Why Do Teen Dramas Like Riverdale Keep Sidelining Black Female Characters?

Ashleigh Murray as Josie in Riverdale. Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW

Growing up, I was obsessed with the 1996 cult hit The Craft. The film centers on a group of four girls at a Catholic high school who were too weird and defiant to get the ugly-duckling-turned-beautiful-swan arc other films crafted for their nominally off-center leads. In other words, it was a story line tailor-made for me. But it was never the sole black girl of the group, Rochelle (Rachel True), I connected with, despite our surface-level similarities — we both had natural hair, navigated predominantly white spaces, and dealt with racism from self-involved white girls. It was Fairuza Balk’s gloriously unhinged Nancy Downs I truly saw myself in, given that she wrestled with a tricky family life, poverty, and mental-health issues.

Having to see yourself where the filmmakers can’t is a common dynamic for black girls watching teen stories, where token black teens are given paper-thin characterization. Black girls in teen dramas and comedies can be outcasts (Rochelle from The Craft), scrappy head cheerleaders (Gabrielle Union’s Isis from Bring It On), mere background color (Gossip Girls, Mean Girls, Pretty Little Liars), sassy rich girls (Dionne from Clueless), single moms (Kerry Washington’s character in Save the Last Dance), disciplined vampire slayers (Kendra from season two of Buffy the Vampire), and sometimes, good friends or romantic partners (Felicity, Boy Meets World). What unites most of these characters, despite their differences in culture, social strata, class, and style, is one frustrating commonality: They’re ultimately ciphers. At first glance, CW’s highly addictive, self-aware series Riverdale, which ends its first season this Thursday, felt like a show that finally allowed people of color, including black girls, to be more than window dressing or vehicles for lessons about race.

The series — a blend of Twin Peaks’ moodiness, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s obsession with pop-culture witticisms, and Gossip Girl’s deft exploration of the teenage social caste system — brings the long-running characters of the Archie comics to a new audience. It hinges on the aftermath of Jason Blossom’s murder, the only son of the town’s most powerful family, as it affects those left behind: type-A perfectionist with an edge Betty Cooper; the town’s new rich girl with a sob story, Veronica; and the show’s leading man, Archie Andrews. In its first episodes, Riverdale seemed poised to become a surprisingly cunning refutation of the minimization and segregation within teen dramas. K. J. Apa, who plays the remarkably befuddled (and ripped) Archie, is half Samoan. Veronica is Latina. Reggie is played by an Asian-American actor. And most notably, not one, but all of the members of Josie and the Pussycats are black, a change that eschews the tokenization previous iterations of the group have displayed. But as Riverdale approaches the end of its first season, it has reaffirmed some of the age-old problems within the genre, which is never more clear than when it comes to Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray) and her Pussycat bandmates, Valerie Brown (Hayley Law) and Melody Valentine (Asha Bromfield).

It’s not as though Josie and the Pussycats don’t have the potential to be more dynamic characters. Riverdale is a town in which drama and darkness lurk around every corner, so theoretically some of that could easily be dished out to the black girls roaming the high school halls. Josie is by far the most developed of the trio, with her go-getter personality established early on. But beyond musical performances, Valerie, and particularly Melody, aren’t given much focus. That was until episode six, “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” when the trio gets more in the way of development.

The episode centers on how the school’s upcoming variety show upends the relationships between several characters. There’s a lot of focus on Archie’s burgeoning musical career, but what really makes it stand out is everything that happens between Josie and the Pussycats. Josie is stressed because her famous-musician father is skipping Jazz Fest in New Orleans in order to watch her band play. At best he’s dismissive, at worst he’s cruel about Josie’s choice of music. He thinks she should be more Ella Fitzgerald and less Beyoncé. (Guess he hasn’t heard Lemonade.) Meanwhile her mother, Mayor Sierra McCoy (Robin Givens), is obsessive about cultivating her brand. This gives Josie a bit of a complex, which leads her to be pretty terrible to Valerie. But instead of backing down as people tend to do in Josie’s presence, Valerie stands up for herself, quits the group, and starts making music with Archie. Josie begins to fret, since Valerie both writes all their songs and is a good singer. Soon enough, though, Josie finds a replacement who fits her mother’s parameters — someone pretty, thin, and a woman of color — in Veronica, who needs a healthy way to let out her own aggression. Musical numbers, witty comebacks, and family drama ensue. As for Melody, she’s given one line of dialogue in the entire episode. If you replaced her character with a lamp I’m sure hardly anyone would notice. While Melody embodies the frustrating idea that only so many black girls can get development at the same time, Valerie and Josie’s growth in the episode should be something to celebrate, right?

Josie’s story line does skate by some interesting class politics. How does it feel to be a black girl of considerable social standing, the mother of the mayor no less, in a town like Riverdale? But the development ends with this episode, without ever probing the question too deeply. It’s also disconcerting that the only dark-skinned black girl given more than a few lines is the most antagonistic, sassy, and controlling of the girls. Valerie, the lightest of the all-black trio, is unsurprisingly the one positioned as Archie’s love interest, which gives her a bit more screen time due to her proximity to Archie. But subsequent episodes forget about the relationship entirely until they’re broken up rather inelegantly. Archie treats Valerie as an afterthought until she decides she deserves more and breaks up with him. “Ever since we started dating, Archie, you’ve ignored me, you ditched me,” Valerie says when she rightly decides to break up with him. That she keeps to this decision in episode ten, “The Lost Weekend,” rebuffing a drunken Archie’s attempt to rekindle their paltry connection at Jughead’s birthday party, is something I admire. If Valerie scarcely has an internal life, at least she has a spine.

This relationship reminded me of a problem lurking in a lot of teen dramas: black characters are often solely given an arc in relation to the white characters around them. (While Apa is half-Samoan, Archie’s parents are played by Molly Ringwald and Luke Perry so he is coded as white within the series.) In many films and TV shows, this is also used as a way to discuss racial politics. (In Riverdale, race is only touched on briefly, most memorably in episode three, “Body Double,” when Josie calls out Archie for thinking he could write music that speaks to the experiences of a group of black girls, as a way to establish his songwriter cred.) This may seem radical for the predominantly white filmmakers who work in this genre, but it’s important to remember that black girls’ lives aren’t solely defined by racism. We deal with romantic foibles, desires, and fears just as richly complex as the white leads this genre focuses on to the detriment of the black girls coloring the margins. Bring It On is probably the best example of teen narratives that use black girls to comment on racial politics. For those who haven’t seen this masterpiece, the film follows the spunky, determined Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) who becomes the cheerleading captain of the Toros after its former queen, nicknamed Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), graduates. When new team member Missy (Eliza Dushku) brings Torrance to watch the East Compton Clovers cheerleaders, led by Isis (the apparently immortal Gabrielle Union), Torrance immediately recognizes that the moves are identical to her own team and discovers Big Red was swiping their routines. She is shocked, angry, and most importantly completely ignorant of the ways such theft would happen. The rest of Bring It On charts the fallout from this revelation. Despite my love for that film, each time I watch it I can’t help but imagine an alternative version in which Gabrielle Union’s Isis and the rest of her cheerleading team are the vantage point the filmmakers use to explore female competition and community rather than just make a (well-intentioned, arguably necessary) point about how racism can flourish.

What always stood out to me even when watching The Craft as a child was how little is known about Rochelle compared to the other members of her coven. This isn’t to say racism of the sort Rochelle’s rival, the platinum-blonde mean girl Laura (Christine Taylor), wields doesn’t actually exist in the world. But it’s a one-note representation of the kind of racism that can shadow a young black girl’s life. It’s not meant to reveal the interiority of her experience, but to grant white audiences an easily digestible version of far more complex matters. On the other end of the spectrum is a film like 2001’s Save the Last Dance, which feels like an uncomfortable tour of the experiences of poverty, teenage motherhood, and interracial dating. The black girls in the film range from bitter teenage mothers to vengeful exes uncomfortable seeing a black man like Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas) date a white girl, Sara (Julia Stiles). One of the most cringe-inducing moments in the film is when Derek’s sister, and single mother, Chenille (Kerry Washington), verbally evicerates Sara for her ignorance. Sara can’t seem to understand why Derek’s ex has a problem with them dating. “He’s going to make something of himself. And here you come white so you got to be right and you take one of the few decent black men we have left after jail, drugs, or drive-by,” Chenille explains. The filmmakers don’t consider the beauty politics that leave black girls and women feeling like they are undesirable. (Also, no black girl would ever talk like that.) Instead, this moment is framed to make it seem like Chenille is treating Sara unfairly. At the least, Riverdale’s Josie, Valerie, and Melody aren’t stereotypes, but they rest in the same troubling space that the black girls in films like Save the Last Dance occupy. They’re not characters so much as they are a vehicle for a Message™. Josie and her fellow pussycats are positioned to communicate the message that Riverdale is more modern and inclusive than teen dramas of the past, even though it has yet to prove it beyond its casting.

Growing up, I still delighted in how, through sheer force of personality, the black girls that traveled through these stories became thunderstorms daring you to ignore their presence. But I yearned for them to also be crafted like the Nancy Downs and Buffy Summers of the world — complicated, dreamy, a bit weird, and struggling with issues that didn’t always revolve back to race or gender (or at least, showed a more complicated picture of these themes). In many ways, Riverdale represents the crossroads teen dramas currently find themselves at — between the so-called diversity of the past, in which black girls were primarily ciphers, and something a bit more complex and emotionally true. Riverdale is still only in its first season. It has the opportunity to live up to the promise of its diverse cast by granting complexity to characters like Josie, Valerie, and Melody, elevating them from mere background fodder into truly memorable, ever-watchable people who would only enhance why this genre is so enchanting in the first place.

Riverdale and When Teen Dramas Sideline Black Characters