Problematic Media, Villainous Villains, and that Surprisingly Anti-Queer Pennywise

by thethreepennyguignol

In the wake of IT Chapter Two, amongst the maelstrom of Reddie fanfiction that I was certainly not churning out at the rate of six per hour and Bill Hader actually becoming a sex symbol, released an article that swiftly shot to the top of the Discourse surrounding the movie: Pennywise is Surprisingly Anti-Queer in IT Chapter 2.

The article soon became the centre of a lot of vaguely disbelieving and generally hilarious commentary, because – well, because this is a clown that eats children, guys! In terms of giant space spiders I’m concerned about having the allyship off, he’s pretty far down on the list, you know?

But, since then, I’ve noticed a lot of discourse with a capital D revolving around this notion of critiquing media for its problematic elements. Which, as I’ve written before, I’m totally here for – I think that engaging with imperfect media is basically a neccessity if you’re going to consume pop culture at all, and that being able to critique problematic elements of a show you love can be a valuable way to better understand the less-than-stellar ideas they’re putting forward.

But this specific Pennywise article has drawn to my attention a certain subset of this discourse which I find totally and utterly baffling and, to be quite honest, silly: the criticism and dismissal of a piece of media as problematic when a villain does something, well, villainous.

I think a good example of this is the criticism that Joss Whedon recieved for his tenure behind the Avengers movies: some of it, indeed, most of it, I think is totally deserved. A comment about bringing back prima nocta, a reference to institutionalised rape, also received a lot of blowback, which makes sense, given that it was delivered by Tony Stark, one of the original heroes of the franchise and an undeniable good guy in this particular movie.  But he was also criticised for having Loki, the undeniable villain of the story at least at the time that this movie came out, use the term “mewling quim” to insult a female character. Is that a horrible thing to say? Yes! But the film does not frame it as anything other than a Bad Thing being said by a Bad Person.

In order to be the bad guys, villains have to go against the moral code of the universe in which they’re operating. And this can get blurry when we present villains as antiheroes or even as protagonists, but not much of this Discourse seems to revolve around that. It seems to be focused on characters who are undeniable bad guys, villains, monsters, saying and doing things that our protags – the people we’re meant to agree with – find reprehensible. What matters is the context in which this sentiment is put forward – who is saying it? What does the film want us to think about this person? How do other elements of the story contextualize their attitudes? Pennywise is anti-queer, but the movie itself depicts a loving gay relationship, is critical of homophobic hate crime, and features a gay leading man; the movie contains anti-queer sentiment, but that does not reflect the attitude of the film at large.

I totally understand wanting to come to media and not be reminded of deeply depressing concepts like sexism, homophobia, racism, and the like, I really do. And I think it’s perfectly alright to see a piece of pop culture that involves those elements and opt out of watching it because handling that shit is too much for you at the moment. But I also believe that seeing any depiction of those things, or other elements that you find distasteful, and declaring its inclusion in that media problematic which no further investigation into its context is basically pretty silly. People do fuck up, of course, and sometimes even the most well-intentioned inclusions of difficult subjects can be more harmful than helpful. But I don’t want to see villainous villains being criticised for being villainous. Because frankly, I’m quite happy not to claim an evil soul-sucking clown as an ally. And I’d hope you are, too.

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(header image via Indiewire)