We all know Jughead. He’s the archetypical teenage slacker, the polar opposite of his best friend Archie. Whereas Archie is always thinking about girls, trying to please others, and is constantly frustrated by those things; Jughead is totally laid back, concerned mainly with making himself happy (by filling his stomach), and famously not the least bit interested in dating girls.
That last fact has led to a lot speculation about Jughead’s sexual orientation over the years. While some have been snide and silly about it, far more fans have been serious in discussing the character’s sexuality, though they didn’t always agree about where he fell on the Kinsey Scale. The one thing so many of them agreed on was that Jughead was definitely not heterosexual. In 2016 Archie Comics finally officially set the record straight in the newly relaunched Jughead series scripted by Chip Zdarsky, wherein Jughead casually accepts being labeled asexual. (This fan still maintains that Jughead is biromantic as well.)
In 1997, though, the unofficial stance of the publisher was that Jughead was simply uninterested in complicating his time with romance and getting into the kinds of crazy situations Archie constantly did because of it. Then a new character turned up in Riverdale High and she was determined to change Jughead’s “girl-hater” ways. “Target: Jughead,” written by Craig Boldman with art by Rex Linsdsey, played out over 3 short chapters in 3 issues beginning in Jughead Comics Vol. 2, no. 89. The story introduced readers to Trula Twyst, a brilliant and manipulative young woman who was to become a greater nemesis to our title teen than Principal Weatherbee ever was.
In the story, Trula convinces the other girls at Riverdale High that Jughead is a dangerous influence. “Simply, Jughead is a threat to our way of life!” she cries. She argues that the other boys will mimic his behavior and eventually lose interest in dating. Horror of horrors! To prove that she’s onto something, Trula shows them a slide of a couple of boys hanging out with Jughead watching TV and eating snacks (Who took that photo?). The girls are convinced . . . because it’s so weird to see teenage boys watching TV and eating snacks . . . and they agree to organize in the effort to get Jughead to “rethink his thinking about females!”
That sounds like a really fun and silly story. You’re probably also thinking that it sounds pretty absurd. After all, a bunch of high school girls wouldn’t care so much about one boy who wasn’t interested in them, let alone would they organize under an acronym like J. U. S. T. (the Jug Under Surveillance Team) to turn him around for fear of other boys becoming like him. But, how absurd is that premise really?
Let’s look past the cartoon setting and the innocent presentation of teenage dating. Essentially this story is about bullying. Driven by fear, a group of people moves to change something about one person that differs from a perceived norm. The fear that motivates them is that this difference in one person could somehow infect others and, before they know it, their whole world is topsy-turvy and the things they love are no more.
Looking at the bare bones of the story, it doesn’t seem so absurd now. You don’t have to look too hard through news headlines to see the most horrifying examples of how fear of difference motivates people. Race, religion, and sexual orientation and identity are obvious examples of things that drive people to freak out about those who differ from themselves. But what about smaller matters? In this story, one kid’s disinterest in dating scares people. I can relate. When I was young I was absolutely uninterested in sports, and that’s still the case today. Because of this, I would get the craziest reactions from people who learn this fact about me. People have attacked my masculinity and sexuality, repeatedly urged me to “give it a try,” and even not so subtly suggested that I must have no life at all because I didn’t care about the latest example of “the big game.” Sometimes these nonsensical reactions were accompanied with an obvious look of fear in the assailants’ eyes. What were they afraid of? Did they see me as the beginning of the end? Did they worry that I would infect others with my lack of interest in their obsession, eventually leading to the demise of sports as an institution? After all these years, with an ever-increasing number of sports networks on television and the games still attracting millions of fans day in and day out, I think it’s safe to say that I have been none too successful in turning others to my non-sports viewing ways.* Not that I ever tried.
And that’s just one example. Fashion sense, taste in food and drink, or having uncommon interests have led to similar ridicule for myself and others. At the heart of that ridicule is a fear that people being so different from the status quo will spread and that a once comfortable “normal” world will cease to have any place for them. It’s this sort of irrational fear that Trula Twyst stirs up with the girls of Riverdale High.
Let’s look at “Target: Jughead” through a present-day lens. Let’s say that Jughead in this timeline is, like in current comics, asexual. Asexuals, like activist and educator David Jay, get some of the most ridiculous fearful reactions from people because they have no interest in sexual intercourse. In the documentary film (A)sexual, Jay and other out asexuals relate their stories and endure a lot of stupidity. In one clip from a TV interview, Jay is grilled by a man asking, “Why don’t you just try it once, and then you’ll know for certain whether you like it or not?” Why is this man concerned about David Jay having intercourse? He has no stake in Jay’s sex life or lack thereof. He should not feel affected in the least by Jay’s asexuality. Yet he clearly acts like Jay is somehow harming him, simply for straying from his rigid definition of “normal.”
“Target: Jughead” touches on another element of people overreacting due to fear: that of deliberate fear-mongering. Hopefully this doesn’t spoil too much of the story (Yes, I want you all reading this to go out and find these comics and read them.), but in the end it’s revealed that Trula never really believed anything she was telling the girls of J. U. S. T. Creating that fear of the boys at school succumbing to the “J-factor” was all just part of a greater plan for her own selfish ends. Think about how so many people are so easily bated and swayed when told to beware of something or someone.
The history of leaders and politicians exacerbating fears already present or even creating new fears in order to rally people behind them is well established and, sadly, not nearly at an end. The recent string of bathroom bills popping up around the U. S. barring transgender people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity is a perfect example. Without a single documented case of anyone being assaulted by a trans person in a public restroom, numerous elected officials have created a fear in their voters, many of whom had probably not thought of trans people at all before. The lack of evidence doesn’t matter. Trans people being different from these people’s perceptions of “normal” is all it takes to scare them. More than one person running for office is campaigning almost solely on voter’s fears of people of different backgrounds and lifestyles. How these people’s differences will affect the fearful voters’ lives isn’t always made clear and doesn’t have to be. The fear itself is enough.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s also one of the worst possible reasons to be motivated. With “Target: Jughead,” Craig Boldman wrote a seemingly silly story in the grand Archie Comics tradition. What he really wrote was a sugar-coated expose of what is at the heart of bullying and bigotry. He wrote about irrational fear and the ridiculous actions people resort to because of it. Happily, though, he was writing for a character who knew just how to deal with such nonsense. After some initial frustration, Jughead keeps a cool head and perseveres. When the Trula Twysts of the world try to make us afraid, we should put on our crown beanies and turn our pointy noses at them. Then turn toward the objects of their fear and open our eyes, ears, and arms. For these are not objects they trying to make us afraid of. They are people. Get to know them and love them. This world is theirs, too.
*Please note: This is not meant to be an attack on the whole of sports fandom. The last thing I want to do is to continue the harmful narrative of the “dumb jock bully” and stereotype a whole group of people. I am merely relating some personal experience to make an example.