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The Pop-Culture Inspirations Behind the Girls of Riverdale

L-R: Cheryl, Veronica, Betty. Photo: CW

Riverdale is the kind of series that wears its inspiration on its sleeve. Each episode is a nod to a movie, including noir classics (In a Lonely Place) and somewhat obscure camp extravaganzas (Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!). Characters name drop a Truman Capote masterwork with the same nonchalance they do their favorite milkshake flavor at Pop’s Diner. The series is never better than when focusing on its female characters, namely Betty, Veronica, and Cheryl. Of course, these characters have a basis in the Archie Comics, which have been running since the early 1940s. But like everything else in this glorious confection, they are undoubtedly inspired by a host of pop-culture touchstones. It would be impossible to list every character that inspiration for the girls of Riverdale, but here are the ones I find most fascinating.

Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Cooper

Thanks to a magnetic performance by Lili Reinhart, Betty is undoubtedly the most dynamic character in Riverdale’s stable. She also has the most layered arc, mining a fraught mother-daughter dynamic and the weighty expectations of perfection from her family.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Nina Sayers, Black Swan
One of the reasons I was immediately enthralled with Betty is because it’s pretty obvious someone on the writer’s staff is a fan of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 horror film Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a ballerina so obsessed with perfection she goes mad. The similarities are immediately recognizable: a controlling mother with a strong image of who she wants her daughter to be, a sickeningly pink bedroom that indicates a suspended childhood, an uneasy sense of how she stands among her peers. But what really stands out, particularly in early episodes before her older sister Polly is introduced, is Betty’s surprising madness. That she easily threatens Cheryl when pushed too far and dons a black wig to threaten/seduce a football player in order to get information proved that the good-girl image people have of Betty isn’t the whole truth.

Photo: UPN

Veronica Mars
In recent episodes, Betty has become a plucky investigative journalist and detective who outwits Riverdale’s own police force. This immediately brings to mind another blonde, intrepid detective who shirks the law in order to find justice: the beloved Veronica Mars. Add in Betty’s willingness to flout social convention if it means supporting those she cares about, and she actually shares a lot with Mars. By introducing this layer to Betty’s character, she now exists in a long line of women who creep around in dangerous places in order to find the truth and bring balance where others can’t, from the titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the quintessential investigative reporter all others are indebted to, Lois Lane.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Hitchcock Blondes
In one of his moody voice-overs, Jughead describes Betty as the resident Hitchcock blonde of Riverdale. It’s easy to see why. Her pure Americana looks and edge of mystery are an interesting contradiction that director Alfred Hitchcock used to a legendary degree in crafting his own heroines. While Grace Kelly is the most obvious comparison, she isn’t who I see when looking at Betty. If anything, Betty reminds me of Hitchcock’s earlier work with Joan Fontaine, such as Rebecca and Suspicion, which is heavy on the gothic eeriness that Riverdale evokes. In both films, Fontaine plays women who start off as upstanding and naïve, but are pushed in directions they never expected by the circumstances of their life.

Veronica Lodge

Veronica Lodge (played with spritely energy by Camila Mendes) wears dramatic capes and drops one-liners with an equal degree of ease. She’s the kind of character dramas exploring themes of young adulthood have been interested in since Elizabeth Taylor sauntered into Monty Clift’s life in A Place in the Sun. Veronica is a powerful socialite beset by tragedy, leading her to reassess life as she’s come to understand it.

Photo: Giovanni Rufino/Warner Brothers
Photo: Tristar
Photo: New World Pictures

Blair Waldorf, Gossip Girl
Actress Camila Mendes has name-checked both Blair from Gossip Girl and Summer from The O.C. as spiritual sisters to her take on the confident, sophisticated Veronica Lodge. It’s understandable. Those characters are fresh, witty, and go after what they want with no qualms about steamrolling over any obstacle. As Mendes said in an interview with Glamour, “They’re strong! They say it like it is, and they’re in control and are confident and have a lot of pride.”

Julie Freeman, Jawbreaker
One of the highlights of teen soap operas is the quintessential slow-motion walk down the high school hallway. Veronica gets her own crack at that iconic style when she briefly joins Josie and the Pussycats, pissing off Archie and bassist/backup singer Valerie, who had briefly left the group at the time. This motif is used to great effect in the 1999 dark comedy Jawbreaker. Veronica reminds me of Rebecca Gayheart’s Julie Freeman, who after an accidental murder and other transgressions by her friends, decides to leave behind popularity in order to reach more morally upstanding ground. As far as we know, Veronica hasn’t been involved in murders, but in coming to Riverdale and dealing with the fallout of her father’s Ponzi scheme, she has left behind the mean-girl ways that used to define her.

Veronica Sawyer, Heathers
On the surface this may seem like a stretch, given the sardonic performance by Winona Ryder. But both Veronicas share a desire for community, a knack for one-liners, intelligence, and an utter refusal to be underestimated.

Cheryl Blossom

No teen series is complete without a queen bee as egotistical and sharp-tongued as Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch). Her manipulations and position as the daughter of the most powerful family in Riverdale are necessary foils to girls like Veronica and Betty, both of whom have been friends and foes to her at different points. Cheryl’s quicksilver nature and confidence in many ways is a distraction from her heartbreaking family life. Her parents vacillate between cruel and indifferent, which only seems to give Cheryl more reason to lash out in the wake of her twin brother’s murder.

Photo: Tristar

Courtney Alice Shayne, Jawbreaker
If Veronica crystallizes the popular mean girl gone good from Jawbreaker, Cheryl is the epitome of the queen bee from the same hilarious, neon-colored dark comedy. Courtney, played with saucy malevolence by Rose McGowan, is a soulless creature of the high school ecosystem. She shrugs off murder, blackmail, and cruelly isolates her rivals as if it is all in day’s work. Cheryl hasn’t quite reached these heights (or lows?). But the two girls share a ruthless ambition that leaves many victims in their wake.

Photo: Warner Brothers

Crystal Allen, The Women
If you told me Cheryl grew up on a steady diet of early Joan Crawford films I’d believe you. And given that the teens of Riverdale seem to be obsessed with classic film, this isn’t out of the question. Crawford’s Crystal Allen is one of the great examples of bitchiness in film history. She’s street smart, merciless, and endlessly watchable. Like Cheryl, she only seems to care about her own desires.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Cordelia Chase, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
But Cheryl isn’t a one-note queen bee, which is why she reminds me so much of Cordelia Chase (a note-perfect Charisma Carpenter) from the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the surface Cordelia was a selfish, vain, and stylish foil who never seemed to care how many times Buffy saved her life. But she also had a deep well of loneliness she masked with sharp one-liners and comebacks. Like the girls of Riverdale, including Cheryl, Cordelia both played into and subverted the expectations of the archetype she was originally constructed as.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Amber Mariens, Clueless
Red hair? Check. Propensity to be a thorn in the side of the blonde lead? Check. Obsession with power struggles and popularity? Check and check.

The Girls of Riverdale: How Pop Culture Inspired Each One