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:
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-Men, Spider-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.
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?
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:
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.