There’s a fine line between diversity and token representation and its one that television has found itself on the wrong side of time and time again.
All too often, when faced with the need to add some semblance of color to an all-white, cis, and straight cast of characters, television creators will add in just one or two non-white or queer side characters in order to give a mild sense of diversity. Often these characters will be the best friend, the one-off love interest, the principal of the high school, or something similar — a role with some visibility but ultimately no importance. It’s basically the television equivalent of a liberal college brochure with one black student on the front cover to show that We Are Not Racist.
As fans and creators have continued to push for better representation, shows with more diverse casts have slowly begun to emerge. However, while some shows may have an increased number of PoC and queer characters in the cast, this alone is not always enough.
Case in point: Riverdale.
When Riverdale first premiered in 2017, much was said about the show’s refreshingly diverse casting choices. While the vast majority of the characters from the original Archie comics are white and straight, Riverdale seemed to embrace a more colorblind approach to its casting.
In the hands of Riverdale’s creators, Veronica was now Latina, Reggie was Asian-American, Josie and the Pussycats were all black, and recent comics addition Kevin Keller (perhaps the only out gay teen at Riverdale High) was added to the main cast.
At a time when both television and film have been ever so slowly inching their way towards more diverse representation, Riverdale felt like a solid step in the right direction. With a number of characters of color and queer characters in the cast, it seemed like Riverdale would easily be able to avoid falling into tokenism.
As the show has progressed, however, the reality of that diverse casting has continuously felt quite different from what the early buzz and character laden promotional posters suggested. While yes, all of these characters do technically exist on the show, only Veronica is the one that’s consistently been treated like an important, fully fleshed-out character.
We’ve all complained about the lack of screen time for our faves Josie and the Pussycats, Toni, and Kevin, but I don’t think we’ve really analyzed just how extreme the sidelining of these characters has been.
Despite being a series regular and consistently being advertised as one of the central characters, Josie never really had a real storyline. Aside from a few plot points here and there related to her music career, we honestly didn’t know all that much about Josie McCoy. Likewise, most of her romantic relationships were either completely left-field (Sweet Pea? What??) or curiously underdeveloped (both Reggie and Chuck). And now she’s officially been cut from Riverdale and shipped off to another show, Katy Keene.
Valerie and Melody remain perhaps the most egregious example on the show. Val and Archie full-on dated in season 1, and yet, after breaking up, neither character says so much as a word to each other and their relationship is never referenced. What makes this particularly weird is that, for a while, Val continues to appear in the background of many scenes that also include Archie, but they just never speak to each other. She, Josie, and Melody gather at the hospital to see Archie after Fred gets shot at the beginning of season 2. She’s also there when the group does Jingle Jangle at Nick St. Clair’s party. And yet, not once does she (or Melody for that matter) ever speak. Eventually, halfway through season 2, both Pussycats unceremoniously disappear from the show altogether.
Then there’s Kevin, who barely had the chance to utter a line of dialogue in all of seasons two or three that didn’t directly relate to him being gay. And finally, there’s Toni. Although she’s gotten more screentime, she really doesn’t have much of a storyline outside of her relationship with Cheryl nor has the show attempted to cultivate an individual personality for her.
Now, when dealing with an ensemble cast as large as Riverdale’s, I can understand to an extent how some characters may not always be able to get as much focus and screen time as we might want them too. At the same time though, surely you should have the time to at least develop some semblance of a storyline for your supporting cast, right?
Because when nearly all of your focus ends up being on the mostly white and straight characters, the so-called diversity just starts to feel a little like window dressing. And this phenomenon is not unique to Riverdale. It’s happened on shows like Teen Wolf, Glee, The 100, and Sleepy Hollow. All of the series that started off with an impressively diverse cast, but then either sidelined or somehow forgot to develop many of their queer and nonwhite characters.
If this isn’t being done on purpose, then the question remains, why does this keep happening? Why do we keep ending up in situations where the vast majority of the nonwhite and queer characters end up being so underdeveloped that they hardly feel like real characters at all?
Intentional or not, the lack of focus and development for people of color and LGBTQ+ characters sends an implicit message: even when these characters are here, at the end of the day they aren’t that important. And when you do that to minority characters, that’s just plain tokenism, no matter how many of these thinly written people of color and queer characters you decide to include on your show.
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Photo: Source: Roberto Aguirre Sacasa / Twitter