I don’t normally watch, let alone recommend, shows about gang members. Characters like that are over-represented, giving the false impression that people of color are all cholos. Yet, I found Netflix’s On My Block to be the rare show that manages to depict gangs without romanticizing or pathologizing them. And I particularly like how the show contrasts with the CW’s Riverdale, a similarly structured teen drama, where the main character who joins a gang is white.
Both shows feature a mixed group of four high school friends, navigating coming of age in their troubled communities. On My Block’s main characters are all people of color with the Afro-Latina Monse as the group’s lone girl, Cesar and Ruby representing diverse Latino experiences, and Black Jamal rounding out the group. They’re in Freeridge, a fictional South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles plagued by gang violence. In Riverdale, the central group is much paler with White Archie, Jughead, and Betty getting a bit of color with Latina Veronica. These four inhabit the titular small, picturesque town losing its innocence.
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On both shows, one member of the central quartet joins a gang — with vastly different results. On On My Block, Cesar’s gang membership is an obstacle, a blatant tragedy. His friends’ attempts to save him propels much of the plot. By the end of season two, he’s negotiating with his brother and gang leader Spooky to be excused from the gang’s violent duties. Meanwhile, on Riverdale, being a Southside Serpent gives Jughead power and purpose. He ends up the leader of the group, keeping his fellow gang members from dealing drugs and protecting them from gentrifiers along the way.
Take for example the initiation process. We learn that Cesar has joined the Santos gang by seeing the bruises on his abdomen, an ugly, painful sign of getting jumped in. He’s not proud of his wounds and the show doesn’t dramatize the process, letting the injury speak for itself. Meanwhile, we see each step of Jughead’s initiation, some of it silly (taking care of a cute dog, being stung by a venom-less snake), some reminiscent of joining a frat (reciting memorized group rules), and some classic hypermasculine “heroics” (surviving a punching line of fellow Snakes). In Jughead’s initiation, he stands defiant and strong, taking his punches while looking his peers in the eyes. This portrayal glamorizes the process, making the violence a chance for Jughead to show his strength of character.
In fact, violence generally is a way for the teens of Riverdale to prove themselves. They solve the murder of their classmate Jason Blossom and expose a drug kingpin in the process. They catch not one but two suspected serial killers. They cover up murders, attack people, and still run for student council. They may grapple with their “darkness” but the show portrays all this violence with the same seriousness as it does wrestling tryouts, keeping us from having to consider what it’s like to be a teenager facing violence.
On My Block has no such delusions. Its black and brown characters inhabit a place much closer to reality, where murder is not something a normal teen should have to think about. After Cesar and Monse are rolled up on by rival gang member Latrelle, Spooky tasks Cesar with killing this new threat. Cesar attempts it but in the end, balks. You see Latrelle may be a rival gang member but it wasn’t too long ago that they were classmates, peers. Not wanting to become a killer, Cesar tells Latrelle to leave Freeridge and never come back. The threat works for a while but (spoiler) Latrelle returns in the season one finale, shooting two of our principal characters, killing one.
This violence — the death of an innocent fifteen-year-old and near-death of another — does not take a single episode or arc to resolve. The horror of it gives Ruby PTSD and leaves all of our characters in mourning for the entire second season. Meanwhile, Cesar is further punished for his good deed, exiled from the gang and forced to sleep on the street between staying with friends. The adults here respond not by being impressed by the young teen’s action (like they are with Jughead’s) but rather dismayed by the circumstance. For a few episodes there, it felt like everyone was just repeating the sentiment that “no child should be in this situation.”
On My Block illustrates a fact — gang violence hurts the children in its wake. It does not lift them up a la Jughead becoming the leader of the Serpents. And the violence is shown for what it is — ugly, irreversible, and de-humanizing. It’s not the mystery of the week. And it’s not the defining characteristic for any of our young heroines. Monse, Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal may live in a violent world but they’re typical teens, as worried about their latest crush and parent problems as they are about the state of their neighborhood. You see in addition to gang violence, On My Block portrays a slapstick treasure hunt (with gnomes no less), the double standard around hooking up (boys get points, girls a reputation), and an on-going bit about masturbation (socks figure in heavily).
Cesar is not “The Gang Member” to his friends or the audience and neither is Jughead (whose whiteness makes this trick much easier). In fact, they’re both the only gang members in their group of friends, ensuring we see other parts of their identity. With its brown and black point of view, On My Block takes the responsibility of righting the traditional gang narrative. Meanwhile, Riverdale hyper sensationalizes and promotes harmful myths but avoids any major offenses, mostly by keeping its off-color characters out of the Serpents and positioning the group as a response to Riverdale’s classist Northside/Southside conflict. Together, these shows ask viewers to see gangs, not as brown or black menaces but rather the result of structural inequality. And for that, I commend them.