This paper will examine how a popular television show depicts gangs and criminal activity, and how it compares to reality. Most people depend on media for information as it pertains to their perception of crime, however often these media depictions are inaccurate (Rhineberger-Dunn, Briggs & Rader, 2015). Perceptions of crime are based in personal experience, though because such experience is limited, attitudes and beliefs often stem from interactions lived vicariously, communicated through media, as well as through other institutions and agencies (Rhineberger-Dunn, Briggs & Rader, 2015).
It is important to investigate how accurately depicted the Netflix and CW series Riverdale is when compared to reality. A popular show such as this, that is aired worldwide, will have a major impact on viewers’ attitudes towards gangs, gender differences amongst members, and criminality (Rhineberger-Dunn, Briggs & Rader, 2015).
Riverdale is a fictional town in a series that airs weekly, entitled Riverdale. There is an active gang presence throughout the series, showcasing to viewers the primary gang called the Southside Serpents – otherwise known as “the Serpents”. The show follows the lives of a group of four teenagers, with one amongst them being relevant to this paper – Jughead Jones, the son of the previous Serpent King, FP Jones (Riverdale, 2017-2018). This paper will focus on the inner-workings of the Southside Serpents during the first two seasons of Riverdale; examining the structure, rise and fall of an old and new king, as well as initiation rituals and criminal activity.
Structure of the Southside Serpents
This gang had a leader, FP Jones, whom gang members proclaimed, “the Serpent King”. His ex-wife, Gladys Jones, started another Serpent chapter in Toledo, with brief conversation of another chapter in Canada. In season one, FP lead the Serpents, while trusting a select few below him to help carry out his orders. Currently, the gang is comprised of teenagers and adults – including many families, who have been a part of the gang for generations. Once in the gang, you are able to leave, however it will always be known that said ex-member used to be a Serpent, and that loyalty will be something expected of them forever (Riverdale, 2017-2018).
Furthermore, the gang has a headquarters where everyone meets to socialize, receive orders, and find comfort. In Riverdale (2017-2018), this is called the Whyte Wyrm. This place was later taken from them, and so they tend to congregate where everyone is from – the southside trailer park. The majority of members come from the southside of Riverdale, hence the name “Southside Serpents”. This is the side of town where those who are lower on the social scale and those who earn less money, live, congregate, and attend high school, as well as grow up in the trailer park. In order to join the gang, no matter your family bloodline, you have to go through initiation. For men, this involves four steps, and for women this involves a single act (Riverdale, 2017-2018).
Gang Organization in Reality
Initiation rituals are embedded in a culture of aggression and violence, with violence being central to gang lifestyle and culture (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015). Most initiation rituals are based in violence, involving being “jumped in” or committing an act of violence, whereas some members are able to be “blessed-in” and not partake in rituals – if deemed appropriate by the leader (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015). Rituals can increase or decrease new members’ desire to be a part of the gang, and come with a feeling of identity transformation, and an increase in gang cohesion and solidarity (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015). Often current members witness rites of passage to remind them of where they came from, and to witness the showcase of the new members’ physical and mental strength (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015). Current members need to be able to trust new members to have their back, have “heart”, and not run at the first sign of trouble (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015).
Discussion of Structure
The Serpent laws revolve around being strong individually and standing strong together, protecting imprisoned Serpent’s families, leaving no Serpent behind, staying loyal and truthful, as well as finding strength in unity (Riverdale, 2017-2018). Once a Serpent, each member becomes a part of something bigger than themselves, that is a family that relies on and protects each other. Many biker gangs have the same sense of family and community, for example the well-known biker gang, Hell’s Angels. The Serpents were originally created as a way to protect and keep the remaining Uktena families together and safe from further harm by General Pickens, who came to Riverdale with his men and lead the massacre of the Uktena (Riverdale, 2017-2018).
In general, when joining a new group, there is often a ceremony or ritual that takes place just before or after joining the gang – an initiation (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015). Rites of passage ensure a transmission of group’s purpose and meaning, as well as a transition from whom the new member was, to whom they are now within the group. Initiations reflect the groups’ morals and values, and what is to come, and this is precisely what is represented on Riverdale. In the first two seasons of Riverdale, the Serpents followed the common pattern of initiation, as well as of involving violence – both major parts of gang life in reality (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015). However, not much is known on initiations, with some scholars believing initiations do not exist or are uncommon (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015).
Riverdale also accurately displayed how some members are “blessed-in”, as they showed Jughead, the new Serpent King, handing a female recruit who did not perform a Serpent dance, a “Serpent jacket” to symbolize her status within the group (Riverdale, 2017-2018). New members who joined the Southside Serpents had to get an “S” tattoo for Serpents, as well as wear a jacket with their gang symbol on the back (Riverdale, 2017-2018). This is something not uncommon in other gangs, for in reality, when new members join a gang, they also receive a branding and wear symbols to show their status and connection to a specific gang (Descormiers & Corrado, 2015).
Women and Men in the Serpents
Men wanting to join the Southside Serpents must follow four stages. First, they must look after the Serpents’ dog, ‘The Beast’, also known as “Hot Dog”. Secondly, they must memorize and recite the six serpent laws in order – these are laws which the Serpents live by. Thirdly, they are to retrieve a knife from the Serpents’ rattlesnake cage. Finally, ‘the gauntlet’, the last stage, involves a physical demonstration of loyalty and strength – meaning being “jumped into the gang” by its members. This requires the initiate to endure various punches, kicks, and blows to all areas of the body, and then rise and shake the hand of other members. Once completed, he is granted a Serpent Jacket, and is now accepted as one of their own. This last stage is significant because it demonstrates a sign of respect within the Serpents – willing to die for each other. On the other hand, female Serpents have an alternative initiation ceremony. Instead of the four stages men follow to be accepted, females have to perform a ‘Serpent dance’ in front of other members (Riverdale, 2017-2018).
Gender in Real Life Gangs
Men and women both undergo initiation, however women more often than men are “blessed in” by important leaders or “sexed in” by having sex with certain members (St. Cyr & Decker, 2003). Females are normally brought in through ties with men already involved in gangs – brothers, boyfriends, cousins, or other family members (St. Cyr & Decker, 2003). Gangs tend to be male dominated in structure, status, hierarchy, and activities (Miller & Brunson, 2000). Women tend to either be viewed as “tokens” or “sex objects”, to be taken advantage of, used to lure members from other groups, and are surrounded by hypermasculine cultural norms (Miller & Brunson, 2000).
In contrast, women can be given an “honorary male” status (Miller & Brunson, 2000). This status is given to females who grow up in the same neighborhood as male members, are tougher than typical females, fight men, and are ultimately viewed as a “tom-boy” or a “fellow male” (Miller & Brunson, 2000).
Conversely, some male members view females as weak, less than males, need protecting, not trustworthy, hold no loyalties, and struggle to fight rival male gang members (Miller & Brunson, 2000). In some gangs, females are not viewed as legitimate members, therefore, misconceptions concerning female gang involvement and violent crime are prevalent (Deschenes & Esbensen, 1999).
Discussion of Gender in Gangs
When it comes to gender differences in gangs, not much is known, and plenty of information is sensationalized by the media or met with contradictory information. No one theory can accurately describe gender differences in gang involvement and delinquency, thus requiring further research and examination (Deschenes & Esbensen, 1999). Media images of gangs simplify and sharpen the middle-class perspective of what constitutes lower-class maleness (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995).
Gang violence and defiant attitudes are connected to the competitive struggle in poor communities with limited resources alongside a reality of violence being the natural state of affairs (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995). Self-respect and status through acts of intimidation and violence are committed on the streets that are the battleground and theatre for men (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995). Delinquency amongst young men is an understandable response to their situation, a response which is equally understandable for women. Women can be just as merciless as men, and research shows they used to be sexualized more often than they are now – currently being seen more frequently as respectable and powerful (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995).
Such notions are represented in Riverdale, with there being misogynistic traditions rooted in the Southside Serpents, who have fewer males than females, as well as different initiation rituals for men and women (Riverdale, 2017-2018). Women are often seen as equal in power, and often sent on missions alongside their male counterpart. As a result of limited research on this topic, it is not known how accurate this depiction of gender differences is, as this differs from gang to gang.
Men and women a part of gangs tend to grow up in poverty, surrounded by gang violence and partake in extensive alcohol and drug use themselves as well as a common habit amongst their families too (Molidor, 1996). This is something we see amongst members of the Serpents (Riverdale, 2017-2018). Many members join gangs to feel respected by others, in addition to, or instead, for a sense of family, trust, and belonging (Molidor, 1996). In Riverdale (2017-208), we see members rarely surrounded by their parents, growing up in lower socio-economic statuses, and finding a sense of community within other members.
The Southside Serpents collectively deal drugs, are “for hire”, and commit petty theft. They have also been involved in covering up a murder, in addition to intimidation, sending threats, and assault. Additionally, there have been drag races, turf war, and violence. There is also a rival gang called “the ghoulies”, with whom they occasionally get into fights with over turf and drugs (Riverdale, 2017-2018). Moreover, some members join the Serpents to work their way through the ranks. For example, Jughead Jones joined to work his way to the top. Consequently, as members work their way through the ranks, they are given more criminal responsibility, knowledge of the inner workings of the gang’s criminal activity, and greater responsibility of protecting members (Riverdale, 2017-2018).
Crimes Within Gangs
Many young people involved in gangs have been arrested or committed (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995). These arrests include: property crimes, vandalism, violent crimes, as well as possession of a weapon – crimes often committed as a result of peer pressure or need for money (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995). Gangs are typically linked to homicides, drug dealing and trafficking, violence, and school disruption (St. Cyr & Decker, 2003).
Members higher in rank are more visible to police and rival gangs, as well as likely targets for members wanting to move up the hierarchy (Carvalho & Soares, 2016). Further, members are likely to be victims of police violence and extortion (Carvalho & Soares, 2016). Gang members’ violent victimization may come from within their own gangs – often subject to harsh discipline from other members, victims of predatory offending by others, as well as partaking in a lifestyle and surrounding themselves around other delinquent members increases their risk of offending and victimization (Taylor, Freng, Esbensen, Peterson, 2008).
There tends to be a high level of delinquency amongst members prior to joining gangs, which is then increased after entry, and then lowered after leaving the gang (Bouchard & Spindler, 2010). Delinquency and number of violent and drug crimes is positively linked to level of organization within gangs (Bouchard & Spind14ler, 2010).
Discussion of Crimes Within Gangs
For the most part, criminal involvement and activity was accurately depicted on the series Riverdale, however it did not display the full frontal of gang criminal involvement. Undoubtedly due to the fact it is a television show directed towards older and younger audiences. Riverdale (2017-2018) accurately depicts how the higher a member is on the hierarchy, the more vulnerable they are to police, with FP Jones, being arrested by police.
Overall Discussion and Conclusion
Jughead Jones takes a journey throughout season one and two of Riverdale, where he learns about his roots and where his dad comes from, and eventually decides to join Southside Serpents. He undoubtedly does this to gain the respect of those who hold his father, the Serpent King, to such a high standard, in hopes of earning that same respect. Jughead ultimately wishes to work his way through the ranks to lead the serpents in a new direction – one that focuses more on loyalty, family, and protection, instead of solely drugs and violence, with family seemingly falling behind these two. Jughead was not able to be “blessed in” by higher ups, and had to work his way into the gang, just as other male members. Females are still faced with misogyny and are represented less than their male counterparts. This matches closely to reality, with many females being accepted through different means than men. Riverdale also depicted Serpent women as tough and fearless, who actively take part in violence and crime.
Individuals join gangs for a sense of belonging, or because they feel like they have to or they have no other choice, having grown up normalized to gangs, crime, and violence. The media often sensationalizes criminality and gangs, making females seem inadequate, manly, or absent altogether. While at the same time portraying gangs in ways that seem entertaining to viewers – distorting reality and influencing viewers beliefs and attitudes towards gangs. This is why it is important to understand the difference between truth and distortions.
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