Horny Bisexual Betty Is the Best Part of Riverdale’s Final Season So Far

I’m wondering if my interest in understanding sеx is really more about understanding myself. Who I am. I mean, what better way to understand a person than to understand their desires? Including your own. — Betty Cooper

When I planned to do a mid-season drop-in review of Riverdale‘s final season, I imagined it would mostly be a cheeky account of the most ridiculous subplots of the show’s increasingly absurd swan song. I thought this review would mostly be jokes and goofs. Well, joke’s on me! Because Riverdale‘s final season unexpectedly has me thinking a lot about desire and queerness way beyond my usual feelings of just THIS SHOW IS SO HORNY. (This show is, still, so horny.)

Trust, there are plenty of absurd storylines to lovingly mock this season, as with all seasons that come before it. Set in the 1950s following a time-travel-plus-memory-loss supernatural phenomena that sent its central characters not only back in time but back in age, season seven is easily Riverdale‘s campiest and most fantastical season yet — and that’s saying something. But nestled within all the spectacle and surreality and over-the-stop storytelling, there are still little character-level moments that surprise me with their depth and weight. The above quote, for example, is spoken by Betty in a session with the psychiatrist she’s forced to see due to her obsession with sex. What really seems like a natural teenage obsession is pathologized due to her being a young woman in the 50s — but it’s easy to imagine Betty’s inclinations being just as pathologized today, not only due to her being a woman but due to her latent queerness.

In the episode “Betty & Veronica Double Digest” from earlier this season, these sessions between Betty and her psychiatrist — who, of course, is not at all interested in helping Betty understand her sexuality but is instead working in tandem with her mother Alice to repress them — give specificity and verve to Betty’s innermost desires. And they’re queer as fuck. Archie is at the nexus of these desires, but he isn’t the only peer Betty has her sights on. When asked how often she thinks about sex, Betty ponders, and we’re treated to a montage of her walking through school and fantasizing about pretty much everyone she encounters. Archie, sure, but Veronica, too. She watches Veronica button up her shirt in the locker room and then pushes her against the lockers to make out with her. Later, Betty shares she has a recurring fantasy about being a seductive teacher, her friends cast as her pupils. Again, we get to watch this fantasy sequence play in a montage that plays like 1950s-ified porn. It again includes a moment for Betty/Veronica, a longtime ship since the days of the Archie comics.

It’d be easy to label the ways Riverdale has been teasing an amorous connection between Betty/Veronica over the course of the series — and then with renewed vigor in season seven — as “queerbaiting.” But I see that as a vast oversimplification. Sure, we usually get Betty/Veronica moments in brief, titillating bursts. In the show’s pilot, actual canonically queer character Cheryl Blossom — who isn’t out at the time, but who eventually comes out as a lesbian and has an on-and-off relationship with bisexual character Toni Topaz — rather explicitly accuses Betty and Veronica of being straight girls kissing for attention in their cheerleading tryouts. “Betty & Veronica Double Digest” and the episodes that have followed in season seven suggest a more complex arc for Betty and her latent bisexuality, which has perhaps been brewing all along.

Of course Archie is at the forefront of her sexual fantasies; he is the safest option. He’s the all-American boy next door. Literally. From season one to now, Betty has long been the voyeur, watching Archie through her bedroom window. The fact that Betty’s sexual psyche frontloads Archie but still allows room to fantasize about others, including her on-and-off best friend Veronica, speaks volumes to the power of the desires she’s desperate to suppress. It’s like her queerness is so strong that even the safety of desiring Archie can’t squash this part of herself completely. Archie has been put on a pedestal in her mind, but this doesn’t make him the “real” object of her affection; he’s just the easiest one to project obsession onto, an idea I’ll return to.

Sure, the show does have openly queer characters, even in this 1950s timeline, insinuating that if Betty is queer, she could just act on it more explicitly. The way Cheryl does, the way Toni does, the way Kevin does. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all arc when it comes to queerness. And in some ways, I’m more personally drawn to Betty’s storyline in season seven than I have been to any queer storyline on the series that came before. Cheryl represents a queer youth I never had but wish I did. Betty represents the repressed queer youth I did have and, on some level, regret, even if it was out of my control.

Even though Cheryl’s arc has had its fair share of repression and phases where she was fully closeted — including some frustratingly repetitive beats in the 1950s timeline — she has always seemed at least on some level aware of her own queerness on a level Betty just isn’t. In the 1950s timeline, it’s easy for Betty to obscure her sexual fantasies about Veronica with the theory she’s simply “sex-obsessed,” which is what the adults in her life are telling her. Not queer, just horny. That’s an easily internalized stigma for queer folks and especially bi people, who have faced biphobic accusations of “promiscuity” far beyond the 50s.

But Betty isn’t fantasizing about a crop of female peers; these fantasies are pretty fixated on Veronica in particular.

Betty reaches the conclusion in “Betty & Veronica Double Digest” — with no help from her creepy, Lolita-obsessed psychiatrist — that her obsession with sex is really just a desperate quest to be seen and to better understand herself. That Veronica remains mostly on the periphery of Betty’s gaze also feels believable. “Betty & Veronica Double Digest” splits their storylines in two, and they have little to do with each other, Veronica’s scenes far less immersive. We’re not watching a straightforward love story; Veronica is unaware of Betty’s fantasies about her, especially because Betty’s very surface-level obsession with Archie makes her inscrutable even to those close to her.

On that note, in the subsequent episodes “American Graffiti” and “Halloween II”, Betty is mostly fixated on teen boys again. Sitting with Veronica, she openly leers at Archie. In the shoproom where she’s helping Archie and Reggie fix up an old car, she slips into a fantasy daydream about both boys making out with her. There’s a popular narrative that maintains forbidden love is the most potent, but I read Betty’s leering gazes at Archie (and Reggie) as evidence that sometimes it is actually the more socially acceptable forms of romantic obsession that feel the strongest and therefore are the easiest to perform — or vice versa, that are the easiest to perform and therefore feel the strongest. It was so easy for me, as a closeted dyke, to perform being “boy crazy” because it was expected, normal-ish. I do read Betty as bisexual (like her portrayer Lili Reinhart), so her attraction to these boys is realer than mine was, but there’s still something to be said of performance here, of the way she lets herself go further in some fantasies than in others.

It also feels significant that Veronica is right there with her for some of these moments, in closer proximity and therefore theoretically more accessible to Betty as a place to direct her sexual urges, but of course, that would be more of a risk than openly gawking at men’s bodies. Betty tells Veronica about her simultaneous crushes on Archie and Reggie in the season’s retro horror Halloween episode, and even this registers as an act of intimacy given what we’ve seen previously of Betty fantasizing about Veronica.

It might seem odd for me to read so much queer subtext onto a show that brims with queer bold text. Even in this 1950s timeline that has introduced more overt homophobia back into the universe, Kevin has a boyfriend. Toni and Cheryl’s love story has resumed, Cheryl returning to the closet but still finding ways to explore what she knows sits inside her. But I think that’s actually what draws me so much to Betty’s more ambivalent arc; this is not a show that readily grapples with some of the more subtle aspects of sex and sexuality, and yet with Betty, even when her obsession with sex is loud, there are so many quiet layers to it.

Riverdale isn’t just super queer in-universe but also just in the textual sense; this is a show where bisexual chaos reigns supreme and homoerotic visuals and blocking can be seen in just about every episode. So sure, one could argue that surely there’s plenty of space for Betty’s queerness to blossom more fully, for it to not be so relegated to fantasy. But I’m reminded, once again, of my own journey with queerness. I went to a performing arts high school, where there were out teachers and students, where queerness was woven into the very fabric of our environment, and yet where my true self remained invisible to myself and my constant sexual fantasies felt like a sickness. Betty is proof that queerness — and really, any desire that deviates from rigid heteronormative expectations — isn’t always perfectly legible or definable, even in extremely queer contexts and environments. I’m not concerned with rigid distinctions between fantasy and reality when it comes to queer characters, especially as someone who was only queer in my fantasies for so long.

As of the most recent two episodes, Veronica isn’t on the periphery anymore. In “After the Fall,” Veronica and Betty decide to have a never-ending slumber party after their mothers effectively disown them. Alone one night, they sit close on the couch and talk about how they think Kevin and Clay have a great relationship. Veronica says a same-sex relationship sounds easier than a straight one, which, lol. I mean, I’ve had a fair share of women say that exact ridiculous sentiment to me, so while I rolled my eyes, it also was familiar. Betty brings up that she read 81% of girls experiment with other girls before they’re 18, and Veronica discloses she has kissed a girl before, teasing that it’s someone famous. I have no doubts! Veronica, especially in her 1950s iteration, seems like the kind of (mostly) straight girl for whom kissing another girl isn’t much of a risk. Betty confesses she has thought of kissing Veronica, and Veronica doesn’t balk at this, sweetly encourages it. And then the two friends are leaning into each other.

Their almost-kiss is interrupted, a trope that especially plagues queer pairings. And yet, I still don’t see this as “queerbaiting” or a frustrating non-development. It still feels like authentic storytelling for Betty’s arc, and it’s far more interesting than the show just throwing us a Betty/Veronica makeout willy nilly. An almost-kiss still means fantasy is now blurring into reality. An almost-kiss means even when it’s not at the forefront of the episode’s plot, Betty’s still being pulled to Veronica in ways she doesn’t quite understand.

Veronica phones Betty later, and Betty says she had wanted to call her, too. “I love you, Bee,” Veronica says. “I love you too, Vee,” Betty says. Veronica invites Betty to sit with her at the big game the episode hinges on, wants to chat about what they should wear. A surface-level reading of this would be that Veronica is shifting things back into a platonic position, not wanting the almost-kiss to have changed things. But I choose the queerer reading, the messier one, the one in which Veronica and Betty are having this bestie phone call because it’s a safe way to express their nascent queer desire for each other without it going detected — by others or maybe even themselves. It makes me think all the way back to season one when then-closeted Cheryl gives Betty a makeover, an easy way for young girls to be physically close to each other, maybe even touch each other’s lips, without it being “too gay.” Lord knows I cajoled my friends into “playing makeover” persistently in my youth. And this isn’t me reading queerness onto any close interaction between girls who are friends. We’ve already seen Betty’s fantasies! There’s so much foundation this Veronica/Betty phone call sits on. Calling it mere friendship seems laughable to me.

In fact, in last night’s episode, “The Crucible”, Betty awakens to discover her bedroom phone has been removed, cut at the cord, suggesting that even her mother might be picking up on it being a line between Betty and her queer desires. In fact, the entire town of Riverdale finds itself suppressed in the episode, 1950s anti-communist sentiment sweeping the community and leading to harsh restrictions on the arts, education, and how people move through the world. Cheryl’s fascist parents pressure her to corroborate a list of students accused of having “unnatural” sexual proclivities. As a result, Cheryl and Toni enter into lavender marriage-like arrangements with Kevin and Clay so they can all protect themselves. Betty has her typewriter taken away and the student newspaper she runs shut down, so she decides to start an anonymous newsletter called The Teenage Mystique, soliciting letters from fellow teens in which they can ask all the things they feel they cannot ask in other spaces, express their desires and fears on the page. The censorship, book burning, and extreme attempts to control the bodily autonomy of high school students throughout the episode are familiar, of course. And against that familiar anti-LGBTQ backdrop, Betty’s creation of this underground newsletter seems just as much an act of queer resistance as Cheryl’s refusal to out any fellow students.

I won’t speak for others who desire more fully realized queer relationship storytelling, especially when it comes to a show that does indeed play to shipping culture. But I personally don’t need Betty and Veronica to “consummate” their feelings for each other during this final season — sexually or even just in the sense of them “actually dating.” To me, this type of simmering, ambivalent tension between the two of them, especially as it pertains to Betty’s burgeoning bisexuality that she can’t quite seem to grasp, is fully realized storytelling. It appeals precisely because it’s at the margins of Riverdale‘s main storytelling. Teen and young adult queerness so often feels exactly like that.

So keep up the fantasies, Bisexual Betty! They’re easily the best part of Riverdale‘s final season so far.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 808 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Wow I loved this review!! Thank you for laying out all of the nuance here – I can really relate to all of the repression and confusion it’s possible to run into as a closeted / unaware young queer person.

    I stopped watching after the weird timeskip-to-failing-adult-relationships but maybe I’ll pick it up again :)

    • it’s DEFINITELY a mixed bag haha and some storylines are much more interesting than others. but it does still surprise me a lot, in a good way! you should have to go in knowing that you’re about to see a lot of absurdity lol. like somehow this season has an ENTIRE plotline about Archie being good at poetry? so random lmao

  2. this captures so well everything i’ve been feeling about s7 and then some – betty’s arc is truly her best yet, i’m SO happy for the riverdale coverage here thank you!!!

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