A few artists and comedians on Twitter suggested this week that Pennywise, the demonic clown villain in Stephen King’s It, is actually a gay man. What you do with what information is up to you.
The Pennywise-is-gay joke is a call back to a similar one made about The Babadook, the villain of the cult Australian horror film. In fact, as soon as someone suggested that Pennywise works as an avatar for the queer experience, people began joking that the demon clown was probably dating The Babadook.
As soon as that horror-fan inside joke got a little traction on Twitter, online media companies began ramming it down readers’ throats as evidence of a huge cultural phenomenon. “Pennywise is gay now!” several sites proclaimed, citing five or six tweets as evidence.
The rush to pump out It-related content began to transform, not unlike Pennywise himself, into something more interesting when conservatives began reacting to the tongue-in-cheek claim. One Twitter user, @starkrhodey, posted about the Pennywise/Babadook joke and received an angry and fearful message from a conservative who asked for the post to be removed. “Stop posting all this degenerate shit about iconic film characters being in favor of the fags,” wrote user @JewsAreGreat.
What resulted is a hilarious conversation between the two Twitter users, occupying polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. Data actually shows that Twitter users identifying as left-wing or right-wing very rarely communicate with each other on the platform, and “viral”, often-retweeted messages often never leave the supportive echo chamber that birthed them. Who could have predicted that a demon clown’s romantic life would spark such a human conversation?
Instead of telling @JewsAreGreat to buzz off, @starkrhodey just kept talking with them until @JewsAreGreat disclosed that they’ve always had a problem with “the gays”, ever since they stumbled into a Pride parade and (allegedly) were trapped inside the rainbow kaleidoscope of sex toys and flamboyantly dressed men until they suffered an anxiety attack.
So, does it matter that a few people on Twitter are arguing, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that Pennywise is an analogue for the queer experience? That depends on how you feel about literary theory. If you subscribe to Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, for example, you understand that every literary text has the potential to subvert its own original meaning. The meaning which consumers or readers (or fan artists) find in a cultural product ultimately outweighs any intention the creator had. If Derrida and his fellow literary deconstructionists were on Twitter, for example, they’d say that Pennywise as a gay icon is ultimately more important and valuable to pop culture than whatever It director Andrés Muschietti was attempting to say.
Of course, that’s not the definitive way of studying film, but it’s certainly a popular one.
To literary deconstructionists, The Babadook is a queer icon simply because thousands of people now say he is. The power of fans on the internet was evidenced by the fact that The Babadook appeared in Pride parades all over the country after he blew up on Twitter, and there’s every possibility that Pennywise joins him among the rainbow ephemera next year.
For what it’s worth, more than 43,000 people (at the time of this writing) have voted on Twitter for Pennywise and The Babadook’s “couple name”, a la “Brangelina”. That’s at least 43,000 people who are in on the joke.
At the risk of explaining a joke or meme until it loses its humor, it’s important to note that queer people somewhat sarcastically imprint their experiences on fictional characters because their stories still aren’t told as often as the romance plotlines of straight people. Moonlight, which won Best Picture in an upset at the Academy Awards in 2016, was the first film to win that honor while centering its plot around the life of a gay man.
At RuPaul’s DragCon in New York City on Saturday, for example, a panel of Marvel comic book writers, including America Chavez author Gabby Rivera, and comic book nerd and drag queen Jiggly Caliente, discussed superheroes they had all assumed were meant to be coded as gay or transgender. Mystique, an X-Men character who habitually changes her appearance, seemingly moving between genders as she does so, was unanimously declared an effective metaphor for the transgender experience. Whether Mystique’s creator or current series writer believes this is true isn’t of great consequence.
On the subject of canonized gay X-Men, Jiggy Caliente told the crowd, “Take Iceman as an example. Marvel decides he’s been gay all along, and then they just shove him off a queer cliff without explaining anything.”
By joking about The Babadook, and now Pennywise, queer people can claim their power in conversations about popular film. Because it’s a reading of both horror movies based on personal experience and not author intention, it allows the people joking about demon clowns as gay icons to simply refuse any oppositional argument by saying, “No, you don’t get it.”
Of course, the fact that both characters, now proposed as gay icons in the media, are horrifying villains, is just a satirical comment on what the film industry did to queer-coded characters for decades. Disney villains, for instance, are almost all “gender traitors”, demonstrating witchy, egotistical power if they’re women (Ursala in The Little Mermaid, Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty ), and traits used to stereotype gay men, like narcissism (Scar in The Lion King), feminine features and movement (Jafar in Aladdin, Hades in Hercules, Captain Hook in Peter Pan). Pennywise fits this trope, probably without meaning to, because he’s a male-coded character who wears makeup and a frilly clown outfit.
If you have a problem with Pennywise and The Babadook dating happily (in the minds of fans), you’ve already engaged with the silly “fan theory” and are involved in a queer literary conversation, whether you like it or not.
Besides, Georgie wants you to engage with viral Pennywise content. Down here on Twitter, we all float, and if you retweet this It fan art — you’ll float too.
Stephen King’s It is currently in theaters.