I Don’t Think Richie from Stephen King’s IT Is Gay
I was sitting in a movie theater, relaxing to the tale of a murderous, otherwordly clown who eats kids like Cheetos— you know the one — when my son Jace leaned over and whispered,
“It’s pretty cool how they made Richie a coded gay man.”
It took a second for his words to register, distracted as I was by blood exploding out of an on-screen chest. I whispered back that, though I could see how a person might reach that conclusion, Gay Richie (not to be confused with British director Guy Ritchie) probably wasn’t a thing.
Boy, was I wrong.
Google “richie tozier gay,” and you’ll find hundreds of comments, tweets, and subreddits opining on the character’s orientation. Not to mention articles in Variety. Hollywood Reporter. Interviews with Andy Muschietti, who directed both parts of It, and Bill Hader, who played adult Richie. The freaking New York Times:
[W]e learn that Richie Tozier, the fast-talking, foul-mouthed teenager (played by Finn Wolfhard) who grew up to be a popular stand-up comedian (Bill Hader) is gay and has been secretly in love with his friend and fellow club member Eddie Kaspbrak.
At the risk of seeming homophobic, I think we “learn” no such thing. “Learn” implies facts. One learns the 50 state capitals. Or the Pythagorean theorem. Or that the Trump administration consists of Jersey devils in suits.
Gay Richie is a notion. An opinion. An interpretation. One that I, despite my son being transgender, just can’t get behind.
Supporters of Gay Richie point out that the character, in It: Chapter 2, has no wife or girlfriend. That he teases Eddie. That he cries after Eddie is killed and the group abandons his body. That, as a kid, he scratched R+E on the wooden guard rail of the bridge into the Barrens.
Problem is, all these choices can be interpreted in other ways.
- No wife or girlfriend. Neither does Ben (though he does moon over Beverly). Neither does Mike.
- Teases Eddie. We say kids who tease each other must be secretly in love. Do adults resort to this? Besides, Richie taunts everybody.
- Cries in the lake. The group had just faced the creature they had been terrified of for 27 years. It nearly killed them. I’d probably sob a bit too.
- R+E. Adult Richie returns to this graffito after Eddie’s death, tracing it with a knife to deepen the cuts. It could be an act of love. Or friendship. Or a way to honor the fallen. Or something else.
One article cites the movie flashback of Richie in a local arcade as evidence that the character isn’t straight.
He plays Street Fighter with a kid we’ve never seen before. When the kid says he has to go, Richie offers to pay for the next round of games. Unfortunately, the new kid’s cousin, Henry Bowers, lives to torment Richie and his friends. Now face to face with a stab-happy bully, and surrounded by the judging eyes of his peers, Richie’s sexual orientation, and therefore masculinity, is challenged by his crush.
So Richie is gay because he prefers having a player 2? And because some punk calls him a faggot?
Besides, isn’t the point not merely that Richie is gay but that he loves Eddie. Why, then, would a random townie interest him?
Another article offers this passage from the novel. Eddie — one arm in a cast, the other carrying a Parcheesi board — sees Richie and Stan walk out of a store, each eating a Rocket ice cream.
“No subtext there at all, no sir,” the author writes.
Well, what about the rest of the passage?
See? Richie teases Eddie not out of forbidden love but because Eddie’s an irresistible target: sickly, a mama’s boy, and, as this passage makes clear, gullible.
I didn’t know what Jace meant by “coded gay man,” his term for Richie. This definition helped:
Queer coding, much as the name suggests, refers to a process by which characters in a piece of fictional media seem — or code — queer. This is usually determined by a series of characteristics that are traditionally associated with queerness, such as more effeminate presentations by male characters or more masculine ones from female characters. These characters seem somehow less than straight, and so we associate those characters with queerness — even if their sexual orientation is never a part of their story.
Coding is not overt, and according to this writer, it may be unintentional, “as much a part of the relationship between the work and the audience as . . . between the creator and audience (or even the creator and their work).” It belongs to the set of possibilities that the author may not have consciously included but that are based on a close reading of the text.
Jace has a term for this concept: “implied canon.” (Maybe he is a coded literary theorist).
One expression of coding is when fans imagine a furtive romance between characters — e.g., Richie and Eddie. This is called “shipping,” and it happens all the time in certain fandoms. The best ships involve characters who are opposites (Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock) or who have messy, complicated associations, like Saruhiko Fushimi and Misaki Yata from the anime K Project (the two lived together and were great friends until Fushimi betrayed Yata by joining a rival gang).
Now for the big question, one Jace asked me on the way home from It: Chapter 2 that night, one that haunts me the way meeting Pennywise haunts the Losers:
“Is it okay if Richie is gay?”
I said I didn’t mind it.
Yet I’ve been carping about it ever since. I mean, if Richie was in love with Eddie, why make no effort to contact him for twenty-seven years? If Eddie loved Richie, why didn’t he initiate contact? Trashmouth Tozier, a well-known comic, shouldn’t be hard to find. Did Richie feel pressure to stay closeted? As a kid in the 80s, sure. But as a celebrity? He wouldn’t care.
When I said all this to Jace, he replied, “As a straight person, you don’t live in the closet, so you’re don’t know what it looks like when someone else does.”
I do know what it looks like when people see in a text what they want to see. The word for this is “eisegesis.” It means to read with a bias instead of an open mind.
To implant, not interpret.
To read in rather than read out.
In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Stephen King was asked whether he intended any gay subtext for Richie and Eddie.
“No, I never did,” King said. “But again, it’s one of those things that’s kind of genius, because it echoes the beginning. It comes full circle.”
In other words, yes and no. Or maybe “whatever.” Imagine, though, if he had replied, “Well, of course they’re gay! I was beginning to think nobody would figure it out!”
Would such an answer ruin It for me, a book about ruined childhoods and the burden they present in adulthood?
I read It in middle school. It is my favorite book by any writer. The book taught me about history. It taught me about writing. It taught me about friendship and fear.
It taught me about sex but not sexuality. As the son of a Baptist pastor, I had little concept of gayness, coded or otherwise. Believe it or not, the subject didn’t come up at church. Southern Baptists are conservatives but not loud-mouthed bigots.
Kids at school, worldly kids, made fun of gayness, and I inexcusably joined them.
According to this article, King gay-codes in a number of books: The Body (Gordie Lachance/Chris Chambers) and The Long Walk (Peter McVries/Garraty), as well as It.
The truth is, gayness is not integral to any of them. To make it integral is to turn it into a stunt or some sort of talisman. The whole point of equality is that being gay is as unremarkable as being straight. In that sense, what we see of Richie’s orientation is what a person would show in real life: hints.
Yet in literature, or a movie, you need to give the audience more to work with. You need more than hints; you need to be explicit. Otherwise, you get Ph.Divas like me who claim the issue isn’t clear enough.
In that New York Times article, Hader discusses how he and Muschietti approached Richie’s sexuality:
Andy and I talked about how overt we should make it, and I said if it’s not overt, then why is he in the movie? You can’t do a half measure on it. You’ve got to go the full way or don’t even allude to it. Let’s not be coy. Let’s just say what it is.
Yet they were coy. That’s what coding is: coyness.
Perhaps I am right to be skeptical of Gay Richie.
It is, in my mind, Stephen King’s masterpiece, a treatise on acceptance, courage, and standing down your torments. This is a pro-LGBT message, whether any characters are actually gay.
Jace was right: I don’t know what it’s like to see queer coding. To want queer coding. To rely on queer coding for representation. He, and all those like him, deserve allies who are well-intentioned and well-informed.
Representation is important. So is critical thinking.
To answer my son’s question: yes, it’s okay if Richie is gay.
Such a small word to contain so much hope.