The Sexism and Whitewashing in ‘IT’ is More Disturbing Than Pennywise
We can add IT to the growing list of 2017’s massive creative let-downs.
[Spoiler alerts for the new IT adaptation.]
The long-anticipated and much-hyped adaptation of Stephen King’s monster opus IT opened yesterday with a lucky September 7 at 7 showing. Since my corner of Florida is in Hurricane Irma’s devastating path and the other local movie theaters were closed, this first official public screening was packed — and with a really fun crowd of clappers, screamers, and talk-backers who like me, vocally interacted with the madness on-screen. The woman across the aisle from me even pulled out two bottles of wine and uncorked them with gusto. Tensions are high and we all needed some welcome relief and a couple of hours of escape.
Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of IT definitely provided a brief getaway from the potential devastation en route here in real life. But unfortunately the film didn’t provide much else but sanctuary from storm worries.
King’s novel is one of my favorite books of all time. I read it when I was 11 and in the almost-thirty years since, I’ve revisited its pages 8 or 9 times. While the evil force behind Pennywise the Clown is indeed terrifying, what is scarier in the novel is the unequivocal theme that humans are ultimately the monsters and architects of the horrors of childhood abuse, domestic violence, racial and sexuality-motivated crimes, and generational apathy that allows justifying looking away when terrible things go on. These themes only marginally made it into the new IT film, and while the 1990 TV movie fields much criticism, all these important messages from the book are front and center there.
But important sociocultural themes are not the only things marginalized in the new IT. In both the book and 1990 miniseries, the character of Mike Hanlon is arguably the most important besides Pennywise. He comes from a line of historians, and his family has lived in Derry longer than many others. He becomes librarian and lighthouse keeper of all the horrors unfolding in Derry during his lifetime and through the stories of older generations. He is the one who remembers and documents everything. He’s also one of the only Black characters in the story.
The new film erases Mike Hanlon’s entire rich history with the town, and instead transposes his story on the new kid Ben Hanscom. Mike becomes almost a non-entity in the film, often standing literally in the background and wringing his hands, and whose only purpose seems to serve as a clunky vehicle to prove the Bowers gang’s racism. He has a few moments to shine during the big battle with Pennywise, but otherwise his nuanced character has been stripped of all dimensions. From where I’m standing, and in our current political climate, whitewashing a key Black character is far more disturbing than Pennywise itself.
But sadly, that isn’t the only huge misstep IT makes. The one female character, Beverly Marsh, gets the sexist treatment. While her character was bullied in the original narratives because she was poor and lived on the wrong side of town, in this new iteration it’s because she kissed a boy in a school play years before and now is branded as a slut. Original Bev was being physically abused by her father, the new Bev appears to be sexually abused by her father which reads as more piling onto the slut-shame bandwagon. To make matters worse, the new IT screenplay even concocts an entire quarry swimming scene to give Beverly the opportunity to disrobe and for all the boys to gawk at her half-naked body. The Derry township doesn’t even have a quarry. I really hoped we were beyond this level of sexualizing a very young girl to the point where an entire scene is invented to do so. It’s perverse.
Beverly’s agency is further stripped when Pennywise kidnaps her, which becomes the impetus for the grand battle between IT and The Losers, adding a wholly unnecessary damsel-in-distress turn of plot that makes no sense given the grander social themes of this story and the town in which it’s taking place. By the end of the film, jump-scare horror has given way to tween romance, and it is a baffling bad turn.
Less sociocultural important issues that make the film terrible include the absolute lack of chemistry between the kids in The Loser’s Club, and terrible casting choices with the bullies’ gang. With few exceptions, like Bloodline’s Owen Teague as Patrick Hockstetter, the acting is atrocious. I could not help but compare the dynamic performances from the 90s miniseries, including Jarred Blancard’s chilling performance as young Henry Bowers, to this limp new remake.
And while Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is interesting and different from Tim Curry’s iconic one, he is not enough to redeem this movie. I did appreciate that Skarsgård kept his Swedish accent for the role and heightened it, giving Pennywise an old European feel that worked really well. Skarsgård’s monster was the only thing that did anything for me in this terrible film, but still his Pennywise packed not even a bit of the punch of Tim Curry’s killer clown.
For long-time fans of this story, it’s particularly disappointing to see all of its important themes and characters stripped and twisted into this new mutation that doesn’t play well at all on-screen. And even though there were so many fantastically creepy Easter eggs for us book nerds, they get lost amid the bizarre creative choices and lack of cohesive character development. Why anyone would diverge so dramatically from the rich source material so graciously provided by Stephen King is a mystery to me. That these divergences are also so problematic in their racism and sexism is crushing, and especially for a lifelong female fan of color like myself.
And even if you can put these social issues aside, the new film offers nothing of the seminal carnivalesque musical score or the many eerie catch phrases that pepper the book and the 1990 miniseries. In a word, the new IT adaptation is flat. Which is rather an impressive feat to accomplish, since an entire world and amazing story were all ready and waiting, like a clown in the sewer.
In the end I can’t help but wonder if having a person of color at the film’s helm like originally slated (True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga) would have prevented these sexist and racist mistranslations of such a great scary story. Sadly, we will never know and we can add IT to the growing list of 2017’s massive creative let-downs.