‘Riverdale’ Shows That Teen Dramas Can Shed Light on Social Issues Too

Unlike most teen dramas, 'Riverdale' doesn't hesitate to dive into complicated social issues.
October 26, 2017
6 mins read

“Riverdale,” the popular teen drama based on the Archie comics, is currently one of America’s most popular shows, particularly among young adults. The first season, which premiered on the CW on January 26, was met with rave reviews and went on to become one of the most viewed shows on Netflix this year. Needless to say, “Riverdale” has quickly ascended to become a phenomenon in the landscape of American pop culture.

Though “Riverdale” joins the likes of “Gossip Girl,” “One Tree Hill” and “90210” in the teen drama category, its classification should not fool you into thinking the show focuses solely on dating, sex and friendship drama, similar to its predecessors.

“Riverdale” differs from previous teen dramas, as it takes a darker and, sometimes, more realistic approach to issues. Its surprisingly self-aware first season was filled with a range of socially conscious moments that tackled everyday issues young adults face in society. The first season of “Riverdale” has been filled with a range of thought-provoking moments dealing with social issues, and the second season will continue the tradition.

1. Mental illness

“Riverdale” has successfully acknowledged society’s ongoing mental health problems, particularly among young adults. The first season provides an intimate look into the mental health of one of its lead characters, Betty Cooper, the golden girl of “Riverdale.”

Betty is burdened with the expectation of perfection in virtually every aspect of her life, from academics to friendships. Her debilitating anxiety is heightened by her lack of an outlet, stemming from her relationship with her mother, Alice, who can rightfully be described as overbearing and potentially OCD. Betty’s relationship with her mother is strained, resulting not only from Alice’s desire for her to excel in everything but from her decision to send Betty’s older sister, Polly, to a mental institution.

Though “Riverdale” has not formally depicted a diagnosis of mental illness for Betty, the struggles she faces are commonplace amongst young adults and her questionable mental state shows the effects of said struggles.

2. Racism

Though racism in small town America is not a primary focus of “Riverdale,” the show does hint at instances of racism that are a reflection of society.

The most subtle, and also one of the most prominent, commentaries on racism is from Josie, an aspiring singer and leader of her band, Josie and the Pussycats. Josie, along with Melody Valentine and Valerie Brown, also happen to be young black women trying to succeed in a mostly white town and society. Under her circumstances, racial tension is inevitable.

In one memorable moment, Josie engages in a heated conversation with Archie, a fellow aspiring musician who happens to be white, about unequal opportunity stemming from her band’s composition of women of color.

“Do you know why we’re called the pussycats? Because we have to claw our way into a room that you can just walk into.” Josie’s declaration not only hints at the struggles she and her bandmates have faced, but also highlights the subtle, though lingering, presence of racial inequality in “Riverdale.”

3. Sexual harassment

One of “Riverdale’s” female leads, Veronica Lodge, goes on a date with Chuck Clayton, Riverdale High’s football star.

Veronica is under the impression the date went well (after all, they did make out in his car). However, at school the next day, Chuck had posted a picture of Veronica’s face covered in maple syrup. Though the exact meaning is never explicitly stated, the image heavily implies a sexual act. Veronica is livid, and her response highlights an ongoing societal problem: “I am neither a slut nor am I going to be shamed…Does he really think he can get away with this?

Betty, who faithfully aids Veronica in her quest to destroy Chuck, quickly discovers multiple other girls claiming Chuck did the same thing to them. Even more shocking, they discover the existence of a playbook of sorts, in which Chuck, along with several other guys on the football team, kept score of the number of girls they had victimized. As a result, Betty and Veronica devise a plan to confront Chuck and to take a stand against misogyny and sexual harassment in society.

4. Sexual assault

The issue of sexual assault is not obvious because the words are never explicitly stated. Rather, it manifested in the form of an inappropriate relationship between Archie Andrews, the occasionally daft male lead, and Geraldine Grundy, Riverdale High’s music teacher and town pedophile.

Archie and Ms. Grundy’s relationship of sorts began when Archie reaches out to Ms. Grundy for music lessons, during which Ms. Grundy begins to pursue him sexually and Archie obliges, casting aside the implications of their age-inappropriate relationship. Their relationship begins over the summer, and continues into the news school year, with Archie sneaking away to Ms. Grundy’s classroom for secret rendezvous.

However, their secret trysts are quickly brought to an end in the first season, when Archie’s friends discover his inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Betty enlists Jughead for her mission to find dirt on Ms. Grundy and discover who she really is, which proves to be successful, as their discoveries result in Ms. Grundy resigning from her position and leaving town.

The show shines light on the inappropriate nature of Archie’s relationship with a teacher, primarily through Betty and Jughead demanding that Archie put a stop to it. The show could have done more with the issue by delving into societal implications, but Betty and Jughead successfully raised the issue and the severity of an age-inappropriate relationship.

“Riverdale’s” first season forayed into social issues faced by young adults, which not only broadens awareness of societal problems with serious implications, but also allows for viewers with shared experiences to find common ground. Hopefully, the tradition will continue in the second season and many more.

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