Welcome to the 17th installment of our 2020 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike – the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media.
Riverdale‘s Toni Topaz, played by Vanessa Morgan, is a Southside Serpent who seems tough and is tough, but is also caring about her friends, especially her girlfriend, Cheryl Blossom. She is supportive, entitled, and doesn’t back down from a fight when it comes to standing up for her friends and honorary family. Keep reading to see why this Serpent deserves a spot in our Pride Month Spotlight Series.
Toni’s first appearance is in the third episode of season two when Jughead comes to Southside High. Being part of the Southside Serpents, she acts as Jughead’s tour guide since his dad is pretty well known to the Serpent community. She helps Jughead with his initiation for the Serpents, checking in on him to see how it’s going. She even warns him before the final initiation if he wants to back down, now would be the time to do it since it’s a grueling task. When she congratulates Jughead on becoming a full-fledged Serpent, they kiss since Jughead was no longer with Betty. However, when they go to Pop’s, Toni tells Jughead she knows he’s not over Betty, admitting she’s more attracted to girls and officially revealing her bisexuality. For much of the season, you see Toni interact with the Southside Serpents, getting more of a sense of her. The Serpents are her friends, her family. She’d basically do anything for them. After the Lodges make a deal with Mayor McCoy, Southside High is shut down, transferring Toni, Sweet Pea, Fangs and the other Serpents to Riverdale High.
When the Serpents get to Riverdale High, they’re at odds with Archie and the gang. The Vixens and Bulldogs, leads by Cheryl and Reggie, even call them “Southside scum” and Cheryl tells them to find another school to deface. Soon later, Toni introduces herself to Veronica, as Fangs, Josie, and Kevin do the same. Towards the middle of the season, Toni and Cheryl’s budding friendship begins when Toni confronts her about something at school, but it doesn’t end well when Cheryl storms out. The following night, Toni approaches Cheryl again at the movies and seeing right through her, Toni wonders if she’s okay. Cheryl was trying to get away from her mother and Toni suggests they see the movie together, since they both had no one there with them. While at Pop’s after the movie, Cheryl opens up to Toni about her past relationship with a girl named Heather and Toni tells her that she is deserving of love.
The two start to get closer, until Cheryl is committed to conversion therapy at Sisters of Quiet Mercy. Desperate to break her out, Toni has Veronica and Kevin help rescue Cheryl. Toni manages to find her in a classroom and they kiss, solidifying their new relationship. At the end of the season, Toni and Cheryl are at a meeting for the Serpents and Cheryl is inducted. Jughead gives her a red Southside Serpent jacket while Toni looks lovingly at her girlfriend.
In season three, you see more of Toni and Cheryl’s involvement with the Southside Serpents, including plotting against the Ghoulies to get Hot Dog back. In the third episode of the season, Veronica approaches the two to help spread the word of her new speakeasy at Pop’s and in exchange, she offers them no cover and free drinks all night. Toni and Cheryl say yes and are later joined by Veronica again at Sunnyside Trailer Park. She tells the couple she’s sure Penny Peabody and Sheriff Minetta are working for her father but she needs leverage. Toni tells her that the Ghoulies have set up shop in the basement of the Whyte Worm, which could’ve been turned into a Jingle Jangle lab. Since Toni used to work there, she knows all of the ins and outs and the three sneak in, taking photographic proof. Towards the middle of the episode, Toni and Cheryl help Veronica again, this time by stealing from Hiram in order to pay off Penny Peabody with a Fabergé egg. Jughead finds out and kicks the two out of the Southside Serpents. Toni tries to reason with Jughead, saying the Serpents have been her family for years but he doesn’t give in, and they leave, but come back again later to tell him off.
At school one day, Cheryl, after being upset about something, goes over the PA and calls out an ROTC candidate that is afraid to come out of the closet. Toni confronts her about outing Moose, saying that his dad could have been listening. She admits that her uncle hated the fact that she dated girls. That’s why the Serpents, as her surrogate family, were so important to her. They didn’t care, and they were supportive. Cheryl finds a new family for Toni to be part of, some girls who are also looking for something like that, a new gang. The Pretty Poisons are formed, even decreasing the number of the Serpents because of it. However, Jughead meets up with Toni at Pop’s. Not only is being in the Serpents her birthright, she’s also their family. He asks her to return but Toni says the Poisons are her chance to lead, they’re a sisterhood. Toni tells Jughead that the Serpents are no longer a family. Over the next few episodes, Toni and Cheryl’s relationship turns into a rocky one, between the Pretty Poisons, them not spending enough time together, Cheryl thinking about herself. But they make up at the end of season three’s musical episode, realizing how much they need each other.
Towards the end of the season when Cheryl falls under the spell of Edgar Evernever, Toni tries to talk her out of The Farm. Cheryl, knowing that she can communicate to Jason, doesn’t want to leave and asks Toni to join. Just wanting to be with her, Toni agrees. Later on when the two, Kevin, Fangs and other Farmies are at Sisters of Quiet Mercy, Betty breaks in and it’s found out that Edgar is harvesting organs. Cheryl realizes that Toni is about to go in for her procedure and saves her just in time. When Toni and Cheryl try to escape, orderlies are following them. They find a window just big enough to crawl through and Toni makes it out. Cheryl shuts the window just as the orderlies catch up, and Cheryl tells her girlfriend to leave and get help, sacrificing herself. Toni rallies the Serpents and Poisons at Thistlehouse to rescue Cheryl but she arrives, having escaped. Toni and Cheryl lead the Pretty Poisons and Southside Serpents at the forest to take down the Gargoyles as they chase down the Core Four, the battle ending in a success.
In the most recent season, although we don’t get many solo Toni storylines, you still very much see her be supportive and always willing to help. At the beginning of season four, she finds out that Cheryl has been keeping a secret from her. That secret is that she has her own brother’s corpse hiding in the basement chapel of Thistlehouse. Rather than completely freak out and break up with Cheryl, Toni knows that she’s in a vulnerable place and does everything she can to support her. When Cheryl’s relatives show up to try to get her to hand over the maple business, her Uncle Bedford sneaks into the chapel and finds Jason’s corpse. He tells Cheryl she’s going away for a long time and Toni tries to stop him, getting pushed away in the process. As Bedford pins Cheryl up against a wall, Toni knocks him out, saving her girlfriend. For Thanksgiving, they also scare Aunt Cricket and Cousin Fester away, making sure they never come back.
Throughout the season, Toni and Cheryl work with Veronica on her booming rum business. Because of Hiram raiding the speakeasy-turned-nightclub, they set up shop at Cheryl’s family’s old gentlemen’s club, the Maple Club. They get a call of a high roller who wields a blank check with their name on it. Toni agrees to check the person out and at La Bonne Nuit, she talks to the woman, telling her she’ll talk to her partner about it. The following night, Toni tells the woman her partner is on her way and they dance to waste time. Cheryl joins them and they soon bring the woman to the Maple Club. Toni and Cheryl have helped Veronica set up her sister, Hermosa, so she doesn’t have anything to bring back to Hiram.
Also at the Maple Club in a different episode, Cheryl sees Toni talking to Nick St. Clair, who had nearly sexually assaulted her a couple of years back. Toni wonders where she was the whole day and Cheryl opens up to her about what happened, she thought she worked through it, emotionally, but seeing him triggered something. Toni admits a similar experience happened to her before she moved to Riverdale and tells Cheryl it took a while, but with a lot of help, she worked through it. She wants to help Cheryl get there too. Toni later serves Nick and his friends at the Maple Club and suggests he might enjoy it with her in a private room. Toni takes him to the back and tells him to relax and drink up, she’s going to get a little more comfortable. Toni, with the help of Kevin and Fangs, get revenge on Nick, using an unusual method, and the following morning, they show him a video of what happened. Toni tells Nick that he doesn’t know her but she knows him and exactly what he did to her girlfriend, and what he’s probably done to a lot of other innocent young women. Toni threatens him, saying he will never step foot in Riverdale and not so much as even think about Cheryl or assault another woman ever again.
Toni Topaz first started out as a tough Southside Serpent who would do anything for her surrogate family. Along the way, she finds even more friends and family. She is supportive, stands up for herself, and most of all, under that Serpent persona, she is caring. Vanessa Morgan recently stood up for herself and other black actors as well in the midst of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, saying that she’s tired of how Black people are portrayed in media as thugs, dangerous or angry scary people and being used as “sidekicks.” Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa responded by apologizing, making the promise to her that they will do better to honor her and the character she portrays, as well as all of their actors and characters of color. Although not much is known about Toni’s backstory, hopefully this change will mean that we will find out more about her in season five and see Vanessa and Toni shine like they’re both supposed to, especially since there isn’t much Black LGBTQ+ representation on television.
The first four seasons of Riverdale are streaming now on Netflix and season five is expected to premiere in January 2021 on The CW.