Milkshakes and Misogyny: The Male Gaze in the Archie Comics and Riverdale

Nakita Funk

The Archie Comics have enjoyed an understated but pervasive popularity for many decades now. At the library where I work, there are always Archie comics needing to be shelved. I remember purchasing the comic in my early teens because I liked Betty and Veronica’s outfits, but the content of the comics mostly made me sad – the jokes were not funny, Betty always deserved better than what she got, and I was consumed by self-hatred for the fact that my body did not look anything like the girls in the comics.

Nakita Funk, “The Male Gaze in Archie Comics I”, 2021.

Perhaps some immensely lucky person who felt self-confident throughout their teens would think that past me was being a bit dramatic – why would I compare my body to a cartoon? You’re a real person, obviously you don’t look like that. But as someone who did not consume a lot of teen-oriented popular content (thanks, conservative parents!), the Archie comics were one of my primary guidelines for navigating the terrifying obstacle course that is teenage dating. What the Archie comics taught me was that dating was for the slimmest and most mature looking girls, who, even if they were among the most beautiful and smart in their entire school, would battle among themselves for the most mediocre guys. It’s great if you have a nice personality, but it’s really about your looks – a bad personality can be excused if you look hot, but a nice personality will not catch anyone’s attention if you are not hot.

Nakita Funk, “The Male Gaze in Archie Comics II”, 2021.

I have included photos of two Archie comics covers in this post that might help a skeptic understand how these comics can make teen girls feel bad about themselves. I did not go searching for these – I was at the library and these happened to be the two covers that were front-facing. The volleyball scene is particularly off-putting; this is supposed to be a group of girls around ages 14 to 18, all wearing skimpy bikinis, and all identical in body type. In fact, in my experience of reading the Archie comics, I have only come across one teenage girl that was not slim – a minor character who was somehow made to look like a 40-year-old, while all the other girls are carbon copies of each other with the hairstyle changed. The message that this portrayed to me as a teen was that if you don’t look like one of the volleyball girls, then you do not matter.

As an adult looking back these experiences, I can identity the problem with the Archie comics as the male gaze. All the teenage girls are supermodel skinny with mature adult figures, and they are more than happy to have their male peers conspicuously ogling at them in any setting. Throw in a fat girl to make everyone feel included, but don’t give her too much dialogue, dress her as if she’s Amish, and never, ever, portray her as a romantic interest. Also, have two beautiful and high-accomplishing girls be constantly fighting over the attention of a lackluster boy, even though the boy frequently ditches one girl for the other, or ditches both of them for a different (but identical in body type) girl. Archie comics is a poorly conceived male fantasy that should have been left behind decades ago.

This is precisely why I was excited to see the subject matter of my teens revitalized in the CW show Riverdale. It was definitely something to be excited about – a line-up that was previously all-white and heteronormative would now feature a Latina lead as Veronica and introduce Kevin, a gay teen, as a new main character. The first season was pretty good and even tackled overtly feminist themes – the girls of the school band together against the boys’ football team’s misogynistic tradition, and Veronica seeks justice against an old-friend-turned-enemy when she realizes that he has a history of sexual assault. It was certainly a step above any of the shows I was able to watch when I was the age of their target audience.

Yet, despite the amazing wardrobe, the irresistible drama, and the refreshing inclusivity, something about the show still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Maybe it’s the fact that many of the lead actors are about a decade older than their 15-year old characters. Maybe it’s the excessive number of locker room scenes, where girls argue while wearing lingerie. Maybe it’s because every main character (again, they are supposed to be 15 at the start of the show) is highly sexually active.

Shannon Purser as Ethel. Perra/The CW, 2018.

Maybe it’s because there is only one character whose body type differs from the original Riverdale girls, and she is always dressed more like a frumpy teacher than like her peers, and never portrayed as a romantic interest. One plotline with this character, Ethel, shows her consumed by an unrequited crush on Jughead. He needs information and she tells him he will have to kiss her to get it. This plotline resulted in extreme backlash from fans, NOT because of the questionable message on consent, but because Ethel and Jughead kissed. The actress, Shannon Purser, was flooded with messages on Twitter calling her “fat” and “ugly” (Delgado par. 8). If the same sort of backlash occurred when other, skinnier characters attempted to steal someone else’s boyfriend on the show, I must have missed it.

The problem with Riverdale can easily be summarized by a scene in season 2, episode 8. Betty decides to join the Serpents to protect Jughead, but learns that for girls, initiation into the gang requires a public strip-tease dance. Her friend Toni comments, “I tried to get it outlawed but misogyny dies hard” (18:15). So, later in the episode, Betty (now 16 years old) strips down to lingerie in the gang’s bar and dances to “Mad World” (yes, I said “Mad World”). So, apparently, as long as the writers of Riverdale acknowledge that misogyny exists, it’s okay if they participate in it.

Works Cited

“Chapter 21: The House of the Devil”. Riverdale, directed by Kevin Sullivan, written by  Yolanda Lawrence, season 2, episode 8, CW, 6 December 2017.

Delgado, Sara. “Shannon Purser Called Out Trolls for Harassment After Ethel and Jughead Kissed on ‘Riverdale’”. Teen Vogue, 30 October 2018, 3:20PM,                            https://www.teenvogue.com/story/shannon-purser-called-out-fans-harassment-ethel-  jughead-riverdale.

Diyah Perra/The CW, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/10/riverdale-ethel-muggs-criminal-mastermind-theory.html. Accessed January 15th, 2021.

 

 

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