The hit new adaptation of Stephen King’s It broke a slew of box office records over the weekend, notably scoring the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated horror film ever. But for all the ways It is definitely an R-rated horror film, it contains surprisingly little blood — with one major exception.
And it’s that exception that makes a compelling argument that despite criticism of the film (and novel) as regressive when it comes to sexual politics, the new It is advancing at least one progressive — and startlingly rare — feminist idea.
In a scene largely recreated from King’s novel, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the only female member of the group of friends known as the Losers’ Club, has an encounter with the evil entity It, who speaks to her from the drainpipe of her bathroom before spewing “a gout of blood” into the air and all over the bathroom. In the book, as in the 1990 miniseries, the blood mainly covers the mirrors and sink.
In director Andy Muschietti’s version, however, blood spews everywhere, soaking the entire room in buckets of red.
This isn’t that surprising — in a film that seems to contain numerous homages to other iconic cinematic King adaptations, the geyser of blood that covers Beverly’s bathroom is both a throwback to Carrie and The Shining and an obvious metaphor for Beverly’s coming of age. (Shortly before this scene, we see her nervously buying tampons.)
But what’s really unusual about this scene is what follows. After a tense encounter between Beverly and her abusive and predatory father, who can’t see any of the blood, the male members of the Losers’ Club stop by. Fearing she’s imagined the whole thing, Beverly leads them up to the bathroom — where, to her relief, she realizes they can all see the blood.
In terms of plot, this scene is significant because it helps tip off the Losers’ Club to the fact that everything happening in the small but terrifying town of Derry is somehow connected through the town’s drainage system. In the original King novel, the boys then spend a half-hour or so helping Beverly clean up the blood. As they work, King writes, Beverly feels “her heart grow lighter and lighter.”
In the film, though, Muschietti doesn’t just briefly show this cleaning scene; he films an entire slow, relaxed, almost boring montage of the boys working steadily to clean up every inch of the blood-soaked bathroom. It’s a strange moment, a pause in an otherwise briskly paced film with an incredible amount of plot to cover, and necessarily invites the question: Why is the scene there? Why spend so much time on this cleaning montage?
The answer has a lot to do with the film’s function as an analog for the current sociopolitical moment — and a lot to do with its most significant departure from the book.
It positions Beverly and her sexuality in the context of a story about boys becoming men
A number of critics have pointed out the ways in which It sexualizes Beverly. Writing for Vulture, E. Alex Jung argued that the new film “flattens and reduces Beverly as a character in retrograde ways,” positioning her in the film as the object of a love triangle between friends Ben and Bill. Her character gains strength as a result of sexual trauma, as she ultimately overcomes her implied sexual abuse at the hands of her father — yet she also conveniently uses her sexuality to manipulate adult men when necessary. In the film’s final moments, she’s reduced to a stereotypical damsel in distress, ultimately having to be rescued, Snow White style, by Ben’s kiss. None of this happens in the original novel, though many of the issues with Beverly’s character in the film — particularly her primary portrayal as a victim of domestic and sexual abuse — originate from King’s It.
But the movie’s biggest departure from the novel still looms large over the film’s characterization of Beverly: the notorious sewer orgy from King’s novel, in which Beverly has unprotected sex with each of the boys, in order to somehow bind the group together in the future and empower them with the ability to escape It in the present. The scene paints Beverly’s sexuality as something mystical, bestowed upon each of the boys as a coming-of-age talisman — even though she’s the group’s only girl, King frames the scene primarily as a gift from her to each of them. King stated in 2013 that when he wrote that scene, first published in 1986, “I wasn’t really thinking of the sexual aspect of it. ... Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.”
So obviously 2017’s It was never going to include the infamous sewer scene — but its omission made the question of how the film would treat Beverly’s sexuality that much more important. Given all the ways the film sexualizes Beverly and frames her agency as being tied to her sexual appeal, it’s difficult to frame it as a feminist portrayal. It, despite all the attention given to Beverly’s entrance into the Losers’ Club and the bullying she undergoes, is inherently a film about boyhood and the transition from boyhood to manhood, as so many of King’s stories are.
But it’s that context — the film’s function as a message for and about boys learning to be men — that makes the bathroom-cleaning scene so significant.
The bathroom scene sends a simple message to boys: support women
Muschietti — along with the film’s former director and main screenwriter Cary Fukunaga, as well as several other writers — ties Beverly’s anxiety about her own sexual maturation to her sexual assault at the hands of her father, and her fear of both these things to the bathroom itself. When she’s not with the Losers’ Club, we see Beverly almost entirely in bathrooms. We meet her being bullied in the school bathroom. Her father assaults her in the bathroom at her house, and it’s there that she cuts her hair to try to ward off his sexual attentions. She’s first threatened and later abducted by It in the same bathroom, and it’s this bathroom that It covers in blood — itself a metaphor for menstruation.
Beverly’s father can’t see any of the blood in the bathroom. On one level, this is because he’s an adult; a major theme of It is that the innate power of childhood and ability to remember childhood fears serve as a crucial weapon against It. But on another, given the room’s association with Beverly’s sexual abuse, it’s a form of gaslighting: As a sexual predator, Beverly’s father won’t or can’t admit to the trauma he’s been putting her through. When Beverly realizes her friends can see the blood as well, she’s relieved to realize she’s not crazy or hallucinating.
Not only do all six of the boys in the Losers’ Club believe Beverly immediately, they also recognize that she needs significant support in overcoming the trauma of what she’s just experienced. Here’s how this scene is described in the book:
“I don’t know how I can ever come in here again,” Beverly said. “Not to wash up or brush my teeth or . . . you know.”
“Well, why don’t we clean the place up?” Stanley asked suddenly.
Beverly looked at him. “Clean it?”
... For the next half hour, the four of them cleaned like grim elves, and as the blood disappeared from the walls and the mirror and the porcelain basin, Beverly felt her heart grow lighter and lighter. Ben and Eddie did the sink and mirror while she scrubbed the floor. Stan worked on the wallpaper with studious care, using a rag that was almost dry. In the end, they got almost all of it.
... There were still faint traces of blood on the wallpaper to the left of the sink, where the paper was so thin and ragged that Stanley had dared do no more than blot it gently. Yet even here the blood had been sapped of its former ominous strength; it was little more than a meaningless pastel smear.
“Thank you,” Beverly said to all of them. She could not remember ever having meant thanks so deeply. “Thank you all.”
Of all the scenes from the book that Muschietti chose to show in detail, it feels highly significant that he chose this one. The “boys cleaning” montage isn’t sexy or fun or exciting; it’s slow, deliberate, grimy work. But then, there’s nothing sexy, fun, or exciting about believing and supporting women. Far too often, women are disbelieved and undermined when they attempt to report their own sexual assaults, and are routinely ridiculed and harassed when they speak out about their own experiences with sexism and misogyny in general.
In 1986, the simple fact that the boys believed Beverly was a testament to their shared bond of friendship. In 2017, in a context where “believe women” is a controversial and perpetually difficult concept, the fact that the boys believe Beverly is an incredible, straightforward moment of allyship. And the moment that follows this one is even more striking. When the boys all, by mutual silent agreement, begin the unglamorous work of helping Beverly scrub the bathroom clean, they’re absorbing one of the film’s most powerful messages: Supporting women is necessary work that makes the entire community stronger.
In King’s novel, it’s the orgy that seals the bonds of the Losers’ Club, with Beverly’s sexuality functioning as a kind of metaphysical glue binding the members to each other and to their future selves. (Muschietti’s film instead has them later do the standard childhood blood pact.) But it’s this scene, when they come together to clean up the orgy of blood and help Beverly move forward, that serves as the true bonding moment in It the film.
In the detail and thoroughness of this scene, Muschietti offers the boys of Derry, and boys everywhere, a template for what the path to real manhood looks like: It’s all about men showing sensitivity, care, and awareness when it comes to the traumatic experiences women face. Ultimately, the boys of the Losers’ Club don’t fight over Beverly’s affections or treat her as an object, and they never dismiss her experiences: Instead, they collectively support her, uphold her version of what happened, and help her move forward.
It is not a feminist film; given how crucial the experience of boyhood is to It, any film that remained loyal to the original storyline was likely never going to expend a lot of energy exploring feminist ideals. But in a cultural moment that’s particularly rife with divisiveness and misogyny, it does at least offer a blessedly refreshing take on what being a strong ally for women looks like. It’s remarkable that within its male-centric context, the film makes space for a simple message — believe and support women — that probably shouldn’t be as radical as it is.