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IT’s scariest moment: Pennywise the Clown or pervasive masculinity?

By and | Published October 20, 2017

“It’s summer, we’re supposed to be having fun! This isn’t fun, it’s scary and disgusting!”

IT, directed by Andy Muschietti, is the latest incarnation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel, the first being Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 TV mini-series. ‘Pennywise the Dancing Clown’ has since become a cinematic icon, and I predict a distinct rise in coulrophobia after Bill Skarsgård’s terrifying interpretation of the character originally brought to life by the masterful Tim Curry. The IT of 2017 is indeed scary and disgusting, harbouring nightmarish imagery that lingers long after the credits have finished rolling. However, it is not solely the ghoulish scene of a child getting his arm bitten off that has remained in my mind, but rather the film’s pervasive subtext of masculinity.

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.

The protagonists of It are ‘The Losers Club’, an awkwardly charming band of misfits who take it upon themselves to rid their town of the film’s eponymous child-murdering entity. The club consists of Mike, Stanley, Eddie, Bill, Richie, Ben, and Beverley – the sole female. It is the treatment of Beverley’s character that I really wish to scrutinise. Beverley is the only named young female within the work, and one who is continuously sexualised. Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey first conceptualised ‘the male gaze’ in her 1975 essay entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, positing that visual artistry is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, and the camera lens can be exchanged for the perspective of the heterosexual male; the female is displayed as an erotic object, both for the characters within the film and for the spectators of the film. This is undoubtedly applicable to It, as we see the world not through Beverley’s eyes, but through the eyes of the males that surround her.

Beverley is seen as an erotic object by her sexually abusive father, the character of the leering pharmacist, and each of the ‘Loser’ boys, particularly in her position as the object of a love triangle between Ben and Bill. Beverley’s agency is tied entirely to her as a sexual being: her father removes her agency by locking her in their home when his objectification and ownership of her becomes threatened. Her ability to make friends is taken away due to her branding as ‘promiscuous’ by the school bullies (despite never engaging in sex). Her acceptance into ‘The Loser’s Club’ comes only after they go swimming, and the boys stare enraptured at her underwear-clad sunbathing form, layering an undertone of the perverse to what should be a simple childlike frolic. Whilst she takes her agency into her own control when seemingly seducing the pharmacist to distract him from the boys’ shoplifting, it is difficult to render this as a feminist reclaiming rather than the characters’ own realisation of the male gaze within her world (this scene becomes even more chilling once the audience are given an insight into Beverley’s abuse by her father – the character appears to accept the leer of men more than twice her own age as standard). Beverley exists solely as an object of male desire, not least when she is brought back to life not through her own action, but through the Sleeping Beauty-esque kiss of Ben.

It is fundamentally a bildungsroman, with the entity of ‘It’ manifesting itself into the children’s anxieties as they come of age. Beverley’s anxiety is not only tied to her trauma of abuse, but to becoming sexually mature, as alluded to when her bathroom is filled with a cascade of blood, directly proceeding a scene in which Beverley purchased tampons from the store. Perhaps her anxieties are tied to becoming even more sexually available to men, who already pine after her despite her being an adolescent. Whilst the boys mature through the killing of ‘It’, Beverley stagnates, being the ‘damsel in distress’ who relies on the boys to save her.

The bathroom becomes filled with blood.

In conclusion, whilst I enjoyed It as a whole, its regressive gender politics served as a blockade to my full enjoyment of the film. It posits Beverley and her sexuality in a film primarily concerned with boys becoming men. Whilst the realisation of sexuality is undeniably a part of that process, it could have been handled with the delicacy that is required of the modern age. Instead, we are faced with a film that is viewed through the looking glass of masculine heterosexuality, and pays little attention to its female lead outside of her use as an object of sex. In this case, Beverley may serve as an allegory for the current socio-political moment – suspended in animation under the veneer of progressiveness.

“They all float down here” – Beverley suspended in ‘It’s’ lair.