Girls’ Studies: Mediated Girlhood in an Archie Comic

I read a Life with Archie comic book for today’s post.  I’d never read one before.  In fact, I’ve read very few comic books in my lifetime, so it was an interesting experience for me.  I had to adjust to the flow of it.  As I read, I was thinking about the following questions for my class assignment.

What messages/themes about girlhood are communicated?

Who is the intended audience? 

Any feminist elements?

Is this a realistic portrayal, or exaggerated?  How so?  With what potential consequences?

I read issue #31, “The Married Life,” which focused on two realities: one in which Archie marries Veronica and the other in which Archie marries Betty.  So while the issue didn’t necessarily focus on girlhood, it did have some interesting themes about gender.

life with archie coverBoth of the story lines explored the idea that Archie is upset because neither girl relies on him.  In the Veronica story, she is facing some legal trouble after being framed, and she runs to her rich daddy for help.  She spends most of the storyline with her father and his lawyer, trying to solve those problems.

However, she is positioned as helpless, as the problems must be handled by the men with the money and the power.  A senator-elect attempts to defend her, saying, “I’ve known Veronica since high school . . . She’s incapable of the things she’s been charged with” (p. 6).  That is definitely loaded language, meant to be a defense of her innocence, but instead sending the message that girls are incapable of business deals, for which she ran into trouble.  To solve these problems, Veronica must seek the help of her father.  In these scenes, she says, “Love you, Daddy!” while the men do all of the legal talking.

While this plays out, Archie is upset that she hasn’t turned to him, as her husband.  He tells a friend, “She’s not just his daughter anymore . . . She’s also my wife!” (p. 15).  His friend advises him to remind her of this.

In these interactions, I see the message that womanhood (or girlhood) must be mediated by men.  Veronica must be defined by her relationship to her father and her husband, rather than being defined as a person who is capable of handling her own problems.  This storyline ends with Veronica telling Archie, “I’m so scared!” (p. 20).

In the Betty story, Archie is a guy who stays at home while Betty works.  He’s bored and upset that she is never home.  He says, “I know my wife can get overfocused on a task, but she’s gone completely over the top here” (emphasis in original, p. 6).  He then worries about Betty not having time for him and he bristles at their to-do lists, hers with meetings and work-related tasks while his has household chores.  Archie says, “She never does any chores anymore” (emphasis in original, p. 17).

This storyline inverts traditional gender roles, but we learn that this is unacceptable because in the end, Archie is influenced by another woman.  She snatches him up when she sees him alone at a movie and they go off together to get coffee.  The message in this is that if women are successful in their careers, they will be sorry for neglecting their men.  Archie says, “She doesn’t need me” (p. 18).  We learn that a man will go and find attention from a woman elsewhere.  It functions as a warning story for women who are ambitious.

From these messages, I would say that the intended audience is men.  Most of the characters are men, and the women seem to be positioned as helpless or as wrong if they aren’t helpless.  Archie is the focus of both story lines, and we see both women through his eyes.  Additionally, the subplots focus on men speaking to each other about their concerns, while hoping that cheerleaders will show up or that they can influence the women in their lives.

A feminist element is the fact that Betty works and is successful at it, but ultimately the narrative fails to promote an independent and choice-driven woman, as the consequence for her success is a smashed wedding picture in her office and her husband going off with another woman at the end of the book.

The portrayals are exaggerated, especially the physical features of the women.  All of the women in the comic have large chests, which serves to objectify them and reinforce the narratives that place women as secondary to and in service of men.  Veronica is especially part of this physical exaggeration, and she enacts it by keeping busy while her husband Reggie works in the second story line.  She is the “good” wife who doesn’t mind her husband’s success.

I think the consequences of these portrayals are the limiting of identities for both women and men.  I know a lot of men who stay home with children while their wives work and who do an excellent job of it.  I also know men who support their wives in working, or who are more involved with childcare and household chores than this comic portrays.  While I pointed out the problems with the portrayal of Betty as a working woman, I think the fact that she’s always at work is a problematic stereotype for both genders.  It isn’t healthy for men to work all of the time and to neglect their wives either.  This can go both ways, yet it isn’t clear in the comic.  It applies to one gender in the comic and punishes the other for enacting what Archie thinks he should be doing instead of her.  He admits to being jealous that Betty got the job when he didn’t.  The consequences of this are placing competition and jealousy between genders, instead of showing ways that men and women can support each other, especially when married.

29 thoughts on “Girls’ Studies: Mediated Girlhood in an Archie Comic

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  1. Emily, I read Archie comics as a young boy. They focused solely on high school life then. Looking back, I would not expect to get many adult lessons from them. Yet, before the age of internet and more promiscuous TV, I must confess, Veronica and Betty were racy for a young boy. When you are 10 or 11 reading those comic books in the Barber Shop waiting your turn was a tad exciting. Looking back as an adult, I recall Veronica being very shallow and found myself pulling for Betty. She was the one Archie should end up with. Veronica played Archie off Reggie much too often. So, that lesson, may be the most powerful one the comic books taught me. Thanks for the memory lane, BTG

    1. Yeah, I was surprised at how this one was about them being married. (It was the only one I could download for free.) I can see how that lesson would’ve been a good one for you to learn, but did you ever think it was odd that Archie had his pick of two girls? And why are they so stereotypical? I guess all of media engages in one dimensional characterizations of boys and girls.

  2. I won’t take exception to your overall thesis, but I think you drew a hasty conclusion here: “I’ve known Veronica since high school . . . She’s incapable of the things she’s been charged with” (p. 6). That is definitely loaded language, meant to be a defense of her innocence, but instead sending the message that girls are incapable of business deals, for which she ran into trouble.”
    The man may simply mean that Veronica isn’t the kind of person who do something wrong. He doesn’t imply that she is “incapable of a business deal,” and the message may not apply to all women as you suggest. You may be reading into this, Emily.

    1. Oh, totally! I was trying to read into it for this assignment. Yes, he could’ve been defending her, but I was looking for problems with female representation. Perhaps that example went too far! I’ve been known to exaggerate. Ask my husband. 😉

      1. The one thought I had in reading this post is that my parents did a really great job in raising with me balance when it came to gender roles. I can play sports as well as the piano. I can cook and do laundry as well as change the tire or the alternator on the car. I can run household appliances as well as farm equipment and machinery and snowmobiles and ATVS. I made sure to do this with my nephews too – BroCraves got a little upset with me in giving my oldest nephew a baby doll because he had a little brother on the way and it was to teach him to be gentle and kind to all babies. I am lucky to be a well rounded person with many interests that is curious and loves to explore:)

        1. That’s really cool. I envy your experiences and I hope to give similar ones to my daughters. Although neither my husband nor I are good at mechanical things! Their grandma is, though. She’ll have to teach them.

  3. I LOVED Archie comics growing up and had built up a good collection. They were so fun to read and as a little girl I bought into all the bad messages. I think that ultimately my biggest takeaway was that girls had to be pretty and glamorous. Betty was naturally pretty and kind with a good heart but she was plain, and it was clear to me that this wasn’t enough to keep Archie from still going after Veronica, who was glamorous but self-centered and more vicious. I am not blaming Archie comics exclusively but I did end up growing up with this “good girl” complex; I never became the “cool,” sophisticated and glamorous girl in school and I was really uncomfortable if not downright unhappy with who I was, as the cute but nice girl.

    Anyway, I expected those messages back then but it seems that they haven’t changed all that much!

    1. It is interesting to hear your experiences and how you may have internalized the messages. I think they reflect a lack of acknowledgement of personhood. I think a lot of our media focuses on stereotypes for both genders instead of writing and creating deep and complex characters that reflect humanity.

  4. I found your post very interesting, since I have been thinking lately of dipping my toes into the world of comic books. I have always thought of comics as having been written “by men, for men”. Your post makes me wonder how many female comic book authors and illustrators there are, and if their works are significantly different?

    I also love your reviews of classic literature, as those books are closest to my heart! This is my writer’s blog, with a few funny parenting stories mixed with insights into classic lit.

    I hope you’ll stop by!

    1. I don’t know much about comic books, but I have a feeling you may be right about how gendered it is. It would be nice to see more women participating in the creation and consumption. Good luck to you!

  5. I still delve into one of those when I need to simply relax my mind. Yes, these tend to objectify women and reinforce the traditional gender biases. Nevertheless, light reads which can be read, well, lightly!

  6. I really enjoyed reading your blog post! I thought it was interesting how Betty and Veronica each were successful, with Veronica owning her own company and Betty working at the High school. However Veronica loses her company and hands over her problems to daddy, and Betty works too much so she starts to lose Archie. To me i kind of felt that the comics were saying women shouldn’t have careers.

  7. I don’t recall Archie comics dealing with such stuff…just high school drama. But I was only a little kid last I read them. I do recall hating Veronica and pulling for Betty. But it’s kinda silly, now that I look back on it-in the context of who Archie ends up with. Odds are, he would end up with neither. What I want to know is how did Jughead turn out? He was always my favorite.

    1. I don’t think Jughead was in this issue at all, at least not that I remember. You’ll have to check out the website… It might be a fun stroll down memory lane for you. 🙂

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