“The glib affirmation of rape culture provides more underlying horror than viewers may bargain for.”
Title: It (2017)
Director: Andy Muschietti 👨🏼🇦🇷
Writers: Original novel by Stephen King 👨🏼🇺🇸, screenplay by Chase Palmer 👨🏼🇺🇸, Cary Fukunaga 👨🏻🇺🇸, and Gary Dauberman 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Andy Muschietti’s It delivers what audiences want: a barrage of scares, occasional gore, ridiculousness, and a semblance of a plot to string it all together. In fact, I would have enjoyed this film were it not for its uncritical eye to Stephen King’s dated source material, which hasn’t aged well since its conception over thirty years ago.
For starters, a glance at the demographics of the lead characters should raise a red flag. Of the seven kids self-titled “The Losers Club”, five are white boys with varying personalities and backgrounds while a token girl and token black kid fill out the ranks. And while I’ll cover these aspects in more depth below, the fact remains that the oversimplification of lead characters causes the technical aspects of It to suffer.
Namely, I couldn’t get behind the flat storylines of any of the children. Without that emotional connection, the twisted hijinks of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård) quickly grows repetitive and disengaging.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, barely
Beverly, played by Sophia Lillis, is the sole female of the Losers Club. She’s a redheaded, 13-year old tomboy who comes from an abusive, low-income background who quickly finds friendship with other misfit boys—particularly, with two boys who each develop a crush on her. (Does this setup sound familiar to fans of Stranger Things?)
Beverly’s character itself is fine. It’s the way the world treats her that’s fucked up. For one thing, Beverly is continuously pinned beneath the male gaze, at one point literally depicted from the eyes of fellow Losers Club member Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). (She walks towards him in soft focus slow-mo, a glowing halo behind her head.)
In fact, Beverly’s relationship with each member of the club is regressive. She is a prize to be won by the group leader, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). She is an unattainable treasure to be coveted by the short and overweight “nerd”, Ben. And to the other boys, she’s dead weight who has to be rescued. Sure, Beverly gets some good whacks in, showing that she can fight back. But the moment she’s kidnapped by Pennywise and goes offscreen for a large stretch of the film, I knew this category grade would be shot.
Where we exit trope-ism and enter the land of the truly problematic is how Beverly is depicted around adult men. For starters, the sexual abuse storyline with her father is overly simplistic:
1) Girl is sexually abused.
2) Girl kills abuser.
3) Happily ever after.
No. NO. Just...no. This storyline appears so often with male-derived narratives, it even warrants its own subgenre of Rape and Revenge films. Just consider Kill Bill (2003), Sin City (2005), or more recently The Revenant (2015), wherein female characters are driven solely by their sexual assaults, culminating in the murder of their perpetrator in some misguided attempt at a triumphant resolution.
If any of these creators paused to truly examine sexual abuse, they’d realize that its repercussions lie primarily in its mental and emotional legacy. To ignore that is to show disinterest in the victims’ healing process and well-being, focusing instead on moments of attack and survival in a never-ending loop that lazily exploits trauma for shock value and story progression.
This backdrop makes it super creepy, then, to show both Ben and Bill stealing kisses from Beverly at separate times. Once, in fact, while she is unconscious. The other kiss is stolen by Bill at the end of the film, because what hero doesn’t get a woman as his trophy? Damningly, she reacts to Bill’s sneak attack with surprise and delight, reinforcing the idea that consent is something that happens—or not—it doesn’t really matter, a guy’s gotta try, right?
This is rape culture at its most insidious. It looks so benign, after all. But think of all the boys who watch scenes like this and grow up thinking they’re supposed to sneak their kisses, rather than allowing girls a moment to decide whether or not they want what’s being given. Think of all the young viewers who internalize the message that female bodies are meant to be acted upon by assertive males, whether violently (as with her father) or romantically (as with Ben and Bill). Think of the way Beverly’s consent is irrelevant; all that matters is how she reacts to what’s already happened to her.
In a final thought for this category: even casual exchanges with supporting male characters are fucked up. In a scene where she helps the boys steal medical supplies from a pharmacy, she sidles up to the middle-aged pharmacist and distracts him by flirting. Keep in mind: SHE’S THIRTEEN. And yes, this scene plays the pharmacist as a pervy sucker who falls for her nubile sexuality like a total pedo. But towards the end of the film, he reappears in a normalized role, simply filling a prescription. This lack of onscreen rebuke, and thus its subtle complicity, is again one of the many building blocks of rape culture.
Mike, played by Chosen Jacobs, is the only non-white character of the Losers Club. There isn’t much to say about him since he doesn’t really have a role in this film beyond being even more of an outsider among a gaggle of outsiders. Literally, the film makes this so explicit as to have Mike gripe as he walks away from the group during its temporary breakup:
“My granddad was right. I'm an outsider, gotta stay that way.”
Still, I’m giving this section half a point for including black characters of Mike and, in a few brief scenes, his grandfather. This overrepresents in a town that was 97% white in 1990*, though the amount of narrative space they takes up is roughly on par. But thankfully, Mike is free of racial stereotyping.
All that said, I do wonder how much longer we’ll have to keep rehashing nostalgic adaptations that conveniently center white characters and white narratives 🤔
Deduction for Religion: -0.25
One of the kids in the Losers Club, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), is Jewish. Unfortunately, his characterization is entirely dictated by his faith. Critic Noah Berlatsky takes issue with how Stanley is rendered, saying:
“Stanley’s neurotic fussiness plays into stereotypes about effeminate Jewish men. In the novel, Stan becomes an accountant as an adult; again, a profession associated with finicky detail and, of course with money. King portrays anti-Semitism as morally wrong in the book, but at the same time he quietly uses anti-Semitic tropes to define Stanley—and those tropes are perpetuated in the movie version.”
This treatment of Stanley can be extended to both Beverly and Mike, the other tokens within the Losers Club who remain characterized solely by their Otherness. Berlatsky adds:
“[Male, white, and] Christian people on screen are assumed to be the default, which means that people like Bill can be other things—a leader, a stutterer, a great writer.”
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.92/5
It should be a silly, gleeful movie. But its lack of introspection—and its glib affirmation of rape culture—provides more underlying horror than viewers may bargain for.
* The town of Derry is fictional but Stephen King is on record for saying he based it off Bangor, ME.