Archie comics have long faced pressures to confront social issues and produce more diverse, inclusive narratives. With Riverdale, the Archie-verse has newly asserted its cultural relevance by simultaneously embracing and revising a nostalgia for earlier Archie comics and characters. This essay explores how the social media paratexts of the Riverdale actors negotiate between the feminist aspirations of the television show and the less progressive politics of earlier Archie comics. Examining these transmedial paratexts, it demonstrates how the beloved Archie characters from earlier comics become newly embodied and vocalized by the actors who portray them in Riverdale, thus inviting comics readers and television fans to embrace a new feminist vision for the Archie-verse while also opening it up to postfeminist critiques.
In the opening pages of Twelve-Cent Archie (2015), Bart Beaty writes: “What is the value of Archie comics? Economically, very little. Relatively speaking, Archie comics are not particularly sought after or in demand in comparison to other comics from the period in which they were most popular. Culturally, probably less.” Indeed, “despite ongoing attempts to make Archie relevant for new generations of readers, the titles are widely regarded as old-fashioned, outdated, a relic of the way that the American comic-book industry used to work.”1 In the two years since Twelve-Cent Archie was published, however, Beaty's claims are primed for reconsideration following the relaunch of the flagship Archie title (2015), the premiere of the television drama Riverdale (CW, 2017–), and the introduction of Archie-themed merchandise at retailers like Hot Topic. Indeed, Archie comics have attained a renewed cultural significance in recent years that explicitly challenges long-standing narratives about their outdated politics. In this essay, I specifically examine how the popular social media paratexts of Riverdale actors negotiate the feminist aspirations of the television show vis-à-vis the less progressive politics of older Archie comics. By analyzing these transmedial paratexts alongside the comics, I demonstrate how beloved Archie characters become newly embodied and vocalized by the actors who portray them in Riverdale, thereby inviting comics readers and television fans to embrace a new feminist vision for the Archie-verse while also opening it up to postfeminist critiques.
I should first acknowledge that Beaty's critiques are not unfounded. The need to affirm a cultural relevance can be seen in the reboot of the Archie flagship title in 2015 and the launch of Riverdale two years later. These efforts sought to update an outdated image and make good on the promise of Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater to reject the “dusty, irrelevant and watered-down” Archie of previous generations in order to “keep the brand relevant and vibrant.”2 In addition to drawing on the talents of proven creators such as Mark Waid and Fiona Staples, the new series promoted collaborations with popular figures like Lena Dunham to make it appear more explicitly feminist for new readers. Efforts by Goldwater and creator Dan Parent to update the series in 2008 also introduced an openly gay character, Kevin Keller, and depicted Archie and Betty in interracial romances—decisions that, despite Beaty's claims, led to increased sales and positive critical responses.3 With the premiere of Riverdale, media outlets now echo the refrain that “This Isn't Your Parents’ Riverdale,” a nod to the revitalized Archie brand.4
Creators who work on the new Archie comics have downplayed this shift, however, arguing that the rebooted comics remain consistent with the long history of the brand. Mark Waid, for example, who wrote the redesigned Archie series in 2015, told artist Fiona Staples that “there's nothing wrong with Archie” as they began their collaboration on the project.5 Yet the new direction is impossible to ignore. In addition to rebooting the flagship title, the company launched a series of digital collections of thematically organized comics from the Archie vaults, the PEP Digital Editions, as a nod to the comic where Archie Andrews first appeared as a character: Pep Comics, no. 22 (1941). When searching through these collections on websites like Comixology, the description includes a disclaimer: “This publication contains material that was originally created in a less racially and socially sensitive time in our society and reflects attitudes that may be acknowledged as offensive today.”6 That a collection of Archie comics would include a content disclaimer is striking when read against early advertisements, which frequently promoted Archie as wholesome, a brand of comics parents could feel comfortable having around the house. Yet these disclaimers have become standard practice for reprint editions of older Archie comics. They demonstrate how views of Archie have shifted over time, and mark a new era in which it seems necessary to frame the experience of new Archie readers by acknowledging how the older comics no longer reflect contemporary norms. Thus, when Waid said “there's nothing wrong with Archie,” he was embracing the old-fashioned tone of the earlier comics while also working within a marketing narrative that explicitly acknowledges that sexism and racism are also present in the early comics—as made clear in disclaimers.
That early Archie comics were not progressive sites of feminist discourse remains a popular and well-substantiated view. That being said, the tensions that Waid and others feel are perhaps somewhat inherent in the original comics themselves. Rafiel York, for example, has argued that, when viewed through the historical lens of rising juvenile delinquency, “Archie and the Riverdale gang, who regularly challenge the expectations of adults in the realms of dating, gender roles, and basic morality, begin to look less square.”7 With that in mind, fan and media praise for Riverdale and its “unexpected feminism” may need to reconsider the extent to which the show is strictly revisionist.8 What is notable about Riverdale is how it chooses to both embrace and critique its relationship to a conservative comics past in order to be seen as a bold, feminist narrative. This effort to reconcile the past and present of the Archie-verse is aided, in part, by the fact that, as Andrew Friedenthal notes, “in a society moderated more and more by digital media, Americans have become increasingly adept at using that media to view the past, present, and even future as shifting, slippery bodies, rather than as solid bedrock.”9 Friedenthal argues that digital media, and the editable hyperlink in particular, has made the practice of “retconning” (crafting retroactive continuity) ubiquitous, especially in comics. While Riverdale is not technically an effort to retrofit narrative continuity—indeed, Beaty has argued that Archie comics have rarely shown interest in continuity or canon—efforts to reconcile contemporary Archie characters with their earlier counterparts similarly require acts of digital revisionism.10 Whereas Friedenthal turns to the hyperlink, I have chosen to examine the unstable digital world of social media paratexts in order to produce a transmedial analysis of Riverdale and the comics that inform it. By studying feminisms in Riverdale through paratextual analysis, I open up new methods for understanding digital revisions to comics, as well as the risks that come with adapting comics characters appearing in different forms of media.
PARATEXTS AND THE NEED FOR “OFF-PANEL” STUDIES
Although Archie comics have been transmedial almost since their inception, Riverdale opens up new possibilities for how we read and understand feminist thought in this transmedial Archie-verse. With the advent of social media and the rise of online parasocial relationships between celebrities and fan communities, it has become nearly impossible to separate the politics of a text from the various actors and paratexts that inform those politics.11 These paratexts not only inform the present incarnation of Riverdale, but also end up speaking back to (and revising) the Archie comics of previous decades, sometimes eliding earlier narratives of the Archie-verse to more closely align with contemporary social and political norms.12
My decision to examine these paratexts is motivated, in part, by Jonathan Gray's call for “an off-screen studies,” or an interpretive mode that “focuses on paratexts’ constitutive role in creating textuality.” Paratexts, as Gray describes them, “surround texts, audiences, and industry as organic and naturally occurring a part of our mediated environment as are movies and television themselves.”13 Drawing on the work of literary theorist Gérard Genette, who popularized the term “paratexts,” Gray argues that paratexts “fill the space between [texts, audience, and industry], conditioning passages and trajectories that criss-cross the mediascape, and variously negotiating or determining interactions among the three.”14 For film and television, examples of paratexts might include posters, promos, trailers, and other digital content. Yet paratexts also include creators, directors, actors, interviews, and—as I argue here—social media accounts. Gray himself notes how the lives of the actors in a film serve as paratexts, using the story of an EastEnders cast member's criminal record and tabloid accounts of that record as one example of how actors’ lives inform how texts get read.15 In the case of Riverdale, the social media presence of the show's actors functions as a paratext that alters our popular view of older Archie comics and shapes audience perceptions of feminist messages in the show itself.16 With that in mind, this essay makes the case for what might be called “off-panel studies,” an important consideration for comics scholars working in a deeply transmedial field.
The actors in Riverdale do not merely inhabit the characters from Archie comics on the television screen; they also inform how those characters get read through interviews and social media, particularly on platforms like Instagram and Twitter. These platforms allow the actors to craft parasocial relationships with their fans and fan communities. The development of these relationships, as media studies scholars have argued, requires celebrities to perform disclosure in a way curated to make fans feel like they have special access to (and knowledge of) their chosen celebrities. As fans develop an image of who these celebrities are as actors offscreen, the actors’ views and positions often inform how fans interpret their embodiment of fictional characters on-screen; in other words, the paratexts created online make it difficult to maintain a clean separation between actors and the characters they portray. Audiences for a show like Riverdale, therefore, understand the main text (that is, its commentaries on racism or slut shaming) partially through social media narratives and interviews with the actors. In the case of Riverdale, the main text is also informed by how these characters are portrayed in the earlier comics, further complicating how fans interpret the show and its feminist narratives.
SLUT SHAMING AND SEX-POSITIVE REVISIONISM
These paratexts matter because they not only speak to the feminist politics of Riverdale, but also infuse earlier iterations of Archie comics with new interpretive possibilities. When asked about the similarities between Riverdale and the original Archie comics, for example, Madelaine Petsch, the actor who portrays Cheryl Blossom in the television series, responded:
It's the classism, the society, the bullying. Regardless of the fact it's been 70 or so years, we still have large differences between the way that men treat women in high school and the awkwardness of growing up. These are all very normal things that everyone will go through no matter what generation. Slut shaming is a huge thing that I'm sure happened back then, and it definitely still happens now.17
While one would be hard pressed to locate stories that explicitly reject “slut shaming” in the early decades of Archie comics, Petsch takes the contemporary issues addressed in Riverdale and turns them into an unspoken subtext for the earlier comics. She universalizes the teenage experiences represented in Riverdale—a move that nicely echoes the original promotion of Archie as “America's typical teenager” in the 1940s—in order to speak back to the early years of the comics with a revised and updated feminist message about the challenges women face in high school. Petsch's view of Archie comics, filtered through her portrayal of a character on Riverdale, provides an important paratext for how we read older Archie comics (still published in digests). The comics form part of the same transmedial world that Petsch inhabits, and therefore are also read through the paratextual narratives she produces on social media.
Petsch, like other actors, often shares older comics versions of her character to craft a feminist narrative around herself and the Archie-verse more broadly. Notably, in 2016 and 2017 she tweeted images from the 1982 story “Dare to Be Bare” (figs. 1, 2). In the first, she invoked Cheryl's conversation about topless beaches in Europe to notify her fans that she is “counting down the days until [she] can go back to being Riverdale's bad girl,” and in the second she invoked a swimsuit competition with Veronica on the beach, letting her followers know that the new episode of Riverdale begins shortly and will be “lit” (via the fire emoji).18 Petsch, as well as cast members Camila Mendes, Ashleigh Murray, and Lili Reinhart, often highlight panels from earlier Archie in social media posts in a way that signals to readers that they have read the comics and are aware of their characters’ histories. They sometimes provide side-by-side images of themselves with their comic book counterparts as a playful reminder to fans that they now embody those characters.19 That Petsch actively embraces this particular story from 1982 is striking, as the two panels she selected are part of a larger narrative of slut shaming, which I will describe momentarily. In each of her posts, however, Petsch does not include the end of the story where Cheryl is shamed for revealing her body and escorted off the beach by police officers. She only provides fans with an image of Cheryl as the empowered, liberated “bad girl” who is confident in her sexuality—a significant revision to the comics.
Her selection of these images from “Dare to Be Bare” is more notable when considered in context. Released in 1982, this comics story emerged during the so-called “sex wars” of the 1980s amid debates about feminism, sex positivism, and pornography. Notably, 1982 marked not only the introduction of Cheryl Blossom as a character, but also the launch of an erotic non-Archie knockoff Cherry Poptart. Cherry Poptart was a mature series created by Larry Welz in the “house style” of Archie comics. Lawsuits against Welz were threatened, but he continued with it for years, even lampooning characters directly out of Archie comics and purposefully challenging their presumed “innocence” in the process.20,Cherry Poptart sold successfully as part of the underground comics movement, and its participation in anti-censorship campaigns was clearly directed at anti-pornography advocates. Its production was, perhaps, as much a revision of the “clean and wholesome” Archie comics—which continued to adhere to the Comics Code Authority that emerged out of the post–Fredric Wertham crackdown of the 1950s—as it was a rejection of the various anti-pornography feminisms emerging at the time.21 In fact, the question that Cherry asks on the cover of the first issue (“Is this comic sexist?”) highlights a key tension during the sex wars about what types of sexualities and liberations counted as feminist and which did not.22
It was later that year, in this socially and politically charged environment, that Archie comics published “Dare to Be Bare.”23 In that story, Betty and Veronica show up at the beach and talk about how revealing their swimsuits are, each excited by the prospect of displaying her body for local boys. Cheryl Blossom soon shows up, however, and puts their skimpy one-piece suits to shame. Betty and Veronica are both visibly scandalized by her tiny bikini. As their conversation progresses, the three women discuss the possibility of going nude on the beach, which Cheryl proposes as a way to make the “stodgy old town” of Riverdale more progressive. Betty and Veronica stop her before she strips down, however, leading Cheryl to call them spoilsports. Still, the story ends with Cheryl being escorted off the beach by police after attempting to go nude; the officer refers to her as “a liberal trying to liberate more than the law allows.” Compared with the Cherry Poptart comics, Archie's creators appear uninterested in the liberation of women's bodies, at least beyond a certain threshold. On the one hand, the conversation between these characters around female bodies is remarkably progressive compared to what was permitted in Archie comics in decades prior, yet the narrative still pushes back against the kinds of sexual liberation proposed by Cheryl, who is literally policed for revealing her body and ridiculed by police officers as she is removed from public view and covered with a blanket. A smiling Betty and Veronica remark that they just can't understand the Blossoms, while sitting and watching Cheryl and her brother publicly shamed and escorted off the beach (fig. 3).
That Petsch selectively shares from this story makes sense within the narrative of the first season of Riverdale. In the third episode, for example, the show offers an explicitly didactic narrative about slut shaming and clearly embraces a sex-positive message. The episode revolves around Veronica making out with football star Chuck Clayton, who then shames her publicly with a “sticky maple” that represents a sexual conquest; the phrase indicates that men on the football team have earned points by “hooking up” with women at the school. Veronica provides viewers with a clear explanation of slut shaming as part of a conversation in which she rejects Kevin Keller's claim that this is just a “Riverdale thing.” She states: “No, Kevin, it's a slut-shaming thing and I'm neither a slut nor am I going to be shamed by someone named, excuse me, Chuck Clayton! Does he really think he can get away with this? Does he not know who I am? I will cut the brakes on his souped-up phallic symbol.”24 Betty and Veronica ultimately team up in this episode to uncover this football team's scandal and reverse the humiliation, relying on Ethel Muggs's testimony of abuse to get these players cut from the team. The victory is captured visually as the women of Riverdale High stand by watching the players exit the building, snapping photos and looking defiant (fig. 4). The episode also sees Cheryl participating in acts of slut shaming herself, although Cheryl learns her lesson by the end and apologizes to Betty. Unlike in the comics, where Cheryl is shamed for exposing her body, this version of Cheryl learns about slut shaming indirectly, and her character ultimately finds solidarity with other women. Instead of mirroring the comics by depicting Cheryl as a victim of slut shaming, Riverdale inverts the “walk of shame” by having Cheryl and other women look on as Chuck and his friends are escorted out of school for participating in slut shaming.25
RACE, EMBODIMENT, AND PARATEXTUAL GLITCHES
Like Petsch, fellow actor Ashleigh Murray, who portrays Josie McCoy on Riverdale, has been an outspoken media presence, especially on issues pertaining to gender inequality and racism. As a Black actor who plays a character historically depicted as white, Murray is often invited to address those issues directly in her interviews. For example, in a conversation with Bustle about her character's interactions with Archie on the show, Murray states:
I really loved it because it allowed [the show] to take this platform, because me embodying Josie with the skin that I am in is very different from what people are used to seeing on the page. … There are certain things that need to be addressed … this is just what it is. It's like, “I get it, you [Archie] woke up with abs and all the girls think you're cute and you think you can just walk in here and ask for anything, but the reality is that you can't and this is why—because I have to work twice as hard as you do. And that doesn't mean that I deserve it more than you, but that also doesn't mean that I deserve it any less.” That was my whole mindset when we were shooting that scene.26
Murray faces a different challenge than some of her peers when it comes to “embodying” her character; she is not just a woman who has to work “twice as hard” trying to assert her value, she is a Black woman who also has to work “twice as hard” because of her race. As she notes, “embodying Josie with the skin that [she is] in” differs from what fans are used to seeing in the comics.
This sentiment is also present in the show, where Josie explicitly acknowledges the slow changes taking place in Riverdale (perhaps a nod to the more conservative Riverdale of the comics): “Look, this isn't L.A. or New York, this is Riverdale, and people's minds are opening up, but do you have any idea how much hate mail my mom got when she was elected mayor?”27 By offering an intersectional framework through which fans can understand her interactions with Archie, Murray shifts the sometimes competitive relationship between Josie and Archie in the comics (where their bands—the woman-led Josie and the Pussycats and the male-led The Archies—are occasionally rivals) from one concerned primarily about musical talent to one that captures the unspoken racial tensions that have always been present in Riverdale. In the same episode in which other women in the show grapple directly with slut shaming, Josie finds herself having to “shush” Archie to explain to him why his campaigning for her mother for mayor does not give him access to insight about the challenges of being a Black woman in Riverdale. In a similar vein, Murray (the actor) uses her interview to point out the extra obstacles that exist for Black women, and she articulates the importance of being able to respond directly and openly to the “well-intentioned” white man who wants to use her skills for his own benefit. While Murray's comments are aimed at contemporary conversations about race and gender, her paratextual explanation also opens up the possibility for fans to be more race conscious as they look at past iterations of Riverdale in the comics—versions of the town that often draw on racial stereotypes and engage in tokenism.28
Murray, like her castmates, also uses social media to embed herself in the pre-Riverdale Archie-verse. One notable example was a tweet sharing a still image from the title sequence of the Josie and the Pussycats animated television show where Murray's head has been superimposed (“choppily,” as she notes) onto the cartoon version of Josie McCoy (fig. 5).29 Her decision to tweet such an image is standard practice as part of meme culture and the proliferation of “tampered” images in a post-digital age, and it, too, opens up new interpretive possibilities. First, it embodies a pasteup comics production aesthetic, recalling earlier comics that often included pasted lettering, overlays, or other elements that would be added before production and sometimes covered artistic errors. This version of Josie also engages with a “variant” culture in comics, where artists and publishers produce multiple different covers for individual issues or include early drafts and sketches in collected volumes. Variant covers often still speak to the story, yet offer different takes on the official covers that make dramatic changes to the characters (for instance, animal versions of themselves). Through that framework, we might consider that Murray herself is offering her fans a “variant” of earlier versions of Josie that highlights both the “failure” of those comics to capture the racial experiences of Black characters in Riverdale and the intersectional potential of a new vision.
That said, this vision of a Black Josie McCoy is still indebted to (or contingent upon) the original version, which is why the old Josie is still “choppily” visible underneath the new, and not entirely erased. In Michael Betancourt's book on glitch art and theory, he draws on the philosophical work of Jacques Attali to provide “a definition of glitch [that] offers an understanding of their potential for transgression in the violation of the established codes of perception and order.”30 This tampered image of the animated Josie and the Pussycats challenges the position of a white woman at the head of this musical group (literally putting a new “head” on the lead singer of the band), and upends that hierarchy in a way that aligns with the most recent comics version of Josie (part of the 2015 reboot). The new comics keep Josie as a white woman, but her talent and leadership are repeatedly questioned by Valerie (the canonical Black woman in the group) in ways that invite us to question the hierarchy emerging from the older narratives. Similarly, the image posted by Murray serves as a visual glitch that literally erases the old Josie, yet still clings to the old narrative in the background. One reading of this paratext, then, would be to erase the kinds of white feminism that undergirded the narratives of Josie and the Pussycats in the past, and to explicitly insert a more intersectional feminism in its place. Josie was already a feminist figure, but in the show she is now also a Black feminist, leaving Murray to negotiate the transition into a more intersectional view of the character on Riverdale.
WOMEN'S MARCHES AND WOMEN'S LIBERATION
Not all of the offscreen paratexts produced by Riverdale actors speak directly to the show or the comics. Transmedial paratexts are not limited to direct commentaries on the texts they inform. In some ways, these paratexts might even do more to inform feminist readings of Riverdale and the broader Archie-verse. For an example of this kind of paratextual work, we can again look at a tweet posted by Petsch, this time from January 21, 2017, as she attended the Women's March in Vancouver with several of her fellow cast members. This march was one of a global series of marches in response to the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and a number of Riverdale actors took part while in Vancouver filming the show. While not speaking as Cheryl Blossom, nor directly commenting on Riverdale or the Archie comics, Petsch crafts an “out-of-text” narrative that still influences how fans read the feminist politics of the Archie-verse more broadly. In that tweet, she shared an image of a sign that reads “FEMINIST AF” and tagged her costars Mendes (Veronica Lodge) and Reinhart (Betty Cooper).31 By tagging these actors, she brought all three of them together in support of her statement and implicitly acknowledged that they all identify as feminists. This tweet, along with others that encourage fans to see these actors as IRL (in real life) friends, implies a female solidarity that transforms how viewers interpret their characters. Instead of promoting a narrative about Betty, Veronica, and Cheryl “catfighting” and competing with each other for Archie's attentions—often a central tenet of Archie comics—Petsch offers a paratextual example of the women behind the characters united, strong, and empowered. Audiences familiar with the Archie comics can use tweets like this to imagine the Betty, the Veronica, and the Cheryl of previous decades—characters who also organized marches and called for women's liberation—without the dismissive counter-narratives that often undermined their work in the earlier comics.
These types of parasocial commentaries between actors, which are performed for fan communities, frame viewer expectations that the show can be, and should be, read through a feminist lens. Tweeting out an image capture of herself and Reinhart from one of the later episodes, for example, Mendes paraphrases a quote from the show that acknowledges their relationship to feminism and how they are viewed on-screen through a feminist lens: “Maybe we're at risk of failing the Bechdel test, but at least we cute. ♥ #Riverdale.”32 The Bechdel test has become popular shorthand for whether or not a work of fiction can meet the lowest threshold of feminism: that two women in the text speak to each other about something other than a man. On one hand, Mendes's comment dismisses the critique posed by the test in favor of normative beauty standards, and demonstrates how feminism in popular culture is often considered “hip” but not pressing. On the other hand, this quotation also demonstrates her awareness of the Bechdel test and implies a concern about the show maintaining certain feminist credentials.33 That Mendes communicates this sentiment on Twitter implicitly invokes the possibility that a core feminist concern with Archie comics might be their inability to simply pass the Bechdel test: in the comics, Betty and Veronica too often have nothing to talk about except Archie. Yet this tweet also reminds us that these two characters are capable of passing such a test. The Betty and Veronica of Riverdale are aware of the test and aware that it matters. The decision by Mendes to circulate a paratextual reminder about this moment also hints at the fact that we should always be reading Betty and Veronica through this lens.
While this paratextual work is important to how Riverdale updates the problematic Americana of Archie comics more broadly, these parasocial interactions also allow the actors to embed themselves into previous Archie narratives in way that invites a feminist rereading of those earlier texts. Mendes, for example, posted the following tweet on International Women's Day in March 2017: “Lots of progress to celebrate, but still so many battles to be won. Progress is a process. Keep fighting!”34 Attached to this tweet was a panel from a 1974 Archie story, “Frankendstew,” in which Betty and Veronica propose retelling the story of Frankenstein with themselves as the lead characters. When Archie objects, Veronica proclaims: “This is the dawn of a new era for women! We have to re-evaluate a LOT of things!” (fig. 6).35 While the story ends with Archie lamenting the “monster” that is women's liberation, I argue that Mendes uses her tweet to insert herself into an earlier Archie narrative in a way that recaptures its liberatory potential. In this instance, Mendes not only embodies Veronica as a contemporary adaptation, but also inserts herself into previous Betty and Veronica narratives as a reclamation of their feminist potential and their longer history as (fraught) feminist icons.
Like a number of the 1970s Archie comics, “Frankendstew” ends with a man decrying women's liberation, yet when provided with only the context of Mendes's tweet, readers are able to read the comic as a proud declaration that exists independent of the actual story. In this way, Mendes liberates these characters from the fraught narrative and allows herself to use Betty and Veronica to explicitly proclaim feminist ideals on International Women's Day. While this comic uses Archie to condemn a form of women's liberation that he believes has gone too far, this story ends with Betty and Veronica laughing at him as he walks off; in this example, Mendes has invoked a comic that does not endorse Archie's misogyny, but rather the ability of Betty and Veronica to claim a literary territory that was actually their right to claim in the first place.36 In the final panel of the original comic, Betty and Veronica embrace as Archie departs—perhaps indicating that a feminist subtext has always existed in the stories about Betty and Veronica, even when the ostensible views of the title character appear to resist that very narrative.
POSTFEMINIST POLITICS FROM
ARCHIE TO RIVERDALE
While these social media paratexts often enable revisionist readings of Archie comics and Riverdale, the instability of these narratives also opens up a space for postfeminist critiques. Earlier I discussed how Petsch used images from the comics to assert a feminist Riverdale narrative and also invited viewers to see Cheryl as an empowered, sex-positive, feminist figure rather than a “liberal slut.” This reformist sensibility is manifested, to some extent, in the form of iconoclasm; Petsch literally erases a part of past stories from the comics in order to revise the narrative of Cheryl Blossom. Rather than engaging in a radical break with the past, however, this kind of paratextual work centers a new mainstream (and its new norms) without actually affirming the margins of the normative. That Petsch still sees Cheryl as a “bad girl” implies that sexual liberation is still not normative, even if being a “bad girl” is considered cool and desirable. In this way, the feminist politics to which Petsch aspires risk adhering to a more postfeminist worldview, in which sexual liberation has already been achieved and now confers status. Yet not everybody is allowed access to that liberation; both the comics and the show rely heavily on normative beauty standards that allow characters like Cheryl and Veronica to be presented as both wanton and desirable. This marketing of liberation for women who almost exclusively represent normative beauty ideals warrants a postfeminist critique. As the feminist scholar Hannah E. Sanders has written:
The feminists of current contemporary visual culture are less othered, more glamorous and conventionally visually attractive. … Feminist icons must now be beautiful, clever, and willing to run themselves ragged in order to reach a young audience hungry for visions of powerful women that articulate the difficulties of female life in order to question and resist the status quo while exiting within it.37
An ongoing partnership between Riverdale and Cover Girl that features the women of Riverdale “becoming” their Archie comics counterparts through beauty products undergirds this postfeminist vision: the women are empowered because they are beautiful.38 The emphasis on commercialized beauty standards, itself an echo of the pinup house style of Archie comics, upholds a normative worldview and its commercialized feminisms.
We might similarly examine these actors’ political paratexts through a postfeminist lens. For example, Petsch was not the only Riverdale actor to post on social media about the Women's March. Mädchen Amick, who plays Alice Cooper, also posted a photo to Instagram and Twitter that day, showing herself with Mendes, Petsch, Reinhart, and Nathalie Boltt (who plays Penelope Blossom) immediately after the march, highlighting the group's solidarity with an explicitly feminist agenda.39 The feminist politics of the show are visually captured in these photos—including Amick in whiskers that invoke both “the Pussycats” from the show and the “pussy-grabbing” comments by Trump—and those politics are espoused by the actors. In an era where the US president is notable for fat shaming women and antifeminist rhetoric, these statements certainly offer new interpretive contexts for the show. That said, we also cannot ignore how these moves are themselves tied to capitalist appropriations of feminism as a brand to be marketed and consumed. As Rosalind Gill notes, writings on postfeminism in our current cultural and political moment often imagine a feminism that “has seemingly moved away from a derided and repudiated identity among young women to becoming a desirable, stylish, and decidedly fashionable one.”40 The conflation of “grrrl power” as a feminist movement (often labeled such in the 1990s) and “grrrl power” as a marketable brand risks turning such efforts into a commercialized form of postfeminist thought. With this in mind, we might similarly return to Mendes's comments about the Bechdel test to remind ourselves that invoking feminism is considered empowering, but it may be less important than being “cute.”
My concern with the emergence of postfeminist narratives in these paratexts is rooted in my readings of earlier Archie comics, particularly those published in the early 1970s, as the creators grappled with women's liberation movements. These creators often chose to produce caricatures of Betty, Veronica, and the other women of Riverdale as they sought equal rights. These women's “emotional” calls for equality were often the subject of mocking jokes, and the stories frequently undermined their appeals by highlighting “how good they have it” as modern women. One infamous cover from 1972, for example, features women with signs demanding “EQUAL RIGHTS FOR GIRLS” and to “END MALE SUPREMACY,” to which Archie responds by saying, “From now on, you girls can carry the books home.”41 Similarly problematic is an earlier story, “Liberation” (1971), in which Veronica becomes such a militant feminist that she expels Betty from the feminist movement. Betty, exhausted by Veronica's efforts, rejoices in her feminist failures in the story's final panel.42 Feminism is seen here as too much work, the implication being that women have already achieved sufficient equality to suit their needs.
Perhaps one of the most revealing of these comics is the 1973 story “You Came a Long Way, Baby” (notably titled in the past tense).43 There, the teacher Miss Grundy is promoted as a speaker on women's rights at Riverdale High, which Betty and Veronica find laughable. They refer to her as a “down-trodden female” and a “backward woman” before describing the meeting as having “a ‘now’ subject taught by a ‘then’ teacher.” Miss Grundy overhears them, and Archie—feeling sorry for her—tells the principal, Mr. Weatherbee. Weatherbee approaches the girls, who explain to him that Grundy is not progressive enough, and he declares that he is canceling the lecture. Feeling like they have won an important victory, Betty and Veronica are surprised to learn the next day that dress codes have been reinstituted for girls in the school, they are no longer allowed to wear makeup, and they will not be allowed to take shop class. Weatherbee explains that, after hearing their concerns, he undid all of Ms. Grundy's work over the past few years—work that Betty and Veronica did not know she had accomplished. The story ends with the women of Riverdale High protesting to have Grundy reinstated, and even, in Grundy's words, promoting her from “Miss” to “Ms.” (fig. 7). While this story provides a generational critique of feminism, it also critiques the postfeminist narratives presented in the 1970s—stories signaling that the work of feminism is done. It illustrates a postfeminist world in which women are marching for victories they have already attained.
While the actors featured in this essay are certainly not making the claim that the work of feminism is done, their paratextual narratives might have more in common with the earlier comics than it might initially seem. The Women's March, for example, was a reaction to perceived rollbacks to women's rights under a new administration; the cast of Riverdale, then, like their comics counterparts in the 1970s, found themselves marching to secure rights they had theoretically already won. Their calls for liberation, as promoted on social media, seem caught between their own progressive aspirations and a conservative cultural turn. In this way, their narratives are different from the postfeminism described by Angela McRobbie, in that their paratexts do not “suggest that equality is achieved” or “no longer needed.”44 Instead, the postfeminist narratives emerging from Riverdale are tied to the commercialization of its feminist discourse through transmedial channels. Being a feminist is both marketable and popular, and fans can emulate the feminism of its stars by accessing their technologically curated lives.45 Yet these same efforts also help establish the kinds of parasocial relationships that scholars argue can influence social attitudes and perceptions. Even as postfeminist texts, the work of these actors can be seen as a significant revision of the politics presented in the early comics.46 A paratextual analysis of Riverdale thus allows us to see the Archie-verse as a transmedial space that both acknowledges and collapses the differences between older content and updated politics. These social media narratives speak against and through the earlier comics in ways that simultaneously produce liberatory narratives and postfeminist concerns.