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Riverdale Needs to Rethink How it Depicts Mental Health

* WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD *

Putting aside Season Two (and the fantastically bewildering downhill slide in plot, script and acting), I was obsessed with Season One of Riverdale. For good reason, too – the characters are engaging, the plot tight and fast paced, and the mystery intense. The 13 episodes commanded a viewership of 2 million, and if you’re like me, you binge watched it all in two days, desperate to get to the next twist & revelation.

So, you might’ve missed a few things. And with a three week wait until the next episode, I was back to flicking through episodes from season one. After revisiting the first season, with more attention to detail, I have a couple of issues with the show. Mostly their complete disregard for and glamorization of suicide and mental illness.

cheryl crying

Screenshot from Riverdale, Season One, Episode One

Though there’s been progress in the representation of mental health in recent Netflix originals, Riverdale – like so, so many others – falls back on comfortable American teen stereotypes, and wraps them up in stylized mental illness. We’re not going to even talk about the unrealistic standards set by actors in their mid-20s portraying 16 year olds – insead, I want to discuss the romanticized depictions of death, grief, depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide.

Jason Blossom’s murder, though the catalyst and mystery of the entire season, seems to have little emotional effect on any of his peers or friends. Honestly – no one seems to have any emotional reactions, (except for Cheryl) despite him being one of the most popular boys in school.

But Cheryl’s grief is depicted as erratic and unbelievable. 80 percent of the time, she’s immersed in cheerleading, boys and parties. The other 20 percent, she’s suffering from traumatic nightmares, anxiety attacks, hallucinations and breakdowns – all seemingly symptoms of PTSD or severe depression, yet made out to be isolated incidents with no effect on her life or mental health. It’s a ridiculous portrayal of grief and how to handle it.

However, my biggest issue lies within the last few episodes. Cheryl’s spiral begins in episode 11, as she reaches out to Polly in her desperation for friendship. She ends up attending the school dance alone, and we see her standing alone in the cheering crowd, before running out in tears without a single person noticing, setting up her extreme isolation.

By the next episode, the revelation that her father killed Jason proves to be her undoing. Cheryl carefully plans her suicide through the entire episode without anyone noticing; giving away her prized brooch, making amends, and quitting her beloved cheerleading. She attempts to reach out to her friends, who don’t notice, and her mother, who shuts her down harshly. Cheryl finally attempts to commit suicide in the frozen river.

An hour later, Veronica and her mum leave Cheryl alone in their house to attend a party. Alone. An hour after her suicide attempt. That night, her friends are in a booth at the local diner, laughing over milkshakes. No mention is ever made of Cheryl’s suicide attempt again – the next day, all is forgotten. But the worst bit is there’s not a single reference to the many signs Cheryl exhibited leading up to her suicide, so carefully written into the script. This could have been a perfect moment to make a point about understanding the signals that point to suicide, yet the show glosses over it without so much as a backward glance.

The majority of Riverdale’s audience is teenagers, streaming the show from schools, lecture halls and bedrooms. The show – as engaging and binge-worthy as it is – glamorizes death, grief, mental illness and suicide. And it does so unconsciously, in the last leg of your multi-hour Netflix session. It normalizes and desensitize issues that need to be brought to the forefront of media, not slipped into a high school drama as a barely developed subplot that’s dropped by the next episode.

Because honestly, it feels like more time was devoted to dying half the cast’s hair red than considering how to portray any of this carefully to a very young viewership. I suppose the takeaway here is – remain just cynical enough to identify the stereotypes perpetuated by Riverdale and similar shows, and don’t get sucked into their unrealisatic portrayal of the teenage experience.

cast

Riverdale Cast Photo, via Cole Sprouse.

4 Comments

  1. I mean America has a problem with the way they do most of their shows tbh… In Spain teenagers roles are played by teenagers, not adults in their 20s and mental illness is something important. There was a Catalan tv series that I was obsessed with when I was 13-14 that focused on kids who lived in a hospital due to anorexia, cancer, heart problems… it was a hard series to watch sometimes but it was honestly one of the most beautiful ones because the things you learned were something you will never forget

    • Abby Strangward says

      And something so small, like adults playing teens, has a huge, far-reaching affect … tv shows like RIverdale are a part of our lives, and kids all over the world look UP to these characters…. essentially, modelling their 13, 14, 15, 16 year old selves after 25 year olds. And having that kind of show you describe around as a teen would be so important and possible life changing for america teens – to have an accurate and truthful portray of mental health. It’s the best kind of education we could get.

  2. Zara Wiseman says

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. Riverdale has had so many opportunities to explore suicide, asexuality and other things but writes them off or kind of throws them in the plot without completely involving the topics.

    • Abby Strangward says

      RIGHT like the fact that those opportunities appear so often and they never explore it deeper… it really invalidates people who are actually experiencing these things, because it’s such a ridiculous portrayal!!

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