Betty and Veronica as drawn by Dan DeCarlo and Alison Flood.
Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge are not just rivals for the love of Archie Andrews, they are archetypes of two sharply contrasting ways of being feminine. The differences between the two is not as sharp as the traditional misogynist dichotomy between the virgin and the whore, but it does have some of the same overtones of separating the womanhood into opposing camps, one wholesome but unexciting and the other sexy but bitchy.
Betty is blond, the girl next door, kind of heart, often put upon but a good sport, a bit insecure, attractive although a bit dowdy in the way she dresses. The pathos of Betty’s life comes from the fact that although Archie likes her well enough, he also takes her for granted. The situation is explored in one of the very best Archie stories, Bob Bolling’s “The Long Walk”, which shows what the red-haired dolt and Betty were like when kids. The story can be found here.
Veronica is a raven-haired vixen, exotic by reason of her wealth, sexy, self-assured, scheming, always lording over her friends, and bossy enough to inspire dominatrix fantasies. (I should add that I’m describing the Betty-Archie-Veronica triangle in its pure skeletal form; since there have been thousands of Archie stories, some of them have featured the characters behaving differently than I’ve outlined here; but I think my description of these characters is accurate enough.)
Fair hair versus dark: it is a cultural war with a long history. In western art, hair colour is rarely a neutral attribute; rather, hair is emblematic of moral traits and cultural traditions. Consider red-heads like Archie. Red hair connotes a mysterious and sometimes declasse ethnicity (usually Celtic, sometimes Jewish) as well contentious temperament. Among male characters, red hair means you’re a regular guy, not high brow or high born, a middling sort. Among girls, red hair suggests a fiery spirit, tomboyish tendencies, an unwillingness to be put down: Little Orphan Annie, Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Lucille Ball.
Reviewing The Other Boleyn Girl, Philip Marchand noted that the film relied on the familiar shorthand of hair colour: “It’s the dynamic, beloved in movies and literature, of the fair-haired, innocent woman versus the more tempestuous and complicated dark-haired lady – in this case, the brunette Anne.”
In his magisterial Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the great critic Northrop Frye provides some deeper history to blond/brunette battles: “…one very common convention of the nineteenth-century novel is the use of two heroines, one dark and one light. The dark one is as a rule passionate, haughty, plain, foreign or Jewish, and in some ways associated with the undesirable or with some kind of forbidden fruit like incest. When the two are involved with the same hero, the plot usually has to get rid of the dark one or make her into a sister if the story is to end happily. Examples include Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, The Woman in White, Ligeia, Pierre (a tragedy because the hero chooses the dark girl, who is also his sister), The Marble Faun, and countless incidental treatments. A male version forms the symbolic basis of Wuthering Heights.” (p. 101) Frye could have added that Vanity Fair and Barchester Towers also have plots involving romantic rivalry between decent fair women and exotic dark manipulators.
It’s the genius of Archie comics to take the tragic triangle described by Frye and turn it into a source of perpetual farce. Because Archie never chooses between Betty and Veronica, tragedy is forestalled and deferred, only farce remains (farce being tragedy without tears). If only Frye had written an analysis of Archie comics! As his notebooks reveal Frye was a voracious consumer of popular culture but as far as I know he never took notice of the Riverdale gang.
The stereotypical dumb blond is the fair-haired girl taken to extreme: not just innocent but lacking in all intelligence. In the dumb blond, the kind heart of the fair-haired girl turns into sexual generosity verging on indiscriminate promiscuousness.
Of course, these archetypes are not unchanging. Since the 1950s at least, there has been a cultural move to create a new archetype, the bold bad blond (often with bleached hair though, and hence unnatural): Glen Close often plays this type in movies. It would take another essay to disentangle the meaning of the bad blond.