It finally happened. After weeks of speculating about Jughead’s sexual orientation on the CW’s Archie comics adaptation, Riverdale, Jughead Jones kissed Betty Cooper on last night’s episode. As Betty slipped into an anxiety spiral about her deceitful parents and imprisoned sister, Jughead comforted his friend, then planted a sweet kiss on her lips.
One year ago, it was announced that Archie comics writer Chip Zdarsky would put to rest long-standing speculation about the beloved character’s preferences by making him asexual. In Jughead No. 4, he did just that. By canon, the character was now an on-record “ace,” and it was a massive win for a community that has severely lacked in representation in popular media. That means a lot of people are now justifiably upset there might be “asexual erasure” going on with the Riverdale incarnation of Jughead. Actor Cole Sprouse has spoken with great eloquence about his desire to see the character’s asexuality manifest, and how important that would be for a community that’s been shelved in film and TV. Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa hasn’t been explicit about his intentions, but he said he considers the show’s first season to serve as an origin story. And the great part about TV is that an early decision doesn’t necessarily signal how a character will be a defined for the entire run of a show. Yet headlines declaring Jughead is “NOT to be Asexual” or that “Riverdale is passing up a rare chance to feature an asexual character” have already cropped up, six episodes into the first season. As an openly asexual person, I, for one, support the decision to let Jughead find his way.
An important thing to consider is that Jughead’s preferences are being reduced to whether or not he is asexual, which takes away from the nuance of the asexual spectrum, which is wide and varied. Some of the better articles discussing Jughead’s orientation point out that he might not necessarily be aromantic, even if he is asexual. I, for example, identify as a pan-romantic gray asexual. That means I’m capable of having nonsexual crushes on anyone, regardless of gender or sex, and that my asexuality isn’t written in stone. There’s that “gray” area where I’m philosophically flexible. I am not motivated by sexual desire, and have never had any sexual partners, but I do experience deep love through my friendships and have experienced many instances of “crushing” on people I take a strong liking to.
I am also a very affectionate person, and many asexual individuals appreciate, enjoy, and seek out physical feedback from others, just like gay, straight, or bi individuals do. The ultimate end game just looks different than we’ve been taught to expect in health class, on TV, and in the movies. It’s about setting the correct boundaries with people in your life who are comfortable sharing such closeness without it leading to a sexual relationship. It takes some searching for the right people, but it can be done.
I write all this as a 31-year-old woman. Jughead is probably about 15, living with no asexual role models around him. I didn’t even have the words “pan-romantic gray asexual” in my vocabulary until two years ago. In high school, I was mostly wondering when I was going to start having the same feelings everyone else around me talked about all the time. Yes, Jughead could be on Tumblr relating to other closeted youths, but it’s more likely he’s still figuring himself out.
Add in that Jughead is something of a black sheep, and it further complicates matters. He is only recently un-estranged from his best friend, Archie, a guy who everyone, including the music teacher, is lusting after since he “got hot” over the summer. The Riverdale universe is also an extremely sexual one: The jocks have a misogynist playbook dedicated to which girls they’ve had sex with; in the show’s creative low point, Veronica kisses Betty to prove … something to Cheryl Blossom at cheerleading tryouts; and a game of seven minutes in heaven between Veronica and Archie threatens to tear Betty and Veronica apart before they get started. Most of the kids’ parents are either deeply embedded in or sifting through the tattered remains of heteronormative marriages. While Kevin Keller is a wonderfully self-possessed young gay boy, his experience isn’t the same as would-be asexual Jughead — gay characters are able to appear as sexually realized human beings on TV because we’ve seen them represented before. If Jughead does turn out to be asexual, he’s carving this path to self-discovery on television entirely on his own. And when everyone around you is pawing at each other because their hormones work differently than yours, it’s understandable that he would behave according to his context.
The precursor to Jughead kissing Betty actually came in episode five. The two were about to depart for Jason Blossom’s memorial service together, and Betty remarks on how well Jughead cleans up in his suit jacket and button down. Jughead looks down and shrugs bashfully. His friendships are strengthening, and he seems to have found a group for the first time, but he is still a character who does not express or receive affection often, if ever. To be seen as someone special or regarded with an extra-long look is a powerful moment for a young person who has made living in isolation a part of his moody gestalt.
As we have recently learned about Jughead, keeping an arm’s length between himself and others might be a tactic for preserving secrets, like the fact that his father is a south side of town criminal, or that he’s homeless, living on a cot at his workplace. To at last feel seen by someone, especially if you’re sorting out your sexual identity, could understandably stir up some feelings, and there probably isn’t a safer person in Jughead’s life than Betty Cooper. Part of discovering your asexuality is exploring your sexuality, which means that if Jughead wants to kiss one of his best friends to figure some things out or feel connected to another person on a deeper level without having formed the vernacular to build boundaries around affectionate but nonsexual contact, I don’t feel like a betrayed member of the asexual community.
Allowing Jughead to have “an origin story,” as Aguirre-Sacasa says, is not letting the character or the community down (yet). Giving him a coming-out narrative could create a dialogue about the asexual experience we have literally never seen before on broadcast TV. Of course, if Riverdale gets more seasons and it fails to develop Jughead’s asexuality, that would indeed be a disappointing omission, and a missed opportunity to do something truly new and brave with a character onscreen. For now, though, I don’t want Jughead to be hemmed in by anyone’s expectations of him before he’s even had a chance to figure out what he likes and what he doesn’t.