In the first 15 minutes of Riverdale’s 2017 series premiere, viewers are whisked into a flashback sequence. We’re in the sticky throes of summer, and Geraldine Grundy (Sarah Habel), a grown woman and music teacher, looks out of her passenger window. She is so thirsty, she literally takes a massive gulp out of her Slurpee. The object of her attention is none other than 15-year-old boy Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), a music student of hers who just wrapped his freshman year, and his abs. She asks him if he wants a ride. Soon enough, they’re in the midst of steamy car sex.
High school sophomore Archie’s relationship with his adult teacher becomes one of Riverdale season 1’s most important plotlines. And, it’s one very few people are appropriately concerned about save for Alice Cooper (Mädchen Amick), mom to Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and leading Archie opponent.
This is how pop culture typically treats sexual relationships between teen boys and adult women. While a fictional pairing between an older man and young girl is usually viewed as coercive if not all-out criminal — look at everything from Lolita to American Beauty — the same can’t be said for the gender-swapped version. Rather, those interactions are used to titillate audiences and draw in viewers.
But those kinds of long-held narrative habits aren’t titillating, they’re damaging. They reinforce a brand of toxic machismo that suggests horny teen boys are constantly on the hunt for sex, and that bored middle-aged-or-older women are helping these kids become men. Plus, there’s an extra suggestion that nothing helps an older lady out of a rut quite like a virile boy.
In fact, Bennett told the Hollywood Reporter the world’s opinions on teen boys’ and their sex drives isolated him from coming forward about his alleged sexual assault (which Argento denies) earlier. “At the time I believed there was still a stigma to being in the situation as a male in our society,” the young actor, who played Argento’s son in 2004’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, explained. “I didn't think that people would understand the event that took place from the eyes of a teenage boy.”
It’s no surprise Bennett felt this way. The romanticism, and encouragement, of April-December relationships (Yes, April since these underage kids aren’t in the full bloom of May yet) between a teen boy and an adult woman goes back much further than Archie, Miss Grundy, and their many summertime Riverdale hookups. That’s why some of comedian Pete Davidson’s best Saturday Night Live work — including “Pool Boy” and “Teacher Trial” — pokes fun at the idea of a teen boy managing to sleep with an attractive older woman. Here, this kind of coercion isn’t dangerous, it’s so sexy it’s obvious. If you don’t realize that, television and movies suggest, there’s something wrong with you.
As you can guess from the latter aforementioned SNL sketch’s title, one of the older women is Davidson’s character’s teacher (Cecily Strong in a wavy wig), who is now on trial for striking up a full-blown sexual relationship with Davidson’s Gavin. When asked to describe his mental state after the affair began, high schooler Gavin “Super Cala Fragilistic This Is Such A Dope Kid” Daly, as he is now called by peers, recalls, “I’d say it felt like what Disneyland is.” Both the judge (played by an awestruck Kenan Thompson) and the audience couldn’t be happier for Gavin.
If a high school girl shared such remarks about her adult male teacher, people would be horrified. Yes, even a fictional one. But, since it’s a grinning teen boy talking about his Bachelor-ready looking teacher, it’s funny. That’s why SNL’s live audience laughed very loudly along with Davidson as his character recounted all the high-fives and Zamboni rides he received after people found out he slept with a sexy teacher. Comedy can only work when the audience gets the joke, and everyone seriously got these jokes.
The comedy in this sketch is aided by decades of supposedly sexy, lovable April-December romps. Even when the boy is 18, the official age of consent, it feels like a technicality to keep viewers from questioning the legality of a “sensual” situation, rather than a purposeful statement of how desire and power dynamics work in sexual relationships. It’s not like there’s much of an internal difference between a 17-year-old high schooler and a freshly 18-year-old one, especially between one of these boys and someone they see as a mentor — as Bennett categorized Argento — teacher, or authority figure.
For proof of this fact, let’s take a quick walk down pop culture lane.
The male lead of 1971’s beloved black comedy Harold And Maude is 18-year-old Harold (Bud Cort), who has a love affair with an 79-year-old woman (Ruth Gordon). The term “MILF” was practically coined in the late ‘90s for Stifler’s Mom (Jennifer Coolidge) of the American Pie movies. Stifler’s hyper-sexualized mother infamously takes the virginity of her son’s close friend, 18-year-old Paul Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas).
Following American Pie's campy Graduate references, 21st century movies continued to explore similar relationships with a leering eye. 2006's Notes On A Scandal follows an art teacher (Cate Blanchett) whose titular scandal is that she is sleeping with her 15-year-old student (Tom Georgeson). 2013's Adore is about two mom BFFs (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) who are having sex with their respective pal’s 18-year-old sons (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville), and 2015's The Boy Next Door centers around a teacher (Jennifer Lopez) who begins sleeping with her 19-year-old neighbor (Ryan Guzman). While things go horrifically awry in all of these situations, the actual love affairs are played as sultry and forbidden-fruit hot, not unsettling or predatory.
That’s why Jennifer Lopez’s Boy Next Door press tour with Ryan Guzman overwhelmingly leaned into how sexy the leading pair happened to be.
Although movies have had a heavy hand in telling audiences it is very, very sexy for an adult woman to sleep with with a young boy, this idea has arguably become even more powerful on television. The aforementioned Archie credits Geraldine Grundy as his “first love;” a fact that leads to a lot of sermonizing from his righteous adult neighbor Alice Cooper, played by Mädchen Amick. Yet just under a decade before Amick was screaming about Miss Grundy’s monstrous behavior, the same actress was playing Gossip Girl’s Catherine Beaton, the married adult woman prep schooler Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) starts sleeping with in season 2.
And, years before Amick was caught in any April-December romantic chaos on the CW, the network’s precursor the WB kicked off Dawson’s Creek’s first season with the tumultuous pairing of dreamboat Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), a sophomore, and his English teacher Tamara Jacobs (Leann Hunley). None of these trysts were posed as criminally as they likely would have been if the genders of the characters involved were swapped.
TV’s relentless use of this problematic trope isn’t specifically limited to the soapy, YA goings on of the CW and WB. Just this month, Netflix’s controversial new dramedy Insatiable featured a lengthy and disturbing relationship between teen boy Brick Armstrong (Michael Provost) and unhinged older women Regina Sinclair (Arden Myrin). Even when Regina is outed as a predator, she cannot stop throwing herself at Brick. The whole southern-fried situation is played for laughs.
Just this past Sunday night, around the time Asia Argento’s financial settlement with Jimmy Bennett became public knowledge, Sharp Objects’ haunted antiheroine Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) was having the best sex of her recent life with a similarly in-crisis John Keene (Taylor John Smith), a boy who just turned 18. John is so young that when cops bust the couple for a murder-related reason — as opposed to a sexual one — their first question is whether the teen is “of age.”
With Jimmy Bennett’s words ringing in our ears — and the steam of the #MeToo movement fueling our conversations — it’s difficult to find any of these instances as sensual rolls in the hay that will create the next generation of the manliest men. Instead, they’re varied examples of the many ways more powerful people manipulate or outright abuse wide-eyed young people, regardless of gender. Sometimes they’re simply creepy, and other times they’re abusive. Either way, we shouldn’t be co-signing them.
Sorry, Stifler’s Mom.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).