The narrative arc of Beverly Marsh surfaces tired, and troubling, Hollywood tropes.
B efore I begin, I should get this out of the way: I’m not a horror fan. Sure, I enjoy vampire films and the occasional zombie story, and a good serial killer mystery is right up my alley. But the modern horror movie, packed with jump scares and gore, has never been my thing.
So I’m not quite sure how my friend got me to go see Andy Muschietti’s new adaptation of Stephen King’s It this past weekend. Overall, I’m glad she did, but among many aspects of the film that bothered me, one in particular has lingered: how Muschietti and the movie’s writers treat one of their finest characters, Beverly Marsh. As depicted in the film, Bev is beset on every side with misogynistic abuse — even when the filmmakers want to frame such treatment as love.
Bev is the only girl in the “Losers’ Club,” a group of children (of indeterminate age, but seemingly in middle school; in King’s novel, the kids are 11) who find camaraderie in how each of them are bullied at school. While the boys are attacked by a cruel gang for various “defects” (Ben’s obesity, Bill’s stutter, etc.), Bev is targeted by a Mean Girls-esque clique because she’s vaguely insinuated to be a slut. As Bev is quick to assure others, these rumors are false — and that’s the movie’s first misstep. Instead of focusing on the bullying itself as an inherently reprehensible action, as is the case with the boys’ tormentors, the implication is that Bev doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment because she isn’t actually promiscuous. But even if Bev was flirting with every guy in school, isn’t it still fucked up to dump wet trash on her head?
Bev is beset on every side with misogynistic abuse — even when the filmmakers want to frame such treatment as love.
As it turns out, this subtle sexism is the overture to Bev’s entire arc, as seemingly every interaction she has in It relates to her sexuality. Frankly, it’s easy to see why: Bev’s character is in large part defined by her father, who we later learn has been sexually abusing her for years. This is one of the film’s most significant departures from the book, and drastically redefines Bev’s character. While it was implied Bev’s father beat her in King’s original novel, Muschietti comes within a hair’s breadth of saying outright that Mr. Marsh is a sexual predator. (Previous versions of the script went so far as to actually show Mr. Marsh raping his daughter.) In its quest to show Bev “rising above” her abuse, though, It only heaps more upon her.
Though Haleigh Foutch notes on Collider that Bev’s abuse is never itself fetishized, Muschietti doesn’t miss a chance to play up Bev’s sexuality during his movie’s 135-minute runtime. I’m not just talking about the scene where she manipulates a creepy pharmacist into hitting on her in order to help the boys shoplift medical supplies, although that in itself brings up another problem.
Promiscuity and hypersexualization are common outcomes of childhood sexual abuse, a stigmatizing phenomenon which Muschietti merely alludes to in a throwaway scene, rather than exploring with actual thoughtfulness. (If it’s normal and understandable for abuse victims to behave promiscuously for their own ends, why is it so important that Bev maintain her “virtue” in the face of false slut-shaming?). More than that, Muschietti consistently frames Bev’s arrival or presence in a scene so as to heighten the boys’ awe of (and burgeoning sexual desire for) her; when she greets the Losers with a new, trauma-inspired haircut, the gang silently gapes at her with unmasked longing. In one particularly succinct tweet, comics creator Sophie Campbell called this kind of framing “boner shots” — the camera follows Bev as she slowly strolls forth in idyllic lighting, some or all of the boys looking on in wonderment as their feminine muse walks among them.
For two of the boys, Bev is more than just a fantasy. Both Ben and Bill harbor secret crushes on Bev, and both attempt to woo her: Ben via a secret love poem, Bill just by being awkwardly charming in his own way. Bev clearly cares for them both, although she never makes her feelings explicit (probably because she’s a child, a victim of abuse, and heavily distracted by the immortal space clown eating her schoolmates).
But Ben and Bill share another thing in common — they both kiss Beverly without her consent. When It takes Beverly prisoner (another departure from the book), thereby damseling our only female protagonist, the Losers race into the sewers. Upon finding Bev, in a move ripped straight from the Prince Charming Playbook, Ben manages to save her from It’s spell by kissing her hard on the lips. Later, in the film’s closing minutes, Bill gets Bev alone and abruptly kisses her without asking, in what is clearly intended to be a dramatic “boy becomes a man” scene. Bill is implicitly supposed to be the primary hero of It, but here, he’s just another guy (albeit a pubescent one) taking what he wants from Beverly with no regard for her feelings.
Forcible and abrupt denial of women’s agency is, of course, nothing new for the movie industry. Bill’s forceful kiss is a longstanding trope that can be found in such well-regarded movies as Some Like It Hot, The Mummy (1999), and almost every Harrison Ford flick you’ve ever loved. And while Ben’s kiss is intended as a Sleeping Beauty-esque “power of love” stratagem, it bears more than a passing resemblance to opportunistic (or engineered) assaults by young men on comatose girls in such films as Sixteen Candles, Dead Poets Society, and Chloe Sevigny’s 1995 debut Kids. That’s not to say the reverse doesn’t happen as well (Trinity’s creeptastic assault on Neo in the The Matrix is one notable example), but predatory behavior in men is what’s overwhelmingly reinforced — and with it a demand for women to passively accept assault as romance.
This is in direct opposition to the novel, which features Bev as anything but “passive.” She’s the reason It starts thinking of the Losers as a threat; she’s the first to wound the monster, arguably changing the course of the entire book. In Muschietti’s film, though, Bev is mainly a prop for larger themes of adolescence, sexuality, and abuse. It’s almost enough to make the viewer think fondly of one of King’s most eyebrow-raising scenes in the book: After the Losers fight It for the first time and become lost in the sewers, Bev initiates an orgy to rekindle their bond and refocus them on escape.
Forcible and abrupt denial of women’s agency is, of course, nothing new for the movie industry.
That scene is now obviously considered unfilmable (replaced in the movie by a good old-fashioned blood pact), and it’s more than a little disgusting to imagine King writing it at all — but although it’s a stomach-churning idea for all kinds of reasons, at least King allowed Bev some modicum of agency in her sexuality, however macabre. Muschietti seems hell-bent on denying her self-determination at every turn, then masking that intent with Hollywood romance. And although Aja Romano rightly points out on Vulture that the Losers collectively provide one good example of male allyship, that’s far from enough to “subvert its own regressive gender politics.” Taken as a whole, Bev’s arc yields a set of lessons in toxic masculinity that should have been phased out of pop culture decades ago.
Frankly, all of this is a major disservice not just to Bev’s character, but to actress Sophia Lillis. With only a handful of credits to her name, Lillis is easily the most talented actor among the Losers, approaching her role with a deep facility for emotion that many adult actors never grasp. It’s hard to imagine what Lillis might have done had her character not been boxed in by the regressive Hollywood patriarchy — a system that insists on reserving coming-of-age stories for boys like Bill and Ben, and leaves girls behind to deal with the consequences.