If there is one moment in the trailer for the new CW show “Riverdale” that made viewers realize this wasn’t the Archie comic they knew and loved, it was when Veronica Lodge and Betty Cooper locked lips.
As much as Archie Andrews is known for his red hair, Veronica and Betty are defined by their shared love of the goodhearted ginger: A love triangle that has traditionally fueled the conflict between the two.
This kiss was such a preoccupying social media topic because of its underlying meaning, namely that it eliminated the need for Archie in a popular comic series that bears his name. Perhaps more importantly, it dispensed with the unnecessary animosity in an otherwise healthy female friendship. The possibility of a Veronica/Betty romance was clearly progress for the Archie universe and a reflection of our times. A few years ago, the comic had already taken a step forward with the introduction of its first openly gay character, Kevin Keller, who also has a central role in the new show as Betty’s BFF.
But when the highly anticipated kiss happened in the first episode, it proved less shocking next to the revelation that Archie was having an affair with his music teacher, Geraldine Grundy. In order to spice up a cheerleading tryout and win the favor of squad leader and resident mean girl Cheryl Blossom, the cosmopolitan Veronica brings the “heat and sizzle” by smooching the shocked Veronica. Blossom, though, is unfazed. As she said, “Check your sell-by date ladies. Faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.”
Although the first lesbian TV kiss occurred in 1991 on “L.A. Law,” 1994 was a landmark year for portrayals of gay women. The sitcom “Ellen” started, and on “Roseanne,” Nancy Bartlett was introduced as one of TV’s first recurring lesbian characters. When the show featured a scene in which Nancy kisses Roseanne Conner (played by Roseanne Barr), ABC threatened to pull the episode.
Barr, though, said she would take the whole series to another network, and the episode ran. “Ellen” faced similar backlash when both the show’s main character Ellen Morgan and the actress playing her, Ellen DeGeneres, came out in “The Puppy Episode.” Although this made Morgan the first gay lead on American television, it also meant the end of “Ellen,” as the show was canceled the next year. But the legacy of “Ellen” lives on. “The Puppy Episode” won a Peabody Award and arguably inspired future shows, as over time, gay characters and displays of lesbian affection have become mainstream.
To this day, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is hailed as the first show that featured a lesbian sex scene in a 2003 episode that starred witch Willow Rosenberg and potential slayer Kennedy. Already in previous seasons, Willow’s slow coming out process and star-crossed relationship with fellow witch Tara Maclay proved that lesbian plots could effectively mesh with even more traditionally male-dominated TV genres like sci-fi and fantasy.
During the 2000s, shows like “The L Word” and Britain’s “Lip Service” centralized gay narratives and decreased the shock value and tokenizing of the stereotypical lesbian who sweeps in to steal someone’s girlfriend or wife. Conversely, as it became clear that gay audiences wanted to see themselves represented more broadly, queer baiting rose as a way to draw in these viewers while sticking to largely heteronormative relationship narratives.
This has been particularly problematic in high school sitcoms and dramas. In recent years, there has rarely been a teen-focused show that hasn’t featured two of the female characters smooching. While this is often used to shift the plot or create tension, it rarely results in the depiction of meaningful, healthy same-sex relationships on screen. It’s hard to forget the Hillary Duff (playing an actress) threesome on “Gossip Girl” with Dan Humphrey and Vanessa Abrams or Marissa Cooper’s lesbian stint on “The O.C.” with Olivia Wilde as Alex Kelly, an older rocker chick. Most bisexual or lesbian characters rarely last longer than a guest appearance, as the central cast members soon go back to dating the hunky football star or the moody, misunderstood musician.
Of course, longer-lasting lesbian relationships have been depicted in shows like “Glee” with cheerleading couple Santana Lopez and Brittany Pierce and with Emily Fields on “Pretty Little Liars.” These portrayals are more realistic because exploring sexuality is intrinsically linked with the character’s personal development. While it might be frustrating that there are few gay characters who don’t at some point kiss someone of the opposite sex, the confusion, alienation and even shame they feel are often representative of real lived experience, albeit with less acne, better hair and fewer embarrassing outfits.
These few gay characters are becoming more important. Although LGBTQAI representation on TV is at an all-time high, the number of lesbians has plummeted, down from 33 percent of LGBTQAI characters in 2015 to 17 percent this past year, according to GLAAD’s annual report for the 2016-2017 season. While there are more male and female bisexual characters, GLAAD found that these were usually “one-note villains or side characters meant to act as cannon fodder to propel a larger story for a central character.” Consequently, one of the most effective ways to counteract this trend and ease a family friendly audience into non-hetereonormative relationships is through familiar, wholesome characters like Bettie and Veronica.
At this point, though, it’s unclear whether “Riverdale” will be up for the challenge. In the same first episode, Veronica and Betty’s budding friendship is tested when Veronica makes out with Archie during a game of Seven Minutes in Heaven. Now six episodes in, the show’s only openly gay character is Kevin Keller, who dates in the closet football players and strives to get out of the shadow of his sheriff father.
One model the show could take is that of MTV’s sadly short-lived “Faking It.” The show started off a lot like “Riverdale,” with two seemingly straight best friends, Amy Raudenfeld and Karma Ashcroft, pretending to date in order to rise on the social ladder of their liberal Austin, Texas high school. This might seem like textbook queer bait, but the one fake kiss they share leads Amy to realize she was gay and the more traditional Karma to question her sexuality
On a drama like “Riverdale”, which opened with the death of a teen character and equally draws inspiration from “Pretty Little Liars” and “Twin Peaks,” there’s no reason why Betty and Veronica must continue to fight for a guy who’s honestly not much of a catch despite a good head of hair and a set of abs. It might be saying something about cultural acceptance in 2017 that two girls kissing can land themselves spots on the cheerleading team when in the past this would have made them social outcasts. But is the kiss only acceptable when both girls later reassert their straight identity?
The world might just be ready for this queer relationship to jump off the pages of fanfic and become canon. Clearly, “Riverdale” is fine with breaking the rules. Given the mountain of spicy plot twists dropped into each episode, it wouldn’t be surprising if the kiss that struck a nerve with Archie fans old and new leads to more than just a juicy scene in a trailer.