Sunday, June 23, 2024

Queer Subtext in Stephen King’s It – Part 1: ‘Reddie’ Character Analysis

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This guest article is written by Rachel Brands (on Twitter @RachelBrands)

“It” by Stephen King was published in 1986 and has made a lasting cultural impact ever since. The novel inspired a miniseries, two movies, and an entire generation of children to fear clowns. And adults, frankly. Pennywise transforms into things that will scare children and Stephen King used the 1950s setting to pay tribute to classic movie monsters.

Since It’s release, Stephen King’s cult classic has inspired fans to discuss it themes, allegories, and underlying subtext. A common discussion on the Internet is the interpretation that Richie Tozier and Eddie Kaspbrak had strong, repressed homosexual feelings for one another. The most recent adaptation, “It: Chapter 2,” directed by Andy Muschietti, dedicates an entire subplot to the romance between Richie and Eddie. There have been protests that the characters’ change in sexuality comes out of nowhere, but that’s not so–Richie and Eddie are in love in the book, but their romance exists primarily in subtext.

Eddie is so obviously gay coded that I’m a little surprised I have to write an essay to convince people

Eddie’s first encounter with It happens at 29 Neibolt Street, a place known to attract hobos and drifters. It takes the form of one of those hobos that is stricken with disease. It uses a leper to frighten Eddie, which is different than the classic movie monster forms It takes for most children.

Like Beverly, Eddie’s physical manifestation of fear has symbolic meaning that is linked to his abusive upbringing. Eddie sees It as a leper because his mother’s insistence that he is sickly and delicate has made him afraid of disease. Eddie is horrified of the leper’s appearance, but the real terror doesn’t set in until he realizes that he could catch its illness.

The leper continually offers to give Eddie a blowjob and uses this pressure of sexual favors to scare him. There are no other instances of It threatening children with sexual assault, so Its decision to do so here is an important distinction. This metaphor is significant because the leper is a sickly, diseased man offering oral sex to Eddie and Its combination of these things shows us a deep fear Eddie has, unknown even to himself.

Eddie is afraid of doing sexual things with men because he believes he will get a disease and die. Its use of the leper as a complex manifestation of Eddie’s fears is our first clue that Eddie is gay coded. Because he is groomed to fear disease and sickness, he fears his own homosexuality and views it as something that could kill him.

When Eddie returns to Derry as an adult, he experiences It in the same way he did as a child, which shows his fears have not changed.

I will delve more into Eddie’s stunted emotional growth as an adult later, but for now, keep this comparison in mind.

We get some interesting religious imagery as Eddie thinks back to the root of his religious fear. He is quick to dismiss religious rules as stupid but stops himself as he remembers he takes religion seriously enough to be afraid of it.

Eddie is affected by the story because he fears how easily he can commit BLASPHEMY and be damned for it. He fears being judged by God and deemed “not worthy.” This fear is likely metaphorical of his repressed homosexual feelings and his fear of judgment from God. He considers performing an experiment to disprove Mrs. Portleigh’s story, but never works up the courage. This hints that he would never be brave enough to act on his homosexual feelings and instead, stay hidden in compulsive heterosexuality.

Eddie is self-aware enough to note a parallel between his fear of magical wrath from God and Its supernatural wrath both coming from a toilet bowl. Eddie views them both as powerful beings that want to do him harm. It’s also interesting that he calls It “the Werewolf,” its form at the time and not “It.” The Werewolf is Richie’s fear, so maybe this connection hints that he is afraid of his feelings for Richie.

During Eddie’s adult section, he thinks back to a time in his childhood where his mother scares him about cancer.

This flashback shows how Eddie’s mother has shaped his life. She constantly scared him about illnesses like cancer and polio, which instills in him a fear of any activity that could result in disease or injury. It’s interesting how a young Eddie worries about being sent to hell because it’s unlikely that he has done anything that would warrant this fear. He worries about going to hell a lot for a child who was never very religious.

Reading Eddie’s inner turmoil as the result of suppressed homosexual feelings, it makes sense for Eddie to wonder about going to hell because of who he is, rather than something he has done. The common belief about the gay and trans movement in the 1950s, gay men in particular, is that they are committing dirty, sinful acts that will give them diseases and damn them to hell. Eddie’s fearful feelings towards illness and religion have a more in-depth meaning if you consider that this narrative is popularized by society as Eddie grows up.

Another interesting aspect about Eddie’s hidden sexuality is how he interacts with the other Losers. I will analyze his scenes with Richie in part two, so for now let’s focus on Bill and Beverly.

Our first introduction to Eddie’s character is when Ben stumbles upon him and Bill in the Barrens. After an unfortunate series of events, the three boys part ways for the day, but not before Eddie and Ben have the following exchange.

Eddie doesn’t know how to react when Ben says he and Bill are cool. “Embarrassed” and “nervous” are interesting adjectives for King to use because they imply that Eddie feels he is unworthy to be lumped in with Bill. Eddie corrects Ben – Bill is cool and much better than Eddie himself. His hero-worship of Bill suggests that his love for Bill is stronger than the other Losers’ love for their leader.

In a later scene, Stephen King singles out Eddie as being “delighted” by Bill.

We get an explanation for Eddie’s unmatched joy when Eddie tries to imitate Bill to appear brave during a scene with Mr. Keene.

Eddie idolizes Bill and his love is rooted in that admiration. There are many references to Eddie having “hero worship” for Bill or seeming to love Bill more than the other Losers, perhaps even more than Beverly does. This is disguised as Eddie simply idolizing Bill, but it’s much more likely that he had an unrequited crush on Bill and didn’t know how to categorize it.

It may be counterintuitive to talk about Eddie’s love for Bill in an essay about how Eddie loves Richie, but Eddie’s feelings for Bill are significant because Bill is the apple of his eye for a big part of the childhood section. It’s Bill, not Richie, who awakens Eddie’s homosexual feelings and it would be a disservice to Eddie’s character not to mention it.

Beverly is the only girl in the group and often considered beautiful by the boys in the Losers Club. Eddie’s interactions with Bev are underwhelming, especially compared with Ben, Bill, and even Richie. There are several moments where the boys all tell or show Beverly that they love her to safely communicate their love for their friend group in a deeply heteronormative society. The first is when the Losers all draw matches to decide who will not participate in the Smoke Hole Ceremony.

When it’s Eddie’s turn to tell Bev he loves her, he says “I guess I love you too” which puts a bit of distance between them and seems apparent he means it in a platonic way. His smile is “incredibly sweet and almost heartbreakingly vulnerable” because he is the most innocent and inexperienced with romantic love.

The second moment is the infamous child orgy scene. I won’t subject either of us to reading that again, so let’s dive right into the analysis. Eddie is the first to have sex with Bev and the only Loser to take her virginity, yet this seems to have no romantic impact on either character.

Bev remembers that Eddie has sex with her first because he is “the most frightened.” It strikes me that Eddie does this to “get it over with” even if he isn’t entirely sure what Bev means. He is the most innocent and inexperienced in terms of sex and this is likely where his fear comes from. It’s important to note that Eddie had no qualms about fighting It to save Bill (a boy) but having sex with Bev (a girl) has him frightened. He tells Bev he loves her, but it appears to come from a platonic and mature bond that has just occurred between them. The focus on Eddie here is about how he feels to have sex with a girl, not Bev specifically.

In Eddie’s adult life, he is married to the spitting image of his mother and is incredibly self-aware of the “subconscious” choice he made to marry his mother. Here is a collection of quotes that show Eddie is unhappy in his marriage and Myra is how he hides his homosexuality in adulthood.

In adulthood, Eddie chose to hide behind Myra, another version of his mother and, thus, never grow out of the fears she instilled in him as a child. Mrs. Kaspbrak and Myra both trap Eddie by making him believe he is not strong or capable enough on his own. Continuing to believe this after his mother’s death is easier than realizing he has been lied to by his parent. Myra engages in similar emotionally abusive tactics as she attempts to manipulate Eddie into staying, but eventually his love for the Losers is too strong.

Now, all this analysis shows that Eddie is unhappily married and that he married his mother, but it doesn’t necessarily point to his sexuality. However, a closer inspection of the text reveals little details that point to Eddie likely being gay. When thinking about his decision to marry Myra, Eddie confirms that he has little experience with womenand his pet name for his wife–Marty–is a man’s name.

The real kicker, though, is this quote:

Eddie feels the only way he can properly love his wife is by being apart from her. If he doesn’t have to face that he “married his mother” and is unhappy being married to a woman, it is much easier to lie to himself. It is safer and easier to love Myra from a distance because he can love the idea of her and ignore the real issues he has with their relationship.

As Eddie packs, he considers the true meaning of “home” and the different way he describes his home with Myra versus his home with the Losers Club is telling.

Eddie thinks of his “home” with Myra as a place where he feels trapped. Myra, like Eddie’s mother, is incredibly possessive of him and Eddie seeks to liberate himself from her. Eddie identifies his “real” home as back in Derry with his friends. Eddie views the Losers as his home because he really, truly loved them and isn’t masquerading at love with them the way he is with Myra. Home is also where “you have to finally face the thing in the dark”–meaning It, of course, and facing your fears. In Eddie’s case, he fears his own internal truths that he’s been using Myra to shield himself from–that he is both gay and not delicate.

Once Eddie arrives in Derry, he is forced to face these truths, beginning when Mike tells the Losers about the recent murders. The first and most emotionally significant victim is Adrian Mellon, a gay man whose murder was influenced by the real murder of Charlie Howard in Maine in 1984. Stephen King makes a direct and specific comparison to Eddie and Adrian Mellon here.

Soon after, Mike describes another victim and Eddie asks a poignant question—he asks about sexual assault because It preyed on his fear about homosexuality and the gay community by threatening to sexually assault him.

During Eddie’s walking tour, he revisits one of Derry’s rich neighborhoods and Eddie thinks back on a memory of encountering Greta Bowie and apparently “liking” her, despite never mentioning her in any other part of the book.

He admires her beauty but fails to mention any other qualities Greta has that he’s attracted to. Eddie seems more attracted to her lifestyle of the rich and popular. Greta’s life is something glamorous that he can never be a part of and can only be admired from afar, which he mistakes for romantic and/or sexual attraction. Much like Myra, he feels safe “loving” Greta from a distance because he can imagine an idealized version of her and her life without worrying about confronting the reality of the situation.

Another old memory is triggered during Eddie’s stroll through this neighborhood.

Eddie’s mother is shown to be homophobic in this scene and Eddie is too afraid to challenge her views. Derry is a bad place for a gay child to grow up because of the violent atmosphere that festers there because of It, but Eddie’s mother is clearly where Eddie gets most of his internalized homophobic fears. As a child, he doesn’t ask his mother to clarify partly because he fears her, but more so because he fears her rejection.

This scene only appears as one of adult Eddie’s memories because he doesn’t recognize the impact it had on him until he is older. Eddie describes the Trackers’ house as “quite remarkable” and appears to admire it, but his mother’s quick dismissal prevents Eddie from expressing these feelings. Similarly, in adulthood, he never allowed himself to explore his homosexuality because he never shook off the lingering fear that gay men are objects of disgust he got from his mother.

This impression stuck with Eddie, shown clearly when he remembers Bev describing Henry and Patrick’s homosexual interaction as something that “made her laugh, but she knew it was bad.”

This may not be exactly what Bev said, but it’s how Eddie remembers it that’s important. He worries that homosexuality is viewed as something not taken seriously, but also as “bad.”

When Henry Bowers attacks Eddie in his hotel room, Henry calls him a “fag” twice. Henry is a representation of both It’s influence and the hatred that lives in Derry, so it’s important that Eddie is one of the only Losers Henry calls a “fag” in dialogue.

And finally, Eddie thinks about how a book or movie would have him bravely reject his past and forge a new life for himself in a very meta moment.

This is reality, however, and Eddie chose what is easy and familiar over what is hard and new. He recognizes his own moment of clarity from childhood and chastises himself for failing to act on it. He associates marrying Myra as something he shouldn’t have done because she, along with his pills and aspirator, represent a part of his childhood he never moved on from.

Richie uses humor to hide and distance himself from trauma but also bisexuality

Richie is not formally introduced into the novel. Rather, he appears in brief interactions or passing comments by other characters and the reader assumes he is just another kid around town until he shows up in the Barrens. One of these early casual mentions by the narrator shows Richie’s…advanced knowledge of sex.

“Mature” is hardly the right word to describe Richie, but in this instance, he is more mature than the other Losers. He appears to be the most sexually aware, since he makes plenty of sex jokes and knows details about STDs later in the book. Richie is sexually interested in the women in his father’s porn magazine and is very aware of his sexual preferences.

I read Richie as bisexual because his attraction to women and Eddie both seem valid to me. He seems aware of his bisexuality throughout the novel but isn’t willing to share this information. This is a direct contrast to Eddie, who is so intertwined in his trauma that he cannot face his own homosexuality for most of his life.

Later, Eddie and Richie have a conversation while building the Smoke Hole that is normal banter on the surface, but also holds metaphorical meaning for both their characters.

Here, Eddie and Richie are very much in their element. Eddie is the expert on all things disease, and he succeeds in impressing Richie with the gross factor. Richie, as usual, makes a sex joke about it to tease Eddie. They have playful banter, which strikes me as their way of having fun with each other. Interestingly, Richie associates sickness, something he knows Eddie is afraid of, to girls by making a joke about titnuss being a “woman’s disease.”

The next important scene is when Bill shows Richie the album in Georgie’s room. Bill grieves his brother and Richie has a very odd reaction.

It’s strange that Richie worries about being mistaken as gay for comforting his friend while they’re alone in George’s room. This is a completely absurd fear, which begs the question…does this worry Richie often?

It makes sense that Richie would be hyperaware of how he is perceived, particularly since Derry has a violent, homophobic history. This explains why Richie always covers his passes at Eddie as jokes. He doesn’t only jokingly flirt with Eddie, though. He does the same thing in this next scene with Beverly. Richie must constantly put up a comedic front so he can explore his bisexuality without being taken seriously.

“Richie liked Bev a lot. Well, he liked her, but not in that way.”

It’s interesting that Richie feels the need to clarify here, especially it is followed by a scene that appears to contradict this.

Richie gets flustered when Bev jokes about them going on a date. He begins to analyze his behavior, looking for signs he gave to make Bev think that. He suddenly feels “weird” and starts to notice sexual things about Beverly, such as her legs and her bosom. Richie is caught off guard by suddenly viewing Bev as a romantic or sexual interest because he hadn’t considered her that way before.

He takes “refuge in absurdity” and starts doing a ridiculous Voice to distract Beverly and himself from the growing tension. He admits that he does things like that to hide…in “moments of confusion.” It’s interesting that Richie describes this moment as confusing for several reasons.

First, Richie recognizes that Bev is teasing him about the date, but for some reason, it shakes him up. Richie knows that his jokes contain some truth and are a defense mechanism designed to protect that truth. When Richie teases Eddie, he knows he has feelings for Eddie and uses his jokes to hide them, and wonders if Bev is doing the same thing here.

Secondly, Richie finds it confusing that he suddenly “likes” Bev. He uses a Voice to cover up his romantic feelings for a girl the same way he uses his Voices and nickname and teasing of Eddie to cover up his romantic feelings for a boy.

Richie says “damn right” when Bev says he doesn’t have romance in his soul, but the next paragraph shows he does–he just keeps it to himself. I’d argue that this scene with Beverly is more sexual excitement than romantic love, but it’s important not to discard Richie’s interaction with Bev here.

Richie makes a ridiculous love joke about Bill later in the Barrens, much like the one he makes to Bev.

This is another great example of Richie using jokes and ridiculous antics to explore his romantic feelings. He does so in front of the other Losers, unlike with Bev in the previous scene, because he knows making a pass at another boy won’t be taken seriously.

Richie makes another ridiculous love joke about Beverly to lighten the mood and does so in front of the other Losers this time.

Richie seems to be experimenting with what he can and cannot get away with in terms of humor. He’s realized that his pass at Bev likely won’t be taken seriously, either, because his constant jokes have given him a reputation of absurdity. Even Ben doesn’t take Richie seriously enough to be jealous.

When it’s Richie’s turn to tell Bev he loves her as they pick matches, he does his usual routine of acting a fool to cover romantic feelings.

This time he has the sense to feel ashamed and self-aware. He tells Bev “you’re cool” after he says, “I love you,” which seems like a deliberate attempt to keep things platonic.

Richie’s encounter with Bev during the sewer sex scene is not described, which is interesting. Apparently, it is not note-worthy for either character, which would suggest that Richie does not actually have a crush on Beverly. If he did, this moment would be much more important to him. Also, having sex with Bev doesn’t tell us much about his character that we don’t already know.

It is all but confirmed that Richie draws strength from humor when the Losers fight It as children. This knowledge makes certain scenes he has with Eddie incredibly sweet because he is trying to be comforting but uses humor to disguise his tender intentions and hopes Eddie will draw strength from it, too.

Richie and Eddie’s individual character analyses is interesting because the way they process their feelings for one another is completely different. Richie is very aware of his feelings for Eddie but is determined to hide them and uses humor to do so. Eddie is in deep denial of his homosexuality because of religious guilt and deep-seated fear from his mother, so much so that he hides his feelings for Richie–even from himself.

Check back here in a few days for Part 2 of this analysis, which delves into the queer subtext present in Richie and Eddie’s scenes found within the novel.

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