Sometimes, the internet is just going to do its own thing. Explaining how a meme is formed can be an oddly exhausting process. You just don’t question it. Then you log on one day and see that The Babadook, the terrifying spectre of fear and guilt from Jennifer Kent’s critically acclaimed Australian horror movie, has become an LGBTQ icon. Suddenly, the black and white figure who gave viewers countless sleepless nights is wearing a feather boa and turning up at Pride and being photo-shopped into scenes from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and you can’t help but wonder if perhaps you fell asleep for longer than previously thought. The top-hat wearing monster who haunted Essie Davis was now the camp hero we needed, so it was inevitable that, a mere week after its release, the adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel It would face the same transformation for its own villain, Pennywise.
As played by Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise has a shock of ginger hair, buck teeth and lavishly painted scarlet lips, while his style has been influenced by the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, both whimsical and haunting. Then, of course, there are the ever-present balloons. When you put it like that, why wouldn’t you expect Pennywise to become the internet’s new gay icon, hanging onto the arm of the Babadook, rainbow balloons in hand and on their way to fiercely terrorize kids?
happy pride month from queer icon the babadook pic.twitter.com/f2JxwQbRDd— baby tracy (@jacobbullards) June 3, 2017
Obviously, a lot of this appropriation is heavily steeped in irony. It takes a firmly tongue in cheek approach to make one of horror’s most petrifying figures – an interdimensional being who eats kids and may or may not be the source of all evil in Derry – into essentially a drag queen. However, this approach isn’t new. The LGBTQ community has always played with iconography from the horror genre, and drag queens have delved into the creepy and unsettling for inspiration. The difference here is now it’s gone mainstream and even straight people like it.
The origins of this particular case lie in a Netflix mistake. A screen shot emerged on social media that listed The Babadook under LGBT movies. Some claim the image was photoshopped, but whatever the case, the post went viral and spawned a whole array of memes that verged from silly to earnest. It didn’t take long for The Babadook to be the subject of rainbow adorned fan-art, cosplay and some genuinely moving discussions regarding pop culture’s place in LGBTQ discourse.
There are some striking LGBTQ readings of The Babadook. The LA Times notes the inevitability of it all:
“Someone was like, ‘How could “The Babadook” become a gay film,’ and the answer was readily available,” said Karen Tongson, an associate professor of gender studies and English at USC. “He lives in a basement, he’s weird and flamboyant, he’s living adjacently to a single mother in this kind of queer kinship structure.”
While the film isn’t the strongest example pf the trend, horror and genre fiction has been heavily aligned with queer readings for centuries: Frankenstein as the “perfect” man, shunned by his creator; the repression of the women trapped in the house of The Haunting; Dracula as the seducer of Jonathan Harker, and so on. Freddy Krueger has been adopted by some as an unlikely queer icon of horror, in no small part thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, wherein he haunts a young man through means so blatantly homoerotic that Buzzfeed later called it “the gayest horror film ever.”
Subtext is key here. Obviously, there’s no scene where the Babadook comes out, but for many decades when homosexuality was illegal, subtext was all the community had. Watch any golden age Hollywood film and see how many of the “sissy” trope you can see. Queer readings became a way for people to find representation and solace in a media that either ignored or attacked them. Finding icons in horror is a great way of turning a homophobic society’s fears back at them. The first gay pride parade in New York City in 1970 featured a now iconic sign from activist Donna Gottschalk that read, “I am your worst fear, I am your best fantasy.”
That’s how we get to Pennywise. The dancing clown who created generations of coulrophobics was already going through a metamorphosis by the time the film premiered, once everyone realised what the guy under all the make-up looked like, and that they all found Bill Skarsgård to be immensely attractive. Jokey blog posts were written about the unease of finding the killer clown hot, and even the kids in the cast of It had a laugh over the internet’s new conundrum. That’s nothing new for the character – after all, the original Pennywise, Tim Curry, is also LGBTQ icon Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a realization that confused many individuals growing up.
When Twitter user @kumivenarts made their drawing of the Babadook and Pennywise as a gay couple, “off on a date to get crepes and terrorise some kids,” it instantly went viral. “Clown” may be the only occupation that requires more make-up than drag, so it’s sensible to assume crossover between the two communities. Both Sharon Needles and Morgan McMichaels, contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race, have performed as Pennywise.
Pennywise and his boyfriend, The Babadook are off on a date to get crepes and terrorize some kids. pic.twitter.com/eakshrfkN7— Kumi (@kumivenarts) September 12, 2017
Currently, LGBTQ rights are up against an intensely difficult political climate. While the meme may have started as a silly joke on social media, the evolution of two of modern horror’s scariest villains into the sassiest gay icons this side of RuPaul and Ellen Degeneres has its own potency. Taking two terrifying figures and defanging them of their terror through glitz and camp is part of a long tradition of queer pop culture readings that balance that fine line between reclaiming power and subverting bigotry. For anyone who’s spent the past month avoiding the internet for fear of accidentally clicking on a picture of Pennywise, it sure does make things a lot easier to imagine him on a date with the Babadook.
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