CW: discussion of sexual abuse





Official trailers for Stephen King’s “It” remake are finally here, and fans have a lot to look forward to.

Based on King’s 1986 novel, the remake appears to adhere fairly closely to the original story, with the director taking some creative licence on minor plot points and costume design. As can be expected with any adaptation, not all fans are happy about the changes to the text; however, amidst the usual concerns, there is virtually no regard for how the film will tackle King’s highly problematic portrayal of women and girls.

A few months back I read It for myself. It serves as a sophisticated metaphor for the horrors of small-town life. The story revolves around a group of old friends, led by the charismatic Bill Denborough, who must return to their hometown of Derry in Maine to confront a supernatural being from their childhood: Pennywise, the shapeshifting clown. The book alternates between past and present, slowly revealing the terrors that befell the “Losers Club” during the summer of ’58, whilst contrasting this with the return of Pennywise in the present day (1985). Their nemesis courts hatred, violence and bigotry to sustain its power, thus serving as a metaphor for the darker side of humanity. Naturally, such evil can only be overcome by the allegiance of friends, and the enduring power of innocence (or so it seems).

“The Losers Club”, (It, 1990)

It was my first foray into King’s literary universe and whilst it was exciting, I must admit, I nearly set fire to the damn thing after the first few chapters — I even set rules for when I could read, e.g. never alone, never at night, and never when my nerves were frayed. King is impressively adept at creating an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Visiting the town of Derry (where many of King’s stories are set) is like recalling a bad memory or a disturbing scene from a movie you long ago repressed.

The story makes for a compelling read; however, as thoroughly engaging and well-written as It is, the narrative threads coalesce into a disappointing formation. I felt a little like the main characters: ambushed by a sinister force. To be blunt, the representation of women and girls in this story is reason enough to fear the small town of Derry. Of all the female characters featured in the plot, each conforms to a stubborn cliche as tired as the last. For example, Eddie’s mother, Mrs Kaspbrak, is the typical overbearing woman; a shallow character who serves little purpose other than to advance Eddie’s growth and create tension in his personal journey. She is a caricature who is never seen from any perspective other than that of an immature child. Or Pennywise herself, revealed at the end of the novel as a giant, hideous, pregnant spider, hatching her evil spawn throughout the sewers of Derry. I haven’t encountered such a conspicuous portrayal of the monstrous feminine since Aliens (1986)

But we need to talk about Bev.

The Losers Club numbers seven, including one girl — Beverley Marsh. Bev boasts a handful of empowering moments. For example, in a scene from their childhood, Bill moves to exclude Bev from the opportunity to help fight Pennywise and she promptly scolds him in front of the group for treating her differently on the basis of her gender. Sadly, this tokenistic gesture of female independence is frequently negated elsewhere in the book, but never so grossly as during a moment shared between the group in the sewers of Derry near the story’s climax. After finally confronting Pennywise and attempting to retreat through the dank labyrinth underneath the town, the group begins tire, and resolutions weaken. Just when it seems all is lost,  suddenly, Bev knows what to do:

“I have an idea,” Beverly said quietly.

In the dark, Bill heard a sound he could not immediately place. A whispery little sound, but not scary. Then there was a more easily placed sound … a zipper. What—? he thought, and then he realized what. She was undressing. For some reason, Beverly was undressing.

“What are you doing?” Richie asked, and his shocked voice cracked on the last word.

“I know something,” Beverly said in the dark, and to Bill her voice sounded older. “I know because my father told me. I know how to bring us back together. And if we’re not together we’ll never get out.”

“What?” Ben asked, sounding bewildered and terrified. “What are you talking about?”

“Something that will bring us together forever. Something that will show—”

“Nuh-Nuh-No, B-B-Beverly!” Bill said, suddenly understanding, understanding everything.

“—that will show that I love you all,” Beverly said, “that you’re all my friends.”

“What’s she t—” Mike began.

Calmly, Beverly cut across his words. “Who’s first?” she asked.

Just let that settle in.

In case you’re wondering, that scene plays out to its horrific and obvious conclusion; Bev has sex with each and every member of the group — all of whom are around the ages of eleven or twelve. This scene problematically depicts both the sexualisation of non-consenting minors, and staggeringly the arbitrary objectification of women and girls. Moreover, the scene is contextualised by the normalisation of domestic abuse. In it, we come to understand that Bev has internalised her abusive fathers broken logic and degraded view of women. Whilst this might not be uncommon, either in fiction or life, King frames the scene as a “spiritual awakening” of sorts. Bev is unnervingly calm throughout the entire process. Rather than creating a narrative for Bev that undermines her fathers abuse, Bev uses the transformative power of puberty to reframe her sexuality as helpful, rather than dangerous as her father led her to believe; however, this is not empowering, because Bev still views her body as an object for serving the needs of men, an unfortunate trend that continues well into her adult life.

The reader is offered nothing by way or catharsis or resolution to this scene. Whilst Bev confronts her abusive husband before returning to Derry as an adult, it seems that no-one in the group wants to confront what happened in the sewers when they were children, or worse yet judging by the proprietorial way the men relate to Bev, they too have internalised a distorted view of women as objects. Bev is tokenistic; a sexually available damsel in distress who can be saved from the torment of physical and sexual abuse by the knowing touch and care of the Right Man.

At a time when popular culture is beginning to celebrate complex female characters and powerful heroines, King’s women seem grossly out of place. The depiction of women as shallow stereotypes and the trivialisation of abuse as a “learning” opportunity debases women and girls everywhere. Furthermore, it limits the opportunities for male characters to mature beyond the gendered roles we prescribe to men. It is reductive, and lazy.

The 1990 mini-series skirts the overt portrayal of underage sex in King’s novel, but honours the thread of sexism and subtle misogyny woven throughout the story. Time will tell whether director Andrés Muschietti does the same, or whether the time has finally come to redress the gender politics of the 80s.

It is released in cinemas September 8th.


Feature image courtesy of New Line Cinema