Today, following the season premiere of Season 2 of Riverdale, the saucy teen noir that takes the Archie Comics formula and douses it with sex and drugs and murder, I, an adult woman, would like to ask a very important question: Whither Cole Sprouse?
Sprouse, as you may vaguely know, is the 25-year-old actor who plays Jughead on Riverdale; far from the familiar bumbling dork of the comics, Sprouse plays his character with a brooding anomie, an outsider from troubled family circumstances whose street smarts are only matched by his wit. (He also may or may not be headed in the direction of joining a biker gang.) For some of us olds, Riverdale has been our first introduction to Sprouse because by the time he attained nationwide stardom with his twin brother Dylan on the mid-2000s on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, we had already outgrown watching the Disney Channel or, for that matter, most shows centered on the antics of tweens. (The Sprouse twinsies also played Ross’s son on Friends.) For that, I request that the younger among us bear with me here, in my quest to answer the question: Whither Cole Sprouse?
For those of us who missed this part of Cole Sprouse’s nascent career, Riverdale is a revelation—about Sprouse as an actor, as a person, and most importantly as a social media personality. I frame this in the collective plural and not the first person because, one day after noting to the Jezebel staff the brilliance of Cole Sprouse’s Instagram devoted to sneaking photographs of fans trying to, in turn, sneak pics of him, they all agreed: I had suddenly uncovered a collective of adult women who were discovering adult man Cole Sprouse and had become rather intrigued by his internet presence over the past year, spurred on by his Riverdale persona. To wit:
Among the subtle humor of Sprouse’s sneak pics is a meditation on the meaning of watching and being watched, an exchange inherent in photography that takes on particular significance when both the watcher and the watched is a celebrity. Many of those he captures are young—those who remember him from the inchoate days of their youth, in which they acquainted themselves with his work by watching him, lending another dimension to the element of constant surveillance. In taking on this project, the observed becomes the observer, exploiting and exposing the false proscenium celebrity entails. Anyone, he seems to say, can become a star.
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Cole Sprouse has parlayed his acting career into one as a legitimate photographer, a celebrity who captures other celebrities, and is quite good. His official Instagram chronicles his work, whether personal pics of subjects like clouds and friends, or commissioned photographs, like the one he recently shot of singer Sam Smith for the cover of L’Uomo Vogue. Occasionally, Sprouse peppers his posts with serious observations, miniature artist statements juxtaposing and contextualizing the concepts that inspire his work. For instance:
Instagram, however, is not Sprouse’s only medium; on Twitter, where he identifies as “Cole M. Sprouse,” he displays a level of self-awareness that is equal parts jocular and incredibly thoughtful. For instance, after the shootings in Las Vegas, he embarked on several threads about how “media culture” shapes the portrayal of mass murderers, and questioned “what part of whiteness influences this kind of Petri dish for gun violence and killing.”(He is apparently so great that Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty on Riverdale and is rumored to be his IRL girlfriend, had to defend him on Twitter against a “rude” fan.)
But within Sprouse’s public persona/internet presence, he’s also seen the opposite side; in 2012, he published a sort of social-experiment Tumblr, a fairly harmless effort in which he answered fan questions, that ended up infuriating fans after he deleted it. (A near-certain student of Debord, he wrote on Twitter that “the goal was to see how a group of people reacted to a suggestion of being observed.”) More seriously, as he’s grown older, he’s been accused of racism and, on now-deleted Tumblr posts allegedly written by his ex-girlfriend, emotional abuse. It’s a disquieting evolution to see another squeaky-clean, Disney-educated child star age into adulthood in the public eye and become the sort of person whose behavior casts a shadow over their personas, at best, but it’s also an example of the way newly adult stars of teen shows are navigating the social landscape. In my day, as an old, they would seem untouchable, far-away and worshippable figures in the centerfolds of J-14 magazine. With social presences like Sprouse’s, they shorten the distance by talking back—and as many a kiddie star’s publicist knows, that sort of unfiltered talking is not always flattering.
It is for these reasons paired with the depth in that Cole M. Sprouse has become, of sorts, the great uniter of the staff of Jezebel dot com and the greater Gizmodo Media Group universe, a point of agreement in an environment of opinionated, mostly women that counts friendly argument as a point of personal pride and rigor. This development is welcome and uncomplicated for olds like me, who do not have any iota of Zack and Cody in their brains, but for others, it is a tangled web of interest. My colleague Clover Hope, who sums up Sprouse’s appeal as having “a cool brooding quality and judging from his Instagram captions a healthy level of wit,” nonetheless must square this impulse with her youth. “At the same time,” says Hope, “I really hate that he originated from Zach and Cody, which I occasionally watched.”
Not every Zach and Cody viewer felt so confused about the experience. “I like his weird internet presence and his new hair,” says Phoebe Bradford. “I didn’t even realize I was so deeply attracted to him until I was four episodes deep into Riverdale and decided I didn’t care about any of the characters except his because I guess I liked looking at his face.
“I [watched Zach and Cody growing up] because I’m 25,” Bradford continues, “and that’s also probably why I didn’t realize I was attracted to him because I know what he looked like when he was 10 and he wasn’t one of those kids you thought, ‘Oh yeah he’s gonna grow up to be a smoke show.’”
Other staffers were more succinct. “I like it that not only does he look like God spent extra time chiseling him,” said Ecleen Carabello, “but he is also hilarious.”
Aging out of a tween crush and into an adult one with the same actor is perhaps more common than one might think—witness, for instance, the amount of NKOTB fan lifers on their various cruise reality shows and at concerts, and internalize the fact that, to borrow a phrase, you really may be loving him forever. Complicate that with a crush’s complexities—in the case of Sprouse, their alleged bad behavior—and it ends up mirroring our adult relationships in the same way we utilize our kid-crushes to play out the way we might one day fall in love. It’s all about the manifestation of fantasy; there’s nothing more adult than realizing your dream date is riddled with flaws.