Over the last three years, the CW has somehow turned into the network that has created some of my favorite tv shows. From Jane the Virgin to The 100 to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Arrow to Reign, the CW has featured characters and storylines as different as night and day. It has redefined genres and stereotypes and explored subjects considered taboo. Sexuality, mental health, motherhood, abortion, female masturbation, and much more have been given a fresh perspective under the CW’s directive. But with their new teen drama Riverdale, the CW could do something truly groundbreaking and explore a subject no other television show or network has done before: Riverdale could potentially feature an asexual character exploring his asexuality in a supportive, romantic relationship.
Ok, some background info.
Riverdale is the CW’s latest teen drama based on the infamous 75-year-old Archie comics. The comics feature Archie Andrews, the red-haired, all-American boy; Betty Copper, the blonde-haired, girl next door; Veronica Lodge, the raven-haired, wealthy socialite; and Jughead Jones, the dark-haired class clown. The comics are set in the idyllic 1950s suburbia town of Riverdale and focus on the iconic love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica.
Like any modern remake, the show has taken quite a few creative liberties (understatement of the year) with the comics’ characters and storylines. The premise of the show centers on the mysterious and disturbing murder of varsity football captain Jason Blossom, a minor character who never dies in the comics. In an awful, overused storyline, Archie is having an affair with his young, twenty-something music teacher Ms. Grundy, who is a strict older teacher in the comics. Sweet, carefree Betty has a strict and overbearing mother in the show who puts immense pressure on her to be perfect. Unlike her superficial, spoiled comic book version, Veronica is a caring, devoted, and loyal friend trying to find her place in Riverdale. She and her mother struggle financially with the fallout of her father’s imprisonment for fraud. And show narrator Jughead, a whoopee cap wearing class clown in the comics, is a quiet, Holden Caulfield type loner writing a noir novel based on the murder of Jason Blossom.
Jughead also has a romantic interest in Betty Cooper.
In the comics, most of Jughead’s humor comes from his love of food, especially burgers, and his zero interest in romance. He is a self-described “woman-hater” in the early comics and has rarely shown romantic or sexual interest toward anyone in the comics’ 75 year history. There have been a few explanations for Jughead’s disinterest in romance over the years. One story (“Phood Phobia”) reveals that Jughead’s love of food is a coping mechanism for his nerves around girls. Another (“Lass From The Past”) reveals that a childhood romance left him heartbroken and unwilling to pursue romantic relationships.
But in September 2015, Chip Zdarsky, writer of the Jughead comic series in the 2015 Archie reboot, offered an alternative explanation: in this new, modern version of the Archie universe, Jughead is actually, canonically asexual. This was met with praise from fans as there are few, if any, asexual characters in any form of media. It left fans and critics wondering if the Jughead in the CW’s Riverdale would identify as asexual as well.
This was actually something Cole Sprouse, the actor who plays Jughead, argued for when he was first cast. “The day I was cast was actually the same day [Jughead] was announced as canonically asexual,” Cole said during a Glamour interview. “I argued in the beginning, creatively, that he should be both [asexual and aromantic].”
That hasn’t been the direction the show is heading towards, however. As we saw in season one, the Betty/Jughead romance will continued to be explored. “In this show, [Jughead’s] kind of a tortured youth that ends up finding a comfort and a resonance with another person who’s going through a lot of trauma,” says Cole. “[Jughead and Betty] end up forming this kind of beautiful, honest union, and I think that, to me, is a narrative that works with this universe of Jughead.”
Cole further explains that, “This is a new universe, this is a new take on Jughead, and he is this tortured damaged kid — this Holden Caulfield — who is looking for someone who can relate to him on a personal level and that narrative itself is also beautiful. While I think that [asexual] representation is needed, this Jughead is not that Jughead. This Jughead is not Zdarsky’s Jughead and this Jughead is not the aromantic Jughead [from the comics]. This Jughead is a person who is looking for a kind of deeper companionship with a person like Betty..and Betty ends up being this super nurturing, caring, catering person that with Jughead’s super screwed-up past they end up diving into each other and it ends up being a beautiful thing.”
And so far the Jughead/Betty pairing has been a beautiful thing. We’ve watched as Jughead and Betty gradually grow closer while investigating the murder of Jason Blossom through their appropriately named school newspaper, the Blue and Gold. We’ve seen Jughead stand by Betty time after time, offering support as they navigate through her family’s lies and issues. We’ve seen Betty return the gesture, reassuring him after he’s been unfairly arrested and comforting him after his alcoholic dad falls off the wagon again. We’ve watched them bitterly fight and sweetly make up on Jughead’s birthday. And we watched a season of their romance culminate in exchanging “I love you”s for the first time in the season finale.
As Veronica Lodge would say:
But as a white, straight, cis gender woman, it’s very easy for me to swoon. There is no lack of representation of white, straight women in the media. I see myself in tv shows, movies, and books all the time. Even though Riverdale is an entirely new Archie universe, with several drastic changes from the comics, is it fair to change Jughead’s sexuality when he is a member of a community that is highly underrepresented in the media?
I don’t know what the answer is. I love the development of the Jughead/Betty pairing and recognize that Riverdale is a completely new interpretation of the Archie comics. But I don’t think it’s fair that representation is taken away from a community that has none. However, there is a possibility that might not be the case here. Right now, the CW has the opportunity to do something truly magnificent and groundbreaking.
As Jordan Crucchiola points out in her Vulture article, just because someone identifies as asexual does not mean they do not have any romantic interest or romantic partners. Asexuality is a spectrum, from those who have no interest in romantic relationships (aromantic) to those who do. In other words, just because Riverdale’s Jughead is romantically interested in Betty does not mean he could not identify as asexual.
And if Jughead were to explore and discover his asexuality, he could not have a better romantic partner to do so with than Betty. The basis of their romantic relationship has been supporting each other through trying, stressful, borderline traumatic, times. Their relationship is a give-and-take: when one is down, the other is there to reassure and support them. Betty herself is an incredibly caring, loving, and loyal friend. If Jughead were to identify as asexual in the show, Betty would be patient, understanding, and 100% supportive.
Seeing a teenager on a popular network television show discover his asexuality in a supportive, romantic relationship would be an amazing thing to witness, even to people who don’t identify as asexual. It’s never been done before and would give representation to a highly underrepresented and misunderstood community. Asexuality is not a well known, mainstream topic: I had to do several hours of research before writing this and I feel I am pretty informed on general discussions about gender and sexuality. Which is why I find it so exciting that the CW, a network that has created some of my favorite shows, could potentially be the frontrunner for asexual representation in mainstream media.
It’s hard to say if it will actually happen though. Cole has emphasized that Riverdale’s Jughead is not the asexual or aromantic Jughead we’ve seen in the comics. And if season one’s ending is any indication, sex is probably on the horizon for Betty and Jughead in season two. However, show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa hasn’t ruled it out, saying in an interview with MTV that “season one is…an origin story. [All] of the kids are discovering themselves, and a big part of that is discovering their sexuality, their sexual selves. Rather than have everything fully formed — for instance, we’re not going to start with Archie’s band or Jughead’s asexuality or any of the things that have become canon — those are all stops on the way to the journey until the show catches up to 75 years of Archie history.”
Whether Riverdale and the CW could successfully portray an asexual teenager’s self discovery without being offensive is another debate entirely. The CW has been praised and criticized for its depiction of LGBT characters in its shows, especially The 100 and Supergirl. But if any network were to pursue this groundbreaking opportunity, it would be the network that continues to defy stereotypes and genres through its tv shows.