask her on a date, one which Veronica plans to ambush so the girls can threaten him. At the time, Betty is struggling with her sister being sent away for reasons she is not yet aware of and the mysterious death of a classmate, but instead of dealing with her issues in a healthy manner, she decides to put on a dark wig, black lingerie and heels and nearly drown Chuck in a hot tub. “Dark Betty” appears in multiple episodes, always in the same appalling attire.  

Fun.

“Dark Betty” is seemingly the only way in which Betty Cooper’s barely mentioned mental illness issues are dealt with and there are nearly always very sexual themes involved. Keep in mind, Betty is a sophomore.

Just to list some of these inappropriate instances that “Dark Betty” is involved in: she uses this persona to have sex with Jughead in season 2, her “brother” Chic (later proved to not be who he said he was) instructs her to do risque video chats as “Dark Betty” in order to “get away from the darkness”, and obviously she originally dons the associated outfit with the purpose of becoming more appealing to Chuck. In fact in episode 10 of the first season of the show, Chuck describes “Dark Betty” as Betty “dressed up like a hooker”.

Moreover, when Betty admits to Chic that she has a “darkness” that she does not understand, his reaction is to teach her how to “webcam”. This should be regarded as more dark and disturbing than “Riverdale” actually shows. In fact, this obscure hobby is hardly ever mentioned after Betty does her first video chat in episode 12 of season 2. It seems like a pretty huge problem for the show to just ignore after bringing it up, especially since Betty is a minor and the dialogue we hear from her chat leaves little to the imagination, as a raspy voice from her computer asks if he can undress for her.

Betty’s exaggerated sexuality does not stop with “Dark Betty”, either. There is a scene in season 2 of the show in which Betty does what is called “the serpent dance”, which is basically just several minutes of her dancing on a pole in lingerie in front of her horrified boyfriend, his father, her mother, and several strangers in order to be admitted into a gang called the Southside Serpents. Furthermore, Betty is told she should not do “the serpent dance” by Toni Topaz, a current member of the gang who refers to the dance by saying “misogyny dies hard”, but she decides to do it anyway. And to “Mad World”, no less, which is a very uncomfortable tune to watch a 15/16 year old pole dance to, not that a different song would make it any better.  

Upon finishing her dance, Betty is complimented by her boyfriend’s father. The adult man tells the teenage girl that it was “quite the show” and encourages applause from the audience. This was disturbing, to say the least, yet “Riverdale” allows this minor to dance to the delight of a room full of adults and allows the episode to keep going without a hitch.

Betty is also determined to be a cheerleader in the beginning of her series, and eventually gets her wish with the help of Veronica. Betty’s audition for the team features a kiss with Veronica that some have labeled as “queer-baiting” seeing as it was a rather prominent part of the trailer but a very insignificant part of the episode.

However probems with the “River Vixens” do not stop there. Cheerleading seems to be a common excuse for Riverdale to sexualize its young characters, as the “River Vixens” have a few questionable performances throughout the show including their first ever routine in the second episode of the show that features a brief but rather risque dance solo by Veronica Lodge that seems unrealistic considering that they are a school team, and are performing at a football game.

Teenage dramas often exaggerate the situations of the average teenager in order to make the plot more interesting, but Betty Cooper and other sexualized characters do more than just provide interest for the show. Hiding everything and anything that falls into the category of a sexual topic from teens is impossible, and should not be the goal of creators of shows aimed at teenage audiences (sex can and should be discussed with teens), but it should not be presented in a way that pressures high schoolers to act overly sexual in order to be more attractive and interesting.

“It puts pressure on teenagers to be more sexual. TV shows that are targeted for teenagers are what they look at for how they should act sexually,” Zoey Fuller, senior, stated on the damaging effects of Riverdale’s sexual themes.

Veronica Lodge

Another character that is overly sexualized in Riverdale is Veronica Lodge. The newcomer to the town of Riverdale ends up in a relationship with Archie, a relationship that is brimming with issues.

The couple is shown multiple times to solve their issues with sex instead of properly communicating and discussing their feelings. For example, Archie’s father has been shot and is in the hospital in the beginning of season 2 of the show, and Veronica has an interesting way of comforting her distraught boyfriend. She takes him back to his house after a long day of sitting at the hospital, which seems like a good idea, but things take a wrong turn when Archie takes a shower to wash his father’s blood off. That’s right, a teenager cleansing himself of the blood of his wounded father somehow turns into an intimate moment in the world of “Riverdale”.

Instead of waiting for Archie to get out of the shower so she can properly console him, Veronica joins him in the shower, as she apparently deems this the best option for cheering up her boyfriend.

After they dry off Archie and Veronica are given a short scene in which Archie shed a couple tears and Veronica seems supportive, but the purpose of this scene is actually to point out the disappearance of Archie’s dad’s wallet rather than to show Miss Lodge’s ‘fantastic’ communication skills. Even a full-fledged heart-to-heart discussion between the two would not have made up for the shower scene, in my opinion.

“Riverdale” consistently shows that, when overwhelmed or forced to deal with emotions that one does not quite understand, sex is a good solution. This is, of course, a horrible principle for the teenage fans of “Riverdale” to be observing.

“I  think that the show goes too far with some of the relationship scenes and although the show is fictional it still relates to most teenagers in high school so it normalizes some things that aren’t normal,” Ms. Iffert gave her opinion from an adult perspective, “The shows I watched in high school had similar themes but they didn’t take things nearly as far as “Riverdale”.

The entire opening to “Chapter Twenty-One: House of the Devil” shows Archie and Veronica’s constant sexual activity.

“Like the Red Death showing up in an Edgar Allan Poe story, the Black Hood had come to Riverdale. WIth that grimmest of reapers looming over us, how did we cope? In the case of Archie and Veronica, it was through carnal defiance,” Jughead’s voiceover of the montage reads, “With every kiss and embrace, they seemed to be saying: ‘You have no power over me, Death’”.

This is an immensely dramatic quote given that it is regarding the the handsiness of two sophomores, and that the scene ends with the two young lovers laying, covered by only a blanket, on a fur rug in front of a fireplace. As they lay there, Archie says “I love you” and Veronica does not return the sentiment. At least this poorly written teen drama understands that sex does not equal love, at least slightly. This emotional imbalance in their relationship leads to the couple being unable to complete a duet together, so Betty takes their place and thus begins her “serpent dance”. Although they briefly hit on issues rooted in sex, this scene was immediately followed by a young girl on a stage in black lace, dancing on a pole. That’s “Riverdale” for you.

Polly Cooper

The teen drama also contains a high school pregnancy, but I will mention it just as briefly as the show does.

Betty Cooper’s older sister Polly is pregnant through the entirety of season one of the show and through most of season two. A pregnant teen with a murdered boyfriend is already a pretty controversial character to include, but “Riverdale” did not want to stop there with making the audience uncomfortable. A deleted scene that was originally supposed to be a part of the first season finale but was instead released later features Polly returning to Riverdale High wearing her old cheerleading uniform, and heavily pregnant. She walks the halls with Betty and Veronica until they are stopped by Reggie, a fellow student, who stops them to make sexual comments about Polly.

Polly does not appear in many episodes of “Riverdale”, so this teen pregnancy plotline is used more as shock value than actual content. Polly is pregnant with the children of Jason Blossom, the teen who is found dead at the beginning of the pilot episode. That is a bit taboo in itself because of the young age of the couple, but get this, they’re also cousins. They are not first cousins and this is discovered long after Jason is dead, but it is still technically incest.

This is not the only time the show plays with incest, either. It is hinted at multiple times that Cheryl and Jason, the Blossom twins, had a bit of an inappropriate relationship.

“… did you love him maybe in ways that a sister shouldn’t love a brother? And as you got older, Jason started to think it was strange, unnatural,” Veronica Lodge says to Cheryl in episode 10 of the first season, attempting to accuse the girl of killing her brother for preferring his girlfriend over his sister.

Cheryl Blossom

Speaking of Cheryl Blossom, she is one of the more difficult characters to analyze.

“Yes [Riverdale] is sexual, but the characters have respect for their bodies. For example Cheryl claims that her body is “off the table” when offering something in exchange for help,” senior student Candra Workman provides a different perspective on the show.

“Riverdale” characters having “respect for their bodies” is debatable in my opinion, especially in Betty’s case, but I do think that Cheryl is one of the better-written characters.

She has questionable moments, of course since she is on “Riverdale”. Most notably, a deleted scene that features Cheryl in bright red lingerie, flirting with a client of her mother’s (who has randomly become a prostitute in the second season for whatever reason) is quite concerning. The man seems to enjoy this, until Cheryl’s mother points out that the girl is sixteen and he flees in embarrassment. Young teenagers in lingerie seems to be a common visual in this show, unfortunately.

Besides that unseemly scene, Cheryl is actually in one of the best relationships on the show: the red-headed teen begins to date Southside Serpent Toni Topaz in the later episodes of season two.

The pair have great emotional development, as Toni rescues Cheryl from the Sisters of Quiet Mercy: a horrible place where Blossom is shamed for being gay and they attempt to ‘correct’ her.

Kevin Keller

Sadly, this trend of strong same-sex relationships is not continued with “Riverdale”’s other main gay character, Kevin Keller.

The third episode of the second season of the show features a plot in which Kevin Keller habitually ventures into the woods at night to meet up with guys. Betty, fearing for his safety, attempts to get him to stop, but he is offended by her meddling and points out that she has no moral high ground by linking her “Dark Betty” persona to “BDSM sexuality”.

Kevin does eventually give up on his trips into the forest after he refuses to get in the car with an aggressive man who wants to spend the night with him, and is later confronted by his father. This does lead to Kevin’s father opening up a conversation about his son’s sexuality, which seems nice, but should not have come from promiscuous outdoor activities.

Archie Andrews

Moving on to the final overly sexualized character I will mention, Archie Andrews is the star of the very first strangely-sexual relationship in the show. The teen is shown to have begun a relationship with his music teacher, Ms. Grundy, during the summer before his sophomore year of high school.

This begins after the woman sees Archie walking home shirtless after working for his father’s construction firm and offers him a ride home. The actor who portrays Archie (KJ Apa) is many years older than the character (yet funnily enough he is the youngest main actor on the show at the age of 21), and therefore the relationship does not initially appear to be as disgusting as it truly is. Archie is a fifteen year old, not old enough to consent, and is being manipulated into a sexual relationship with his teacher.   

Many fans look at Archie and Ms. Grundy’s relationship and do not realize how horrible it truly is because of how mature KJ Apa looks. In fact there is not one single actor on Riverdale who is an actual teenager, as is the case with most shows that have teenage characters. The four main actors are all in their 20’s. Lili Reinhart (Betty) is 22, Cole Sprouse (Jughead) is 26, Camila Mendes (Veronica) is 24, and KJ Apa, as previously mentioned, is 21 and the youngest actor on the show. Recurring character Josie McCoy, who is a sophomore just like the main characters, is played by 30 year old actress Ashleigh Murray.

Using these adult actors to portray young characters is a problem that is often overlooked. These actors look more mature than any teenager should. They have fully-developed bodies and are often more muscular (in the case of boys) or more “curvy” (in the case of girls) than anyone of that age should be.

Teenagers are stuck watching TV shows that present them with sexual themes and adult actors that are supposed to represent them. The pressure put on teens to “grow up fast” as they are constantly confronted with adult themes has only amounted through the years. Today, shows just like “Riverdale” with a slew of muscular, scantily-clothed 25-year-olds set to play freshmen are not uncommon. Extra shocking aspect of these shows, such as Veronica’s reluctance to sit anywhere other than on Archie’s lap and Cheryl’s interactions with her mother’s questionable career choice, are often just put in to draw in more bigger audiences by promising “never before seen levels of drama”. Whatever happened to good writing?

Riverdale, like many shows like it, often shows shirtless boys and girls in undergarments. Their bodies are sculpted: the results of strict diets, personal trainers, and most importantly, being adults.

Ms. Grundy is an extremely underdeveloped and boring character. She is given a sloppy and rushed backstory in which she has a hidden identity she claims to have created because she had to escape her abusive ex-husband.

The relationship eventually ends with Betty’s mom attempting to turn Grundy into the police while Archie vehemently insists that the relationship was consensual. Allow me to reiterate that he is a sophomore, and that makes his relations with Grundy fall into the category of statutory rape.

Ms. Grundy leaves town after she is forced to end things with Archie only to briefly reappear in the first episode of season 2. She is, unsurprisingly, in yet another inappropriate relationship with a much younger student to whom she gives private lessons.

The perverted nature of Ms. Grundy’s character is not addressed nearly enough by the show. She’s merely another shock-factor component that is lazily thrown into the show only to be quickly forgotten about, just like Betty’s adventures in webcamming.

Conclusion

Shows like “Riverdale” are created with little forethought for their impact on teen audiences. They hire actors that have long-since past their teenage years, and slip in sexual scenes in every numerous crack in their poorly-written plots.

Teenagers should not be shielded from certain more adult themes, but television also should not normalize extremely sexual behavior in those who are still in high school and, in many cases, unable to legally consent.

“Riverdale” can continue to deal with darker subject matter, it only needs to realize that there is more to the lives of teens than sex, and there should definitely be more to the lives of the teens of Riverdale High, as they deal with mysterious murders in both seasons of the show.

Media as a whole can also benefit from taking sexual themes down a notch (or a few notches) and putting a higher focus on more creative plotlines and shocking scenes that do not rely on the sexual behavior of teenagers.

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About the Contributor
Eve Katz, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Head of Graphic Design

Eve is one of two editor-in-chiefs of the Wave Breaker. She loves writing and taking pictures of her dogs. She spends all of her time watching and rewatching...

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The over sexualization of teens in the media: as seen in Riverdale