Queer Childhood & Stephen King’s IT: Coming-of-Age With Killer Clowns

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Um. Hi. This post is straight-up embarrassing at this point. This was supposed to be part of my IT review but I really did let it get away from me, and look, folks here’s my excuse: I’m not doing an English class this semester. I miss analyzing literature, okay!! Reviewing is all good and fun but I haven’t really picked something I like apart in, like, forever!! So: here we go. I apologize in advance; I am merely rambling about my very complicated relationship with being queer, the IT fandom, my fixation with this homophobic horror novel, and also killer clowns.

This post will contain spoilers for Stephen King’s IT. 

As it may be evident in my review, I’ve been heavily invested in Stephen King’s It for like a month now, and I’ve been in the fandom, which is primarily composed of queer young adults. There’s been a question on the forefront of my mind: Why do queer people seem to connect with this book and the corresponding adaptations so much? YA author Alex London talks about connecting with these characters as a queer kid in the ’90s in his article “When Horror Becomes Strength: Queer Armor in Stephen King’s It.” But, like Esther Rosenfield in her article “Let’s Talk About the Gay Stuff in It Chapter Two” says: “It Chapter Two is not queer cinema,” which, you know, I wholeheartedly agree with. IT is a homophobic film, based on a largely homophobic book.

And: look, I can see how queer people connect with these characters so much. Heck, I’m a queer person who connects with these characters. The Loser’s Club are all outcasts, constantly bullied by the Bowers gang as well as targeted by Pennywise, but they find community in their own group with others who are experiencing the same thing. This is a bonafide Queer Experience that I think most queer people can relate to. In fact, there’s a lot in IT that constitutes the Queer Experience that I, as a queer person, accidentally connected to, despite how much I tried to not get into IT.

Childhood and innocence–and the binary of adulthood–is such a intense, hard-hitting theme in this book, drawing on nostalgia and the conventions of a bildungsroman novel. I’ve said that the IT films somehow manage to be one of the most surprisingly heartrending coming-of-age films, and it’s because the book is, too. “You didn’t stop being a kid all at once,” Richie muses at one point. “The kid in you just leaked out … and one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.” It‘s talk about childhood and coming of age makes me ache. And I’m gonna throw out here: I think queer people have a different relationship with childhood and nostalgia than cisgender and heterosexual people do. We miss milestones in our youth. We experience teenagerhood differently. Often, queer people end up ticking these boxes off way off into our adulthoods.

And okay, here’s where I officially Expose Myself as a queer theory enthusiast (so embarrassed. so freaking embarrassed), but I was thinking about this book in relation to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s theory of “growing up sideways” in her book The Queer Child. I’m honestly not great when it comes to literary theory, but I’ll try to explain the gist of it. From the description, Stockton defines “growing sideways” as “ways of growing that defy the usual sense of growing “up” in a linear trajectory toward full stature, marriage, reproduction, and the relinquishing of childish ways,” or; “a mode of irregular growth involving odd lingerings, wayward paths, and fertile delay.” Which. Is the Loser’s Club to a T and had me screaming into a pillow.

The Loser’s Club spends the whole book growing up sideways, fighting a topsy-turvy battle towards adulthood. In childhood, the Infamous Child Sewer Orgy serves as the bridging between childhood and adulthood–but certainly, it doesn’t signify the end of the Losers’ childhood; rather, I think it starts the beginning of the space between. It gets a lot of flack from readers (and honestly in my opinion there’s definitely reason to ask “WTF, Stephen King?”, like, the guy was literally “coked up” and it shows), but it’s this weird adulthood-in-childhood thing that echoes the childhood-in-adulthood of the rest of the 1985 parts of the book.

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to what happened to the Losers during their twenty-seven years apart, and we’re going to start with the spouses (or lack of them). Out of the seven Losers, the married ones are Eddie (to Myra), Beverly (to Tom), Bill (to Audra), and Stan (to Patty). Richie, Ben, and Mike are unmarried. It’s made pretty clear that all the married Losers have spouses that echo their childhood in some way: either their parents, like Myra and Tom, or the other Losers, like Audra and Patty. None are particularly happy marriages. Eddie, probably the Loser who is most obviously quer-coded, spends much of his opening chapter has him reflecting on the unhappiness of his marriage. When the Losers get back together after twenty-seven years, one thing is pointed out to them: none of them have kids, and not for lack of trying.

Failure towards a happy marriage; failure towards reproduction; and finally, a returning to childhood ways as soon as each Loser picks up the phone call from Derry. Oh, the Losers definitely grew up sideways–and I think it’s important to note that during the course of the book they still are growing up sideways. It, the monster, hinges on the Losers being irrevocably stuck in their childhoods, or at least until It is defeated, the immediate release of the tension keeping the Losers from truly coming of age, pulling them straight back to being a kid. “Come on back,” It says, “and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all – how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” They’re not just revisiting their childhoods; they might legally be adults but they never really grew up. I might be generalizing here, but I feel like that a lot, stuck in the space between childhood and adulthood and not really fitting into either of them, and I think this is common among queer people.

There’s also an immense amount of queer subtext between a lot of members of the Loser’s Club (except Ben, Ben is the token heterosexual). In the book, Eddie feels a lot more queer-coded with his fear of disease in 1985, the middle of the AIDS crisis (and, conversely, as a child in the film, we don’t have time to unpack that here), and Eddie’s directly compared to one of the gay characters through their asthma and deaths. Eddie’s weird-ass Freudian connection between his mother and his wife doesn’t help, either: he doesn’t really love his wife, he just wants the protection, the comfort, the reminder of childhood. “In the end the old ways and the old habits had simply been too strong,” Eddie’s opening chapter reads. “Home was the place where, when you have to go there, they have to chain you up.” In childhood, Eddie’s greatest fear is the leper, who haunts Eddie by asking repeatedly if he wants a blowjob. Eddie idolizes Bill far more than the rest of the Losers do, expressing that he’d die for him, and that Bill has become a source of hero worship for him.

Richie gets his sexuality all but confirmed in the film adaptation (and we frankly don’t have enough time to unpack THAT here); here, he’s constantly teasing Eddie, calling Eddie “cute” and pinching his cheeks, and at one point, he calls Eddie “my love,” among other things. Of course, there’s also the famous line after Eddie’s death, when after being forced to leave Eddie in the sewer (scream in agony with me), Richie kisses Eddie’s cheek and then flies into a rage. Afterwards, Beverly asks him, “Why did you do that?” and Richie replies, “I don’t know,” and the narration continues, “but he knew well enough.” But he knew well enough. It’s an acknowledgment of something without really acknowledging, and that something is, perhaps, repressed romantic feelings for Eddie, muddled by twenty-seven years of forgetting and the joy and innocence of childhood lost as an adult.

I feel like, essentially, queerness and childhood and fear are all so intertwined in this book. There’s a joke in the fandom about how Richie forgets he’s gay until he gets the call from Mike, but I think that burrows into a deeper understanding about how we relate to Richie, because so many of us have repressed being queer, especially as kids. We deny being queer as a child, but once we’ve matured and accepted it we can look back on the things we did as kids and say, “Oh, yeah, this happened, how did I not realize at the time?” Maybe we did realize. Maybe we forgot. Richie’s storyline in It: Chapter Two is an unfortunate reality for so many queer people who simply push their queerness far under the surface; out of sight, out of mind, right? And when it does resurface: fear, maybe; or the remembrance of what we were as children.

In today’s world, where so many queer young adults feel too old and too young at the same time, caught between childhood and adulthood, IT resonates with us. In a world where there’s so much queer positivity, sometimes we seek, unconsciously, the catharsis of our earlier days. Queer folks have a complex, often tumultuous relationship with our childhoods. So do the Losers. Oh, there are definitely better books out there to focus on–books that don’t have a child orgy or slurs every other page. But why hyperfixate on good books when you can get way too into media about a killer clown and seven losers?

yes i DID just write an whole post analyzing stephen king’s IT for funsies, [eddie kaspbrak voice] what the f*ck are YOU laughing at? you won’t be dragging ME out of this sewer anytime soon!!! im so embarrassed

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2 thoughts on “Queer Childhood & Stephen King’s IT: Coming-of-Age With Killer Clowns

  1. Wonderful discussion piece and I completely agree with it. I love the movies for “It” but had a lot of issues with the book – I always thought his reasoning for the gang bang scene with children and poor Beverly was bullshit and made no sense. He said it was to end their childhood, yet we are talking about children that were abused, bullied, outcasted – their childhood ended long ago in many ways. Sorry King, you were just a coked up mess trying to explain away a messed up scene.

    Speaking as a fellow queer chick, I thought your points were all right on and so well thought out. Kudos to you for taking the time to write something this in-depth and it not be an assignment for University lol

    1. Thank you so much! I agree, I have SO many issues with the book and especially That Scene but the movies are … heart eyes (mostly) (still a few things I don’t like). I love the kids and all their dynamics so much, but that scene was just so weird, even when I knew it was coming. Like, there’s SO much to rant about when it comes to Stephen King’s portrayal of women and girls that irritates me to no end. His justification of that scene with Beverly is just. King. Please. No. You don’t understand women. At all.

      And oh yeah, I couldn’t do my actual uni assignments until I got this out of my system whoops. I might miss writing English essays a bit and the amount of analysis I want to spout on this book For Funsies is making me want to do a master’s lmao

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