Riverdale’s Archie and Miss Grundy and the worrying repeated sexualisation of student-teacher relationships

Image: Riverdale/ The CW/ Netflix 

Student-teacher sexual/romantic relationships are so common in media, particularly in TV that they are regarded as a trope of the genre. So it was unsurprising that the trope showed up in the latest teen drama on Netflix, Riverdale.

What is disappointing about this however isn’t the trope itself but how so far it is being handled. It was stated within the first episode that Archie (KJ Apa) and Betty (Lili Reinhart) are in their Sophomore year at High school. Now I’m not American so I had to do some googling to find out what age that actually is, and according to my findings that puts Archie and Betty at 15-16 years old canonically. Yet, the relationship between Archie and Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel) is heavily sexualised within the show, and depicted as ‘wrong’ but in the sense that the relationship is ultimately romantic. And it is society that does not understand the relationship, and the relationship itself is pure and ultimately acceptable.

And this is a common reoccurring theme when student-teacher relationships are presented on screen. Now, I mentioned the age of Archie before, which although is of importance in terms of consent laws in America (though I know this changes state by state); the real reason Archie cannot consent is because she is his teacher and in a position of power because of that. From the beginning of our schools lives we are taught to always obey the teacher, refer to them formally and treat them with respect. Teachers we are taught have authority over students. Consequently, Archie can never hope to achieve equal power status in their relationship.

In fact, this is shown to a disturbing degree when he stresses (*plot spoilers ahead*) that they need to go to the police about the gun shot they heard on the 4th July, as it could possibly help the police in the case of Jason Blossom’s (Trevor Stines) death but she stresses that they can’t because they’ll both get in trouble, not just her. He could get expelled she stresses. For what? Having an affair with a teacher? He is not the one to blame.

Archie and Mrs GrundyImage: Riverdale/ The CW/ Netflix 

Right from the first sexual encounter we see of them their relationship is treated as something sexual, hot and steamy, just like the windows of the car that fog up in the screen capture that Netflix uses to advertise the show. That this is the image that advertises the show is important. Netflix has done extensive research on what images inspire someone to click on a show, as artwork in a study Netflix conducted in 2014 was revealed to be the biggest influencer to a member’s decision to watch content. It seems pretty obvious why Netflix thinks this image would attract an audience: sex sells. Even sex that in my view would constitute as a sex in a relationship where one half couldn’t fully consent.

One thing I will say in defence of Riverdale is that they make it clear that this relationship cannot last, just like Miss Grundy’s place in Riverdale. However, she manages to escape with no consequences other than losing her job. Although her leaving scene where she smiles at two members of the football team through red heart sunglasses (ironically very reminiscent of Lolita) hints that maybe this is not the first time she has pursued such a relationship, and subsequently that the relationship she had with Archie was not fair to him.

I do really hope that the show will pick up what they have hinted on, as the show has been refreshingly transgressive in other ways (though you’d hope by 2017 this still wouldn’t be something I’d have to call transgressive) with the way they exposed the football players ‘playbook’ and highlighted the very real and scary slut shaming that still happens in schools today (on that note if you haven’t already watch the Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy do so). Also, the way they handled Archie writing songs for Josie and the Pussycats and the discussion that Josie (Ashleigh Murray) brought up surrounding race, and how although Archie thinks he can understand, but he never can fully relate because he has not been a victim of racism, was brilliant.

Josie RiverdaleImage: Riverdale/ The CW/ Netflix 

Ethel RiverdaleThe playbook storyline also featured Shannon Purser (famous for her role as Barb in Stranger Things) as Ethel. Image: Riverdale/ The CW/ Netflix .

However, in regards to the troubling storyline between Archie and Miss Grundy I am not the only one to think this about the show. Internet superstar, Felicia Day tweeted about the storyline saying: “If the sexes were reversed on Archie and Ms Grundy no one would be ok with this storyline”, followed by the hashtag #callthecopsplease.

Source: @feliciaday/ Twitter 

But in TV world this is not necessarily the case, as you only have to look at the relationship between Aria (Lucy Montgomery) and Ezra (Ian Harding) in Pretty Little Liars. Now, I haven’t watched every season of Pretty Little Liars to know where they end up in their relationship but I’ve seen how their relationship started.

In the TV show at least Ezra mistakes Aria for a college girl (which Aria lets him do), they hit it off, and ‘hook up’ in the bathroom of a bar. However, at school Aria then walks into class to realise the person she ‘hooked up’ with is in fact her English teacher.

Now, as stated this relationship started with Ezra not knowing who Aria was, however, they later end up rekindling their relationship with Ezra knowing full well he is her teacher now. Although, I know he later breaks up the relationship again in what is a bit of a cycle and quits his teacher position so they can have a relationship (ending the teacher-student power dynamic issues); however, that doesn’t change the fact that the added student-teacher part of their relationship is treated like ‘forbidden love’, and something romantic because of the danger behind it.

Romanticising these encounters is dangerous as it makes student-teacher relationships a desirable fantasy in teenager’s minds. Regardless, of what you want to argue about how the relationships I’ve talked about may occupy a more ‘grey’ area; the people watching the show might be in a completely different situation and use the show’s example to justify it.

Now, let me be clear I fight against the standpoint that films and TV cause behaviour we wouldn’t commit without their example. Horror movies in my mind do not a serial killer make but there is a difference between showing violent acts, and condoning the behaviour and making it something desirable.

And student-teacher relationships should not be depicted as desirable because it is a couple that can never hope to have equal footing in their relationship (regardless of any other age issues) and these relationships should not be treated as ‘forbidden romance’ but an unfair, and unequal illusion.

Picnic Ms Grundy ArchieImage: Riverdale/ The CW/ Netflix 

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