Betty Cooper: Door Mat, Girl Next Door, or More?

Note: This post is crossposted on Maddo’s comics tumblog.

I follow Comically Vintage on Tumblr for the lulz to be found in out-of-context panels from older comics. Usually I get a chuckle and scroll on, but a few weeks ago I came across a post with the following image:

Image from PEP #192, April 1966

Maybe it stood out to me because I’ve been writing for this blog, but it really caught me off-guard. I had two simultaneous reactions: 1) I laughed at Jughead being humorously asexual and insensitive (as is his wont), and 2) I wondered what the hell Archie had done to upset Betty now. I probably haven’t picked up an Archie comic in a decade or longer, but my response was immediate and visceral. A decade-and-then-some younger version of me had suddenly surged to the front of my consciousness.

I sometimes forget the fact that the first comics I read regularly (outside of the Sunday funny pages) were the various Archie Comics digests–smallish paperback compilations of newer and older Archie Comics. Which is to say, I’d read them whenever my mother would indulge my sister and me and buy us each a double-digest at a bookstore or from the grocery store checkout lane. I treasured the joyful, and ultimately futile, struggle of trying to make a double-digest last. It hadn’t occurred to me until I saw the comicallyvintage panel that I might have a very different perspective on the comics as an adult. It was time for (cursory) research and reflection!

The Archie Comics series has been around since 1941, and the comics are still in production today, with dozens of offshoots focusing on different characters. To put that in perspective, Superman is only two years older, and Wonder Woman and Captain America both first appeared in 1941 as well. Most of the popular Lee/Kirby/Ditko-era Marvel superheroes–the X-MenSpider-Man, and the Fantastic Four–were created 20+ years later, making them young enough to be the grandchildren of the Archie Comics gang!

The Archie Comics character with whom I most identified was Betty Cooper, co-leading lady of the series with her best friend/rival Veronica Lodge. Betty and Veronica were World War II girls, but apart from their gender and place in time, they don’t seem to have much in common with their superheroine contemporary, Wonder Woman. No action for these bosom buddies but matters of the bosom: primarily their (mostly) friendly rivalry for the love of Average All-American Archie Andrews. Archie is a clumsy, freckled doofus who inexplicably has two of the most desirable girls in town fighting desperately for his affections. The Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle is one of the oldest and most iconic love triangles in comics. TVTropes.org even has an entry on “Betty and Veronica” as a trope!

The following two images, created decades apart (one as a callback to the other), so perfectly encapsulate the nature of this love triangle it’s almost astounding. Betty gazes adoringly at Archie, just happy to be spending time with him. However, Archie only has eyes for Veronica despite the fact that Betty is right there, giving him all her attention, while Veronica has her eyes closed, basking in Archie’s adoration and focused entirely on her own experience.

ArchieLoveTriangle

A little less commentary from the peanut gallery, please.

I remember feeling so sorry for poor Betty when I was young. She was the girl “on the hook”; Archie constantly canceled on her in favor of last-minute dates with Veronica (he was on her “hook” in turn). In fact, Veronica sometimes delighted in being able to steal Archie away from Betty. And I still feel the frustration! Why, Betty, why? Why do you put up with that? What do you see in Archie? How can you call Veronica your best friend?

Reggie and Betty

Reggie’s motivations are entirely altruistic, of course.

She forgives them every. #$*%ing. Time. And I think I may have figured out part of Betty’s problem:

Betty is the ultimate Girl Next Door: she’s smart, kind, friendly, sympathetic, and pretty enough to be charming but not beautiful enough to be a bombshell. From TVTropes.org’s definition of the Girl Next Door trope:

A “Girl Next Door” is a character who, it is implied, an “ordinary guy” male protagonist might … like without feeling intimidated. … She embodies an average and “wholesome” femininity. She is neither butch nor overly feminine; she isn’t usually promiscuous, and she might act as a foil to a woman who is, such as the “downtown girl” in Town Girls grouping. She is typically pretty in an accessible way. … As the kind of girl that male protagonist might have been friends with all his life, the Girl Next Door is easy to talk to, like a tomboy, but she doesn’t force her presence on anybody.

(TVTropes actually references Betty specifically later in their entry on the GND trope.)

The Girl (or Boy) Next Door can be problematic for me. I feel like they often get taken advantage of and have little agency. There are of course exceptions and I don’t want to discount them, but there are plenty of examples that really rub me the wrong way. Many of the attributes that make Betty a Girl Next Door are precisely the ones that allow Archie and Veronica to treat her badly. Betty’s sympathetic, supportive, accessible nature causes her to make herself available to others, which means that they can, and do, take advantage of her.

It’s important to remember that Betty is a victim of her medium. A mitigating factor in most stories with a Girl/Boy Next Door character is that the audience is aware that the G/BND is the “right”/better romantic match for the protagonist, and can trust that the two will likely end up together. This builds tension in the narrative, but generally culminates in a satisfying ending. However, the serialized, lengthy nature of many comics leads to the audience only being given the tension. (This is part of why comics “reboot” so often.) I can hang on through a decade-long sitcom, but the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle is over 70 years old, and it still hasn’t been resolved. People have been born, lived full lives, and died rooting for Betty!

But comics are filled with characters whose relationships go on for years, even decades, without resolution. Why should I treat Betty differently? As a young reader I felt that Betty allowed herself to be the victim too often. Couldn’t she be stronger if she tried? Betty fails to meet several of the key criteria on Charlotte and Kate’s criteria for a strong female character: she’s certainly intelligent, compassionate, brave, and a good leader, and she has a strong moral compass, but she really struggles when it comes to independence and flexibility at times, and her friends and Archie often deal heavy blows to her emotional resilience and self-confidence. My own relationships at the time helped me empathize with that, but not forgive her. I’ve seen her strength! I’ve seen her fight back:

Betty

Check out all them lines that mean ANGER!

So why does she always falter? Why does she disappoint us again and again? I want more from Betty. No, I want more for her. She deserves better! If she’d only just–

–And then it hit me. In the midst of rehashing my frustration with her I suddenly remembered one incredibly important fact: Betty Cooper is a teenager.

I never read Archie comics as a teenager, only as an adolescent. And I never analyzed them as a teenager either, only now, in my mid-twenties. Now everything falls into place. Now, despite her faults, Betty is absolutely remarkable. She is so much more complex than I’d initially thought, and so dazzlingly human, more so than any of the other characters in the series and, I’d argue, many, many other female characters in comics. She’s kind, loyal, smart, and funny, full of compassion and integrity, while at the same time susceptible, as most teenage girls are, to the weakness, pettiness, and poor judgment that come with teen romance and friendship.

Considering her age and circumstances, I think Betty is an exceptional person, and it’s no wonder why she’s been beloved by readers of all ages over the decades. There are so many different ways to be strong, and, trite as it is to say, heroes come in all forms, even in comics. As much as I enjoy Kitty Pryde phasing through walls or the Black Cat kicking a baddie’s ass (when it suits her), I’m glad that Betty Cooper is out there playing baseball and doing community service and even crying over boys. Upon reflection, I think she has as much to teach young llllladies about tackling life’s challenges as her superpowered sisters.

Maddo has just moved to Scotland to pay people to teach her how to study this stuff for reals. 

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20 thoughts on “Betty Cooper: Door Mat, Girl Next Door, or More?

  1. Nice summary of Betty. Yes, she is a teenager, which makes her susceptible to unrealistic dreams and hopes, and blind to certain realities in life. You do get the impression that for Betty, with maturity will come wisdom, growth, and change, and a new level of self-respect, that she won’t continue to make the same mistakes forever. That at least dangles a carrot before the reader that holds hope for Betty’s future happiness, if not with a changed, more mature Archie, then with someone better and more worthy of her. Male and female readers alike sympathize with and appreciate Betty, and want that happiness for her.

    • Absolutely! Very insightful analysis there. I guess the comics format can make a dangled carrot frustrating; if a character is kept roughly the same age for decades, do we have any real hope of seeing long-term personal growth, or just hints at it?

      • The nature of the “classic Archie” stories doesn’t allow growth, because they’re eternal high school Juniors. That makes the start of every school year the SAME school year, every Christmas the SAME Christmas, every Spring Break the SAME Spring Break, every class election the SAME class election, every prom the SAME prom, and every summer vacation the SAME summer vacation. It’s been “Groundhog Year” at Riverdale High for the last 75 years… or every year we readers peek into a slightly different parallel universe inhabited by a slightly different Archie Andrews and his friends. There can be no accumulation of wisdom.

        But there are other Archie parallel universes… one where he’s a superhero named Pureheart, another where he’s fighting a zombie apocalypse, and a few others where he graduated college and married Betty Cooper, married Veronica Lodge, or married Valerie Smith of the Pussycats. Two of Archie’s parallel futures married to Betty and Veronica (beginning 5 years after college graduation) were told in “The Married Life” series that ran in 37 issues of LIFE WITH ARCHIE magazine.

      • The story was called “Woman Scorned”, and it first appeared in ARCHIE #156 (July 1965).

        I hasten to add that if Betty was crazy in a lot of the old stories, it was Veronica who made her so. Veronica took a kind of sadistic joy in depriving Betty of whatever the object of her desire was, and it can be seen in dozens (if not hundreds) of stories, at least into the early 1970s. She’s mellowed in the last few decades.

  2. “I hasten to add that if Betty was crazy in a lot of the old stories, it was Veronica who made her so.”

    Uh, no. Most “crazy Betty” stories (including “Woman Scorned”) took place before Veronica was turned into a raving bitch; long before their current madonna/whore characterization.

    • @bluebead – Although the analysis of Veronica’s character motivation didn’t come until later, it nevertheless applies to the earlier Veronica. It has nothing to do with her outward bitchiness, it’s an issue of female dominance. Veronica doesn’t want Archie because of his innate qualities, she wants him simply because having him proves her to be the superior female over Betty, and she needs to prove her superiority in all things female. That’s just an unconscious and unspoken (unspoken of until later) part of Veronica’s ego formation. Veronica’s Svengali-like hold over Archie’s attention is what makes Betty crazy.

      • Read up on early Archie sometime. Bob Montana, who created the characters of both Betty and Veronica, depicted them as equally sweet and nice, and selfish and crazy, from their introduction till his death thirty five years later, and other writers of the nineteen forties did the same. It wasn’t until the 1950s that new writers introduced the dumber good girl/bad girl depiction that got progressively worse till “Betty and Veronica” became synonymous with it. In the forties and in Bob Montana’s newspaper comics there’s no reason to think Veronica just wants Archie to beat Betty, and even later stories show her wavering between competing with Betty and genuinely caring for Archie. The motives that the reader assigns to her say more about the reader than about Veronica herself.

  3. By the way, I was wrong about “A Woman Scorned.” I thought that was the title of an early 1950s title, but it’s from the mid 1960s, so it is from their madonna/whore period (which still continues to this day), though Veronica wasn’t as bad even then as they made her later. But everything else I wrote about them is correct; look into it.

    • Bob Montana’s Archie came to occupy a parallel universe to the comic book version of Archie. To the extent that Veronica lacked any real characterization or motivation in the earlier, simpler stories, you could say she was “sweet”, which worked well enough in newspaper strips where there wasn’t a whole lot of continuity (there was some, but not much in the way of characterization), mostly just a daily gag. I’ve read the IDW strip reprint collections.

      BTW, the “madonna/whore” (as you call it) characterization isn’t current, and hasn’t been for a few decades. The current Veronica is more like “bratty/sassy” or maybe that should be “brassy”. That’s largely because of Dan Parent.

  4. If you’ve read the forties stories and newspaper strips, I don’t see why you think Veronica made Betty act crazy. Betty acted that way years before Veronica was the manipulative bad girl. Montana and the other writers of the forties gave Betty and Veronica personalities that were sweet but nuanced and more mature than the “evil rich girl who does everything wrong” and “nice middle class girl who does everything right” in later stories. That’s not characterization, it’s a joke. The newspaper strips had much more character continuity than the comic books, too. Montana didn’t have one strip where Archie was a clumsy fool and another one the next day where he was an action star.

    The madonna whore characterization isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it’s still there. Veronica is mean, so of course she’s the one who goes out with all the boys, likes male attention, always tries to have perfect hair and makeup and wears revealing clothes. Betty is nice so she’s the tomboy who only loves Archie, doesn’t care about how she looks, dresses more modestly and usually attracts boys without trying.

    • The characterization of B&V isn’t totally consistent over the breadth of time and the many titles in which they appeared, but evolved in different directions. When I say Veronica was the one who made Betty crazy, I’m talking specifically about the comic books, not the newspaper strip, and more specifically the “middle period” of the 1960s and 1970s (which also happened to coincide with Archie Comics’ peak period of popularity, relative to other comic books).

      It’s not particularly difficult to track the evolution, because all you have to do is look at what titles ArchieCo was publishing at any given time. The comic book B&V began to diverge on a tangent from Bob Montana’s beginning in the 1950s with the appearance of ARCHIE’S GIRLS BETTY AND VERONICA. All of a sudden they’re no longer supporting characters, but the stars of their own series. Then in 1966, Betty’s popularity was such that she was given her own title in which to star, BETTY AND ME, which continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s (in the latter ’80s, BETTY’S DIARY was added, and in the early ’90s, BETTY AND ME was replaced by BETTY). Approximately concurrent with BETTY’S DIARY, a new title, VERONICA was added. Another character that impacted the evolution of B&V was the return of Cheryl Blossom in the mid-’90s “Love Showdown”. Beginning at that point, the softening of Veronica’s character to make her nicer and more sympathetic (already begun with the introduction of the VERONICA title) advanced, as Cheryl usurped the mean girl/bitch role that Veronica had played frequently from the late ’60s to the late ’80s, and B&V teamed up against her. (Even Cheryl had to evolve to become a more sympathetic character when she got her own ongoing series in the late ’90s.) In the 2000s, the emphasis would shift heavily in the direction of B&V as BFFs, and the rivalry would become more subdued. All of the changes rendered by starring in their own series eventually reflect back somewhat on their appearance in other Archie titles.

      These are the tangents along which their respective characters began evolving in different directions. From the mid-sixties until the mid-eighties, BETTY had her own title but Veronica didn’t. As Betty appeared as the protagonist in more pages of stories, she had to be more sympathetic and relatable as a character. Beginning with BETTY AND ME, she becomes less of a desperate schemer in the Wile E. Coyote mode that she sometimes was in 1950s and early ’60s stories. In ARCHIE’S GIRLS B&V, the emphasis was on the contrast and chemistry between the two girls, kind of comedy duo straight man/comic foil dichotomy. But yes — during this period when Betty had her own title and Veronica didn’t, Veronica was responsible for making Betty act crazy. There are numerous stories that comment on this overtly — with Veronica admitting that she lives to compete and steal Archie from Betty (otherwise it’s no fun for her), but in which their behavior isn’t much different than in most of the stories immediately preceding this period (late ’50s/early ’60s), when these motives weren’t commented on explicitly.

  5. By the mid 1960s when Betty got her own title and Veronica started saying she only wanted Archie so Betty couldn’t have him, Betty’s craziness was already being toned down. It was the forties, fifties and early sixties when she was the most nuts. You blame Veronica for causing Betty’s crazy behavior when it was already fading–that doesn’t make sense. There is no cause and effect apparent there either. Numerous stories from the sixties say that Archie doesn’t want to be with Betty because he can’t cope with Betty’s stalking, but I have not seen any that say Veronica keeping Archie away from Betty is what causes her to be crazy.

    • Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you think, or whether or not Veronica verbalizes explicitly her motivations for dating Archie (although the fact that she frequently keeps him at arm’s length should be telling us something). All that matters is what BETTY thinks.

      Every time she says or thinks something like “Ooooh…. that VERONICA!” she’s telling us who she holds responsible for her desperate behavior. SHE sees Veronica as the only obstacle standing in her way of dating Archie. It’s never “Ooooh… that ARCHIE!”

    • It’s not an opinion. It’s what’s motivating Betty’s behavior. She tells you — by what she says, and by what she thinks — what the cause or motivation of her behavior is. In this case, the cause of Betty’s behavior is Veronica’s behavior in regards to Archie. Similarly, when Veronica tells us what her motivation is, I have to go with that as the most reliable explanation of her character. If she doesn’t contradict that by telling us that her motivations are different in other stories that preceded the ones where she’s explicit about her motives, but she otherwise behaves the same in regards to Archie, then I have to assume they still apply. If you’re just sitting there looking at Betty’s actions and Veronica’s actions, but not paying attention to what they say and think, particularly when they’re talking about their own behavior, or how they relate to the other characters and what motivates them, then you’re just guessing. I’ll admit that when the characters don’t actually have anything to say (or think) about their motivations, that’s all you have to go on — observation of their actions and guesswork. But when they DO have something to say about it, it’s better not to ignore it.

      As for why Betty stopped behaving that way, that’s another story. One which has nothing to do with in-story character motivations and everything to do with the motivations of comic book publishers and comic book buyers. Betty’s more extreme crazy behavior came to an end because it tended to make her less sympathetic and relatable as the MAIN character or protagonist of the story, once she gained her own ongoing comic book. It’s exactly the same reason it was OK for Veronica to behave like a witch for as long as it made for funny stories — because she didn’t have her OWN comic book, so she wasn’t the main protagonist that readers would need to feel sympathy for and be able to relate to. In both cases, the more extreme behavior of B&V was purposely toned down by editorial decree in order that the new comic book series would appeal to the widest audience of potential readers. Once that was established in their own titles, that evolution of their character tended to bleed over into their story appearances in other titles as well. Some of that might have had to do with political correctness as the comic industry moved forward with the times too, and possibly some parental feedback via letters, since parents were often assuming that the characters should at least in part serve as some kind of role models for their children.

  6. If Betty is crazy, you can’t trust her explanation, but I don’t think Betty talks about why she acts crazy. Crazy people usually don’t! We have but to look at who she directs her episodes at, though. In the story “A Woman Scorned” it’s Archie she complains about and attacks, not Veronica. Her craziness is always directed at Archie. You’re mistaken, sir. Archie’s the root of her problem, though she has only herself to blame for giving in to her feelings.

    The stories where Veronica says she only wants Archie to keep him away from Betty aren’t very plausible. Sometimes writers will use an idea because it’s funny or touching more than because it fits the long term behavior of the characters; there are stories where Veronica speaks of how lonely she is because her parents are never home, stories that show her words are true, but it’s hard to understand that when we see Mr. Lodge with her all the time, even if these stories don’t say in words that he’s always there. So perhaps there is a problem with the idea that wanting to deprive Betty of Archie is Veronica’s only reason for being with him, when so many other stories imply she is in love with him. I can accept it as one of her motivations, but not the main one. I think we always have remember the absence of continuity in Archie comics.

    “If she doesn’t contradict that by telling us that her motivations are different in other stories that preceded the ones where she’s explicit about her motives, but she otherwise behaves the same in regards to Archie, then I have to assume they still apply.”

    Retroactive explanations can’t apply to stories that were written years earlier. If Kathleen Webb writes that Veronica only wants Archie so Betty can’t have him in 1990, it doesn’t affect Veronica’s motives in stories by Bob Montana or any other older writer. Otherwise, any new writer with queer ideas could make a mockery of the entire saga.

    “As for why Betty stopped behaving that way, that’s another story. One which has nothing to do with in-story character motivations and everything to do with the motivations of comic book publishers and comic book buyers. Betty’s more extreme crazy behavior came to an end because it tended to make her less sympathetic and relatable as the MAIN character or protagonist of the story, once she gained her own ongoing comic book. It’s exactly the same reason it was OK for Veronica to behave like a witch for as long as it made for funny stories — because she didn’t have her OWN comic book, so she wasn’t the main protagonist that readers would need to feel sympathy for and be able to relate to. In both cases, the more extreme behavior of B&V was purposely toned down by editorial decree in order that the new comic book series would appeal to the widest audience of potential readers. Once that was established in their own titles, that evolution of their character tended to bleed over into their story appearances in other titles as well. Some of that might have had to do with political correctness as the comic industry moved forward with the times too, and possibly some parental feedback via letters, since parents were often assuming that the characters should at least in part serve as some kind of role models for their children.”

    You’re right. I don’t think it’s ‘political correctness’ to ask that these two ladies not be written as sexist caricatures, though. Their main audience is young girls.

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