In light of the recent movement for Black lives, many Hollywood stars have come forward to share their experiences with racism in the film and television industry, drawing necessary connections between racist systems and racist media representation. In May, Riverdale actress Vanessa Morgan wrote on Instagram and Twitter that she is “tired of how Black people are portrayed in media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous, or angry, scary people. Tired of us being used as sidekick non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show.” Morgan went on to say that she is the only Black series regular and is paid the least. She also stated she will no longer take roles that do not adequately represent Black people.
Now, fellow Riverdale actress Bernadette Beck—who plays Peaches ‘N Cream in seasons 3 and 4—is coming forward to stand in solidarity with her Black castmates and to share her own story. She says her experience on-set is much like Morgan’s. “I was made out to be a very unlikable character and therefore, an unlikable person in people’s eyes,” she tells ELLE.com exclusively.
Peaches ‘N Cream doesn’t have a developed backstory. In fact, neither does Vanessa Morgan’s character, Toni. But Peaches also doesn’t have a personality. She simply exists in the background of many scenes, chewing bubblegum with her arms crossed and looking defiant. She is often positioned as a service worker, either DJing or collecting tickets at the door to an event. On multiple occasions, producers told Beck that she was supposed to appear “sassy” and that her character is someone who “always speaks her mind”—ironic, considering Peaches has very few lines of dialogue. This attitude is never explained on the show or in marketing or promotion.
“I get it, there’s always a protagonist and antagonist, but I never had much of a story plot or enough character development to even be considered an antagonist,” Beck says. “I was, for no reason, depicted in a very negative, unattractive light. And I’m not the first Black actress to show up on set, stand there, chew gum, and look sassy and mean. I feel like I was just there to fulfill a diversity quota. It’s just to fulfill points.”
Beck also says not much thought is given to her character’s placement in some scenes. There were instances where production quite literally forgot to tell her where to stand until she brought it up.
“I was completely forgotten in the scene more than once,” Beck says. “The director [would] be walking off set and I’d have to chase them down because I had no idea where to stand, what to do—I just hadn’t been given any instruction. You can’t treat people like they’re invisible and then pat yourself on the back for meeting your diversity quota for the day.”
Because her character was not portrayed as having in-depth emotions, or vulnerability or kindness, Beck became an easy target for Riverdale’s very young fanbase. She was body shamed, received death threats, and experienced severe anxiety attacks.
“I didn’t understand when I first got on that show that it meant something for your character to be likable,” she tells ELLE. “Some people say it’s just a TV show, but I’m thinking about the implications long-term. If we are depicted as unlikable or our characters are not developed or we’re looked at as the enemy all the time, that affects our public persona. What kind of opportunities are we losing out on even after Riverdale? Our white co-stars are getting all this screen time and character development. They’re building up their following, generating more fans, selling out at conventions, and fans have more of an emotional connection with them. But if we don’t necessarily get that, and we’re looked at with disdain, what does that do to us and how does that stain our reputation moving forward?”
This is a pattern in the film and television industry, one Beck has witnessed firsthand through auditions and character breakdowns. But it goes beyond how Black people are depicted. It’s also that Beck was intentionally cast as a bisexual actress, only for her bisexuality to be represented via the overused “down for a threesome” trope that results in the hypersexualization and fetishizing of bi people in real life. In one scene, Peaches is solicited by Toni for a threesome and simply follows her wordlessly into the auditorium. Her agency and even her own voice are mostly absent.
“When you’re in it, you’re going through the motions and you’re like, ‘Oh great, I finally get to be utilized!’” she says. “But when I saw it all put together, it made my character seem like she was down for anything.”
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During the casting process, the Riverdale team was specifically interested in casting a bisexual actress, but Beck is calling for a deeper purpose than ticking a diversity box or encasing bisexuality within a threesome subplot. She wants Black bisexual people to have nuanced stories on television. This requires the writers and production team to think critically about their portrayals of people with marginalized identities.
For Beck’s sake, and for those who have not seen themselves represented outside of toxic stereotypes, we hope that finally happens. Onscreen representation will never be truly equitable until it does.
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