On the finish of Could, Riverdale actress Vanessa Morgan vented her issues concerning the sequence’ storytelling, and the way she, the one Black actress amongst 12 present sequence regulars, was the ensemble’s least-paid star. In a tweet, she added, “Bored with how Black persons are portrayed in media, bored with us being portrayed as thugs, harmful or offended scary individuals. Bored with us additionally getting used as [the] sidekick [and] non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or solely used within the adverts for range however not truly within the present.” Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa later apologized for the oversight.
In season 2 of Riverdale, Morgan’s character, Toni Topaz, was launched as a strong participant within the Southside Serpents gang, and depicted as one of many few high-ranking ladies within the group. However as time went on, and the Serpents have been all however disbanded, the present misplaced give attention to Toni’s particular person path. Whereas characters like Reggie Mantle (Charles Melton) and Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) acquired storylines to discover their residence life and sexuality, Toni’s less-involved arc was outlined by a romance with Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), fanning the fireplace of one of many largest ships on the present.
Morgan’s statements mixed with Toni’s course on Riverdale convey to mild a difficulty of illustration that isn’t essentially nefarious, however is widespread. During the last decade of youth dramas, exhibits like Gossip Woman to The Vampire Diaries have decreased Black actors by means of a well-intentioned apply: color-blind casting.
“Colour-blind casting” refers back to the casting of actors with out assumptions over the race of a task. The casting philosophy is supposed to convey range to a sequence and provides alternatives to Black actors. In apply, that may imply casting individuals of shade as characters invented entire fabric, both for an adaptation or a brand new venture, or for characters who’ve been “racebent,” which means the present has modified the race of a personality whose background was a recognized a part of the supply materials. The time period racebending was first popularized amid the controversy surrounding M. Night time Shyamalan’s universally panned live-action movie adaptation of Avatar: The Final Airbender, which drew controversy for casting primarily white actors in an animated sequence with the characters regarded as both Asian or Indigenous. Now racebending can work within the extra constructive route, when colorblind casting, in concept, is working.
From Zendaya as Mary Jane within the present Spider-Man franchise to Jeffrey Wright within the upcoming The Batman movie, color-blind casting is an more and more frequent apply. However there’s skepticism over whether or not it’s productive; in 1996, the famed Black playwright August Wilson slammed the idea. “Colour-blind casting is an aberrant concept that has by no means had any validity apart from as a software of Cultural Imperialists who view American tradition, rooted within the icons of European tradition, as past reproach in its perfection,” he mentioned.
With so many character lives to discover, and elements of the heightened world to find, creators have naturally launched a brand new wave of non-white characters to the teenager drama style. However the reflection of the fashionable teen expertise, even soapy ones like on The CW, make the exhibits extra prone to the pitfalls of color-blind casting. Lots of the community’s exhibits are primarily based on established IP (just like the Riverdale franchise and The CW’s Nancy Drew and Roswell, New Mexico) with characters that have been principally white of their earlier incarnations. In flip, the exhibits racebend the characters to enchantment to numerous audiences and never appear out of contact. As depicted within the Archie Comics, Toni’s identification just isn’t deeply explored in racial phrases.
Colour-blind casting in all kinds dangers the creation of Black characters who are usually not totally realized in regard to their very own identification and tradition. Whereas a teen drama character could also be portrayed by a Black actor, typically the roles really feel color-blind, as in the event that they might be performed by a white individual studying the identical script and nothing could be completely different. The colour-blindness leaves room for dangerous stereotypes to come back into play. With out acknowledgment of race and tradition, one thing that is probably not problematic if a personality is one race could immediately change into a difficulty when the character is portrayed by a Black actor.
Take Toni in Riverdale: Morgan, who’s a Canadian of Scottish and Tanzanian descent, is written as an summary individual of shade till an episode within the second season codes her as an Indegenious American with the introduction of her grandfather, performed by Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene. Reflecting on her years on Riverdale, Morgan additionally referred to as Toni the present’s “token biracial bisexual,” noting the style’s penchant for casting principally biracial actresses in these “numerous” roles and the continued fetishization of Black women and men on tv.
The present got here underneath related fireplace in earlier seasons with the introduction of Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), one other character who was non-Black within the comics and racebent for the sequence. The character was written into the sequence as a villain and boastful jock who handled ladies poorly, notably spreading a rumor that he did extra than simply kiss Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). To get again at him, Veronica and Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) drugged and handcuffed him in a burning-hot jacuzzi till he admitted to his misdeeds on video. Had this been a white Chuck Clayton, the scene would have performed otherwise. As an alternative we acquired the picture of Betty, a white girl, handcuffing and drugging a Black man, an eerie evocation of violent stereotypes. There’s no shaking that picture from, say, the Emmett Until case, when a Black boy was lynched for whistling at a white girl.
Riverdale just isn’t the one teen drama that leans into such irritating implications. The CW sequence Legacies (the third entry in The Vampire Diaries franchise) perpetuated related, questionable imagery by making two out of the three predominant Black characters on the sequence vampires in a college with witches/warlocks and werewolves. Having Black males lust after the blood of witches, primarily white, and biting their necks with out them realizing, is an instance of both stereotypical complacency or unknowingness.
There’s extra to a Black character than having a Black actor within the function. Whereas casting could be blind to keep away from biases, the steps after securing an actor can’t be blind to the context of race. Teen dramas do have the flexibility to do that, as we’ve seen in Freeform’s The Fosters spinoff, Good Bother. The present gave its Latinx and Black characters company with their very own storylines, together with one wherein it was in a position to combine the present Black Lives Matter motion into a personality who’s a social justice activist. Netflix’s On My Block, a various coming-of-age dramedy with younger Black and Latinx leads, not solely acknowledges racism, but additionally colorism, classism and extra, all whereas recognizing the background of the characters.
Colour-blind casting doesn’t must be a foul factor. There must be extra alternatives fo Black actors and different underrepresented demographics. Nonetheless, if the writing of the character lacks nuance or is stuffed with stereotypes, or just treats the characters as if they’ve a lived expertise of a white individual, then there’s no level in including range, as a result of the characters aren’t truly exemplifying this range that we see in our on a regular basis life. With Morgan being one of many first actors to very vocally come ahead with the problems on their present, and within the lead as much as Riverdale season 5, the teenager drama area has hopefully obtained the jolt that it must do higher.