IT tells a story about the very real fears of womanhood

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Sep 12, 2017

I first read IT a few summers ago, secluded in a lakeside cabin for the duration of 4th of July weekend. Limited cell phone signal, non-existent wifi; just me, the constant lull of waves lapping against the dock, and the words of Stephen King. Removed from the rest of the world as I was, it was easy to find myself lost in the thick tome - and not just because IT is a thoroughly terrifying novel. It's a primarily horror story, to be sure, in spite of recent debate on the subject, but what also contributes to its engrossing nature is the fact that it exhibits a lot of qualities typically found in the bildungsroman, or “coming-of-age” genre. Reading IT, I was transported back to the sweaty, hazy summers of my own adolescence, when the school year was little more than a dim memory and warm nights quickly fled from the advent of longer, hotter days.

2017’s film adaptation of IT, directed by Andy Muschietti, succeeds on several fronts. It delivers on the creep factor if not in blatant jump scares around every turn, but where it undeniably triumphs is its dive into the nostalgia of childhood and the inescapable transition into becoming an adult. This is something that gets explored to a compelling degree through the character of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). While the other members of the self-dubbed Losers’ Club come face-to-face with fears that range from the unnatural to those stemmed in personal loss, Beverly’s nightmares are firmly anchored in her passage from girl to woman, and what will inevitably happen to her body as a result of that development.

The root of Beverly’s arc is defined by her trauma - initially, how she processes her treatment at the hands of her own father and chooses to internalize it rather than let anyone else know the truth of what’s going on behind closed doors. Wild rumors circulate throughout the small town of Derry, Maine - exaggerated untruths about Beverly’s promiscuity - but for Bev, all of that gossip couldn’t be farther from reality. And yet while she continues to try and reject her womanhood at every turn, that doesn’t stop the young boys - and even some men - from projecting their desires onto her. This may partly be due to Lillis’ portrayal of the character, but even while the male pharmacist leers at her from across the counter, her father’s touch inappropriately lingers on her ponytail, and the rest of the Losers’ Club sneak peeks at her in her underwear she seems entirely, if quietly, aware of the unique card she holds and can use to manipulate others if she so chooses, but only when she chooses.

In conflict with this new understanding, Beverly does everything she can to halt her womanliness at every turn. Cutting her hair over the bathroom sink is merely the most drastic representation of that rejection. Of course, thanks to the rising evils of It, many of Derry’s internalized fears are laid bare and Beverly’s come back with a vengeance. The long strands of hair she washed down the drain regurgitate to try and strangle her; blood spurts violently from the pipes and drenches both her and the bathroom in a grisly display. When her screams summon her father, Beverly’s horror doubles at the realization that he can’t see what she sees - but as we soon discover, his inability to perceive her fears doesn’t invalidate them. Eventually, Beverly calls in the rest of the Losers to make sure she’s not imagining things. Not only do they affirm her, they go one step further - they help her clean up in the aftermath, pitching in until the last of the blood is wiped away.

Then, perhaps emboldened by her newfound support from the rest of the Losers, Beverly’s story becomes not just about acknowledging her trauma but about confronting it head-on. Next to Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the de facto leader of the Losers, Bev winds up being the one in the group most likely to lead the charge into danger while most of the other boys are still scuffing their sneakers against the sidewalk. When the group determines that the heart of It lies in the abandoned house on Neibolt Street, Bev is the only person who doesn’t raise her hand when Bill asks for volunteers to stay behind and keep watch. The first time the Losers do significant damage against Pennywise, rejoining each other after being separated in It’s disturbing house of horrors, Beverly delivers the first significant blow by impaling the clown through the head with a fence post. Later, when her tension with her father reaches disturbing heights and he attempts to rape her, she fights back and eventually immobilizes him.

Admittedly, her story isn’t perfect. Where it suffers most is in the third act of the film, after Beverly has been captured by Pennywise and dragged down into the cistern via the Derry sewers. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say she comes off as a damsel-in-distress at that stage, but the problem with completely reducing her to that trope is that the movie makes a point to set her up as an equal, if not even superior to the boys in the Losers’ Club - not just in terms of her maturity but her bravery as well. By the time she regains consciousness and has to face Pennywise alone, Beverly stares him down. Her words are defiant even if her eyes may partially betray her. In that moment, she tells It she isn’t afraid. She floats too, eventually, but not quite as high as the other doomed kids. She holds on long enough to be brought back (admittedly, via a kiss from Ben) and then she confronts the real source of all her fears - her father - and strikes It down without hesitation.

stephen king's it

After Pennywise retreats and the Losers take their blood oath, vowing to return to Derry as adults and defeat It once and for all, there’s a noticeable lightness in Beverly’s shoulders. For the moment, the unearthly evil is gone. Her worldly problems are in the rearview mirror as well. She is in the process of moving out of her father’s house and out from under his abusive shadow. Taking all that into consideration it’s easy to see why she smiles after Bill kisses her, her first kiss since the one they’d shared during that play in third grade. She smiles and then initiates a kiss of her own before departing.

Of course, we know Beverly’s narrative isn’t over. This is only the first in a planned duology of filmsIT Chapter Two will be released at a date to be determined, and fans of the book will recall that unfortunately, this is not the end of the trauma Beverly experiences within her lifetime. King's source material is sort of cyclical in the way it pairs Beverly with men who abuse and take advantage of her even 27 years later, reminiscent of what she experienced as a child. Pennywise may lie dormant but the very real evils of the world persist, the horrors of adulthood and mature relationships. What defined Beverly as a young woman - and what will come to eventually redefine her as an older one - is her ability to summon the strength to defeat each of them in turn, not just by herself but with the help of her friends.