Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Home Entertainment TELEVISION’S PERFORMATIVE PROGRESSIVENESS

TELEVISION’S PERFORMATIVE PROGRESSIVENESS

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HOW RIVERDALE AND THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA FAIL THEIR BLACK CAST MEMBERS 

Character Prudence Blackwood from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix
Character Prudence Blackwood from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix

We have a problem with performative progressiveness in today’s media. Modern television shows are employing tactics in an attempt to appeal to a younger and more progressive audience without actually doing the real work. It is an issue that becomes visible when you turn on shows like Riverdale or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; tokenism is masked by diverse casting and progressive buzzwords. 

At surface level, Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are a breath of fresh air. These shows have openly LGBTQ+ characters and racially diverse casts. Yet the fact remains that all of these seemingly progressive choices in cast and scriptwriting are performative rather than genuine attempts at inclusivity. They serve to prove showrunners are not racist and to make their white cast members “look better.”

Riverdale Cast, The CW
Riverdale Cast, The CW

Riverdale, a series praised for its diverse casting choices is only one culprit of performative progressiveness. Many of the series’ diverse characters devolved to become token characters. Meaning, they mainly serve as a symbol of inclusivity without serving the plot meaningfully. 

Just last year, the writers of Riverdale came under fire from one of the show’s own cast members. Vanessa Morgan, who plays Toni Topaz on the show, shared a tweet in July of 2020 criticizing the ways in which the media portrays minorities. She also went to tweet grievances of the fact her character on the show is the only Black character who appears regularly, and is paid the least. 

Character Toni Topaz from Riverdale, The CW
Character Toni Topaz from Riverdale, The CW

Morgan may have been the first Riverdale actress to speak out on the issue, but she is not the only one. Bernadette Beck, who portrays the character Peaches ‘N Cream in the series shared her feelings on how Riverdale handles its Black characters in an interview with Elle magazine

“I was, for no reason, depicted in a very negative, unattractive light. And I’m not the first Black actress to show up on set, stand there, chew gum, and look sassy and mean. I feel like I was just there to fulfill a diversity quota. It’s just to fulfill points,” said Beck.

Riverdale is not the only television series guilty of tokenism. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina often used its minority characters as a tool to highlight just how virtuous the titular character, Sabrina, was. By using these characters in this way, the series perpetuated white saviorism and white feminism. 

Characters Dorcas Night (left), Prudence Blackwood (center) and Agatha Night (right) from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix
Characters Dorcas Night (left), Prudence Blackwood (center) and Agatha Night (right) from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does to Prudence Blackwood, played by Tati Gabrielle, exactly what Vanessa Morgan called out when addressing tokenism in Riverdale. They make Blackwood a bully, and they use her actions to make the white lead look like the savior and morally good person. 

To make matters worse, writers of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina thought it appropriate to include a scene where Sabrina hangs Prudence Blackwood and her sisters after she has had enough of their hazing rituals. It is extremely inappropriate to depict a black woman being hanged in any format, but especially in a television series that boasts its progressive and inclusive ideals. 

Tokenism is an issue in all forms of media. By no means are Riverdale or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the only television series’ partaking in the performative form of activism. The issue is made worse though because these shows are constantly praised for how progressive they are. But when you scratch that inclusive and progressive surface, it doesn’t take long to realize that these shows are not as progressive as they seem and are at times problematic. As amazing as it is to see such diverse casting on television, it is not enough. Shows need to be held accountable to not portray their Black characters as stereotypes or tools to propel white characters forward.