**Please note: The Below Contains Spoilers**
“IT: Chapter Two” (2019) has been talked about a lot since its still fairly recent release, and the internet has already gone through multiple modes of discourse on its queer representation. The first consisted of people posting extremely necessary content warnings for the film’s opening scene, which features a violent homophobic hate crime. The second occurred when many people took to Twitter to mock a recent Out article which labeled the character of Pennywise “homophobic”. But I think it’s time we moved onto the third level of discourse, actually breaking down and discussing the harmful representations of queer people in this film. Because there is a lot to talk about.
First, and most obvious, is that aforementioned opening sequence. Set in the modern-day, this scene shows an openly gay couple being stalked and beaten bloody before one of them is thrown off a bridge, then being devoured by Pennywise. It is a brutal and discomforting way to open the film, and I’m very glad that many potential viewers were warned about it before seeing it. However, I don’t feel that the film’s problems with queer representation come directly from this scene. The main issue with this scene is that the film as a whole fails to justify the portrayal of a homophobic hate crime as anything other than a bog-standard, horror movie opening kill.
The main thematic purpose it could serve – that of displaying how Pennywise is a poison on Derry, an embodiment of hatred and fear – is lost because these recent adaptations don’t really keep that element of the source material. It has been reduced to a small handful of shots and scenes that are never brought explicit attention to. So, all this scene really adds to the narrative is its most basic plot function of being the opening kill that says “Pennywise is back”.
And there’s Richie. We gotta talk about Richie.
Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is one of the main cast being terrorized by the titular killer clown through both films. He is also gay, kinda. The film essentially presents him as closeted, but only through implication. There’s a scene in which he, in his youth, is homophobically bullied for playing arcade games with another boy, and the film implies he may be romantically interested in that boy. Then, shortly after, a moment where Pennywise taunts the adult Richie, saying he “knows his dirty little secret”. And that’s it until the climax, that’s all this character arc for Richie consists of; vague, indirect hinting.
“Public views towards LGBT+ people have grown more openly hostile with the rise of far-right ideologies, and the foreign box office from countries where portrayals of queer people on film are highly discouraged – if not outright banned – have become increasingly important to the success of Hollywood blockbusters.”
Then, during the climax, Eddie (another member of the group, played as an adult by James Ransone) dies. Richie takes this particularly hard, the film heavily implying that Richie had romantic feelings towards him. The film then ‘confirms’ this in its conclusion as Richie completes a bit of graffiti he had begun scratching into a fence as a child, a heart that reads “R + E” (and no, there isn’t another major character who could fit that “E”).
Coming from someone who likes to read queerness into basically every artistic work under the sun, this came completely out of nowhere. The only real hint of it in either of the films before it is ‘confirmed’ is the way Richie tends to make Eddie the key target of his jokes within the group. The film is so vague about this “relationship” that it’s unclear whether Eddie is even aware of it at any point, let alone reciprocating Richie’s feelings.
This kind of beating around the bush when it comes to LGBT+ representation is emblematic of how our community has been portrayed on-screen in big-budget American films over the past few years. Public views towards LGBT+ people have grown more openly hostile with the rise of far-right ideologies, and the foreign box office from countries where portrayals of queer people on film are highly discouraged – if not outright banned – have become increasingly important to the success of Hollywood blockbusters. These have combined to create an environment where queer people are most commonly seen in such films as side characters whose sexuality is hinted at in brief shots that can be easily edited out for territories too bigoted to show even the little they included.
“It is essential to recognize and discuss poor queer representation in popular media, such as this. Because this isn’t acceptable. LGBT+ people as a whole are still underrepresented in media, particularly in Hollywood.”
And while the supernatural horror of “IT” prevented it from even getting a Chinese release back in 2017, the way Richie is presented in this film is especially reminiscent of, say, LeFou in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” remake. But it is arguably even worse in this case because of that opening scene. The film is perfectly fine showing openly queer characters so long as they’re unimportant victims of violence. Yet suddenly, when it’s a lead character, the kid gloves go on and the subject cannot be addressed directly.
The film ends up portraying gay people as only valuable when they are suffering for shock value, and easily pushed into the background when they’re part of the main cast. Not only is this deeply troubling, but it also limits the storytelling potential of the film. By avoiding the actual subject of one of its lead character’s arcs, the film essentially ties its hands behind its own back. The only benefit that could be seen – from the filmmakers’ side – is getting brownie points for “inclusion” without having to actually, y’ know, include us. But that doesn’t seem to be working this time. Perhaps its because audiences are growing tired of this exploitation, or maybe it’s just because Warner Bros didn’t make it a point of advertising like Disney does.
But either way, it is essential to recognize and discuss poor queer representation in popular media, such as this. Because this isn’t acceptable. LGBT+ people as a whole are still underrepresented in media, particularly in Hollywood. And when we are portrayed, it’s through characters like Richie, or trans women being played by men (and vice versa), etc. And the more we talk about it, the louder we are, the less commercially viable such methods of ‘representation’ will become. And that’s why we had to talk about the gay stuff in “IT: Chapter Two”.