How "Riverdale" Perpetuates Toxic Masculinity

Riverdale’s second season was one of the most hyped television shows of this year. Its dark take on the classic Archie Comics introduced viewers to a town of secrets, mystery and betrayal, complete with interesting—if melodramatic—characters that take it upon themselves to solve a murder while navigating high school along the way. It’s everyone’s guilty pleasure, so when Netflix announced a second season for October, everyone was hyped to see Archie (KJ Apa), Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Betty (Lili Reinhart), and Veronica (Camilla Mendes) for a no-doubt even crazier second round in the town of Riverdale.

          Photo from Den of Geek

The first few episodes of season two has featured Archie dealing with the trauma of his dad, Fred, being shot and the fear of himself being next. This is a lot to deal with when someone is as young as Archie; these characters are still supposed to be sixteen and seventeen. They’re supposed to be worried about their grades, sexuality, and future, not a serial killer navigating the neighbourhood. But since this is Riverdale, darkness and despair grip each character’s dramatic lives, and reality is somewhat altered. The characters’ coping mechanisms are, too.

In season one, protagonist Archie was very much a boy-next-door. He was introduced as being a somewhat naive, but well-intentioned character, whose biggest problem was his High School Musical-esque choice between his music and his football career. While Archie did have a promiscuous streak in his illicit relationship with music teacher Ms. Grundy, ultimately his character has always been a sensitive one. His music offered him an opportunity to explore his emotions, turning his back on the uber-masculine football team, whose members had previously sexually harassed multiple women. However, in season two, Archie’s choice was undermined by his trauma, which was used as an excuse to develop a violent, dark character beginning the traditional “hero’s journey.”

Archie’s character “development” opens up a discussion on the representation of trauma and masculinity. Riverdale had an opportunity to retell the classic hero’s journey to its young audience. Considering Archie’s background in music and his juxtaposition with ultra-violent South-Siders, the Riverdale team could have conceived a story which didn’t focus on violence and suppressed emotions. In Archie’s turn to gun violence and fist fights to deal with his trauma, Riverdale reinforces socially-constructed masculinity: the only way males can express emotions is via violence.

Toxic masculinity is defined as a socially-construed expectation of what constitutes “normal” male behaviour. For example, expressing emotion is unacceptable, or wrong, for fear of being “feminine,” or “not a real man.” This suppression leads to dangerous, violent behaviours, and is a very real reality for many men. Toxic masculine tropes are reinforced daily through media representations in film, television, and video games: superheroes, soldiers, and more. They represent one of the only ways for men and young boys to have an outlet for their emotions, and more often than not, it’s through violent means.

Modeling Archie’s character development after the classic hero’s journey was an easy move for Riverdale to make. After all, it’s not exactly high art. But Riverdale, and shows like it, occupy an influential position to make a statement and carve a path towards a different kind of male story, where trauma and masculinity don’t equal darkness and violence. Unfortunately, Riverdale cheaply used Archie’s trauma to imitate the violent stories of traditional superheroes.

“I look at Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, and they all have a moment where they have a terrible tragedy. Bruce Wayne’s parents are shot; Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is shot by a burglar; in Archie’s case, his father is shot by the Black Hood,” executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told Variety. “That’s a catalyst for them to become heroes. Even Spider-Man, who turns out to be one of most light, always cracking jokes superheroes, his first impulse is to turn dark.”

While Archie throwing his gun into Sweetwater River was a sign of the end of his dark, violent streak, the fact remains that he should never have been represented buying a gun with a flimsy fake ID in the first place. Having Archie’s trauma be represented through guns and brawls only serves to reinforce the toxic trope which plagues the young male hero genre, no matter the redemptive arc that will surely be next on our screens.

Young people identify with the characters they see on television. To finally erase toxic masculinity, stories which reinforce the trope and accept it as a fact of life need to reevaluate their responsibility for shaping young minds.

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