Riverdale star Vanessa Morgan is done being quiet. The woman who plays Toni Topaz on the CW drama has shared her frustration at television shows for how they portray Black characters. While she didn’t initially mention her show by name, she and other actors from the show have since brought some of Riverdale’s issues to light.
On May 31, Morgan shared a statement about her frustration with media companies—many of whom have been sharing “Black Lives Matter” posts in recent days as the worldwide protests against the police killing of George Floyd continue to grow. According to Morgan, some companies aren’t practicing what they’re currently preaching.
Here is her statement in full: “Tired of how black people are portrayed in media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous, or angry scary people. Tired of us also being used as sidekick non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show. It starts with the media. I’m not being quite [sic] anymore.”
It’s hard to look at that and not think of the CW’s Riverdale, which seems to check many of those boxes. It has faced criticism for having a predominantly white cast, sectioning off many of its non-white characters into the show’s gang storylines (which often show Archie as a “vigilante” coming in to fix them). In fact, the Southside is where we first met Morgan’s Toni, a Serpents member who brought Jughead into the seedy, drug-filled world of Southside High. Not only was this another time a Black character has been featured as a gang member, but Morgan herself received death threats—before she ever appeared on Riverdale—from fans who thought her character was there to break up Jughead and Betty.
Instead, Toni entered a relationship with Cheryl Blossom, and the character later became a series regular. However, just because she’s onscreen more doesn’t mean it’s better representation. Viewers have pointed out how Toni rarely has a storyline that’s not connected to Cheryl, a role that Morgan called “the token biracial bisexual” in another tweet. And it’s not just in front of the camera: Morgan also said she’s the lowest-paid series regular on Riverdale. io9 reached out to the CW for comment and will update should we hear back.
Then, there’s the Pussycats. Ashleigh Murray, who played Josie McCoy on Riverdale (and has since moved to its spinoff Katy Keene), was featured prominently in early ads for the comic book series. Even though she was touted as a major part of the show early on, she rarely got storylines of her own (and let’s not forget the whole “Milkshake” incident). Her character has played a much bigger role on Katy Keene, but it doesn’t forgive the treatment she received on Riverdale.
In response to a since-deleted tweet that claimed Murray was kicked off Riverdale for being difficult to work with, both Murray and Morgan stepped up to defend Josie McCoy. Murray noted how she loved the band “more than any show ever did.” Hint hint.
The other actresses who played the Pussycats have also spoken out about the show. Hayley Law (also of Altered Carbon fame), who played Valerie Brown, shared Morgan’s tweet with the message: “I’ve felt this from the beginning. We are so much more.” Actress and author Asha Asha Bromfield (Locke & Key), who played Melody Jones, shared this statement about how she felt the Pussycats were there to be in the background and occasionally add “sass” to their scenes.
Today, Morgan wrote that she will work to fight for Black representation in media, saying “I have now made it my purpose to fight for us. To the six year old me who had no role model that looked like me on TV. This is for you.” In addition, she promised from now on that she will only wear clothes that support Black designers for red carpet and other events.
While the creators involved with the show have yet to speak out on the matter, according to Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale’s writers have donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund (which raised over $2 million and is now asking donations be given elsewhere) and Black Visions Collective, and Archie Comics is donating all proceeds to the Equal Justice Initiative through 12pm Thursday.
Riverdale recently finished its fourth season early because of the coronavirus. Season five is set to take things a few years into the future and is expected to debut in January 2021. Katy Keene still has not been renewed for season two. According to Deadline, the network is waiting to see if streaming numbers increase the viewership.
Update: 6/5/20 9:00am
After publication, showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa released the following statement:
“We hear Vanessa. We love Vanessa. She’s right. We’re sorry and we make the same promise to you that we did to her. We will do better to honor her and the character she plays. As well as all of our actors and characters of color. CHANGE is happening and will continue to happen. Riverdale will get bigger, not smaller. Riverdale will be part of the movement, not outside it. All of the Riverdale writers made a donation to @BLMLA, but we know where the work must happen for us. In the writers’ room.”
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Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.