Hello, everyone! There is a moment in most movies, where as a female viewer, you realize that the movie is not meant for you. That moment comes at around the 40 minute mark in Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, when Beverly Marsh, played by the 15-year-old Sophia Lillis, shows up at the quarry in only her training bra and underwear. While the other tween boys are similarly clad in only their tighty-whities, it’s Beverly who the camera lingers on, and Beverly whose pubescent form is subjected to the boy’s ogling. Here’s the scene:
Ah, young love. Haven’t we all been boys on the verge of puberty, entranced by the budding womanhood of a girl who enjoys lounging about in her underwear and titillating the imagination of her male friends?
Now compare it to this scene from the 1962 adaptation of Lolita:
Quite the similarity.
As a woman, I get attitude that this scene is trying to capture. Scenes like these are practically their own genre in coming-of-age films. Boys look; girls are looked at. I’ve watched these types of scenes so often that they had become the norm for on-screen adolescent sexuality. Luckily over the past decade or so, the narrative has started to shift, so that more female-centered coming-of-age stories defy this standard scene and create their own. That’s why it’s so disappointing to find this scene lovingly recreated in the new IT, to the point where any critique of the pubescent male gaze is shoved aside in favor of nostalgia.
One reason why this scene is so jarring is that it completely undercuts Beverly Marsh’s character arc. From the beginning, Beverly has been portrayed as a girl who is being maliciously over-sexualized from just about everyone around her. The girls at school spread rumors about her sleeping with other boys and dump a trashcan full of garbage water on her head. Her father leers at her, accuses her of sleeping with boys, and tries to assault her. There is also strong subtext that he has been molesting her throughout her life. Additionally, the scene with the bloody bathroom (a clear metaphor for menstruation) and her decision to cut her hair both imply that she is frightened of the consequences of female sexuality.
With a backstory as sensitive as this, it would make sense for the film to attempt to portray Beverly positively, and at times, it succeeds. For example, Beverly is portrayed as the bravest in the group, the most independent, and the most loyal. Unfortunately, the film also stoops to sexualizing her. In one scene, she uses her adolescent beauty to distract the adult pharmacist so that the boys can steal some medicine. In the quarry scene, she outdoes the boys by being the first to jump into the lake, but is immediately sexualized afterwards in the quintessential scene of the adolescent male gaze. In perhaps an even worse scene, one of the boys wakes Beverly up from her “floating” trance by kissing her. That’s right. He kisses the unconscious Beverly, Sleeping Beauty style, into consciousness. We’re all supposed to cheer because Henry, the overweight nerdy kid, gets to kiss the girl of his dreams, but as my friend would say, we’re cheering for his PG sexual assault.
Some might say that I’m overreacting. After all, IT is a coming-of-age story about tween boys, and the sexualization of tween girls is an essential part of that story. It’s definitely a marked improvement from King’s original novel, in which Beverly has sex with each of the boys so that they can unify and find their way out of the sewers. So yeah, this sexualization of Beverly is a lot better than a child orgy, but that’s a pretty low bar in the first place.
The problem with this bikini scene, and Beverly Marsh’s overall portrayal in IT, is that the film’s sexualization of her reduces her into an object. You can say that this scene depicts the harmless expression of adolescent sexuality, but Beverly is an object of that sexuality, not an equal participant. We don’t get to see her ogle these boys, even though it’s implied in the film that she and Bill have a mutual crush on each other. We also don’t see the camera ever ogle the boys in their underwear. Sexualizing Beverly is the boy’s given right as budding men. Beverly’s sexuality, on the other hand, is unexplored outside of the context of how others sexualize her. She is something to be looked at, romanticized, and kissed against her will.
If we’re adapting an 80s novel for the present, why is it necessary to keep its sexism intact? Why must Beverly, arguably the most complex character in the film, be reduced to her sexuality? And most importantly, why is it still acceptable to sexualize a child on screen? Beverly is thirteen in the movie and the actress was only 15 when this film was made. It’s disturbing to see a minor sexualized in this way on film, even by actors her own age.
I know that as a woman, I’m not the primary demographic for this scene. But as a woman who loves horror movies, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that I’m excluded as the audience for this entire film. Stephen King’s IT is a beloved horror novel with a huge sexism problem. I was hoping that the 2017 adaptation could change that, and maybe the second part will, but for now, IT belongs to the boys.