Whenever TV presents us with a teen drama, even one as darkly re-imaginative as the CW’s Riverdale, we expect to encounter some familiar stereotypes. A series enclosed in the decrepit halls of high school usually spawns a jock, a nerd, a princess, and always a rebel. Riverdale High is no different and early on, the show made it clear which characters fell into which roles. Or at least we thought they did.
Every high school story needs its mean girl and Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) fits the part perfectly. Flowing red hair, expensive outfits, a background that spoke of breeding and money and a disturbing proclivity for cutting takedowns, Cheryl arrived as the living embodiment of every socially awkward pre-pubescent teenage girl’s mortal enemy. (She was the kind of monster a frumpy, oily-faced, frizzy-haired girl like me would have nightmares about and would take different routes to class to avoid during the day.) The show wanted us to see Cheryl and immediately associate her with every tormenter we’d ever encountered in our formative years. We were supposed to hate her, be suspicious of her, curse her for trying to take down our high school heroes, the people we theoretically aspired to be at that age – jockish Archie (KJ Apa), golden girl Betty (Lili Reinhart), rebel-without-a-cause Jughead (Cole Sprouse), and bad girl Veronica (Camila Mendes). Cheryl Blossom was supposed to be the obligatory Queen Bee, the necessary bad guy (at least until the real killer terrorizing the town was caught).
But I’m here to call bullshit on all of that.
It’s not just my stubborn, hopeless belief that 2017 can produce a teen TV series that doesn’t play into ingrained misogynistic formulas that say women must be jealous, catty, or just plain evil that fuels my love for all things Cheryl Blossom. The badass bitch is, without question, the best thing about Riverdale, thanks in large part to the unique character arc the show has given her.
I get it: the OG redhead of Riverdale is Archie Andrews. He’s the show’s default protagonist, the guy we root for to get the girl, save his best friend, and pursue his half-baked dream of a music career. And the redhead at the center of the murder mystery that drove Riverdale’s first season was Cheryl’s brother, Jason (Trevor Stines). But it’s wrong to ignore Cheryl Blossom’s layered, emotionally-complex storyline. Tortured male characters like Archie and golden-boys-gone-wrong like Jason are common on TV, but a character like Cheryl Blossom, a flawed young woman publicly grieving the loss of her brother while fighting for her own survival is unusual, and Riverdale made her story highly compelling.
Cheryl Blossom went from a self-proclaimed Head Bitch In Charge to a young woman suffocating under the weight of guilt from her brother’s death, one struggling to keep her family together, survive the daily abuse doled out by her unfeeling parents, fend off enemies, and overcome a serious bout of depression that led her to a suicide attempt. Over the course of the show’s first season, Cheryl’s journey saw her break ties with her ordained destiny to run the Blossom family empire following the death of her brother and literally setting fire to her past and resolving to forge a new path for herself.
Sure, Cheryl has a mean streak. She introduced herself in the show’s premiere episode with savage one-liners questioning the relevance of a gay best friend in 2017 and informing Betty and Veronica that faux lesbianism hadn’t been taboo since 1994. She used phrases like “Efron-esque emergence from the chrysalis of puberty” when taunting Betty over her obsession with Archie, dissected frogs while referencing the impending autopsy of her murdered twin brother, and employed “social handmaidens,” underclassmen eager to rise up the high school popularity ranks by doing her bidding. Her morality was nonexistent, her personality prickly. In all honesty, she was terrible. But so was every other character on the show, in one way or another.