Riverdale season 2 keeps surprising us. So far, the CW series’ sophomore year has tackled cruising culture, unintentional homophobia, and sexual assault with the kind of thoughtful care no one expects from a soapy, murder-y drama built on the question, “Will this basic teen boy pick a blonde or a brunette?” Wednesday night’s “Death Proof” proved Riverdale still hasn’t drag raced right into problematic territory. “Chapter Nineteen” shows the aftermath of Nick St. Clair’s (Graham Phillips) attempt to sexually assault Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch). While it would have been easy for the teen drama to drop such a difficult storyline, or botch it all together, Riverdale instead made a necessary point about survivors — especially in our current post-Harvey Weinstein climate.
While every single woman who comes forward as a survivor of sexual assault or takes her attacker to court is a hero, it’s no one’s job to make their trauma public. That kind of life-changing choice is a deeply personal one, and one you can’t force someone to make. Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) completely misses this fact the morning after Nick attempted to rape a roofied Cheryl. While Cheryl ends last week’s “When A Stranger Calls” saying she’s pressing charges against Nick because she wants him to “pay” and “burn in hell,” that all changes when her mother Penelope Blossom (Nathalie Boltt) dismisses her daughter’s trauma. Cheryl overhears her mother question what the teen did to “provoke” Nick and claims, “Nothing happened to Cheryl,” despite the fact her child was literally drugged. Of course Cheryl shuts down about her near-assault after that.
That’s why Veronica’s response to Cheryl's snap decision to drop Nick's charges comes off as so tone deaf. Although she apologises to Cheryl for Penelope’s cruel comments, she still urges her friend to continue the investigation into Nick since he is a predator who’s likely hurt other girls. Nick should obviously be put away, but it’s wrong to put the entire burden of ending his reign of terror on Cheryl, who was roofied only a few hours ago and is unquestionably afraid of the backlash she could face as a woman standing up to a powerful man and his wealthy family.
“Can you even imagine? Me facing off against Nick St. Clair in a courtroom battle royale. I would be a laughingstock,” she says. It’s a heartbreaking comment, but who is surprised that is Cheryl’s fear after hearing her own mother’s response to the assault?
Thankfully, Cheryl gets to defend herself from Veronica’s insensitivity, pointing out the double standard her friend is currently living by. Veronica uses the fact Nick got aggressive with her before Cheryl, though he didn’t drug and almost rape her, as proof Cheryl, and only Cheryl, needs to speak out. Cheryl asks, “Did you tell your parents?” For once, the sardonic steel of Cheryl’s voice is gone as she realises the dark experience she and Veronica share. Yet, when Veronica says no, the boundary-creating edge is back, and Cheryl counters, “Well, I won’t be a puppet for your thirst for vengeance. You want justice? You go after Nick in court, Veronica.” The truth is, neither of these young women has to share what Nick did to them until they’re ready — and, if it never comes, there’s no reason to shame them for staying quiet.
This fact is what makes both Cheryl's subsequent desire to share her story and get her own retribution later in “Death Proof” feel so essential, and sad. At Pop’s we see her trying to enjoy a milkshake in peace when Nick pops up to happily greet her by yelling, “Sharon!” It’s a power move to prove how little Cheryl matters to him, and the young woman is visibly frightened by his presence. Still Nick approaches Cheryl to creepily recreate history and insult his victim. This kind of “unrepentant spore” behaviour is what pushes Cheryl to fight back against Nick, as opposed to a round of guilt-baiting by Veronica. Unfortunately, local “cobra” Penelope already took hush money on her daughter’s behalf to keep Cheryl from ever speaking out about the night she was roofied. For the second episode in a row, Cheryl is left in tears due to Nick’s “Less Than Zero” behaviour.
At least Cheryl’s comments about Veronica needing to take matters into her own hands, rather than use Cheryl as a puppet, hit home. Towards the end of “Death Proof” Veronica realises pressuring Cheryl was unfair, and tells her parents of her own direct experiences with Nick’s predatory tendencies. When asked “why” she didn’t come forward sooner with her story, she relays a dilemma many survivors find themselves in: “I didn’t have any proof,” she admits.
Veronica’s totally-not-gangsters parents close out the episode telling their daughter the entire Sinclair family was in a totally-not-orchestrated-by-the-Lodges car accident. Nick survived the crash, “but it’s going to take several months” for him to heal, Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) tells Veronica. Of course, like this week’s Ill Behaviour, this kind of solution would be wholly illegal and alarming in real life, but it’s something we can cheer for on television. Now, neither Cheryl nor Veronica will have to have their darkest moments picked over in front of a jury of their peers.
Confronting powerful men on their abusive behavior is still a risk for their victims. If you don’t believe that — yes, even in the current #MeToo culture — you just have to look at the Twitter mentions of the women who came out against now-disgraced comedian Louis C.K. or read the Alabama polls that state certain voters are now more likely to vote for alleged child predator Roy Moore than before he was accused of pursuing teen girls. Until we change these factors, we can’t expect every sexual assault survivor to come forward with their story, even if it will help the greater good. Punishing obvious sex abusers would also be for the greater good, but society can’t handle that one apparently.
So, let’s not put the entire burden on young women and their trauma.
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