Riverdale Just Accidentally Showed The Pitfalls Of Black Excellence

Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW.
I get it, the theme of Riverdale is that everyone’s parents suck. The best and worst of the personalities we get from the show’s teenage characters are mainly derived from their screwed up moms and dads. On last night’s episode, we got to see that Josie, the Type-A leader of the Pussycats, and the show’s major Black character, is no exception.
Josie’s father is an accomplished musician who often leaves his family to handle the day to day of Riverdale life while he tours with his jazz band. Handling life in their small town seems like a bit of an understatement given that Josie’s mother, Sierra, is the mayor. Sierra, as the unofficial momager of her daughter’s Pussycats band, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on her to be the best, despite the fact that Josie’s dad thinks the band lacks integrity with their pop sound. He still makes an effort to see Josie and the Pussycats perform at the Riverdale High School variety show, and her mother insists that they do a good job because it’ll “somehow” be Sierra’s fault it he’s not impressed.
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Riverdale’s approach to diversity is one that appears to be rooted in visibility alone. It completely erases the cultural differences that exist among people with varying backgrounds which isn’t very realistic or inspiring. For example, when Val quits the Pussycats right before their variety show performance, Josie's mom insists that Val can be easily replaced but that it has to be by another “woman of color,” not because she’s committed to the uniqueness of Black girl performers but because of the band’s “branding.” I doubt the showrunners recognized the irony.
But for all of their cultural erasure, Riverdale unintentionally waded into a classic trope of Black parenting with this intense scene between Josie and her mother. The idea of Black excellence is a double edged sword. On one hand, it is used as a framework to celebrate the professional and aspirational achievements of Black people. The downside is that it often relies on a toxic politics of respectability that suppresses authentic and creative expression from young Black people. The pressure to be the best of the best extends beyond a familial legacy and carries the weight of the entire race.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this theme explored with Black families on television. We saw a similar dynamic between the domineering Rowan Pope and his daughter Olivia on Scandal. His epic monologue where he reminds her that she has to be twice as good to get half of what “they” get had all of Black Twitter shook. But as much as we can relate to that as an inspirational mantra, it’s also a grim reminder of how painful it can be to constantly try to overachieve…in silence and with little support.
As for Josie, her father is not moved by their headlining performance at the variety show. He stands and leaves before it’s even over. But Josie nails her performance and holds back her tears until the task has been done.
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