Originally posted on Just Add Color
Chuck Clayton has gone down as the first character Riverdale’s penchant for reinvention has revamped in the worst way possible. This is not the way for the show to enter its first Black History Month.
Before I get deep into why this is, I hate that the first article I’m writing for Riverdale is something that’s about a disappointing plot point. Up until this particular intro of Chuck, I was with the show. Technically, I’m still with the show, since Jughead is coming through for me. (Seems like Jughead is going to turn out to be one of the standouts from this show, like I’d hoped he would be).
Also, I’ll have a bit of a refresher on the past three episodes in the foreseeable future. Work has kept me away from having time to write.
Thirdly, I’d like to apologize to actor Jordan Calloway, who is a fine actor and played the role he was given expertly well. Jordan, if you happen to read this, I commend you for the role you played and I agree with your tweet about this episode; it highlighted a big issue concerning women’s rights that should be addressed more often in the media.
If you happen to find this post, I hope you’ll be able to see where my complex feelings about the character you portrayed are coming from, and I hope you don’t begrudge me for it (because if I’m still in the entertainment journalism business, I’m sure I’ll be interviewing you at some point and I want us to start off on the right foot. I’m one of the most agreeable and nicest people ever, if I may toot my own horn). This is not personal and I sincerely hope you’ll get more high profile roles in the future. (You’d be great as a leading man in a romantic comedy, for sure!)
In any event, though, we’ve got to talk about Chuck. Or at least, I have to talk about Chuck.
I have several points that need to be addressed during the episode “Body Double.” In fact, I think the writers’ interpretation of Chuck might have done Calloway a disservice. Not because his character was a bad guy, but because the writers saddled his character with unnecessary layers of racial stereotyping, despite the fact that this version of Chuck truly deserves no favors nor sympathy. However, he could have been a cad without that hot tub + handcuffs + “Good boy” scene. Let’s get into it.
Chuck has always been one of my favorite characters from the Archie Comics series. In the comicsverse, Chuck is an artist, a sensitive soul, and an all-around good kid. And he’s the loyal boyfriend to Nancy, who seems to support his artistic dreams, but also seems mildly annoyed by her boyfriend’s flights of comic book fancy. In short, Chuck is Riverdale’s Favorite Black Guy. We can get into how his being one of the only black characters in Archie Comics reflects the inherent tokenism black people in white spaces feel all the time in another post, since Chuck and Nancy both resonate to me on that level, too, having been one of the few black kids at my arts high school. It’s tough having to be the only black person in a white space. #SeatAtTheTable.
Now, I get that Riverdale is all about reinventing these characters — I mean, Dilton is now a hardcore survivalist who shoots guns underage — so I get that Chuck was going to be a little different than what we’ve read before. However, did he have to be that different? And so problematically different?
Why is Chuck problematic now? Because it seems like low hanging fruit (strange fruit, perhaps) that Chuck, the first black teen boy we’ve seen thus far, is introduced as a sex-crazed maniac with no remorse for the girls he’s hurt. To be honest, the appearance of Chuck as a black man who only thinks with his dick and kept a book of how many girls’ lives he ruined smacked of stereotypes of the past, of the black “Mandingo” who lusted after so-called “saintly” white women. Not a good look for what is supposed to be a progressive show.
With all of the inventive portrayals we’ve seen of the main characters thus far, portrayals that still retain the core of the characters from the comic books, it seems like there could have been a lot more done with Chuck than just give him a complete 180 with no seeming justification for it. If Veronica is still a rich girl (despite turning over a new leaf) and Betty is still The Girl Next Door (despite having some clear mental instability) and Archie is still America’s Favorite Teenager (despite being jailbait for “Ms. Grundy,” who we’ve now learned isn’t Ms. Grundy at all), how come Chuck still couldn’t be a comic book artist? Even Dilton, who is probably the most altered of the core group, is still a dweeb; now, he’s just a dweeb who wants to prove his masculinity to the world.
Maybe in the Riverdaleverse, Chuck could have been a comic book artist who has angst over his career choices (something both comicverse Chuck and many artists, including the artists who drew Chuck and artists in other fields like me have all the time). Maybe Chuck could have channeled his depression about his future (or any home issues the writers could have come up with) into his art. His dad’s Coach Clayton — maybe, like Archie and his father, Chuck and his dad don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the arts; his father might want him to go into football as a career, while all Chuck wants to do is draw on his drafting table in the garage and buy oil pastels from the art store. (This could have also made for great friendship drama between Archie and Jughead; Chuck is one of Archie’s supposed “best friends” in the comic book; in the Riverdaleverse, Chuck could have been friendship competition for Jughead, who might want his “Best Friend” spot back after he knows there’s competition). For the ultimate in dramatic effect, maybe Chuck’s dad could have even found Chuck’s artistic pursuits too “fey” to handle (this gets into more stereotypical territory when it comes to the black community’s overly-generalized view on LGBT individuals, of course, but at least it would have been something to work with that would make Chuck a human being instead of a caricature). What I’m getting is that a number of things could have been done with Chuck, a character ripe with severely untapped potential. But instead, Chuck is one step from being a rapist. Okay.
The show seems to know that they were doing something dangerous with Chuck, because in this episode, we also met another black guy, the foil to Chuck’s badness, Trev. Trev’s character is almost angelic to a fault. He’s shy, meek, and wants to bring Chuck to justice. In many ways, he’s what Chuck was in the comic books. It’s interesting that the show decided that this was the time to introduce more than one black guy on the series, and it’s a calculated move; they want to give the sense to the audience that 1.) they know Chuck would appear even worse if he were the only black guy we saw, and 2.) we know they’re in on “the joke,” as it were. They want us to be like, “Oh, they’re aware of the stereotypes, so they’re actively combating them. This is cool.” It’s not that cool, actually.
I know one argument against disliking Chuck’s reinvention is that making Chuck a “good guy” character could also be seen as a “One Size Fits All” black guy stereotype. Too often, we as black people are portrayed as either being absolutely bad or the Most Perfect, Inoffensive, Special Black Person (as shown in this exact episode with Chuck and Trev). It’s like we as a race deal with the saint/whore dynamic on a daily basis, especially in the media. It is great when a show portrays black characters (and characters of color in general) as complex human beings, capable of both bad and good. There will be some bad guys who are black, just like there will be some good guys who are black, and all of that is welcome. However, there’s a line that can be easily crossed, the line that separates “complex bad guy” from “bad black guy stereotype.”
Seems like Riverdale crossed that line.
However, the show also put Betty in a bad light as well. I’m not sure how aware the writers were of what they were making Betty do, but putting a black male youth in chains (in order to punish him and taunt him sexually), having her, a white girl and therefore in racial power over Chuck, say “good boy” and then abusing him is not a good look either. Someone should have reread that scene, particularly the part with the handcuffs, and said, “Hey guys, I don’t know about this part. Can he at least not be chained up and can she just say ‘good,’ not ‘good boy?’”
Look, I know Riverdale was exercising its campiness in that scene; I mean, saying “good boy” to a dude while wearing a wig and some cliché lingerie is, in any other situation, one of the heights of sexual camp. It’s also supposed to be the juicy, soap-operatic version of “I am woman, hear me roar.” But, the optics of this particular scene were just wrong. Did Chuck deserve some comeuppance? Sure. No one’s disputing that. Did we really have to invoke some slave/master’s wife stuff though, however indirectly? In the words of Randy Jackson, “That’s a no from me, dawg.”
The final question I’m sure you’re asking is this: Do I think Riverdale is racist? Surprise (maybe), but no, I don’t think it’s actively trying to be racist; however, that particular episode had an f-ed up scenario with Chuck and the entire Chuck concept.
The show still did some interesting things with race this episode, such as have Josie give Archie the white privilege primer we as POC wish we didn’t have to recite or think about most days of our lives. The writers are at least aware of some of the aspects of being black in America. (In some ways, that particular scene of Josie telling Archie how he can waltz into a room and get the respect and breaks she and her Pussycats can’t get is also meta commentary on K.J. Apa himself, who has Samoan heritage, but can easily pass for white.)
But there seems to be a hyper-awareness of how white privilege affects black women on this show, whereas the plight of black men still seems to escape the show’s themes, which was made apparent by this episode in particular. Do not misunderstand me — it is great that this entire episode was about women’s rights. The plot of this show was timely, seeing how we have a President who has said that he grabs women “by the pussy.” We need our television to keep reminding those who either don’t know or somehow forget that yes, a woman has a right to choose everything that goes with her body and she should never be objectified and psychologically abused by male chauvinist pigs. But the decision to cast Chuck, the very first black teen boy we see on this show, as that dude we all hate seemed to be too easy of a decision to make. Yes, there are black men who need to be schooled on male privilege, but the first black male kid we’ve seen on this show has to be the one that has to learn that lesson?
The only other images of black manhood we’ve seen on Riverdale are men who are tertiary characters at best, like Chuck’s dad Coach Clayton and race-bent Mr. Weatherbee and Pop. These guys as characters are sparse, to be kind; they don’t really say much, and, like some of the other adults in the show, are only there as set dressing. The most vocal has been Weatherbee, and even then, he’s saying stuff a stock principal character would say. With so little black male diversity on the show, it would have behooved the writers to at least make Trev the first black male teen we saw in this episode, or make Chuck more complex as a character. Or, even better, they could have made sure we saw black male teens from the beginning, as well as more black girls other than the Pussycats. They can’t be the only black girls in town, right? Where’s Nancy?
In short, I think the show’s writers had an inkling that what they were doing was “pushing boundaries,” and while it is problematic, I don’t think the show, at its core, meant true harm. However, that doesn’t mean a lesson can’t be learned here. In the future, I hope the writers think about how black men — and black people as a whole — are portrayed. That same sensitivity shown in the scene in which Josie is giving Archie a white privilege primer should be used on all black characters, as well as characters of color in general. It is time that stereotypes such as the black Mandingo be put to rest once and for all.