Wednesday night’s episode of Riverdale finally introduced viewers to Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan), the new south sider who makes fast friends with Jughead (Cole Sprouse). Fans of the show have already been anticipating Toni’s arrival, and the threat it might pose to Jughead’s cherished relationship with Betty (Lili Reinhart). So far things seem to be strictly platonic between the two new friends, but isn’t that how many a torrid affair starts? Anyway, Toni is interesting even without a potential romance with a boy.
In the Archie comics, Toni is bisexual, tough, and rocks short pink hair. Riverdale’s take on the character has given her pink highlights that cascade down her back. Her toughness has been quantified by her membership in a local gang called the Serpents. And to give the show another notch on its diversity belt, Riverdale’s Toni is also racially ambiguous. Interestingly enough, Toni’s racial background unintentionally says more about her, and her place in Riverdale than it means to.
Diversity is a pretty big for young adult series these days, and Riverdale is no exception. But one of my biggest critiques of the show is that it includes people of color to break up the monotony of whiteness but fails to actually challenge any of the cultural norms. Everyone, even the fictional south siders, speaks that same. They all listen to the same music and end up at some of the same events. And god forbid someone talks about racism. For a show that seems to go out of its way to avoid being political, characters like Toni come with a lot of political baggage that can’t be swept under the rug, especially when she’s from a place that is literally described as by its position on the other side of railroad tracks.
Toni clearly doesn’t have the same privileges that her peers in Riverdale have. She is supposed to be a product of economic divide that has made “from the other side of the tracks” a universally understood term. It refers to the working class communities that are physically separated from the middle and upper class residents. And even though Riverdale won’t make it explicit, this divide comes with set of written and unwritten rules about how they engage with one another. This is undoubtedly going to impact her interactions with everyone else.
And with an eye for both men and women, Toni is undoubtedly still going to find herself in at least one love triangle with characters from the opposite side of the tracks. And that counts for something. Unlikely pairings, like the town’s outcast and its preppy princess in pink, are encouraged on this show. Toni could make out with Veronica just as easily as she could with Jughead. And perhaps that’s the best we can hope for. Even in a town run rampant with unnamed classism, gang violence, murders, and corporate corruption, love still conquers all.