Stranger Things may have brought no justice for Barb, but Riverdale scored justice for Ethel! Last night in “Body Double,” Stranger Things scene-stealer Shannon Purser joined the Riverdale gang as sheepish but fed up Ethel Muggs in an episode that tackled slut shaming.
The arc began with new-to-town Veronica dipping her toe into the Riverdale High dating pool, accepting a night out with Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), a strapping football star who has a reputation as a player. But Kevin Keller gets it. “Who cares!?” He says, chastising a concerned Betty (Lili Reinhart). “He’s the hottest of hot. And he’s the Varsity Football Coach’s son. In Riverdale, that’s like dating a Kennedy!” And who better to date a Kennedy than a girl pulling classy style from the ever-chic Jackie O?
The date was sweet and simple: sundaes, conversation, a steamy kiss, and a couple’s selfie with Veronica’s photo approval. Yet Ronnie was ultimately unimpressed, confiding to Kevin and Betty, “Chuck has muscles for days, but his conversation is not the stuff of Oscar Wilde or even Diablo Cody.” Then come a pair of cackling “hyenas” who ghoulishly inform her that Chuck’s telling the whole school he gave Veronica the ol’ “sticky maple,” a sex act that gives boys status, and girls a bad reputation. Veronica is not having it. She calls it “slut shaming” without a moment’s hesitation, and sets out to burn this patriarchal bullshit down.
“What the hell is a sticky maple?” That’s besides the point. (Don’t google it.) Whether or not Chuck and Veronica got down, the double standard applied to their supposed sexual interaction is fucked. “I’m neither a slut, nor am I going to be shamed,” Veronica declares, her eyes aflame. “Does he really think he can get away with this? Does he not know who I am? I will cut the brakes on his supped up phallic symbol!” In this scandal-lush take on Archie comics, that doesn’t sound far-fetched.
Betty suggests going to the principal, but Ronnie outright rejects the idea because the school would obviously take the side of the their golden boy over the new girl from a criminal family. She knows the school won’t favor her. “I don’t follow the rules,” the raven-haired fury asserts, shoving Kevin into a locker to clear her path, “I make them, and when necessary I break them. You want to help me get revenge on Chuck, Betty? Awesome. But you better be willing to go full dark, no stars.”
Veronica and Betty barge into the boys’ locker room to confront Chuck, and are met with mockery, with the jock saying Ronnie’s hardly “virgin territory” since she made out with Archie at Cheryl’s party (in ep one). Despite that being a painful truth for Betty, she defends her friend, declaring, “That is beyond irrelevant, Chuck. You’re not allowed to go around humiliating girls for any reason, for any circumstance, jerk!” Veronica is more direct, “Let me make this simple so that your preppy murderer half-brain can grasp it: take this (the photoshopped sticky maple pic) the hell down.”
Chuck digs deep into misogyiny and toxic masculinity, smirking, “That high-tone, bitch attitude might have worked with the Betas you dated in New York, but you’re on bulldog territory.” He then actually barks at her. “Please, fight back. You’ll only make it harder on yourself.” Note: Chuck says something super rapey in front of the entire football team, Archie included, and they say nothing. Veronica is right. Men benefitting from the school’s system—be it Principal Weatherby, Chuck, or even her friend Archie—won’t help her get justice. Seeing this, Betty gets a girl squad together. Power in numbers. Stronger together.
The next day, Veronica comes to school a bit defeated, embarrassed by the scandal, wounded by cyber bullying. Then Betty presents her with other girls who’ve been similarly slut-shamed, chief among them Ethel Muggs (Purser). “One day last year,” the nervous redhead explains, “Chuck and I talked in the library for ten minutes. I helped him with a pre-Calc problem. And nothing happened. But the next day, he started telling people that I let him do stuff to me, like sex stuff. And then he—or one of his goons—wrote “sloppy seconds” on my locker.” Trembling, Ethel admits, “They’re ruining our lives. And to them, it’s just a game.”
Ethel dresses conservatively. She didn’t go on a date with Chuck. She never sought out his attention, or any attention. It didn’t matter. With this arc Riverdale draws a clear parallel between slut shaming and rape. Veronica doesn’t go to the authorities, because she knows they won’t help her get justice. Veronica and Ethel are stigmatized for an attack on their character that wasn’t their fault. Their experiences are dismissed by other women—Cheryl “boys will be boys” Blossom—because it’s easier to assume random women are liars than that men they know might be such monsters.
Cheryl is particularly resistant to believing Ethel’s “tragic origin story,” because her own brother is rumored to have been in on this cruel game that not only slut shames, but boasts a score book where points are awarded for hook-ups (real and fictitious?) based on a girl’s social standing. It’s a sordid system that sounds sickeningly similar to the “senior salute” that urged a high school senior to rape an underclassman. Rape culture is proving a running theme on Riverdale, not only in this slut-shaming storyline, or the potential backstory to Polly and Jason’s break-up, but also in the relationship between Archie and his teacher, Mrs. Grundy, who committed statutory rape on that pivotal Independence Day. But more on that later.*
Realizing the scale of the football team’s abuse, Betty and Veronica concoct a two-prong plan. First, they need to find the book, proof that Principal Weatherbee cannot ignore. Second, they want to show Chuck what it’s like to feel powerless and ashamed. “Proof or no proof, book or no book, I am going scorched earth on these despicable miscreants,” Veronica states in a moment that makes firmly cements Camila Mendes as the show’s real star. Then she manages to bring Cheryl into the fold with a mix of threat and sisterhood, “You want to get caught in that backdraft, Cheryl? Call me or any of these beautiful, young, strong, intelligent women ‘slut.’ One. More. Time.”
When they find the book, the ep slows its break-neck pace to allow the girls to absorb the shocking and sad realization of how their classmates have reduced them to things: new girl 9 points, big girl 7.5 points. Even Cheryl gets a stricken close-up as she sees her beloved brother’s name next to Polly Cooper’s points. Notably, the page describes Polly as “shy, reserved girl.” Both Betty and Cheryl take the moment in, sharing in the grief of their lost siblings across a grim divide. Cheryl tries once more to deny it, “He wouldn’t—” But Betty’s had enough.
“It’s right there, Cheryl,” She demands with an unfamiliar edge to her sweet voice. “You’re brother hurt my sister! This is what guys like Jason and Chuck think about women. We’re objects for them to use and abuse, and when they’re done with us they shame us into silence. They have zero remorse for the lives they destroy.” Numbly, Cheryl stares at the page and admits, “Maybe I don’t know Jason.” Maybe her brother was a bully. Or maybe even a rapist.
Fueled by rage and a want for revenge for her sister, Betty lures Chuck to Ethel’s empty pool house, where she and Veronica promise him a night he won’t forget. He’s thinking threesome. They’re vigilante vengence. But things go off the rails when Betty does “full dark, no stars” by donning a Betty Page look and torturing Chuck.
“You want to be a bad girl?” It’s the question that keeps being forced on good girl Betty. As if a girl can’t contain multitudes, the desire to do well in school, and wear bold red lipstick, to be kind to her friends, and crave sex. Chuck asks if she’s like her sister, “prissy prude by day, freak in the sheets at night.” And perhaps it’s this Madonna/Whore bullshit that pushes Betty to a breaking point. She handcuffs Chuck into a hot tub, and literally turns up the heat, demanding, “Tell the truth pig,” while Veronica records his forced confession.
Across town, Betty’s mom is parent-shaming Mrs. Lodge, declaring from her high horse, “You have to keep an eye on girls like Veronica. They can so easily get out of control.” Meanwhile, Betty is flirting with drowning Chuck, punishing him for the pain Jason put Polly through. Ethel even gets to peak in to enjoy his squirming, though she ducks back out before Betty dumps maple syrup all over him and starts calling herself Polly. Veronica snaps her freaking out friend out of it. But I doubt this will be the last we see of Dark Betty.
The next day at school, Betty runs the story of the score book and the football players’ game of abuse in the school paper. Jughead intones in the melodramatic voiceover, “Weatherbee needed a sacrificial lamb, needed to make an example of someone.” The girls get off with a warning for tormenting Chuck, but “Coach Clayton—to save his job, to save the school’s reputation—was forced to cut his own beloved son and his goon squad from the team, an action that—though none of us knew it at the time—would have terrible consequences for weeks to come.”
We don’t yet have any idea what those ominous words might mean. The ep draws to a close with a smiling Ethel Muggs, saying, “Thanks, Betty. Thanks, Veronica.” But they thank her back, because it was her “going on the record,” that changed the tide. Ethel’s bravery inspired other victims to share their stories, and forced the investigation that finally bore results. Veronica declares, “You were the bravest one of all, Ethel Muggs.”
Then together, Cheryl and Betty burn that damned book. Looking at the fire and wondering how its secrets weighed in on the death of Jason Blossom.
*Next week. We talk Mrs. Grundy.