In light of our recent discussion in Cap's Blog about Archie and the gang, I pulled out this AMSA column from CBG #1583 (March 19, 2004), arguing for a modest proposition that would make the Archie gang way more interesting and drop the point spread on the Betty Vs. Veronica cage match below six figures.
After this article appeared, CBG told me that Archie Comics ordered extra copies of the issue. Sadly, I don't believe they took my arguments to heart, more's the pity.
The need for Tomboy Betty!
Betty Cooper makes Archie’s gang more interesting when she’s got her own quirks
Dear Mr. Silver Age,
I’ve been following Archie Andrew’s dilemma in having to choose between Veronica Lodge and Betty Cooper. After considerable evaluation and soul searching, I’ve decided that Archie should pick Betty. She’s the better choice of the two.
Mr. Silver Age says: I hope you didn’t spend too long making that choice, Harv. Frankly, you arrived at the same conclusion as virtually every male who ever brought his brain cells to bear on that vital question. It’s hard to pick against Betty, because she’s just so darn perfect—and Veronica has so little to offer that Betty can’t offer, too. But that wouldn’t have to be the case.
I was reminded of how lopsided the battle has become while reading the introduction by Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island) in the Betty & Veronica Summer Fun trade paperback. In it, Dawn noted the similarities between Mary Ann and Betty. “I knew that in order for the contrasting personalities of Mary Ann and Ginger [the sexpot] to work, I had to play Mary Ann completely ‘apple pie.’”
That meant, she wrote, emphasizing the traits that Betty so often brings to the fore. Mary Ann “was an enthusiastic leader, effective at getting everyone to do his or her part. In the same way, Betty Cooper is a stabilizing influence in Archie and the gang’s lives. It is a Midwestern, small-town ethic that Mary Ann, Betty and myself share—a patriotic, never-give-up approach to life.”
I realize that Betty and Veronica are part of an ensemble cast and play the specific roles required to make a particular script work. That’s true of the entire gang, with Veronica and Reggie tending to swing the wildest, one moment being a trusted (and rich) friend and the next being a back-stabbing schemer who uses the others for his or her manipulative needs. The other characters keep to narrower slots, adjusting slightly as needed for the tale.
We also have to assume that time resets after each story, with the gang forgetting the previous plot’s specifics. Otherwise, the sheer number of betrayals and humiliations piled on the gang by Reggie or Veronica when a story called for it would make the others ostracize them. Not to mention, they’d all sooner or later decide that they’d been to one too many junior proms.
But given those necessities, each friend has perennial quirks that are catalysts for stories: klutzy Lothario Archie; spoiled hot-head Veronica; woman-hating glutton Jughead; vain prankster Reggie; totally competent Betty.
That last one just doesn’t fit. It’s not fair for Betty to be the multi-talented straight woman to the others—and it’s not fair to Veronica, either. Ronnie will never win this two-woman competition with the way it’s stacked against her, loading her with all the unattractive qualities (with the occasional ultimate redemption). She could win a few votes if one aspect of Betty’s personality that isn’t emphasized enough came to the fore, changing her basic ensemble trait.
Betty should be a tomboy.
In other words, she should generally be a little rougher around the edges, a little less refined and knowledgeable about the finer things in life that Veronica should excel at effortlessly. In “Smallville” terms, she needs to be a Chloe to Veronica’s Lana.
On occasion, she plays that role. But usually, she becomes the handy mechanic or the ace shortstop only when a plot requires it. Those are still variations on the ultra-competent role that makes her so admirable to everyone from teachers to parents to boys with flat tires or empty stomachs. But those rough-hewn personality traits don’t carry over to stories where they aren’t pivotal to the plot, and they should.
There should be some ramifications to being so good at everything the boys do, besides being taken for granted by Archie when the plot needs it. That isn’t the same as Archie favoring Veronica because Betty isn’t “girlie” enough for him on a routine basis, which would give Ronnie a little boost. And if Betty were more rough-hewn all the time, she might counter Ronnie’s advantages in snarkier ways that wouldn’t always bring her credit (but could be hilarious).
The biggest difficulty with accepting that Betty is viewed generally as one of the boys is that she can go toe-to-toe with Veronica in any female department required—and effortlessly outdo her in some of them. And that starts with her appearance.
Dawn Wells made the case that Mary Ann and Betty are similar in that “they are forever engaged in friendships/rivalries with the glamour queens, Ginger Grant and Veronica Lodge, respectively. Ginger and Veronica represent the ‘fantasy’ sex symbols—the unattainable girls most guys know they don’t have a shot at marrying. They are constantly pushing the envelope, using their beauty to get their way.”
That was true for Ginger. She wore slinky gowns and talked in a breathless style that had the guys all atwitter. But it’s less true in distinguishing Veronica from Betty. In filling the role of “fantasy sex symbol,” Ronnie sets the bar so low that Betty usually has no trouble clearing it, too.
The cover to Betty & Veronica Double Digest #111 (Feb 03) is a good example of what should be the status quo – but seldom is. Veronica is dressed in chic clothes, while Betty is in rumpled, plainer clothes. They’re dressed like that to help sell the joke visually, but they should be dressed like that all the time. Veronica should look sleek and well composed, even when the gang is just hanging out. Betty should look a little dowdy even at her best. She shouldn’t be able to pull off a strong fashion sense so easily.
If their sexiness differentiated them as it did Josie and Melody in She’s Josie, Archie’s Silver Age sister comic, they’d have a definite point of distinction for our red-headed pal to ponder. Certainly, Ginger and Mary Anne offered that distinction (since they were real people not being drawn by artists who didn't spend much time giving the girls any distinguishing features beyond "attractive"). Features, body type and other attributes will appeal to some guys more than others. No two people are alike, so some guys being attracted to a Ginger "type" instead of the Mary Anne "type" makes perfect sense.
But as Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder so hilariously pointed out in their Starchie satire in Mad #12 (Jun 54), Betty and Veronica’s similarities in features, figures and fashions make that “fantasy sex symbol” differentiation disappear.
Then there’s the matter of their skill sets. Betty can match Veronica’s designer fashions by sewing up an exact duplicate after eyeballing Ronnie’s creation; she cooks like the illegitimate daughter of Julie Child and Emeril Lagasse; she can create romantic, candle-lit settings; and she innumerable times has kissed Archie until he was too dazed to stand (which, apparently, doesn’t really take all that much).
That’s quite a range of talents—too much range to give Veronica a fighting chance. In fact, I’d argue that some of Betty’s talents more rightfully belong to Veronica, while Betty’s basic trait set should be focused more on talents that characterize her as “eager tomboy” rather than “totally competent and knowledgeable friend.” She needs a bit more snarkiness-which she sometimeshad in the 1950s and even into the1960s, but, again, mostly when the story required it. It's not an especially attractive attribute--but it was darn funny. And, let's face it, every other cast member has at least one unattractive attribute. Why not Betty?
Veronica was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. In most stories, all that gets her is a fancy sportscar, a rationale for taking the gang to an exotic locale or tickets to a black-tie country club soiree to which Archie must (reluctantly) escort her. That ain’t much, at least from Archie’s (and the reader’s) perspective. What her manor-born position should gain her is considerable aesthetic background that Betty wouldn’t have—but that Ronnie still would have to leverage just right to use to her advantage.
An example of how Betty plays too many roles, limiting Veronica to “rich witch,” can be seen in one of the semi-educational features Archie comics sometimes ran. Appearing in Archie Giant #187 (Betty and Veronica Summer Fun, Sep 71), it featured ballet stances and terms. Betty narrated and performed, because, after all, she’s the studious, book-learning, lesson-taking cast member, who “teaches” the others when the deed must be done.
But that should’ve been Veronica’s role. She would’ve been the one growing up with ballet classes, piano classes, art classes, etc. She would’ve been jetting around the world and wandering through museums, no doubt bored out of her skull but still picking up culture at least by osmosis.
Veronica should be familiar with classical artists and composers, know ballet terms and be able to bake a souffle—but maybe not a birthday cake. The cast member chosen to narrate that feature was a nuance, but those selections set the tone for each girl’s underlying skill set in the ensemble.
With Betty serving as the source of all facts and talents, she gains a huge advantage in the tug of war. After all, considering they look alike, they have the same figure and they can dress alike, who are we going to pick: the one who knows everything and selflessly shares that knowledge, or the one whose chief role is to throw expensive hissy fits? Exactly.
Even worse, their roles make us think less of Archie. The way it’s set up, there’s really only one reason he could possibly choose Veronica over Betty—he’s after her money.
A classic example of how stacking the deck so heavily against Veronica should almost always end up was reprinted in Betty & Veronica Double Digest #42 (Jan 94). It’s a Mopee-worthy story, because it has to be forgotten for the triangle to continue to work.
“Valley Rally” began with Veronica inviting Archie to go with her and her parents to their ski lodge in Posh Valley. Oblivious Archie and smug Ronnie waved goodbye to broken-hearted Betty and drove off. As usual, Betty quickly swung into action. She collected 5,000 aluminum cans and used the recycling proceeds to finance her own trip to Posh Valley. (So we’re stipulating that there were rooms for rent in this lodge, and it was the cost and not the lack of an invite that kept her from coming along.)
Meanwhile, Ronnie discovered that two jet-setting pals, Gunther and Otto, had arrived unexpectedly. She began spending all her time with them, leaving Archie alone. Mrs. Lodge chided Veronica for ignoring her boyfriend, but Ronnie sloughed off the criticism. She explained she didn’t know her rich pals would be there—and she mostly invited Archie to keep him away from Betty.
It’s a classic story set-up, but then things took a wacky turn. With so much time on his hands, Archie pulled out his wallet and mooned over a photo of Betty. “I was a fool to leave behind the girl who really cares for me!” he said. Hokey smokes! Had he really taken a smart pill rather than spending the story trying goofily to get Ronnie to pay attention to him?
The next morning, fed up, Archie told Ronnie he was leaving due to her inattention. Apparently, deciding it was late enough in the weekend that Betty wouldn’t be able to take advantage of Archie’s freedom, Veronica blew him off. Soon, Betty arrived and greeted Veronica. Smugly, Ron informed Bets that “your loverboy Archie is gone!” Your loverboy?
Distraught, Betty left with Ronnie’s triumphant laughter in her ears. She hadn’t gone far when she heard the unmistakable sound of Archie’s car. It wouldn’t start, so Arch was stuck in the parking lot, where Betty found him. “Betty, I dig you,” Archie said, wrapping his arms around her. “And I dig you, Archie,” she cooed back. “And I also dig this broken-down jalopy that’s kept you here!” The end.
Yikes! Game, set, match to Betty! This tale apparently took place on Earth-Reality, a location little visited by Archie’s gang—and, frankly, a place we don’t really want them to hang out.
Good thing time resets. Otherwise, Veronica would have made so many crass blunders in this story that she would never have recovered with Arch, even as forgiving as he is. But we readers remember the story, and we know, deep down, that Ronnie doesn’t stand a chance—and we wouldn’t root for her if she were the only girl at Riverdale High.
Is that fair? I say thee nay! Sure, Veronica should show her selfish side sometimes. But in most cases, when the tales are a bit more subtle, she should have talents Betty can’t match, talents that are admirable to us readers—and might make Archie look better for wanting to date her.
Betty should have to try harder to get back into the game, even playing pranks (that sometimes backfire) to score some Archie time. And she should be less able to effortlessly match Ronnie (or obliterate her) in sexiness, skill and knowledge.
Concluding “Valley Rally” with Betty and Archie professing their mutual affection was the only sane reaction to a totally selfish Veronica and an industrious, loving Betty—who didn’t even dirty her hands this go-round fixing the broken car. Ronnie needs a leveler playing field on a routine basis.