Toni Topaz, bisexual hero of Riverdale

Contributed by
Dec 11, 2017

Riverdale has gone a little off the rails from the early days of Archie Comics. That's mostly because there are almost no one-liners and Jughead is barely even a competitive eater, but elements from the comics pop in here and there. Back issues have proven a gold mine of obscure but entertaining characters for show writers. In the second season of Riverdale, one of those characters has been introduced as a regular presence: a member of the Serpents gang named Toni Topaz.

Toni Topaz does exist in the comic, but she tends to be a minor character who steps in when Archie or Jughead need someone who is no-nonsense but caring enough of their situation. (This is kind of what she does in the show, so the characterization isn't far off.) As with many of the characters of Riverdale, the writers have kept some elements, discarded others and slyly dropped hints that there might be more to uncover as time goes on. For instance, in both the comics and the show, Toni is a wisecracking badass who tells it like it is, but she has a rad pink hat that has not made an appearance on the show as of yet. Meanwhile, the show's writers have so far completely neglected to mention her established, even iconic comic book history as one of the greatest competitive eaters in all of Riverdale. 

Most importantly, though, Toni Topaz is canon bisexual, meaning she is acknowledged as such rather than via years (in some instances, decades) of subtext. She might not have any on-page make-out sessions on record, but she's known for dropping comments to Archie about how she might ask his girlfriend out on a date if he screws things up with her. Archie, in his many incarnations, is almost always really terrible at boyfriending, so this is fair.

On Riverdale, Toni shows up in "Chapter Sixteen: Watcher in the Woods," and not a moment too soon. Archie Andrews has gone off the rails buying guns and committing weird crimes (um, for justice?), Betty Cooper is threatening people in locker rooms, Veronica Lake's parents are so manipulative that tricking each other is basically their family pastime, Kevin Keller is cruising, Jughead Jones is transferring to “the bad school, where all the bad kids go,” aka Southside High, and Cheryl Blossom is ... well, pretty much exactly the same. Toni shows up as the one who shows Jughead the ropes at Southside, and immediately becomes the most lucid player in this torrid tale of morality and intrigue.

Jughead is definitely the kind of guy that would show up at a school and restart the school newspaper, so that's just what he does within five minutes of his arrival. Fortunately, not only is Toni Topaz a true crime aficionado with a similarly alliterative name, she's also a photographer. She's immediately enlisted, not only to help with the paper, but to catch the town's current serial killer, known as the "Black Hood.” Conveniently, she's also a member of the Serpents, the local gang that Jughead's dad FP happens to be in charge of. When she advises Jughead to join the Serpents for his own protection, he declines -- but it turns out getting beaten up is enough to change his mind. 

Jughead's decision leads to a dramatic falling out between himself and girlfriend Betty Cooper -- and, later on, a shared kiss between himself and Toni in what is a very real example of the phenomenon known as “temporary insanity.” They have breakfast the next morning, where he tries to break things off and she jumps the gun, referring to their liaison as nothing more than a “PG-13 grope session.” Toni insists that she "[likes] girls better anyway,” leading to the reveal that she identifies as not-straight. Every time she's shown up in the series since, her entire purpose has been to be a really great friend to everyone she interacts with, as well as to reign as the queen of making good decisions.

There's already been some commentary on the revelation of Toni's bisexuality. Her line about preferring girls has been interpreted as bisexual erasure, which insinuates that bisexuals prefer one gender more strongly and will eventually choose a side. To put it bluntly: It's a binary, dismissive, and in general bogus view of bisexuality. While I agree, I can forgive, mostly because if I were Toni and I made out with Jughead I would be saying whatever I could to minimize damage the next day, too. Joking aside, they have a great friend dynamic. A troublesome trope we often see in fiction is the inability to write male/female friendships without a kiss, a hook-up, or a secret hidden attraction thrown into the mix. Sometimes, men and women are just friends, and it's awesome.

Besides that, the sexuality of a female character is almost always hinged against that of a male character. We find out that Toni is bisexual because she wasn't that stoked about continuing a relationship with Jughead -- who, for the purposes of the show, is a straight male (years of comic book continuity establishing him as asexual aside). Her level of interest in him is what “outs” her, and this is typical in portrayals of queer femmes in general. Gay because she hates men, bisexual because she doesn't want to date that guy ... the list goes on, but the implication is consistent: Women are queer because of men, or their queerness is shown in reaction to the sexuality of a heterosexual male. This narrative insistence that all female sexuality is in response to male sexuality is a damaging trope that will hopefully die out within our lifetimes.

The most problematic aspect of this reveal is that Toni's sexuality is used for shock value, which is fairly typical in media portrayals of bisexual characters. She kisses Jughead at a weird moment, everyone gasps, then the next morning she tells him, “I'm not that into you.” The element of flightiness or indecisiveness is definitely a negative trope that appears consistently in portrayals of bisexual characters, and the entire sequence of events could have been handled better.

However, the moment of questionable writing that outed Toni is not Toni's fault. Toni Topaz emerges from the episodes she's thus far appeared in as the misunderstood queen from the wrong side of the tracks that I, and, indeed, all of America, needed from this show. Besides, being a little confused about your sexuality makes sense when you're a teenager, or even often well into adulthood. Being confused about your sexuality also isn't exclusive to the LGBTQIA community.

There are things to like about how writers are handling Toni's character, too. She's a little insecure around Betty Cooper, and this comes out in the form of a few mean-sounding jokes in their initial interactions, but as of the last episode she's being kind and helpful. Toni also makes it clear that she doesn't stand for unequal rules for male and female initiations in the Serpents by telling Betty she doesn't have to do the infamously sexist and outdated "serpent dance" to be initiated into the gang. Betty, of course, overdoes everything, and thus does a striptease in front of a whole lot of people anyway, but Toni had her back either way and that's kind of important.

Overall, I'm really excited that there is (at least one) bisexual character on Riverdale, and I'm glad Toni is it. Besides all of that, there are definite hints being dropped that Cheryl Blossom might be a little gay herself. Riverdale just opened the floodgates on a whole new character for queer viewers, and that in and of itself is something to be thankful for.