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The Power of Identity and Queer Liberation in ‘Carrie’

“Come to your closet.”

“No.”

The scene in which Carrie White defiantly challenges the oppressive nature of her mother in the 1976 film has sparked satisfaction and triumph within me since I was a young boy. Before I could consciously identify concepts like theme and symbolism in media, Carrie was a magnetic force to a pivotal aspect of who I was—an inherent queerness that, whether I knew it or not, was setting me apart from my peers, and causing me to feel insecure. The subconscious link that I felt stems from the most important aspect of Carrie’s characterization: self-discovery, and claiming agency over her identity.

Carrie, in its original novelization and many film adaptations, transcends simply being the vengeance tale of a bullied misfit. Stephen King admits in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that the inspiration for Carrie came to him courtesy of two classmates he attended high school with. He describes the relentless bullying that the girls were subjected to daily—more than silly teasing, but incessant hatred due to their upbringings, how they behaved, and how they dressed. Rationalizing the root of the mistreatment, he describes how one of the victims, whom he calls Dodie, “was everything that [his classmates] were afraid of.” Despite Dodie’s attempts at changing her clothes to fit in, the bullying continued because, “Her peers had no intention of letting her out of the box they’d put her in; she was punished for even trying to break free.” King states that he pitied both the girls, and their classmates—that the entire situation seemed to stem from the insecurity that is often prevalent in youth.

Given the inspiration, it’s clear that the foundation of Carrie is built upon the complex debacle that is coming of age and learning about larger societal issues and norms. In a way, Carrie’s bullies are just as lost as she is. Sue Snell, disillusioned with her privilege and whether or not she deserves all of the benefits that it entails, implores Tommy Ross to take Carrie to the prom in an effort to make reparations for her behavior, yet still feels unsatisfied. Chris Hargensen, physically and emotionally abused by her boyfriend Billy, unfoundedly channels her resentment into seeking revenge against Carrie. In an ironic twist, the character who seems to find the most resolve and self-determination is Carrie—particularly when she begins flexing her supernatural abilities. This journey of the outcast owning the aspect of herself that sets her apart has a natural appeal to a queer viewer in the context of heteronormativity.

In the film, Carrie takes initiative by exploring the origin of the strange events that seem to surround her. There is a clear arc of self-acceptance that, in retrospect, I identified significantly with in the film as a closeted gay child. At first, Carrie stares at her own reflection in her bedroom mirror with a fearful expression, causing it to shatter and alluding to the fact that she is unhappy with herself, and the circumstances that she has been forced into. When her mother, Margaret, proceeds to her room to investigate the noise, Carrie quickly uses her power to reassemble the mirror, with the shot slowly focusing on the portrait of Jesus Christ looming disapprovingly behind her in the broken shards. Carrie’s complex relationship with religion stems from Margaret’s religious fanaticism. Margaret has raised Carrie to believe that Satan is constantly lurking in the shadows trying to deceive and manipulate her.

A shift occurs when Carrie finally finds a descriptor for herself at the library: telekinesis (in the novel, she terms her ability as the act of FLEXING). From this point on, everything changes: Carrie begins to command her ability, leading to the pivotal confrontation between she and Margaret. Carrie essentially has a coming-out moment, admitting that Tommy Ross has asked her to the prom, and subsequently demonstrating the newfound control she has over her telekinetic abilities by slamming all of the windows shut in the house. 

The scene seems almost explicitly queer: Margaret, distraught with her daughter’s abnormality, directs Carrie to lock herself in the closet and repent. When Carrie refuses, Margaret denounces her powers as being derived from Satan, and implores her to no longer use them. Watching the scene now, I hear echoes in my mind from teachers and classmates at my Catholic school, claiming that homosexual acts are “sinful” and against God’s teachings. I hear friends telling me that it would be safer if I stayed in the closet, and the buzz-phrase, “It’s okay if you’re gay, but you need to pray on it and never act on it.” 

Despite her mother’s condemnations, Carrie stands firm. Leaning on the edge of a shelf, framed as though she is sitting in a confessional booth, Carrie proclaims that her power has nothing to do with Satan, that she isn’t the only one to have telekinetic abilities, and that Margaret can no longer control her. The scene is both tragic and empowering. It reflects a harsh reality that many queer people experience when coming out to people they care about. Despite her mother’s unaccepting attitude, Carrie finally possesses the terminology to defend her identity and stand up for herself. 

I can’t help but see my own journey of self-acceptance through this arc as well. Growing up, knowing that there was something about me that was different, I was constantly force-fed the idea that homosexuality was sinful in the Catholic school setting I grew up in. I was taught from my peers that words like “queer” and “gay” were insults, synonymous with being called “stupid” or “idiotic”, before knowing that they were even descriptors for same-sex attraction. When I finally began to realize that aspect of myself, I had to reclaim those descriptors for myself. When I did, I felt a sense of power behind my identity, similar to Carrie claiming her power when she finally had a word to find an identity in. I began to distance the word “homosexuality” from being immoral and wrong, to instead, a natural aspect of who I am.

Carrie is a timeless story for me, and I can’t help but connect it to the personal journey I took in accepting my queerness. In his memoir, Stephen King says that one of the most important things he learned in writing Carrie is that “the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s.” I doubt that King’s intention when writing his debut novel in the 70s was to create a heroine empowering specifically for queer people, yet I’m sure that’s what Carrie is for me, and many other queer folks who grew up with the story, whether they realize it or not.