Riverdale Shows the Right Way to Handle Sexual Assault on TV

Riverdale - Cheryl and Nick

Warning: SPOILERS below for season 2, episode 5 of Riverdale


Something terrible happened to Cheryl Blossom on Riverdale and, in light of the recent sexual assault scandals rocking Hollywood and the ongoing debate of how sensitive issues like rape are portrayed in film and television, this week’s episode demonstrated one of the better ways of of handling portrayals of sexual assault on the small screen. Tonight’s episode, "Chapter Eighteen: When A Stranger Calls," primarily focused on Betty Cooper and her ongoing nightmare involving season's villain, the Black Hood. But the stand-out moment from the episode had nothing to do with Betty’s plight, the Bughead break-up (despite how devastating it was) or the trials Jughead went through to become a serpent.

It was all about Cheryl, and her attempted rape by newcomer Nick St. Clair.

Throughout the episode we are slowly introduced to Nick as the fun, rich party-boy Veronica used to rule the New York City nights with during her darker days. We see signs that Nick is a predator - the first being when he urges everyone to take jingle-jangle with him at Veronica’s party. Everyone slowly followed suit - even Veronica, who wanted to impress Nick for the sake of her father's business deal with his visiting family. It wasn’t until after the party that we see Nick's true colors. He begins to put his hands on Veronica in a flirtatious way, attempting to kiss her despite her clearly saying no and not stopping until she slaps him and walks out of the room, disgusted at her old friend's disturbing actions.

Fast-forwarding to the end of the episode, Cheryl arrives at the Lodge’s open house where Nick roofies her drink, lures her to a bedroom and attempts to rape her. Luckily, the Pussycats and Veronica notice what’s happening during their performance and raced to Cheryl’s rescue, where Veronica gave Nick a well-deserved right hook and proceeded to kick him to the ground. When Cheryl comes to, she’s devastated at what almost happened to her and is adamant to press charges against Nick.

Riverdale - Veronica and Ethel

It’s a hard moment to watch, especially considering the abuse Cheryl went though at the hands of her mother and father last season, but it’s a moment done well that other series should take note of if they plan on tackling a topic as heavy and timely as sexual assault. It’s difficult to portray rape on television without it coming across as gratuitous or exploitative, and series like Game of Thrones have been criticized for their over-use of sexual assault against female characters for shock value. Take Sansa Stark for instance: during season 5 she was brutally raped on her wedding day; yet during the scene the camera is solely focused on Theon’s reaction, and it becomes more about his character development, not Sansa’s.

Riverdale did things differently though. Cheryl’s sexual assault was all about women helping women - a sentiment that's more important than ever in the wake of a series of allegations against major Hollywood players. In the scene, it’s not local town hero Archie that comes swooping in to save the day; it’s Veronica and the Pussycats that save the day and physically confront Nick. This isn't the first time we've seen women standing up for women in Riverdale, as season 1 introduced side character Ethel Muggs, who was being mistreated by Riverdale High's varsity football players. The boys' disgusting hobby of keeping a scoring system of the women in a secret book led to Betty and Veronica rallying their friends to work together on taking down the football team.

Cheryl’s reaction is important as well, because it seems like we are going to see her step into the light and press charges against her attacker. With many real-life victims fearing to report their assault to law enforcement, Cheryl’s story is setting up to be a powerful one in a world where sexual assault harassment is at the forefront of our news. No one is blaming Cheryl, no one is commenting on what she was wearing or how much she was flirting with Nick prior to the assault - it's all about getting justice.

Next: Is Riverdale’s Black Hood Killer Just a Red Herring?

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8pm on The CW.

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