J.K Rowling is a transmisogynist and overall a deeply shitty person, but by God did she start something with retroactively making characters gay.
I’m not giving her credit for starting this trend necessarily, but even as someone who never read Harry Potter, it’s been hard to ignore how many times similar things have happened in the time since that series. Hell, even as the series technically continues.
Culturally, we’ve all caught on, right? Someone creates a book or a film, it’s popular, and once the creator realizes there’s some homoerotic subtext they (more often than not) accidentally created, they make an effort to cater to LGBT audiences by slightly playing it up in a later installment of the work. Disney, as an example, is very, very, very fond of doing this.
And the long and short of why is that it’s an easy way to get us gays all excited to have more mainstream representation, while not giving too much as to alienate straight (specifically homophobic) people. Hollywood by and large wants it both ways, and it’s not hard to achieve; even when we know we’re going to get queerbaited, it’s hard not to be an optimist and hope maybe just once we won’t be. For the time being, we are stuck in the loop of Charlie Brown and the Football with our media.
(For a more in-depth description of what queerbaiting is and why it exists, I recommend my article discussing it in relation to “Hannibal”, found here)
So, “It: Chapter Two” is the eagerly-awaited follow-up to 2017’s “It”, the first part of the newest adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, originally published in 1986. A basic plot summary (for those unaware or for those needing a refresher) is that a clown (Pennywise) comes up every 27 years to eat children, and the protagonists (Beverly, Bill, Ben, Stanley, Mike, Richie, and Eddie), who were previously children in the first film, return as adults to their hometown to defeat the previously mentioned child-eating clown.
The first “It” film’s highlights are the performances of the kids and the bond that grows between them all. Some of the best parts of the movie are just watching them interact, figuring out their relationships and themselves in the midst of absolute terror. While not flawless and, in my opinion, not terribly scary, it’s one of the better recent horror films and probably the one I’ve rewatched the most since it’s release.
Here’s your secondary warning for spoilers.
While I have not read the novel to know for myself, according to those that have, the only explicit depiction of gayness within it is Pennywise’s murder of a gay man, which is used as a catalyst to draw our protagonists back to their hometown while being an example of human evil still existing. While the 90’s miniseries, also based on the book, chose to instead make the catalyst another child murder, this new adaptation puts the gay murder back in.
(This isn’t the point of this article, but I still felt it necessary to add in anyway. It all ties together, I promise.)
The re-introduction of the homophobic hate crime to start off this part of the story, while ultimately more book-accurate, has no purpose outside of reminding the audience that homophobia exists. You could argue (as the director does) that it sets up the town as homophobic as rationale for why its other canonically gay character never came out, but that is pretty firmly established in a later scene, rendering this first scene pointless to that aspect.
Besides, the clown kills kids. His whole thing is kids. Why is it when he suddenly kills a gay, fully-grown adult, that Mike finally decides to ring the “oh fuck the clown is back” alarm?
Either way, that scene was something that I think a lot of people knew about going in; it was in the book, and a good number of people took note that it had been added back in prior to the film’s release. We can chalk up its flaws to the book’s flaws. It’s what’s new to the film that we’re here to analyze, which is also in regards to sexuality.
At the beginning of this I brought up J.K Rowling, as she’s known, among many other things, for her tendency to retroactively make characters more diverse than the original source material suggested. Dumbledore is gay, but not in any way that impacts his character or the plot or anything. It’s all fluff that can’t “ruin anyone’s childhood”, as it were.
In the case of making characters gay where they weren’t originally established as such, it can be done well. I can’t decide whether “It: Chapter Two” deserves my optimism or my pessimism, because, God, did it come just so close.
Without talking too much about the plot (at least to start), “It: Chapter Two” reveals that Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard and Bill Hader as a child and adult, respectively) is gay, and much of his internal struggle throughout the film is about coming to terms with that as he revisits his hometown.
Considering the original novel’s only explicit depiction of gayness comes from that opening hate crime, this is obviously a welcome addition (what I’ve been able to read about what’s within the novel is that, if anything, Eddie is the character most subtextually gay, not Richie).
From interviews, you can tell that everybody involved in the making of this film was passionate about making this work and making it obvious, too —
“Because it felt like it was part of his character. I think we pulled it out more, and it is more prominent in the movie. It is a part of the many things that define him.” — Gary Dauberman, screenwriter
Despite my issues (which will be discussed), that level of effort and passion is not going unnoticed, not by myself nor by anyone else seeing the film. The performance that Bill Hader gives as Richie is immaculate, not just walking the tightrope between comic and tragic, but practically dancing across it. He and James Ransone (the actor portraying adult Eddie) are the best parts of the film, and I recommend it for their performances alone.
I almost feel greedy in still feeling unsatisfied.
Richie is undeniably gay, except it feels like the final step in his arc never comes. Throughout the film, Pennywise taunts Richie with knowing his “dirty little secret”; I don’t inherently like the phrasing with that, but I get it. It’s a clown that’s whole shtick is weaponizing your fears and insecurities against you, and internalized homophobia is an unfathomably strong fear.
(Yes, even now. Are things undeniably better for gay people in present times? Of course. But homophobia did not just blip off the societal map because it’s 2019. Especially considering Richie grew up in the 80’s, it would honestly be surprising if he didn’t come out of his adolescence with some internalized issues)
The primary scenes used to establish Richie’s sexuality is a flashback to the first film, taking place in the time gap between the friends’ big fight and their reunion for the third act. A young Richie plays Street Fighter with another boy, and in a moment of hopefulness, asks him to continue playing. It’s then that the town bully, Henry Bowers, shows up and the other boy reveals himself to be Bowers’ cousin. They throw homophobic slurs at Richie, and he runs off; the scene transitions into a scare before fading back to adult Richie, mulling over the impact that moment had on his life.
(Third warning, this time of genuine discussion of plot spoilers.)
The main payoff to that scene is that when adult Bowers comes after the group of friends again, it’s ultimately Richie who gets to land the killing blow. And, yeah, it feels good watching a gay man finally get to kill the homicidal terror of his youth. I have no complaints there.
After that, lots of plot happens; where things finally start to get relevant for our purposes again is when Eddie is mortally wounded in the final battle against Pennywise after saving Richie from it. While the rest of the gang are able to finish the clown off, Eddie ultimately dies.
Bill Hader’s acting as Richie struggles to even accept Eddie’s death is, again, one of the best parts of the film. It isn’t until that particular moment that the movie really heavily insinuates Richie’s feelings for Eddie, and only really does so once more; as the gang all parts for the final time, Richie goes back to the bridge where he had once carved “ R + E ” as a child, smiles, and says his final goodbye.
My biggest problem with Richie’s arc is that it feels like it doesn’t end properly. Sitting in the theater, watching the final scenes play out, I waited anxiously for him to say anything to the effect of coming out. But then the movie ended, the credits rolled, and I felt slightly cheated.
“Faggot” is said more than “gay” in this movie, and for all I loved, that still stings.
In my ideal world, Richie’s arc ends with him just being able to say he’s gay out loud. His friends don’t even have to be around, he can just say it and feel good about it, for perhaps the first time in his life. Or his friends could be there, and prove that his internalized homophobia was wrong, that he had no reason to hide from his friends because they would never treat him ill.
But because the word “gay” is not even said once in the film (though I could be wrong, please let me know if I am), that leaves room for confusion and denial. My sister and I have been texting back and forth about this movie, and she mentioned that while talking with our mom, she commented “well, he never said he was gay”. While I know my mom well enough to know she was joking around, that highlights the issue. If you’re going to make Richie gay, why can’t you even say “gay”?
“It: Chapter Two” did not pull the traditional Charlie Brown and the Football routine. It let us run up, it even let us get to actually kick the ball; but the ball didn’t have any air in it, so it just kind of puttered back to the ground. Relieving, but not satisfying.
Because of all its best intentions, I don’t think I can be angry with this movie. I don’t think that anybody ever even expected Richie to be canonically gay, especially as much as he was shown to be. In a world where we’re still fighting like animals to see ourselves in mainstream cinema and still being baited for it (looking at you, “Endgame”), I can only come down so hard on a movie that really seems to have tried its best.
The most negative emotion I can muster is this blend of frustration and disappointment. The film is flawed but sincere enough to give it a wave-through.
If you have a few hours to kill, I recommend it. The film overall is a kind of bloated mess of long stretches of repetition and bad effects, but Bill Hader and James Ransone give such powerhouse performances that I think it’s worth it.
We still have a long way to go, but “It: Chapter Two” is a nice reminder that for all the journey left, we’ve come farther than we might think.