Riverdale’s Betty Cooper: Shining a Light on the Darkness

As all Riverdale fans know, Betty Cooper has a dark side. But despite the flood of claims and fan theories across the internet, this dark side isn’t psychopathy. It’s not split-personality disorder or even bipolar disease. This dark side, as many of us can personally relate, is depression. It’s as simple – and not so simple – as that.

It was apparent from the first episode of this comic-book-turned-television-drama that the new-fangled version of Riverdale was much different than the original, light-hearted town from the 1950s. And, like the setting, the beloved classic characters have been transformed on-screen into multi-layered, complex version of their cartoon doubles.  

Among these characters, of course, is the beautiful, blue-eyed Betty Cooper. Famous for her ponytail and mega-watt smile and desperate infatuation with Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper certainly takes on a new depth in The CW Network’s spin-off. In a recent interview by The Toronto Star, actress Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty in the show, admits that her character struggles on many levels. “What I love about this show is that we’re taking something that was so happy-go-lucky and great and chipper to more about shining a light on the darkness to these characters or making them three-dimensional people,” said Reinhart. “Betty struggles with mental health issues, with having anxiety and she actually goes through self-harm. She is a real person.”

A tribute to the rise of mental health issues or, more accurately, mental health awareness, CW’s Riverdale underscores the numerous emotional battles faced by teens today. It lends credence to the complexity behind the seemingly “juvenile” problems that teenagers endure, and suggests that – perhaps – their problems aren’t always quite so innocent.

“Betty struggles with mental health issues, with having anxiety and she actually goes through self-harm. She is a real person.”

As television tends to do, the show dramatizes these issues somewhat. But while the majority of high school students aren’t challenged with murder and the presence of gangs – deceit, sexual tension, teen pregnancy, social hierarchies, divorce and anxiety are all very real and common problems. And that’s just naming a few.

Indeed, Betty’s risqué, ominous scene with Chuck in episode three was a bit theatrical, but the underlying issue couldn’t be more commonplace. Betty, like many North American teens, struggles with depression. In the same Toronto Star interview, Lili Reinhart speaks up about her own mental health issues, and how Betty’s character is more familiar to her than many people might think. “I’m very open with my relationship with depression and anxiety and I channel that into Betty,” she says. “There’s so much pressure on young women these days and young men to perform a certain way, to know what you want to do after high school and to find a boyfriend, to have that first kiss, to have good grades, to have your shit together basically and we show that Betty certainly doesn’t have herself put together on the inside.”

Unlike the traditional Betty Cooper, Reinhart’s portrayal of this beloved character has a lot going on beneath the surface. We see from the premiere that Betty’s family dynamic is less than ordinary, and the underlying pressure to be perfect is a reality to which most teenagers can relate. And, as her life spins further out of control and more destructive incidents occur, Betty’s poised exterior quickly begins to distort.

…the underlying pressure to be perfect is a reality to which most teenagers can relate.

But Betty’s battle with mental health has garnered the empathy of thousands of teenagers and adults across the planet for more reasons that one. Let’s take a closer look at a few things that Riverdale has not overdramatised when it comes to Betty’s character, or to mental health:

1. Broken families

It’s been said that Betty has a complicated relationship with her mother. This complex mother-daughter relationship is made worse when Betty’s father is “banished” from their household as the result of marital issues which, let’s face it, are more common than uncommon these days. Statistics reveal that 50% of all North-American children will witness the divorce of their parents before they are 18 years old. Meanwhile, 40% of children growing up in America are being raised without their fathers. With so many lives being built on this less than stable foundation, is it really shocking that more and more young adults are being diagnosed with depression and anxiety? Of course, that’s not to say that children and youth raised in broken family households can’t thrive – indeed, it’s seen all the time. But where exposure to conflict is a frequent occurrence (as in Betty’s case), problems tend to arise.

50% of all North-American children will witness the divorce of their parents before they are 18 years old.

2. Overbearing parents

As Reinhart herself states, the overwhelming pressure from parents to get good grades is a reality for many teens. Add to that the pressure to wear parent-approved clothing, hang out with the “right” crowd and silently overcome the phase of mood swings and teen angst that all young adults experience – and you’ve got a recipe for mental health issues. This pressure – that is, the expectation to be a certain way – has the power to destroy a person from a very young age. At a time when one is already feeling rushed to discover who they are and determine what they want to do with their lives, added restrictions and demands can have the opposite affect parents want it to.

…the expectation to be a certain way has the power to destroy a person from a very young age.

3. Peer relationships

Relationships within high school circles are complicated and profound – and as adults, we tend to forget that. Heartbreak is widespread, love triangles are rampant and, as a result, self-esteem issues are epidemic. While this phenomenon is more common among girls, boys too can and do feel the effects. In a community as small as a secondary school, competition is inevitable, and that means being on your game. At. All. Times. And that constant fight for attention takes its toll, eventually evolving into much darker issues.

4. The desire to succeed

Regardless of your age, the desire to be successful is always present. Whether it’s an underlying force or a specific goal, the pressure to get ahead in life is something that teens face on a daily basis. For some, this means getting good grades and pleasing authority figures. For others, this means squeezing into a size 2 dress. Betty’s need for success takes the form of being heard, of telling the truth through her journalism. Regardless of the form this relentless desire takes, it can easily transform into an ultimate measure of happiness. If a certain goal isn’t met, a sense of failure takes its place. And it goes without saying that these repeated “failures” contribute to mental health issues.

Do you struggle with mental health issues? You’re not alone. Visit mentalhealthamerica.net for programs, online resources, and more.

Emily Watson is a freelance writer and certified yoga and medical Qi Gong instructor. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature and has been writing – creatively and otherwise – for ten years. Off the mat and away from the keyboard, Emily can be found hiking, camping and traveling with her wife and fur babies. She currently lives and works for a publishing company in Peterborough, Ontario.

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