In the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel It – the first half of which hit theatres in 2017 and the conclusion of which has recently been released as It: Chapter Two – a voracious shapeshifting monster in the form of a murderous clown gets up to some mischief. It hunts and slaughters numerous children and the occasional adult. It spreads paralysing terror through a small town. It destroys lives. It not only kills on its own account, but drives others to kill. Outside the titular monster’s activities, the films also depict brutal scenes of domestic violence, child abuse, and one unnerving instance of a family being burnt alive.
It goes without saying that there’s a significant portion of the community that will find all this quite enough to declare the movies dreadful and immoral and vow to never see them. What’s more curious is that there’s apparently also a portion of the community that thinks the above is absolutely dandy but is shocked and dismayed by what they see as the real evil to be found in Pennywise the killer clown: he’s homophobic.
You see, at the start of Chapter Two, a young gay man is savagely beaten by homophobic thugs and thrown off a bridge, after which Pennywise snatches him from the water and chows down on him like the wolf on Red Riding Hood’s grandma. And this is simply beyond the pale to some discerning cinemagoers. Again, to be clear: they don’t object to the clown tearing limbs off primary schoolers, or to the scene where a man tries to rape his own daughter; what they’re howling about is the revelation that the embodiment of pure evil doesn’t wear a rainbow badge.
“I’m sad to announce that Pennywise is not gay, or even an ally,” mourns a piece on the website Out. “In fact, Pennywise is surprisingly anti-queer.” Was it really that surprising, though? As I mentioned, Pennywise is the embodiment of pure evil, so surely, it’d be more surprising to find out there was a demographic of humanity that he was strongly supportive of. And why would you be sad that Pennywise isn’t gay? When did the queer community start crossing their fingers hoping for more gay villains in movies? The complaint seems to stem from the fact that at some point Pennywise became a “gay icon”. I assume this was for his stylish retro-carnival aesthetic rather than his taste for human flesh, but even so: get better icons, guys.
The accusation that It is homophobic is absurd on the face of it, but we might as well have a stab at laying out the rebuttal. First of all, the gay-bashing scene is in King’s original novel, and given that book’s colossal worldwide success, people have had 34 years to get their knickers in a twist over it, so it seems a bit late to start kicking up now. Second of all, and I hope this is obvious, the scene is not one that depicts homophobia as an attractive or desirable character trait. The perpetrators are as vile as movie bad guys come, and the fact that they are acting as facilitators for Pennywise – again, literally the most evil creature in existence – makes it pretty clear how we’re supposed to see them. This is a scene that protests vehemently against the revolting stain that homophobia leaves on humanity’s heart, and such was King’s intention in writing it.
So OK, it’s an anti-homophobia scene. But some say it’s unacceptable to depict homophobic violence on screen at all, that showing such acts promotes the idea that violence against the marginalised are entertaining.
To which I say: if this is so, then you have to also claim that the filmmakers are saying that everything else in It – the child murder, the suicide, the knife crime, the bullying, the wife-bashing – is also entertaining. Moreover, you must claim that everything depicted in any movie is, by its inclusion, being used to promote its acceptability in real life. Murder. War. Terrorism. Adam Sandler. But realistically…well none of us really believe that, do we?
I don’t think so. And I think that people shocked and appalled by any elements of a fictional story have the most convenient option of not watching. Let the rest of us enjoy a movie that shows a good old-fashioned Good Versus Evil battle – and trust us that we know which side to barrack for.
And keep some perspective. The novel It contains a scene where seven 11-year-old children have a gangbang in a sewer: the movie could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.