Riverdale Has New Queer Characters but Is Being Weird About Some of Its Old Ones

“Sex Education” is the horniest episode of Riverdale to date, and that’s a high bar to surpass! I mean, less than three (3) minutes in, and we have Cheryl Blossom scooping the sweet juicy fruit of a papaya — LITERALLY.

Cheryl scoops out papaya while "a fiery headed woman" is sung over top it

The episode truly begs the question: WHY NOT JUST MAKE EVERYONE BISEXUAL YOU COWARDS? Indeed, the entire point of the episode seems to be that any pairing goes. There’s something for fans of Barchie, Bughead, Varchie, Vughead, and all the lovely little heterosexual ships that sound like nicknames for weed strains. The plot is thusly: The teens of Riverdale receive a rather incomplete, school administration-approved sex education lesson and are then sexually awakened by a spoken word and dance performance by Toni Topaz at The Dark Room, the town’s local beatnik hangout, prompting them to have sexy dreams and also a real-life makeout party under the tutelage of makeout maestro Veronica Lodge. As a reminder in case any of that was confusing, the characters are indeed high schoolers again and also are in 1955, because of a magic comet that made them time travel and forget their previous lives.

As a result of this decision to be set in 1955, Cheryl Blossom and Kevin Keller have been re-closeted. It’s a strange and dissatisfactory choice on a lot of levels, but the one that gets me the most is that it’s just kind of boring. Kevin is way more closeted now than he ever was in the previous timeline, and Cheryl’s arc seems to be following more or less the same exact one as before in terms of her closetedness being a direct result of her mother’s homophobia and family’s general bad vibes. It’s just unfolding faster this time. Recloseting these characters doesn’t add any depth to them, and it just seems like the writers think the only compelling conflict a queer character can struggle with is being in the closet.

Of course, it’s easy for Riverdale to just use the 1955 of it all as an excuse for these choices, but that doesn’t hold up, because even the show knows there were indeed queer people in the 50s who acknowledged and acted upon their own queerness even though it was dangerous to do so. Toni Topaz is allowed to live somewhat openly though still covertly as a queer woman, and so is Kevin Keller’s new love interest Clay. Toni and Clay are both Black and because of the ways racism and homophobia can touch would in actuality have less power to express themselves freely than Cheryl and Kevin. So I’m having a hard time accepting historical context as the reason for recloseting Cheryl and Kevin.

On the upside, in addition to Clay, Riverdale has introduced another NEW queer character in Lizzo, a high school dropout who rides a motorcycle and has a flirtatious dynamic with Toni. After Lizzo catches Toni inviting Cheryl to a poetry reading and being promptly rejected, Lizzo teases: “Same old Topaz, always going for the straight-laced, square girls.” We don’t get much Lizzo in the episode, but we see her watching Toni just as intently as literally every character during her performance. It’s possible a Toni/Lizzo/Cheryl love triangle is being set up.

Lizzo on Riverdale is a biker dyke with a leather cap, leather jacket, and a motorcycle

But for now, Cheryl is too entrenched in the closet to be a part of any real love triangle. Thrown off by her obvious attraction to Toni, she doubles down in the other direction and agrees to go on a date with Archie, who has been convinced to ask her out by her twin brother Jason under the orders of their evil mother. When Cheryl realizes it’s her mother behind the Archie setup, she uses it against her, coming home with a giant hickey and insinuating she and Archie had hot, dirty sex to shock and silence her mother. Meanwhile, she breaks down crying, her diabolical Blossom act just that, a performance. Now, all of this could make for an interesting narrative about compulsory heterosexuality, burgeoning queer desire, and the psychic damage homophonic parents wreak on young queer people, but only if this were the first season of a new show introducing us to new characters! I know the characters of Riverdale have had their memories wiped, but we haven’t. We’ve already seen Cheryl struggle to come out, come out, and then struggle in its aftermath. Watching it again with some 1950s aesthetics and contexts slapped on it doesn’t feel fresh.

Veronica’s makeout party specifically only pairs boys with girls, which technically makes sense for a mostly straight group of teens in the 1950s, but this is Riverdale! It picks and chooses when and how it wants to be “logical” and “historically accurate” and “sensical.” A horny makeout party seems like the perfect setting for some lite gay kissing experimentation. I mean, if we’re gonna recloset queer characters, then why not shake up some sexuality details across the board? It has been heavily implied that Betty has bisexual leanings in the regular timeline, but 1950s Betty only cares about the fact that her boyfriend Kevin doesn’t seem interested in her (because he’s gay, Betty!). The only time Clay/Kevin and Cheryl/Toni get to kiss is in a fantasy sequence. In real life, Kevin and Cheryl are still trapped in cover-up hetero relationships and still denying parts of themselves.

All of the characters’ sex dreams melt together into one gooey glob of erotica, which in and of itself feels queer as hell. Cheryl watches as Veronica and Archie make out. A makeout between Cheryl and Archie, I have to admit, is upsettingly hot, perhaps especially because we know it isn’t real at all. The characters’ desires twist and turn, swelter and swell. It’s a fun, indulgent montage that actually goes beyond fan service and is more like sexual chaos, one of the most realistic parts of the episode in terms of the feral nature of teenage sexuality despite being a fantasy sequence. It contrasts well with the real makeout party later, which is full of awkwardness and discomfort, also a believable depiction of teen horniness. But there’s just something missing that holds this ultra sex-obsessed episode of Riverdale back — perhaps because it still feels so confined to certain limitations of sexuality and desire, even as it supposedly mixes pairings up with abandon. I’m stuck on the recloseting of certain characters, especially when others are more liberated. I come to Riverdale to watch the unexpected, the wild. Not to see things I’ve already seen before.

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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 840 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. excellent article, and FULLY agree. just wanted to add that in this alternate universe/timeline/whatever they’re calling it, cheryl’s twin is called julian, not jason <3

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