LGBTQ, television

THE GAY-FOR-PAY PROBLEM ON CW’S RIVERDALE

Adapted from a column written for class. 

If you watch bad television enough, you begin to realize that hot people are all hot in the same way. And if you watch bad young-adult television enough, you begin to realize that all hot gay guys on television tend to look exactly the same. They just cloning the same beautiful people over and over again—Brave New World-style.

CW’s Riverdale is a dark, sultry teen-thriller interpretation of the Archie comics. The show mixes the idealistic setting of the comic, which began issue in 1942, with weird, neon sex appeal. The show carried onto screen Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in the comic. It was a breakthrough in the comic and it was a breakthrough on screen—in pre-premiere interviews, the cast prized the character Kevin as “more than” a gay best friend, sassy sidekick or comic relief. He would have a storyline, nuance and depth. Great.

On screen, Kevin Keller is played by Casey Cott. When I first saw him, I thought Cott looked familiar: gorgeous in the Ken Doll, teen drama kind of way. Full lips, chiseled jaw, dark hair parted severely. But then I realized that he just looked like every hot twentysomething playing a fourteen-year-old on TV, and I assumed that the actor was gay. I assumed Cott was gay because…I just did. I had no reason to not to.

I followed him on Instagram because I’m a masochist and love to torture myself with photos of more attractive, more successful gays. I saw that he had posted a ton of photos with his cast members. That’s how they’re marketing themselves: best buddies—two straws, one milkshake kind of buddies.

Side bar: I’m not close enough with anyone to split a milkshake with them. And I’m not friends with anyone stupid enough to try.

One blonde girl kept popping up in every photo who wasn’t a cast member. It would be him in a close-fitting fedora (very LA), leading man KJ Apa (Archie Andrews), and Blonde Girl. Him, co-star Madelaine Petsch (Cheryl Blossom), and Blonde Girl. Blonde Girl everywhere. I thought she was a close friend, a far-distant E-list celebrity/YouTube star/model who was hitching her wagon to his. I accepted that explanation because I know when I become famous, I’m going to drag some of my friends into stardom with me. Everyone needs personal assistants, amiright?

Curious after seeing her multiple times, I clicked on her tag and went to her profile. Her curation of photos was much more deliberately of him and sans the Riverdale cast. Her and Casey Cott on set. Her and Casey getting coffee. Casey and her dog, playing together. The pieces began to fall together and the truth was confirmed with her caption under the photo of Casey and the dog.

“PSA: Your dog will steal your man.”

They were dating; this groundbreaking historic gay character was being played by another straight guy.

It shouldn’t matter—but it does.

On the show, Casey toed the line of playing to the stereotype and then subverting it when playing Kevin. I mean, they ended the first episode with Kevin going to hook up with a closeted football player on the riverbank and finding Jason Blossom’s dead body. So when Kevin was overplaying the flamboyance and I thought the actor was gay, I accepted it.

Part of Riverdale’s charm is indulging stereotypes only to discard them. The classic trope of Archie as a jock torn between music and sports is dragged up tiredly, only to be tossed aside when Veronica Lodge asked, “Can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, just be all things at once?” And so I assumed that’s what they were doing with Kevin—trying to by cheeky. They were saying, “Hey, you know we don’t actually think gay people act like this—we’re chiller than that.”

I took it as ironically challenging the stereotype; of toying with expectations until he was given a deeper storyline. But even if Kevin Keller gets a great storyline later on, a part of me will forever be salty.

It was revolutionary to have a gay character introduced into the canon of a comic series that began in 1942. It’s not revolutionary to have a straight guy playing gay on screen, no matter how much winking accompanies the bitchy rapport. It invokes the very damaging idea of “gay for pay” (an entire OTHER article that I need time to unpack), that the most attractive thing for a gay guy to aspire towards is actually heterosexuality. 

Riverdale marketed itself as sexy, bold and risk-taking. It made the conscious effort to be “woke.” The character of Josie—of the Pussycats—is played by Ashleigh Murray, a woman of color. Cole Sprouse made the comment that he hopes his character, Jughead Jones, is portrayed as asexual. (Thank you?)

But the fact that the only gay character, in a line-up of actors so bland you could bag them as Wonder Bread and sell them for sandwiches, is played by a straight person undercuts any progress they think they’ve made. Because the acting choices Cott made when I thought he was gay turn from satirical to patronizing.

There’s the argument that the actor was simply the best person for the role. And maybe that’s true, but there were definitely gay, bisexual and queer actors who auditioned for the part. Actors who were probably handsome in the exact same way as Casey Cott, with the same full lips and dark, severely parted hair. Actors who do not have the advantage, unlike Cott, of oftentimes playing the reverse. Straight actors can play gay roles, and are often congratulated for them, but the opposite is hardly ever the case.

The easiest question is “Why not?”

Why not go the extra mile and find someone who is actually representative of the progress you are so proudly claiming? If it was a priority to honor the character of Kevin by bringing him to the screen, why was it not a priority to honor the character by finding him a gay actor? Because it’s 2017 and if you’re going to be resting on the laurels of progressiveness, you should be progressive in every aspect.

It shouldn’t matter, and maybe it won’t eventually, but it does right now. We as a community have fought for too long for half as much. And it might be childish to invoke the struggles of the community when discussing a CW show. But it’s what that CW show stands for. Honor our stories and our identities by giving work to someone who can tell that story. The problem is not that Casey Cott isn’t a great actor, or that he portrays the character well. It’s that there was a queer actor who probably could’ve done the role just as well. We shouldn’t accept whatever portrayals we can get. We shouldn’t accept the minimum. That’s not fair. And that’s not right.

Will I still watch the show? Yes—I’m hooked. Will I still recap it? Yes. But this was also bugging me, and I needed to figure out why.

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3 thoughts on “THE GAY-FOR-PAY PROBLEM ON CW’S RIVERDALE

  1. Amber says:

    I think you’re jumping to conclusions to fast. Maybe he is not straight but bisexual because you know, bisexuals date girls. But even so, I think you’re right about everything else.

    Like

  2. NyGi says:

    So what? You have gay actors playing streight characters as well. I honestly don’t see the problem. It’s about the characters, not the actors portraying them.

    Like

  3. A R says:

    So is every straight character played by Neil Patrick Harris or Zachary Quinto also patronizing? The fact is that they are actors. I know many gay men who are full in flamboyant, many that aren’t and plenty (like the Keller character) that fall somewhere in between. I like the show, I like the actors and my guess is that he got the job because he tested best for it.

    Like

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