Jul 19, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi

Why do Indian women idolize betty?

Do people still read Archie comics? They were certainly very popular when I was young and entire generations of middle-class Indians grew up believing that the US was stuck in a late 1950s time warp where cheery local restaurateurs ran hamburger and milkshake joints, where college kids wore jerseys with initials on them, and nobody had sex at university.
Most Americans I have spoken to are familiar with Archie and the other residents of Riverdale but I get the feeling that Archie was never as important a part of their growing up as it was for us in India. Cousins of mine who moved to Michigan in the 1970s were devastated to discover that all Americans did not read comics and I suspect that Archie, Jughead and the gang are only dimly remembered in today’s America and that too, as remnants of a more innocent age.

Certainly, other media have been reluctant to adapt the Archie stories. While the comics have influenced Indian movies (the ethos of the Aamir Khan starrer Joh Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was straight out of Archie and all school and university scenes in the Karan Johar-Aditya Chopra school of Hindi cinema owe something to Riverdale), they have had less impact in the West.
Many Americans know Archie only from the early 1970s’ animated TV show but even that has been largely forgotten except as the source for the hit bubblegum pop song Sugar Sugar. (If you care about these things, here’s the story: The Archie show was a cynical attempt to recreate the magic of those manufactured pop stars of the 1960s, The Monkees. It was made by many of the same people and used the same songwriters and session musicians. Archie and his animated pals formed a pop group and sang such songs as Sugar Sugar—which actually hit No. 1. Nobody was told who did the playback for the animated characters.)
I saw a made-for-TV movie about a decade ago which tried to update the Archie story by organizing a reunion for older versions of the characters at Riverdale. Some of it just jarred. Jughead was obviously Jewish and was bringing up a son on his own. Veronica arrived by Concorde. Betty was a fool. And so on. It never really worked for me and the film has been deservedly forgotten.
But it was while watching the TV movie that I began to wonder about the characters and how we saw ourselves reflected in them. From what I remember, Jughead was the likeable happy-go-lucky one, Reggie was the rich jerk, Moose was an over-muscled but well-meaning moron, and Archie was bland enough. Few men I knew identified too much with any of the male characters (though I have to say that I always wanted to be Jughead), and if you pushed really hard then most guys would say that they liked bland old Archie the most.
With the women however, things were entirely different. The running theme in the comic books was that two women were in love with Archie. Veronica was dark-haired, rich, sophisticated and a bit of a bitch. Betty was as pretty but more wholesome, was decidedly middle class and was a nicer person. The interesting thing about the comic was that Veronica was not the vamp. For all her rich bitch airs, she was a largely sympathetic character. Betty was the nice girl but while she should have been Archie’s favoured choice, she always seemed on par with Veronica: We were never sure which one Archie preferred and perhaps he wasn’t sure himself.
It was the TV movie that drove home the distinction to me. I don’t remember it too well but my recollection is that while Veronica had grown up to be the sort of woman we see in Sex and the City, Betty had been shown up as a hick loser. She wrote sweet stories about Easter egg hunts but as the movie made clear, had never really got anywhere.
Perhaps the film was too unkind to Betty: She seemed to have come off better in the comic as I recall. But even so, the point was valid. Veronica was the smart big city girl. Betty was the well-meaning loser.
So, why was it, I wondered, that whenever you asked Indian girls who they wanted to be, they always said Betty?
In fact, I think that’s still true. I have yet to meet any woman who sees herself as Veronica. In their minds, all girls are sweet, lovable Bettys.
And remember: Veronica is beautiful, she’s rich, she’s sophisticated and she has equal claim on Archie’s affections. Yet, no girl I know wants to be her. They all want to be Betty though she doesn’t even necessarily get Archie despite being such a seedha-sadha (simple) person.
Turn this around. Do you know of many men (except for the odd joker like me) who would prefer to be Jughead? Men rarely identify with losers no matter how appealingly quirky they are. They all want to be heroes—no matter how bland.
So why do all girls want to be Betty?
I’m on dangerous territory but here are some possible explanations. One: Girls don’t see Betty as a loser. In the comic book, nobody has to achieve anything so the sense of winners and losers is less distinct. Two: It’s gender conditioning. Men are brought up to want to be successful and attractive to women. Women are brought up to value being nice and decent. Three: Girls don’t identify with rich bitches. Even the rich ones believe that people like them for their personality.
Of course, these are very broad generalizations. I’m sure there are girls out there who idolize Veronica even if I haven’t met them. For that matter, some of them may even want to be Big Ethel. And you could argue that I’m reading too much into childhood comic-book favourites. When we’re young, we all want to be nice. It’s only as we get older that we care so much about being rich and glamorous.
But think about it. Isn’t it odd that even women who want to be Carrie Bradshaw still imagine that deep, deep down they are Betty?
And that one day, they’ll find their own Archie

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