At a TCA Winter Press Tour panel on Sunday, Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty Cooper in the CW’s upcoming dark spin on the Archie Comics, Riverdale, a reporter posed a question about the friendship between Betty and Veronica on the show. “At the end of the day,” Reinhart said, “these girls are so much better off as friends and as allies” than as rivals. Camila Mendes, who plays Veronica, agreed the characters would be “supportive” of each other.
I tossed off a tweet and was swiftly flooded with notifications from the apparently ravenous base of Riverdale fans who are holding out hope for more than just friendship between the blonde and the brunette. The show initially stoked excitement amongst Betty and Veronica shippers back in July, when it teased a kiss between the two iconic characters during a Riverdale panel at Comic-Con in San Diego. A new promo released a few days ago further fanned the flames with a brief shot of said kiss, which occurs in the pilot.
Riverdale’s producers didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the choice to coyly encourage eager “Beronica” shippers seems not unrelated to the recent fracas over the killing of a lesbian character on the post-apocalyptic CW series The 100. In March 2016, the series killed off the character Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) right after she had sex with another woman, Clarke (Eliza Taylor). As Vox’s Caroline Framke wrote at the time, these two “casually queer” characters were a boon for the show’s LGBTQ fan base — which is why it was so disappointing that The 100 chose the moment after their first real hook-up to kill one of them off, a sequence of events so common on TV it’s spawned the phrase “Bury Your Gays.”
When I first watched Riverdale‘s pilot episode, unaware of the fan excitement over a potentialBetty/Veronica romance, the kiss — which is very brief — seemed to come out of nowhere. In light of the fan uproar that followed the decision to kill Lexa, though, it seems like a subtle acknowledgement of the network’s LGBTQ fans, lesbian and bisexual women in particular. There’s even a CW precedent for having an apparently straight, femme woman come out as a lesbian: On an episode of Supergirl that aired in November, the title character’s sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), reveals that she’s gay.
The cynic in me suspects Riverdale is winkingly leading on Beronica shippers out of a desire to keep them watching and tweeting, rather than actually developing a romantic relationship between these two characters. Sarah, an 18-year-old high-school senior from New Jersey who says she got excited about the show after she saw a leaked promo that featured the Betty/Veronica kiss, suspects it’s “more for male titillation than anything.” But, she added, “it’s not like there’s a channel fans can turn to for well-thought-out, affirming F/F [female/female] relationships, so I think that’s why we’re willing to watch even though we know our hopes are unrealistic.”
Despite this sense of resignation among fans who’d like to see more lesbian and bisexual relationships on the small screen, TV in the social media age has such a symbiotic relationship with its audience — particularly shows that are popular with teens — that it wouldn’t be out of the question for the duo’s relationship to evolve over time in response to the fan reaction. Social media has forced a real-time reckoning with representation that’s hard for producers to ignore.
The teasing of a Beronica romance also points to the degree to which queer fans are sent scrambling to detangle subtle perceived hints about the sexual preferences of fictional characters, in the absence of a larger canon of mainstream entertainment featuring openly gay or bi characters. Some young fans of the Archie Comics have been reading between the lines to uncover what they see as evidence of a sexual attraction between Betty and Veronica.
Gigi, a 19-year-old university student from Ontario who is a longtime fan of the comic books, told me she’s always “sensed a bit of subtext” in their friendship. “By the time the kissing clip was leaked pretty much everyone on my timeline was talking about it,” she told me over email. “My friends on Twitter are mainly gay/bisexual girls and so we all get excited when any show sort of hints at a F/F relationship or even just a casual hook-up.”
She sent me a screenshot of a cover of a September 1961 issue from the Betty and Veronica comic-book series that she sees as proof that the duo “surpasses a purely platonic relationship.” There are also plenty of Photoshopped images from the comics online that have been altered to suggest a romance between the two — and, inevitably, plenty of fan-fic in which Betty and Veronica become more than just friends.
Gigi told me she and her fellow Beronica shippers “would love to see Betty and Veronica in a romantic relationship even if it isn’t [the] endgame,” citing the importance of “positive representation” for gay and bisexual women in the media. “Two iconic girls who have been fighting over the same guy since the 1940s realizing that maybe they feel something for one another instead? I think that would be a huge and important shift in terms of representation and taking the industry forward,” she told me.
Sarah said she imagines — or “headcanons” — Veronica as bisexual and Betty as a lesbian. She told me nearly every female-female pairing on TV that she’s invested in has ended up with one party dead. “The situation of lesbian/bi representation on TV is absolutely abysmal,” she wrote. “The bar is literally on the floor and writers keep finding ways to dig under it. Ideal lesbian/representation would mean adequate screentime, racial diversity, diversity of gender expression and identity, and like a single lesbian writer proofreading the scripts to make sure nothing about the writing [is] terribly offensive — and I don’t even think those standards are that hard to meet. But currently, writers can’t even have two white femme women played by straight actresses kiss without one of them dying.”
Sabrina, an 18-year-old film student from Tulsa, Oklahoma, echoed Gigi’s and Sarah’s remarks. “I would personally love to see Betty and Veronica together because as a gay woman, it’d be nice to have some real representation,” she wrote in an email, “instead of a vampire and a human, or a zombie-apocalypse relationship. This is a relationship [between] two girls in high school that could happen in real life.”
For her part, Lili Reinhart is well aware of the Beronica shippers. “I’ve been tweeted at every day — ‘make Beronica endgame,’ that’s what they say,” she told me after the TCA panel. “And I’m like, I would love to, but it’s not my decision!” She added, “Betty and Veronica are best friends, and that’s how it is. There’s no romance there, as much as we’d love to indulge the fans. But there is a little kiss that you see.” Still, Reinhart was careful to end on a note of coy optimism: “But I mean, who knows.”
Riverdale premieres Thursday, Jan. 26 on the CW.