Cher from Clueless taught me many things, among them the concept of being a “Betty” — a Betty is, based on context clues, an adorable blonde girl with a few important scruples. In the Archie comics, Betty exists in contrast to Veronica, a vixen-y brunette with no scruples. Riverdale updated this trope with cute, pop-culture references and the occasional mention of feminism. Lili Reinhart plays Betty, the editor of the school newspaper The Blue and Gold. She wears her hair in a tight ponytail with one, thick caterpillar curl. Betty’s most important feature is her neck; keeping her eyes cast downward is kind of her thing.
Camila Mendes plays the updated Veronica, a slick newcomer who wears pencil skirts taut as a steel drum. She does a lot of scoffing — “You ginger Judas!” she yells at Archie (K.J. Apa) when he dares invite another girl to their music rehearsal — and eye-rolling.
Betty and Veronica are meant to be opposites. The season 2 premiere of Riverdale demonstrated this with sex. While Betty cautiously told her mother that she almost slept with her boyfriend Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Veronica seduced Archie in the shower as he washed his father's blood from his body. The way it's framed, Veronica does the sex, Betty is too pure to have the sex.
Archie seems apprehensive about the shower sex — after all, the guy's father did just get shot. After they have sex, he breaks down sobbing, seemingly because his girlfriend won't leave him alone. (She doesn't know how to deal with situations like this, she confessed to Betty earlier.) This is an important perspective: Both Veronica and Betty boil down to what Archie thinks of them. The two girls are perpetual potential love interests for Archie, even though Betty is currently dating Jughead. Last season, she confessed her love for her red-headed neighbor, only for it to go unrequited. When Veronica and Archie first hooked up, Betty was devastated.
For the most part, Betty and Veronica are in competition, two women pitted against one another in the tribunal of high school. When they're not competing over Archie, they're best friends. Their relationship is an opposites-attract friendship that boils down to the two tidy categories of womanhood: you can be meek and domestic, or you be can be egomaniacal and vain. It also unfairly suggests that traditional female friendships require some sort of competition.
This fits neatly into the canon: You're either the Madonna or the whore. Maleficent or Princess Aurora. Sandy or Rizzo. We've got two choices, ladies, and both are reductive.
Betty is good at school. She helps the homeless; occasionally, she fixes Archie’s car, an off-brand activity that still fits within the realm of domesticity.
Of the two, "Betty" is the stronger archetype. The term supposedly tracks to The Flintstones — according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, we can thank the Stone Age-set cartoon for that term. Betty Rubble, the matriarch of the antediluvian fam, is domestic and simple. She’s there to frame Barney’s foibles — hands perpetually at her hips, she’s usually scolding her husband for getting into something idiotic. In one episode, she scolds Barney for accidentally bringing home a baby. (Men!) (The term has also been co-opted by surfers, who have always been linguistic innovators. “Betty” is an attractive female who surfs.)
Archie Comics came before then, though — the first of the series was published in 1939. Betty first appeared in Pep Comics #22 in 1941, years before the first episode of The Flintstones aired. Veronica came shortly after, in Pep Comics #26 in 1942.
But before that, even, there was Betty Crocker. She’s the fictional character who blesses your brownie boxes with her red spoon of approval. Washburn-Crosby imagined her up in 1921 when an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post received a number of letters and questions from housewives about cooking. Turns out, women wanted an expert who could provide cooking tips. Washburn-Crosby (which morphed into General Mills) didn’t have any women on hand, so they crafted one: Betty Crocker. Betty then became synonymous with domesticity. Without her, we’d never have canned frosting.
Betty Crocker, Betty Rubble, Betty Cooper — there’s just something about Betty and being a meek, domestic housewife. Even modern instances of the name “Betty” suggests it’s a one saved for women who belong on the cover of Good Housekeeping. The title Ugly Betty works so well because it implies a paradox: a girl named Betty, who should always be pretty, is in this case perceived to be not so.
In the Archie comics, Betty is pristine. The comics' website describes her as the “classic girl next door.” She’s good at school. She helps the homeless; occasionally, she fixes Archie’s car, an off-brand activity that still fits within the realm of domesticity.
In Riverdale, Betty Cooper is decidedly on the left side of vixenry. In the first season, following an instance of slut-shaming — “instance” here is a generous word for a sledgehammer festooned with the words “slut-shaming is bad” — she makes a pass at being a non-Betty. She dons a dark brown wig and a lace bra and makes plans to seduce Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway). Her reveal is classic teen movie fodder: She emerges from the pool house to the sound of “Gold” by Kiiara. Chuck looks on, flabbergasted that the sweet blonde girl he knew had the audacity to wear a black lace bra.
In the Riverdale world, Betty exists in contrast to Veronica Lodge. Veronica was created after Betty as a foil to the all-American sweetheart — the Archie creators molded her from the proverbial rib of their original female character. Betty needed competition for Archie’s affection, and that’s what Veronica provided. Though the Archie comics have expanded to include a vast universe of storylines, the original narrative is a love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica.
The Veronica Lodge of the comics and early Riverdale is a spoiled brat. She comes from wealth and has a habit of spending too much money. She’s the vision of a bad housewife: egotistical and carefree with finances. In the TV movie Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again, Veronica (played by Karen Kopins) has been married and divorced four times. She’s petty, and she likes to throw fits. Still, Archie likes her because she’s the opposite of Betty.
Betty and Veronica exist as two divergent paths for Archie — they are forever in competition for the red-headed hero of his own story, courtesy of their idiosyncrasies. They are the archetypal women in competition, an ancient trope that's boring, silly, and not all that realistic. The idea of the “Betty” implies that there is a version of woman-as-perfection. The rest of us non-Bettys are striving to be her. And if we’re not Betty, we’re Veronica: petulant, vain, and sexual.
Betty and Veronica are integral to the Archie 'verse. And they're even more important to Riverdale — as the two female leads, they anchor the story, even when it's bananas. Betty's the kind, moral compass, while Veronica has the guts to drive the narrative. And, hey, Betty did wear a black lace bra once upon a time. She's not all good behavior. Maybe, this season, we'll see Betty have sex.
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