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Why Pennywise and the Babadook Were Reclaimed by the Queer Community
In this piece, Kyle Turner explores how the queer community has latched on to some of the most villainous baddies from horror films and why it's not the strangest thing to happen.
If you walked through a Pride parade this past summer, it’s likely you spotted a ghoul in a black top hat screaming “I’M GAY!” The allegorical monster meant to represent depression in Jennifer Kent’s film, the Babadook has been embraced by queer communities alongside a drooling, leering clown named Pennywise — the star of Stephen King’s It and its horror blockbuster adaptation. According to their fandom, these two creepy crawlers are even dating. Their newfound reputation as queer icons may at first seem odd. However, given the history queer people have with monsters, identification, and co-opting straight culture, is their pairing and the reclaiming of movie monsters as queer that strange after all?
The memeification of the beast known as the Babadook and more recently, Pennywise, as a queer icons isn’t something new and frivolous. It’s quite the opposite. Rather, it’s the next logical step in the queer cultural tradition of identifying with spurned or “othered” characters and then taking ownership over these misfits.
Clear in these examples are the ways in which technology has aided in the acceleration of this phenomena. The Babadook’s viral ascent into queer fame reads as part accident, part projected next step. First as a joke on Tumblr , the monster gained even more traction when a screenshot showing the film sorted into Netflix's "LGBT Movies" category began circulating. Eventually, the Babadook made its way to Twitter, where it found maximum velocity.
Reading queerness into something can be, at first, a solitary act, where it’s you, the object, and your feelings. But with social media, like after like and retweet after retweet transformed the Babadook from a niche joke to common knowledge within the online queer community. The potential to have a shared queer joke in The Babadook was always there, but it was platforms like Tumblr and Twitter make it way easier to explode.
Pennywise's case seems similar, although King wrote the novel long before social media platforms existed and could act as a home for these queer readings of media. It is preoccupied with fear and trauma, their lasting effects from adolescence into adulthood. King also deals explicitly with homophobia within the book . Pennywise, as a mix of the worst things you can experience and as a representation of personal horror, is ripe for reclaiming because he embodies the otherness itself.
Though queer-coded villains have previously been met with derision and protest given the extremely low visibility of LGBTQ people in media, queer people still feel a closeness with the alienated. Finding yourself in the voice of opera diva Maria Callas (which essayist Wayne Kostenbaum did, in his book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire ) or screaming "Justice for Barb" after watching the first season of Stranger Things isn’t so distant from reclaiming two horror movie monsters.
According to queer theorist Jose Esteban Munoz, this is called “ disidentification .” To disidentify is “to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect.’” The Babadook and Pennywise, both representations of ideas such as trauma, fear, and depression are even more removed from the kind of clearly queer coded archetypes that inhabit something like The Silence of the Lambs . Instead, they are pieces of what Munoz refers to as the “majoritarian culture”, stuff that doesn’t belong to us in the first place. He explains, “Disidentification uses the majoritarian culture as raw material to make a new world.”
There are certain aspects of these horror baddies that are probable factors to the co-opting. Pennywise probably because his particular “lewk” for Andy Muschietti’s adaptation is less scary and more drag-like (also the actor who plays him, Bill Skarsgard, is hot ). Additionally, monsters are representative so often of what (straight) society fears: the unknown, depression, alienation, otherness itself. James Whale was the gay director of the seminal monster movie Frankenstein , and as a misbegotten creation, reviled by the rest of the world, many believe there are touches of queerness throughout the film and even more so in the follow-up Bride of Frankenstein . With fear defining what society thinks of when considering queer people, queer people are then defined by society not only as queer but absent of identity and of desire. Suggesting that The Babadook and Pennywise are dating not only flips the script but lets us write it.
But to me, the most striking example of the reclaiming of monsters is in Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish horror romance Let the Right One In . The film follows a young man named Oskar who is frequently bullied for being effeminate. He finds comfort in his growing relationship with Eli, who is essentially an androgynous vampire (“I’m not a girl,” Eli says when Oskar asks Eli to be his girlfriend.). Alfredson and screenwriter/author John Ajvide Lindqvist imbue the relationship with delicacy and sensitivity all the while Eli is capable of wonderful and horrible things.
The most potent element of the film is Oskar and Eli’s shared future. After the two realize that the small Stockholm suburb in which Oskar has lived and been tormented, where Eli and their caretaker recently moved to, is not hospitable to them, they take a train to nowhere. Society won’t accept them, and they’re unwilling to change themselves in an effort to adhere to the town’s ideals, so Oskar looks outside the train’s windows at the snowy vistas while Eli rests in a box. Let the Right One In feels pointed and remarkable because it's as if the vampire mythos — so connected to blood, othered sexuality, and sexualized otherness — has been reclaimed for the purpose of the narrative. They are overtly queer. And they are purposefully monsters. The monsters of Let the Right One In are pointedly living in an abusive, dangerous society inhospitable to queer people. So Oskar and Eli, and maybe queer people in general in learning to know who we are and what our desires are, go out into the unknown to find a world they can call their own.
Sexually Fluid Younger Star Nico Tortorella Opens Up on His Relationship with Partner Who Identifies as a Lesbian
Younger‘s Nico Tortorella is opening up about his sexuality in a recent interview with The Advocate.
Tortorella, 28, is sexually fluid and in an 11-year relationship with Bethany Meyers, a fitness and lifestyle entrepreneur, who identifies as gay.
They’re both open about their polyamorous relationship and how they identify themselves (Tortorella says he views himself as pansexual); he touches on these topics in his podcast, The Love Bomb.
“I think the way I use the word fluidity is like fluid in everything, fluid in train of thought,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be one thing. The one thing anybody can talk about, no matter race, religion, sexuality or gender, is love.”
“We’re family,” said Tortorella, who, alongside Meyers, does not use the “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” labels.
Even though they’ve been together for slightly more than a decade, Meyers admitted that navigating their relationship hasn’t always been easy — especially when trying to figure out how other romantic partners factor in.
“I think we’re raised with this idea that you’re supposed to go and find ‘the one,’ especially women,” Meyers explained. “You’re looking for your Prince Charming. You need to be proposed to. There’s this one person you’re searching to find, so the idea of finding a stability partner, and having other things on top of that, feels too messy.”
She added that dating apps have also placed certain sets of expectations on those looking for love.
“Then the dating apps make sense because now it’s easier to find ‘the one,’ ” she said. “You can swipe back and forth. You can do preliminary screening. It’s [like] a business tool.”
Even though Meyers identifies as gay, she embraces the queer label and shared that Tortorella is the only man she can imagine having a relationship with.
A post shared by nicotortorella (@nicotortorella) on Jul 6, 2017 at 5:40am PDT
When it comes to sex, she admitted that she has no qualms about casual sex, whereas Tortorella told The Advocate he’d rather wait until he feels love for the other person.
“For me, sex is such an explosive exchange of energy between two people that if you’re not connected, energetically, before you have sex, it can be damaging,” he said about popular dating apps that have created a hookup culture.
“I totally understand people who want to have casual sex,” he added. “I think what you have to do in this scenario is stay in your lane. Find people who want similar things — physically, energetically, and emotionally.”
While Tortorella and Meyers don’t seek to put labels on themselves or each other, they say they understand the world’s need for them.
“I can be emotionally, physically attracted to men,” he said. “I can be emotionally, physically attracted to women. The ‘B’ in LGBTQ-plus has been fought for, for so long. I’m not going to be the person that’s like, ‘No, I need a ‘P,’ I need another letter!’ I stand by people that have paved this way for somebody like me.”