IT Chapter 2 recently hit theaters and considering the reception of the previous film, audiences were excited. And while the movie has had mostly mixed reviews, the reaction to the movie’s homophobia is what mostly has me intrigued. IT Chapter 2 opens with an incredibly emotional and disturbing scene. While at the Derry fair, a gay couple is harassed and then brutally attacked. While the onslaught of violence starts as insults and slurs being thrown back and forth, with the gay couple only trying to defend themselves, it quickly escalates. The perpetrators beat both of the men to a pulp and end up throwing one of them, Adrian Mellon, over the bridge into the rapids below. After attempting to rescue Adrian as he is carried into the water, he is then forced to watch Pennywise, the deranged murderous clown that has been terrorizing Derry for centuries, violently eat and kill Adrian.
The scene is incredibly jarring and easily could be triggering. Some critics have criticized its inclusion and say it hurts the film. Given the graphic nature of the scene, I understand why this is some people’s first reaction in a world where this really happens. While I do not think the film is perfect, I do not think this scene is problematic given the entire context of the movie. The scene, originally in the book, was inspired by real events where a gay man, Charlie Howard, was killed by a group of teenagers in 1984. Director Andy Muschetti explained in an interview with The Independent his reasoning for including the brutal hate crime, “For me, it was important to include it because it’s something that we’re still suffering. Hate crimes are still happening. No matter how evolved we think society is going, there seems to be a winding back, especially in this day and age where these old values seem to be emerging from the darkness.”
Jessica Chastain also defended the inclusion of the scene in that same interview saying, “I think you need that scene because [King] writes about the darkness that’s under the surface,” she said. ”I think it was important to see Adrian’s scene and not to change it from what it is in the novel because we’re living in a time right now where it is very much a part of our culture and part of our conversation and we haven’t moved past it.”
However, it is important to note that Muschetti, Chastain, and King are all straight.
Following the scene, Mike hears the report of a dismembered body in the water then he goes to the bridge. By the water, Mike ends up receiving threatening messages from the clown that is painted in blood under the river. As Mike looks up, hundreds of red balloons, Pennywise’s signature signoff, litter the sky. To Mike, the message is clear; Pennywise is back and the hatred in fear within the town is bubbling over like a pressure cooker on the verge of exploding.
I live most of my life on twitter since I work in marketing and social media. The platform often feels like an echo-chamber bouncing ill-informed ideas around from user to user without allowing proper discussion. Stan Twitter is especially guilty of this. Currently, a fair amount of users have voiced the opinion that the movie IT Chapter 2 is homophobic because of the opening scenes. While I will not argue the scene displays gross homophobia and clearly depicts a hate crime, I will argue that the context of the movie and the overall role the scene plays within the narrative, themes, and establishing Pennywise’s character show that film has more to say about the dangers of being homophobic, to yourself or others, than it is homophobic.
The scene, which also happened in the novel IT by Stephen King, is purposefully jarring. It is meant to show just how violent Derry is because of Pennywise’s influence. The concept is better explained in the book than in the movie but, Pennywise’s resurgence after resting for 27 years brings more than just kidnapped children. Pennywise purposefully brings out the worst in humanity by cultivating fear which leads to violence. The reason the Losers Club don’t remember their time in Derry is because Pennywise’s presence warps their minds. Pennywise represents humanities repressed fears, he is the deepest and darkest part of humanity that surface when irrational thought takes over.
Bullying is an ongoing theme throughout IT and IT Chapter 2. The Losers Club gets that moniker from their shared experience being relentlessly bullied, often by Henry Bowers, the psychopathic school and neighborhood bully who antagonizes the group throughout the first and second film. Henry is often a puppet for Pennywise. Throughout the series, his violence begins to escalate as Pennywise’s power corrupts the town and him. After the rock fight with the Loser’s Club, Henry is driven slowly insane which is not helped by Pennywise’s influence. In IT, Pennywise gives Henry a switchblade that he uses to kill his abusive father. In IT Chapter 2, Henry receives another switchblade, again from Pennywise, and is able to not only break out of the mental health facility he was residing in to once again terrorize the Loser’s Club and get revenge.
Pennywise is able to warp reality through his grotesque transformations and ability to pick people apart, leaving only raw animal fear and hatred. The group faces not only their worst fears but deepest insecurities every time they encounter Pennywise. As the gang is attempting to get the tokens needed for the ritual, Ben finds himself in his former middle school. Thanks to the mind-altering power of Pennywise, Ben is taken back to a memory with Beverly where the two share a close moment before she tells him she could never love someone like him, meaning someone as fat as him. Coming back to Derry, Maine, Ben has shed quite a few pounds and has never forgotten Bev. In the final sequence and throughout flashbacks, Pennywise goads him by saying he is still just a little fat boy inside.
Even within the group itself through insecurities and fears are constantly being pointed too. The lively banter can quickly turn into mean-spirited namecalling with long-lasting repercussions. After defeating Pennywise the first time, the group split up because of a disagreement between Richie and Bill. But the two who most pick on each other the most is Eddie and Richie.
Eddie and Richie’s relationship is an important part of the first scene exists. It sets up the ongoing narrative that the hatred and bigotry of the town, stirred up by Pennywise, lead to violence. Richie, even as an adult, deflects his own feelings with jokes, often at the expense of others but particularly Eddie. The two have a loving and tumultuous relationship that comes to blows in IT Chapter 2 through their banter. Throughout the movie, Richie is haunted by what the movie and he believes is a dark secret, he’s gay.
While attempting to receive his own token, that fact is thrown in his face by Pennywise when he says, “I know your secret,” another moment that people have criticized for being homophobic. But in addition to being a murdering psychopathic clown, Pennywise is a master manipulator and while what he says is homophobic, he is only repeating Richie’s deepest and darkest fear, that he won’t be accepted for being gay. You cannot criticize Pennywise for being homophobic when he is also fatphobic, victim-blames Bill, and goads Bev with her traumatic history with her father. Pennywise is the villain, a villain who represents our deepest fears. It is also important to note, a character being homophobic or voicing harmful views and doesn’t mean the filmmakers hold the same views, especially when the character in question is a hugely monstrous sewer clown.
In an interview with Variety, Bill Hader, who I should mention is not gay, spoke about Richie’s struggle with accepting his sexuality especially when he returned to Derry, “…Pennywise says ‘I know your secret.’ It’s the thing that you don’t think anybody knows about. He doesn’t understand it about himself, probably. I think going back [to Derry] for him was having to kind of face that aspect of himself and what’s kind of tragic about the movie is that he can’t really consummate that with the person he loves. Not just in a sexual way but just in an actual emotional way.”
Richie’s character arc overall is the biggest argument against the film being homophobic. The film ends with Eddie’s death and Richie left with the regret of never truly telling him how he felt. The rest of the Loser’s Club gets a happy ending, more or less, with Bev leaving her abusive marriage to be with Ben and Mike finally getting out of Derry. We see Richie re-carving his initials with Eddie’s, like he did when they were younger. The film, unlike the book, Richie is canonically gay and accepts that. He is no longer scared of who is he, he no longer sees his sexuality as a deep, dark secret that a murderous clown can hold over him. In faces his fears with Pennywise, like the other members of the Losers club, Richie learns to accept and love himself.