On the finish of Could, Riverdale actress Vanessa Morgan vented her considerations 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, uninterested in us being portrayed as thugs, harmful or indignant 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 variety however not really 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 robust participant within the Southside Serpents gang, and depicted as one of many few high-ranking girls within the group. However as time went on, and the Serpents had been all however disbanded, the present misplaced concentrate on Toni’s particular person path. Whereas characters like Reggie Mantle (Charles Melton) and Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) acquired storylines to discover their house life and sexuality, Toni’s less-involved arc was outlined by a romance with Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), fanning the hearth of one of many greatest ships on the present.
Morgan’s statements mixed with Toni’s course on Riverdale carry to gentle a difficulty of illustration that isn’t essentially nefarious, however is widespread. During the last decade of teenybopper dramas, reveals like Gossip Woman to The Vampire Diaries have lowered Black actors by a well-intentioned apply: color-blind casting.
“Coloration-blind casting” refers back to the casting of actors with out assumptions over the race of a job. The casting philosophy is supposed to carry variety to a sequence and provides alternatives to Black actors. In apply, that may imply casting individuals of colour as characters invented complete material, both for an adaptation or a brand new undertaking, or for characters who’ve been “racebent,” which means the present has modified the race of a personality whose background was a identified a part of the supply materials. The time period racebending was first popularized amid the controversy surrounding M. Evening 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 considered both Asian or Indigenous. Now racebending can work within the extra optimistic course, when colorblind casting, in idea, 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. “Coloration-blind casting is an aberrant concept that has by no means had any validity apart from as a device of Cultural Imperialists who view American tradition, rooted within the icons of European tradition, as past reproach in its perfection,” he stated.
With so many character lives to discover, and components 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 trendy teen expertise, even soapy ones like on The CW, make the reveals extra prone to the pitfalls of color-blind casting. Most of the community’s reveals are based mostly on established IP (just like the Riverdale franchise and The CW’s Nancy Drew and Roswell, New Mexico) with characters that had been principally white of their earlier incarnations. In flip, the reveals racebend the characters to enchantment to numerous audiences and never appear out of contact. As depicted within the Archie Comics, Toni’s id isn’t deeply explored in racial phrases.
Coloration-blind casting in all types dangers the creation of Black characters who will not be absolutely realized in regard to their very own id and tradition. Whereas a teen drama character could also be portrayed by a Black actor, usually the roles really feel color-blind, as in the event that they may very well be performed by a white individual studying the identical script and nothing could be totally 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 might immediately turn out to be 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 colour 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 known 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 comparable 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 smug jock who handled girls 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 in a different way. 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 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 comparable, questionable imagery by making two out of the three major Black characters on the sequence vampires in a faculty with witches/warlocks and werewolves. Having Black males lust after the blood of witches, primarily white, and biting their necks with out them understanding, 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 will 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 Hassle. 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 in addition colorism, classism and extra, all whereas recognizing the background of the characters.
Coloration-blind casting doesn’t must be a nasty factor. There must be extra alternatives fo Black actors and different underrepresented demographics. Nevertheless, 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 variety, as a result of the characters aren’t really exemplifying this variety 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 acquired the jolt that it must do higher.