Picture this. It’s 2011. You’re grabbing a copy of Archie Comics, eagerly anticipating whether Archie will choose Betty or Veronica. 70 years on and he still hasn’t made up his mind. It’s a heteronormative world centred around America’s favourite straight white teenager, but wait, what’s this? There’s a new boy in town, and he’s making waves.
Kevin Keller, the Archie-verse’s first gay character, shook readers with his arrival. It’s hard to believe a gay teenager in pop culture could have a storyline that isn’t restricted to being the gay best friend – the sidekick famed for sassy oneliners. Kevin leads multiple comic series of his own, each one detailing the adversity he faces being queer in a small town. He’s proud of his sexuality, frequently calls out homophobia, and raises powerful questions of race when defending his black boyfriend.
And that’s just Kevin in the comics.
The CW’s reimagination of Archie Comics through teen murder-drama series Riverdale takes Kevin to new heights.
Initially, his characterisation isn’t promising. Best friend to bubblegum blonde girl next door Betty, Kevin fades into the background. Cheryl even mocks him in Riverdale’s pilot, asking if ‘being the gay best friend [is] still a thing’, challenging his relevance to the show. Riverdale doesn’t oblige, making it clear that Kevin, embroiled with all the adversity of being queer in a heteronormative world, is here to stay.
Kevin discovers the body of Jason Blossom, whose murder consumes the first season. It’s problematic, as he discovers Jason in the woods during an illicit tryst. Equating homosexuality with death is nothing new. It’s a trope that peppered the 80s, seen in films such as Cruising. What’s striking is that Riverdale doesn’t gloss over cruising. It may seem incongruent to the world of teen drama, but much of Riverdale’s second season takes gay cruising one step further. It’s embarrassing to admit that I Googled the concept, so blind was I to my straight privilege.
Riverdale’s second season sees Kevin deal with loneliness and self-loathing. To resolve this, he frequents the woods to hook up with men, aka cruises. Again, the threat of death looms, as Kevin stumbles upon another murder. Betty, a mirror to all straight viewers, polices his sexuality as a result. So ensues the fullest exploration of Kevin to date. Betty catches Kevin cruising, imploring him to have ‘more respect for [himself]’. Clearly, she wants him to express his sexuality on her terms. Kevin cracks at this shaming, yelling that they ‘don’t have the same set of options’; that he has no choice but to put himself in grave danger. Whilst rightfully concerned, Betty is completely ignorant to her privilege. Kevin lacks romantic and community support; he’s completely alienated. Loneliness plagues Kevin further in the third season, proving the need for interiority when representing queer characters.
Kevin proves that though gay best friends frequent our screens, the battle is far from over. Meaningful queer representation is only the first step.