Riverdale, Please Rethink How You Depict Mental Health
* WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD *
Putting aside Season Two (and the fantastically bewildering downhill slide in plot, script andacting), 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.
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, appears to have no emotional effect on any of his peers or friends. Despite him being one of the most popular boys in school, not one student (aside from his twin sister, Cheryl) shows any sign of grief or mourning or anything close, portraying a hyper-unrealistic idea of death.
The display of grief we do get from Cheryl is erratic and unbelievable. 70% of the time, she’s immersed in cheerleading, boys and parties. The other 30%, 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 depiction of grief and how to handle it.
But the biggest issue lies within the last few episodes. Cheryl’s spiral begins in episode 11, when she reaches out to Polly in her desperation for friendship. Alone at the school dance, we see her flee the room in tears. By the next episode, the revelation that her father killed her brother 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 (though is rescued).
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 and episode, all is forgotten, by Cheryl too.
But the worst bit is there’s not a single reference to the many suicidal signs Cheryl exhibited, 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 are 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 it 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 cynical enough to identify the stereotypes perpetuated by Riverdale and similar shows, and don’t get sucked into their unrealisatic & unhealthy portrayal of the teenage experience.