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Hollywood’s obsession with toxic masculinity, as seen in “Blade Runner 2049”

SPOILERS for Blade Runner: 2049 and a possible TRIGGER WARNING for mentions of rape and sexual assault.

Hollywood is still reeling from the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s abhorrent conduct. Even though Weinstein is being dismissed from various film boards, including the Academy, it begs the question: What about the other men in Hollywood who uphold toxic masculinity and rape culture?

Hollywood has been a hotbed for all versions of toxic masculinity, from predators to the benign “as a father of daughters” type–however that type is just as insidious. Like Martin Luther King’s abhorrence for the “white moderate” who does nothing in order to not make waves, the male moderate does and says nothing when women around him cry for help. It usually takes someone close to him (a daughter, for instance) for him to see that society treats women as second class citizens.

Toxic masculinity is not just apparent in Hollywood (and various other industries); it’s also apparent in the stories Hollywood tells. The latest blockbuster in theaters, Blade Runner 2049, is rampant with toxicity. Yet, it also wants to have its progressive cake and eat it too. But placing two women in roles of power doesn’t make it okay for every other woman in the film to be treated like a walking Barbie doll. Here’s  how Blade Runner 2049 fails its women and illustrates the double standard in Hollywood.

Women as props

(L-R) Sylvia Hoeks as Luv and Jared Leto as Niander Wallace in Alcon Entertainment’s action thriller “BLADE RUNNER 2049. ( Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan) © 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

The effort Blade Runner 2049 goes to make sure women are seen as objects is astounding, especially contrasted against how much effort the film went into making sure we recognized Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) as a “strong female character.” (To be honest, most of the likability of Joshi comes from Wright’s force as an actress, her ability to make rather static, paint-by-numbers-“I’m a hardass police boss” lines have some actual weight.)

As in the original Blade Runner, which focused its attention on Deckard and used rape as the titular “romantic” shift in the relationship between Deckard and the film’s replicant love interest Rachel, Blade Runner 2049 uses women as a backdrop for male angst and women’s pain as a tool to show male dominance.

Using women as a blank slate is best shown in the existence of Joi (Ana de Armas), a female companion anyone can buy, made by the Wallace Corporation, the company that replaced the Tyrell Corporation in replicant-making superiority. Joi is a virtual girlfriend, and while we don’t see all of Joi’s capabilities, it’s insinuated that she can take on any personality that best fits her “boyfriend.” In Joi’s introductory scene, we see that she takes the form of a 1950s housewife–the cliche of male superiority and female objectifcation–and in her daily life, she usually dresses in clothes reminiscent of the mod 1960s and 1970s. I believe, since K has a love for the 1950s and 1960s–what with him listening to swingers’ music in his apartment–K probably programmed Joi to dress this way; Joi’s actual “default mode” of dressing is in comfortable, yet cute athleisure wear. It’s quite ironic that Joi, a woman who is stripped of personal choice, is programmed to dress in the clothes of the women’s liberation.

If there’s Joi, where are the male companions for sale? It would have been more interesting to show how subjugation has become a big theme of Blade Runner‘s future, with both women and men virtual dolls available for customers. Something similar is ignored in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.  As I wrote in my review for Mediaversity Reviews:

Heterosexuality is large and in charge in Marvel’s cinematic universe, even in outer space. You’d think if it’s plausible for Peter to be in a relationship with Gamora, an alien, there should be some mention of same-sex attraction or asexuality. There was one explicit chance for different sexual preferences to be subtly brought up—a scene on a pleasure planet where sex robots available for touring ne’er-do-wells. There could have easily been male Johns paying for the services of male sex robots. Or there could have been women utilizing either male robots or female robots. But the film only shows us men with female sex robots. In fact, the reason we’re shown this planet is to reintroduce us to Peter’s questionable father figure Yondu, who is buttoning his pants after finishing a night with a female sex robot.

With the future usually thought of as a time when fears about sexual orientation have subsided, you’d think that for ever huge Joi advert, there’d be one for, let’s say, ‘Yul’ (since this world is all about mixing Russian themes in with its Japanese futurism). If I saw a naked Yul billboard, I might not be so annoyed by seeing one featuring a naked Joi.  Male fragility blocks Blade Runner 2049 from engaging in any type of equitable conversation about male and female objectification–how dare a man be shown in a fetishistic way! Male fragility blocks most films, including “harmless fun” like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, from showing men a less powerful, submissive position.

The catch with the replicants and AI made by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–the reason his company has become the new standard in replicant-making technology–is that his replicants obey all rules. This would be an interesting thing to explore if this quality was actually explored in all replicants, male and female.

Yes, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is supposed to be a Wallace replicant, and up until the point we meet him in the film, he has been following all rules to a T. But, as the male lead, he’s afforded the ability to go against his programming; we only see mental complexity in the men in this movie, replicant and human. Meanwhile, female robots don’t get that type of treatment. Joi, we’re led to believe, is supposed to be undergoing some type of mental progression. But it seems more like she’s fulfilling her programming by choosing to love K more intensely over the course of the film, to the point where she asks him to transport her to a portable device. When K initially refuses, scared that it might cause him to lose her forever, she does exert some power by saying if he didn’t do it, she could do it herself. But this one moment of personal power isn’t enough to overcome her other moments of mindlessness. Also, the two times she does use her own power is only in service of K, not for her own mental exploration.

Ana de Armas as Joi. (Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan) Copyright: © 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

The other replicant in this film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), also follows the rules without being given the opportunity to challenge her role. She clearly has feelings–she sheds tears several times in this movie, indicating how she’s internally at odds with Wallace’s orders and her own place in the world. Yet, we see her dutifully follow Wallace’s directives, even after seeing Wallace gut a newly-born female replicant just to show how docile his replicants are. Why doesn’t she ever challenge Wallace? If she knows the importance of the story’s mystery figure–the child borne of a replicant–and that having that figure in the clutches of Wallace means no one any good, why doesn’t she ever team up with K? What makes her loyal to Wallace when all she seems to know is abuse?

If K can get emotional growth, why can’t Luv?  She’s earned it as much as K has.

Also, Rachel is revitalized in this film, only to have her be shot mere seconds later. Her entire point in this story is to be used as an object in Wallace’s plan to turn Deckard to his side. But when Deckard doesn’t fall for it (Rachel had green eyes, not brown, he says), the fake Rachel is shot by Luv. Once again, Rachel’s pain is used only to further Deckard’s storyline. It would have been nice to know what this Rachel thought of everything happening; was she aware of how she was being used? Did she retain any of the original Rachel’s memories? What part could she have played in the burgeoning uprising? And could she have at least lived long enough to meet her daughter? Deckard gets to.

Blade Runner 2049 overcomplicates its own story by how grotesquely it uses the female form to titilate, shock, and arouse awe. Take a look at how old Las Vegas is depicted in the film:

(Screencaps)

There’s more nakedness shown in the actual film; the remnants of huge naked women dot the wasteland, helping the film achieve its R rating. Why does Las Vegas have to be proliferated with humongous naked women statues? What purpose does this serve?

As Li Lai wrote in her review for Mediaversity Reviews, the film is a “trainwreck for gender equality”:

To watch this film is to suffer through a parade of hypersexualized female bodies that are purchased as digital toys, deployed as prostitutes, or gutted through the uterus to demonstrate man’s control over the world he created. The gratuitous violence against women is never challenged by the filmmakers; on the contrary, the camera seems to delight in rendering shock value as if it will make the film harder, or edgier. Devon Maloney pens a great piece on the misogyny of Blade Runner 2049 for Wired:

“Three men manage to take up 95 percent of the emotional frame on screen, leaving little room for the women around them to have their own narratives. There’s manic pixie dream girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), whom K (Ryan Gosling) has literally purchased. K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), berates him at work and then invites herself over, drinks his alcohol, and comes on to him. Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), the sex worker with a heart of gold, repeatedly comes to K’s aid (in every way you can imagine). Wallace (Jared Leto)’s servant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) has the most tangible personality, yet she’s obsessed with pleasing Wallace. Even Rachael makes a cameo as a plot device for Deckard, embodying the final archetype—the martyred Madonna—of this Ultimate Sexist Megazord. Not one of these female characters voice an ambition or desire that does not pertain to their male counterparts.

Additionally, the character of Joi, K’s digital girlfriend, employs the damaging trope of ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ as described by Beth Elderkin:

“’Born Sexy Yesterday’ is the crafting of female characters who have the minds of children but the bodies of mature women…the idea that a sexy yet virginal woman needs a man to explain the basic fundamentals of being a person, making her dependent on him. It doesn’t matter how unremarkable he is, she’ll always find him fascinating, because she’s never known anyone else.”

The film’s obsession female sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If anything can be learned from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and other scandals that have hit Hollywood in recent weeks, it’s that women in Hollywood–on screen and off–are only given a box to express themselves inside of, while men get the entire playground. Too many men in Hollywood seem to think that women only exist to be sexual objects. Either you’re supposed to be like Joi and do whatever you can to please men in charge, or you’re meant to be a relic like the statues, forgotten or blacklisted as “hard to work with” because you decided to stand up for your voice. And even then, your body is used against you; just like how the statues showcase the barren wasteland of Las Vegas, an actress’ body can either be used as sexual currency or the reason why she doesn’t book any roles.

The conceits that women are sponges for abuse, “born sexy yesterday,” or sirens who need to be punished are myths that has been ingrained into Hollywood’s storytelling. Many of the men who tell the majority of these stories are also men who don’t know how to treat women fairly is highly troubling. This is a general statement–I’m not casting singular doubt on the folks behind Blade Runner 2049, but this film is full of that standard male-dominated thinking that believes itself to be progressive, when it’s actually regressive.

To take the heat off of Blade Runner 2049, let’s look at another filmmaker, Joss Whedon. For whatever reason (Buffy, I guess),  Whedon has been lauded as a feminist writer. Even before his own scandal surfaced, Whedon’s version of feminism has never included women of color, so immediately, it was suspect. But now, it’s apparent that Whedon’s feminism wasn’t for anyone other than to serve his own agenda. Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, said Whedon only utilized his clout as a “feminist” to get closer to actresses he wanted to cheat with. According to Cole’s op-ed in The Wrap, Whedon’s own description of the women he was surrounded by flies in the face of his supposed politics.

“Fifteen years later, when he was done with our marriage and finally ready to tell the truth, he wrote me, ‘When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.’ But he did touch it. He said he understood, ‘I would have to lie — or conceal some part of the truth — for the rest of my life,’ but he did it anyway, hoping that first affair, ‘would be ENOUGH, that THEN we could move on and outlast it.’”

He’s blaming the women he decided to pursue for his own martial transgressions instead of taking responsibility for his actions. And yet, he’s the one chosen to write the upcoming Batgirl film, even after his draft of Wonder Woman, which is completely written from the male point of view and only highlights Diana when he wants to showcase her as a sexual object or a thing for his Steve Trevor to act against.

Can someone claim to be a feminist and still see the female only in virgin/whore dynamics? Yes. Similarly, can a film like Blade Runner 2049, which tries to show women in progressive roles, still reinforce staid, tired tropes? Yes. Can Hollywood claim to be forward thinking while female actors (and male actors) get harassed and even assaulted by toxic men just for daring to do their job? Yes.

Women as interchangeable

Mackenzie Davis as Mariette. (Screencap)

Out of the entire film, the grossest part for me was seeing Joi pay for the services of replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) in order to have sex with K. The scene was supposed to be one that inspired pathos for Joi’s condition as a hologram–she can’t actually touch K–but seeing it play out was like watching an idea that seemed good in someone’s head become horrifying when enacted in real life.

The scene doubled down on the Blade Runner franchise’s lackadaisical treatment of women, this time proving that it does believe that women are not only props, but are interchangeable ones. Was K having sex with Joi or with Mariette? Does it even matter? It seems like it doesn’t, since towards the end of the movie, K caresses Mariette’s face with the same loving tenderness he tried to caress Joi with–and Joi had just “died” in the prior scene.

Again, to go back to Hollywood, the theme of interchangeability is rampant within the industry. Women are usually written as tropes in films–either as supportive girlfriends or wives, quirky “manic pixie dream girls,” “strong female characters” (which just means the woman curses and fights, but still fulfills the patriarchal demands of a sexual object), or they’re “smart,” meaning they’re usually dressed “unattractively” but still act as a type of sexual release (think of how Velma from Scooby Doo has become one of most pornographically-presented Hanna Barbera characters) or they’re dressed unattractively (and behave like a stereotypical dork) as if to say smartness in women equals ugliness.

It’s only been in recent times that films featuring women living outside of the patriarchy have been presented in ways other than the 1940s “women’s prison” films. Yet, there’s still so much further to go. Blade Runner 2049 is case in point. With as futuristic as the film’s supposed to be, everything about the film references Hollywood’s past and current treatment of women as both actresses and characters. Joi’s defining characteristic is that she’s sexy. Joshi’s main characteristic is being “tough.” Luv’s main characteristic is “loyalty.” However, K  is allowed to be sexy, tough, loyal (to a point), and smart, discerning, confused, self-aware, brooding, cool, sad, disillusioned, etc. He gets a range of emotions, while the women either only serve one purpose or are used interchangeably to serve one man, as is the case with Mariette and Joi serving K and Luv and Rachel serving Wallace.

Ana de Armas as Joi and Ryan Gosling as K. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment)

The fact that nearly every female character dies in the film is also evidence of the film’s belief that regardless of these women’s various stations in life or their motivations, they are all interchangeable and disposable. This movie reeks of the “fridged woman” stereotype, which means that women are killed in stories solely to advance a male-driven plot. Comic book writer Gail Simone has compiled a huge list of female comic book characters that have been killed or brutalized solely for the male lead to be spurred into action.

However, Blade Runner 2049 fails at even allowing he male leads to be spurred into action because of female death. The deaths of these women are treated with nihilism, as if their deaths are to show how brutal this futuristic world can be. Maybe that point would be better made if we saw more male characters be faced with certain death throughout the film; most of the male characters we meet at the beginning of the film are still alive at the very end, while most of the female characters are dead. Even though K gives up the ghost in the film’s final seconds, he still survived all the way to the ending credits, which is more than we can say for more deserving female characters.

The only male character that dies in this film is Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). His death links him to these women; he’s the only male character in the film to show any deference to the female-made miracle he’s witnessed–Rachel giving birth to her daughter. The only man in the movie who shows any ounce of respect towards a woman gets killed because of it.

Women who are erased from their own narratives

(L-R) Ryan Gosling as K and Ana de Armas as Joi. (Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan) © 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT

A female character that does survive, however, is Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), but that’s only because she has to be kept in a sterile environment due to a condition (maybe a condition related to her birth). Ana is also the prodigal  daughter everyone’s been looking for. However, as far as the film’s storytelling goes, is she only considered useful by the story because Deckard’s her dad, not the power she has as the first of her kind?

This might seem like nitpicking, especially since Ana inverts the audience’s trained expectation for the leading man to be the golden child. Having K realize he’s not the chosen one is actually quite satisfying–he’s built a huge mythology in his head by this point in the movie, so when he learns the truth from replicant leader Freysa (Hiam Abbass), one of the few women of power in this film, it’s fascinating to see his ego deflate before our eyes. When he realizes his only purpose is to be the usher for a female savior, he becomes disillusioned once again.

However, when K has this great realization should be when the film actually starts. The real story isn’t K’s journey from replicant-to-human-to-replicant; the real story is Ana’s. Why is it that we follow K throughout his search–which has K go around 360 degrees back to his emotional starting point–and watch him die, when the real story is happening off screen? This film should have been about Ana, not K.

Having the film follow K instead of the real focus is toxic masculinity at work. It’s subtle, but the film’s basically saying that K’s story is more important not because of any revelations he might have, but because he’s a man. That’s the only reason I can see as to why we don’t follow Ana, who has the balance of the entire world in her hands. The real mystery isn’t if K is a human; it’s how did a human (or suspected replicant) and a known replicant have  a naturally-conceived replicant child? What’s the science behind this? And what would Ana do with this power once she’s made aware of her unique position? She might be alive, but why is she fridged out of her own story?

There’s a parallel here. Just like how we’re told K is more important than Ana, we’re often told men’s stories and emotions are more important than women’s. Women are often portrayed as being naive and not knowing what they want, while the man somehow magically does. This is indicative in the rape scene between Rachel and Deckard, which is played more like a love scene than the brutal act it actually is.

As Eric Haywood wrote for Roger Ebert (linked above):

Here’s the scene in a nutshell: Rachael’s with Deckard in his apartment. They’re sitting together at his piano when he tries to kiss her. She pulls back, then jumps up and races for the door (the shaky handheld camerawork emphasizing her urgency and determination to leave). She opens the door, but Deckard jumps in front of her—looking quite angry, mind you—and slams it shut with his fist, then grabs her with both hands and physically slams her against the window.

That’s our hero in action.

Then, as if all that weren’t creepy enough, he orders her to say, “Kiss me.” She doesn’t want to, so he orders her again. This time she says it. He kisses her (because, hey, she just told him to, right?), she kisses him back, and they continue as we fade to black.

To be fair, there’s an argument to be made that the scene is probably attempting a certain level of emotional complexity here. Rachael is a replicant of an advanced design. She’s had the memories of her creator’s niece implanted in her mind, leading her to believe that she’s actually human. Anyway, the idea seems to be that she and Deckard are both overcome with passion, but she’s resisting because (having been dismissively told by Deckard that she’s actually an android) she can’t trust her emotions. But the basic thrust (sorry) of the scene remains the same: Deckard wants sex, he wants it right now, and she does not. So he literally holds her hostage until she agrees to give it up.

Basically, Deckard, like so many men before him, believes he knows what Rachel wants, even though she clearly states the opposite. Her feelings don’t matter, since its Deckard’s feelings that are given precedence in the story.

If Rachel did proclaim that she was raped by Deckard, would anyone believe her? And would anyone disbelieve her because she’s a replicant, or would it be because she’s a woman?

In real life, women are often disbelieved, regardless of the positions they hold in life. They are made out to be liars. It shouldn’t be a surprise that so many women have never  come forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment, since people would only be concerned with how they somehow “asked for it.” What did they wear? What were their actions? Did they, like Rachel, say what the man wanted to hear (never mind if it was said out of coersion)? However, what’s hardly ever asked is what did the hero of the story–what did the man—do. Like too many men that populate Hollywood (and the White House), Deckard’s actions are never explored or punished. He remains our hero. Even his storyline with Rachel is remade into a noir-esque love affair in Blade Runner 2049. The truth gets turned into something more palatable. Rachel is erased.

In conclusion

What would be cool is, if the Blade Runner 2049 sequel ever gets made, that Ana becomes the lead of the story. We should have been  following her all along. What I fear is that Deckard will become the lead again, and the film will be all about exploring if he is actually a replicant. This would be a huge disservice to the story, since everything hinges on Ana.

As far as films go, Blade Runer 2049 is only but one of the many films out there that do a disservice to its female characters. The film, like  many before it, is also victim to the illness of toxic masculinity in the Hollywood industry. It’s not the fault of the films who suffer from this toxicity; it’s the fault of the filmmakers. Sadly, too many screenwriters, directors, and producers don’t even realize that they have a problem. Too many enjoy living high off the hog, misusing their privilege. However, until those in charge do have a wake-up call (or are replaced), women like Ana, Joi, Luv, Mariette, Joshi,and Rachel will stay in their boxes while men continue to take up all of the playground. ♦

“Riverdale” recap: Now, a warning

Pictured (Front L-R): Tiera Skovbye as Polly Cooper, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, (Back L-): Nathalie Boltt as Penelope Blossom, Hayley Law as Valerie, Asha Bromfield as Melody, Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, and Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl Blossom — (Dean Buscher/The CW)

Riverdale Season 1 | Episode 8 | “The Outsiders” | Aired March 30, 2017

AAAAAUUUUGGGHHH!!!!

Yes, this is how I feel right now about Riverdale, and all of that got bottled up and compacted into this particular episode. Yes, Polly had her baby shower, she’s moved in with the Blossoms, Archie and Betty found out that Jughead’s dad is a Serpent, Kevin’s Serpent boyfriend Joaquin is having second thoughts about deceiving him, etc., etc. Now, let’s get to what really needs to be discussed: JUST WHERE IS THIS SHOW HEADING?! 

I feel like this show is treating us like how Lisle Von Rhuman treated Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes HerRiverdale is teasing us with a show beyond our wildest imaginations–inclusion, diversity, a fresh take on Archie and the gang, etc.–and it gives us what we think we want. But then, it comes back to us and says, “Now, a warning.” To which we say, like Madeline, “NOW a warning?!” For us, that warning would have been that the show would begin to lose its way and forget what made its characters great and, indeed, avatars for those who didn’t feel included in their everyday lives.

First of all, I feel like, and have always felt like, Riverdale has the potential to be amazing. There’s so much raw stuff inherent in the Archie Comics canon and it’s so frustrating to see how little the show is using what it could use. Instead, it’s pulling from every kind of pop culture reference from the past 30 years to show it’s “smart” and “edgy” and “hip.” And yet, it still comes off as dated and try-hard.

I think Emily Nussbaum hit the nail on the head in her review of the show for The New Yorker, “Archie’s and Veronica’s Misconceived Return to Riverdale,” in which she eviscerates the show for the reasons presented above. To quote her:

“…[S]even episodes in, it’s devolved into dull cosplay bracketed by bogus profundity. Betty and Veronica don kink-wear and roofie Chuck Clayton, a slut-shaming football player. The girls’ tart-tongued gay bestie, Kevin (a character from the new version of the comic strip), seduces a bi-curious Moose. Archie, when not working out shirtless, pursues a songwriting career. “Your songs,” a critical music professor sneers at him. “They’re juvenile. They’re repetitive.” That’s true of ‘Riverdale,’ too, but the show clearly knows it and doesn’t care. Every time a plot feels corny or prurient or preachy, there’s an acknowledgment in the dialogue. It gets exhausting, like hanging out with someone who keeps saying, ‘God, I’m such a nightmare!'”

It’s like the show desperately wants to prove that it’s new and fresh. “This isn’t your mom’s Archie!” is what it wants to say. But it’s consistently showing that it’s a a show that doesn’t realize that teenagers, in general, don’t talk in decades-old references, which makes it seem like this is a show actually for older Archie fans who recognize all of these references from their own childhoods. As Nussbaum said, the show brings up Lolita, Rebel without a Cause, Wild Things, Gossip Girl, Beverly Hills 90210, Pretty in Pink, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill, and plenty of others they off-handedly mention in snarky asides. Like, what do you actually want to be, show! Are you for the young kids or are you for 30-year-olds? Make up your mind!

I have been growing frustrated by the plot becoming a spinning-of-the-wheels type situation. Jason’s killer is no closer to being found, and clues seem to keep simultaneously popping up and disappearing at the same doggone time. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll even be shocked when I find out who the killer is because I’m just so bored with the whole procedural element. Again with the references, with the murder mystery itself, the show is trying to be Twin Peaks, another reference for someone much older than the target audience. But, if the show is trying to pull a Twin Peaks-ian surrealist-fest, then when are we actually going to get into the surrealism? Again, Archie Comics has tons of surrealist moments, and that’s not even counting the amount of side-universes they have. Surrealism could come in the form of simply introducing Sabrina, a teen witch who often wants to use her powers for good, but usually ends up messing things up and has to right everything back to how it was. Sabrina could come into town, learn about the murder mystery and, after becoming friends with Cheryl and learning of her sadness, reverse time so that Jason is still alive. That could also be a good opportunity to introduce Afterlife with Archie at this moment, since Jason would be, in a way, undead. There’s your second season.

Or, the show could become a true deconstruction of the idea of classic Americana, something it was billed as being but hasn’t truly delivered on yet. Instead of having Jughead tell us that’s what the show is every week in his voice overs, we could actually see some depth of character and real explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and anything else that could use a thorough prodding. I’d say that if Riverdale wanted to take notes from a show doing that right now, it’d be Atlanta. This show, like Riverdale, uses the backdrop of a well-known city to explore the underpinnings of American society and culture, and it does so in a specific, tailored way. It doesn’t have to prove to the audience that it’s “edgy”–it shows its edginess in each episode by delivering on its synopsis each week.

If any place needed a deconstruction, it would be a fictional town like Riverdale, which has stood as a the center for clean-cut “American” life, which usually means white life. With much of the cast race-bent, this would have been a great opportunity to see just how destructive and soul-wrenching it can be to live in a town in which you’re the minority (which, in turn, provides context for the larger conversation about living in a country which still harbors racism against you). We could see how some folks in the football stands might be surprised to see Reggie as the captain of the team. Or, there could be some townspeople who resent that Mayor McCoy won over the white candidate (something the character actually brings up in an episode). Or, we could get more insight into the life of Moose, who doesn’t yet have the courage to live his life as an out gay young man due to fear, pressure to be “manly” or what have you. We definitely could have used Chuck, Josie, and Trev to explore life for black kids in a majority-white town.

Pictured (L-R): Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, KJ Apa as Archie Andrews, and Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge (Dean Buscher/The CW)

I write about this in my piece for Ebony, “Riverdale’s Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right?”. I give the show a passing grade, ultimately, but I still write about how the show really needs to do better by its black characters.

“Out of the Pussycats, Josie is the one who has been given the most screen time; Valerie has only just now started coming up the ranks, but only because of her relationship with Archie. Meanwhile, Melody still hasn’t spoken more than two words during the run of the series and Pop Tate and Mr. Weatherbee may have been racebent, but they also don’t say much either—and in the case of Pop Tate specifically, nothing at all. Pop Tate is a conundrum; even though it’s great to see more representation on screen, it’s also puzzling as to why he has to be characterized as a silent, kindly butler of sorts, even though he’s the owner of the teen hangout, The Chocklit Shoppe. Basically, Riverdale’s Pop Tate reminds me too much of Uncle Ben, and I don’t like it.”

The show proved my point once again by making Valerie merely a sounding board for Archie this episode. She had three lines, and not one of them was about her point of view or her opinion on the matter of Archie’s dad being driven to near bankruptcy. Instead, her lines were there just so Archie could say he was going to go after the Serpents, as well as to give the appearance that they’re in a loving, stable relationship (which we see in the previews for next week that that might not be the case after all). The next time we see Valerie, she and Melody are at Polly’s baby shower, saying nothing.

If the show wants to be actually inclusive, the least it could do is not make its brown and black characters set dressing or talking props. The most it could do is not create a problematic plotpoint of a black boy in handcuffs at the mercy of a white girl who is acting out a revenge fantasy. 

Also for diversity, the show could do well to actually eliminate Bughead and reinstate Jughead as an aromatic, asexual boy, since that’s what he actually is.

Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler wrote “Jughead, Bughead, and the Need for Asexual & Aromantic Heroes in Comics” to point out just how demoralizing Riverdale‘s asexual erasure is (and how it flies in the face of their “inclusion” standpoint).

Wheeler interviewed colorist Sigi Ironmonger  (a grey-asexual nonbinary trans-man); webcomic creator Sarah “Neila” Elkins, (romantic asexual), webcomic creator Jayelle Anderson (demisexual) and literature student LuciAce (aroace) about their opinions on Jughead in the comics and in Riverdale. They mentioned how important it is to have asexual representation in the media, especially for young kids still figuring out who they are. As Elkins said:

“To me it’s important because, growing up, I didn’t know it was a possibility to be asexual. I thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t interested in the idea of having sex like other girls my age. Friends called me a ‘prude.’ These were good friends of mine, friends who were also queer, that didn’t know that asexuality is a queer identity. Even among the ‘weird kids’ I was the odd one out.

I think if there was more representation (or any) of asexual and aromantic characters in comics as well as other books aimed at young readers, and other media, that my friends, and myself, would have known I wasn’t broken or weird. I didn’t learn about asexuality as an orientation until I was out of college. I stumbled across it online and thought, “Oh, wow! That’s what I am! This makes so much sense!” I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that, so I write asexual characters in my stuff. I hope to write something in the future, be it a comic or a novel, that’s aimed at younger readers.”

They also discussed how disheartening it was to see Jughead and Betty actually become an item, erasing the canonical asexuality the character had before (and, as far as I’m concerned, has always had). To quote Ironmonger, Elkins, Anderson and LuciAce:

Ironmonger: “Honestly, as soon as I heard about the erasure, I’ve steered clear of the show, so I can’t speak of the storyline at all. I don’t watch a lot of TV as it is and I don’t feel like prioritizing something like that, you know? I don’t really understand a decision like that and I can’t stand shoe-horned relationships of any kind but especially at the expense of LGBTQ+ ones.”

Elkins: “I really had my hopes up about that show before it came out. I was so hopeful I know I dismissed friends who said “you know they’re just gonna screw it up, right?” My friends were right. They announced online that Jughead in Riverdale “wouldn’t be asexual” and that he’d “totally want sex” or something like that. It deflated the big hope balloon I had clung onto that we’d finally have some representation on TV in a show aimed at younger viewers. It was crushing. I can’t even bring myself to look at the commercials for the show. Each time I hear the music for them I mute the TV or change the channel.”

Anderson: “Getting rid of this trait in Jughead for the television show just perpetuates the cycle of normalizing often hypersexual behavior that doesn’t fit everyone’s life. Sometimes young people’s only role model are the characters they see on television, so it is important to show that asexuality is a thing, too.”

LuciAce: “I’m really angry about the way they’re handling things. Having aroace representation on TV would have been huge, and instead, they… made him straight? Because apparently there aren’t enough allo straight characters on TV yet. I’ve never seen a character like myself on TV, and I would have been a die-hard fan of the show if they’d kept Jughead aroace and touch-averse like he is in the comics. As it is, the show just makes me furious and sad.”

The show seems to have an understanding of just how offensive Betty and Jughead as an item are, which seems evident in how they are doubling-down on shoving it down our throats (or so it seems, since the episodes have been filmed months before now). Having Jughead and Betty kiss in almost every scene seems and feels unnatural, just like how it felt unnatural when writers would try to give Jughead an interest in girls in certain comic book issues. Jughead’s characterization just isn’t one in which he’s a guy who is interested in the opposite or same sex like that, and that’s perfectly fine and normal. However, the show’s insistence on making him straight and sexual feels like a very 20th century thing to do. If we’re in an age where Kevin Keller can be proudly out as a gay teen, then we should also be in the age where Jughead can be proudly out an asexual aromantic teen. Teens in general, regardless of sexuality, shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to be in a relationship to be normal.

Pictured (L-R): Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper and Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones (Dean Buscher/The CW)

The last grievance I have is about that twist of a plotpoint with Hal Cooper, who apparently forced Alice Cooper to have an abortion. ¿¿Qué??

Why, what when and where did this plotpoint have to come up? Why have we had such little to show for Hal’s characterization until now? I know we had that part where he told Betty that Polly was with the Sisters for whatever dire reason they have, but I wish we had gotten the sense that Hal was a total abusive husband way before now. If that had been built up from the very beginning, that would have been really interesting and it would have given us more reason to try to understand Alice until this very episode. We would already know why she acted like someone driven to desperation–it’s because she’s been brainwashed by her husband’s fruitless demand for perfection from his family.

I guess what I’m getting at ultimately with this point is that for this to be a dramatic show about a murder, there are literally no dramatic stakes coming out of these characters. Yeah, we get it every once and a while, like with Jughead confronting his father and still trying to find some hope in his heart for him, and Cheryl coming to grips with her brother’s death. But the show is quickly losing the plot of both what it wants to say and who these characters are. The reason we have connected with these characters for 50+ years is because of their relatable cores. We all know some hapless goof like Archie, who is a great friend, but is endearingly clumsy (and sometimes emotionally tacky) all other areas of his life. We know someone like Jughead, who is so cool and interesting, yet they’re so enigmatic, you feel you know nothing about them. Veronica is definitely that person that many of us wish we could be–cool, rich, and a boy magnet–while Betty is who we feel we are at the present moment–the girl or boy next door, nice, loyal, but just “regular.” Their strengths and flaws are what make them so much fun, and either you see yourself or you see your best version of yourself in these characters. Right now, I’m not seeing anyone I relate to anymore. I was seeing it at the beginning of Riverdale, but now, as Nussbaum points out, all we’re getting is some great cosplay without the real commitment.

I’ll say that the only person in the main cast who feels like they are with their character in spirit is Cole Sprouse. Not too many of the main cast have read the comic books back to front, but Sprouse has said in many interviews how he studied his source material and, in so many words, came in with a gameplan as to how to approach Jughead from a position that would remain true to the character. However, the show itself is limiting him from actually playing Jughead the way he truly wants to play Jughead, I feel. While the powers that be want Jughead to be a sexual being, Sprouse has been advocating for Jughead to be canonically asexual, as he is in the comics. However, the powers that be aren’t hearing him, and it’s a shame, since not listening to the actor who knows the character is what could actually make this show a whole lot better and definitely a whole lot more interesting.

In short, I hope the show quits trying to prove that “It Goes There” like Degrassi and actually goes there. If this is going to be a teen murder mystery, then by all means, up the murder, up the mystery, and definitely up the characterizations, plots, and respect for the differences in others.

“Riverdale” react: Veronica and Jughead get dramatic

This photo is kinda misleading, since the rest of the Pussycats don’t really factor into this episode. Good composition though. (Katie Yu/The CW)

Riverdale, Episode 7 | “In a Lonely Place” | Aired March 9, 2017

I’ll give Episode 7, “In a Lonely Place,” this: there were some real moments of touching sentimentality. Some genuine moments of feeling and disappointment were palpable among Veronica and Jughead, and finally, some parents were held up to some consequences, even if it was only for a little while.

First, though, before we get into the sentimentality, let’s talk about the elephant in the room once again: Jughead and Betty’s relationship. The more I see it flaunted in my face, the more uncomfortable and upset I get. Jughead has never been a character that desired romantic relationships. Even when Archie Comics tried to put him in his own triangle (in a misguided effort to keep people from thinking the rumors of the character being gay were true) it didn’t work out; the fans wanted Jughead to remain Jughead and not become some Lothario like Archie. Was Jughead and Betty as an item floated by several Archie Comics writers/artists? Yes. If you go back to the ‘40s, you’ll find Archie covers with Betty flirting with Jughead (with Jughead not falling for it) and throughout the years, you’ll find Jughead show a little warmth towards Betty, not just because he pitied her for always pining for Archie (who was always chasing Veronica instead of her), but because she was his friend and he knew she deserved someone nice and caring in her life. He was the only person to recognize Betty’s worth even when Betty herself didn’t recognize it. (He certainly knew she deserved better than someone like Archie, and he’s Archie’s best friend!) In one comic, Jughead even went as far as to say that if he did like girls like that, he’d definitely consider Betty over anyone else.

But, keep in mind, he said “IF” he liked girls like that. Despite all of the behind-the-scenes shipping the Archie writers and artists had when they took over their own strips or stories, Jughead has remained girlless. Instead, he’s always been a good, close friend to Betty, an enemy to Veronica, and scared of Ethel (who loved him despite the horrible treatment he’d put her through to escape her). Being above the fray of relationships has been Jughead’s distinct hallmark as a character. That was definitely understood when Chip Zdarsky made Jughead canonically asexual. It fits Jughead’s personality and characterization to a T.

But to make Jughead not asexual, or at the very least averse to being in relationships regardless of his sexuality, shows  distinct misunderstanding of Jughead’s character. There’s a lack of understanding of what makes Jughead great. The fact that Riverdale is written in part by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is a self-professed Archie mega-fan, should mean that Aguirre-Sacasa understands what makes the characters tick. He should know what makes the characters who they are. Making Jughead part of the muck of relationships shows a lack of understand about who the character is and where the character is now in terms of our current discourse about sexuality, representation, and diversity. Making Jughead just like everyone else makes him a completely different guy who just so happens to be wearing the classic whoopee cap. (Well, it’s a knit version of the classic whoopee cap, but same difference.)

Also, in the dream sequence scene, in which everyone is done up in classic Archie drag, Jughead dreamed of Betty wearing a wedding band. Again, we’re taking Jughead further and further away from what makes him him. STOP IT, SHOW.

Okay, back to the touching moments of the show.

Overall, this seemed like a half-filler, half-substantive episode, but what stood out to me were Veronica and Jughead’s problems with their parents. First, Veronica’s mom Hermione wrongly forged her name to the contract allowing Fred to get the construction job at the old drive-in. Why a mother would do something like that, I’ll never know. Why it needed to be done with this particular thing, especially since Hermione already has Mayor McCoy in her back pocket, is kinda weird to me. Couldn’t the both of them just collude to forge an entirely new document or something? I don’t know. But Veronica has every reason to be angry with Hermione, and while I’m not sure how clubbing works with getting back at your mom, Veronica’s monologue about how Hermione took the last thing that belonged to her—her name—was a deep moment for this character in particular.

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The other moment of the night was Jughead dealing with his dad F.P. F.P. is going through it and has been since Fred fired him. But F.P. was already doing some shady dealings anyway—maybe with the Serpents, perhaps?—but now F.P. is a drunken mess and his wife left with Jellybean, leaving Jughead behind to fend for himself. We find out in this episode that ever since the drive-in closed, Jughead’s been living in a school supply closet.

Finally, Archie got out of his own issues long enough to find out that Jughead’s not at home, and ultimately, he and Fred give Jughead a place to stay so he won’t have to stay with his dad. But until we get to that point (which involves Jughead getting pulled into the sheriff’s office for having the sheriff’s murder board), Jughead actually does go back home long enough to talk F.P. into working for Fred again. Archie does what he needs to do to get his dad to give F.P. another chance, and for the most part, things are as smooth as they can be between two Fred and F.P., two former best friends.

When we get to the part of the episode where Jughead gets pulled out of the sheriff’s office thanks to Fred covering for him by saying Jughead was working for him (which means Fred’s now technically a criminal too, since he’ll have to forge timecards for Jughead), we finally get to some ACTING. Not to say folks haven’t been acting before, but if we’re going to be a melodrama, let’s actually get to the DRAMA, not the shenanigans and antics. Jughead wants to trust his dad, who has broken his promises to get his act together over and over again, but F.P. looks so sorrowful and pitiful that Jughead, who is clearly angry with his father, still decides to give him another chance. I thought that was a great moment for a character who naturally leans towards the more soulful mindset anyway.

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I know I’ve skipped all around Polly and the baby and the Blossoms and the Coopers–frankly, I’m caring less and less about this baby and Polly. If Polly ends up being the killer, then I’ll end up being intrigued in her life once again. #Sorryaboutit.

(And yes, I’m planning on recapping/reacting to this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. As a superfan, it’s a show I should have recapped/reacted to long before now.)

Other things of note: We had our first sighting of Ginger Lopez!

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Will we see more of her? I hope so.

Also, we’ve seen some more of Reggie!

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I can’t wait for his storyline to open up. Since the show has the Season 2 greenlight, they’d better give us more Reggie (and possibly Josie/Reggie).

Lastly, I really did like the dream sequence. I know it’d be a sexist storyline, but if the show was literally a hyper-realistic version of the old-school comic book, I’d watch the heck out that. The dream sequence art direction was really nice. Check it out:

What did you think of that episode? Are you sick and tired of Betty and Jughead? And why are fans calling Lili Reinhart “Daddy”? (I legitimately want to know that question.) Leave your comments and answers in the comments section below!