What Boycotting ‘Ender’s Game’ Won’t Do

By  · Published on July 16th, 2013

“Probably the most egregiously overlooked area of gay visibility is, if you can swing with me on this, science fiction…Since all these shows are set in the future, the grim possibility exists that, at least in their creators’ minds, there are no gay people in the future. It’s a curious notion for science-fiction to embrace…”

Discussing queer visibility on network television, Bruce Vilanch wrote these words for The Advocate in 1997, but he might as well have been talking about films in 2013.

Last year, I made a point that “the genres that dominate Hollywood right now are also the most heteronormative (action sequels, superhero franchises, and children’s films)”; outside of the occasional allegory, one could add science-fiction to this mix as well.

Of all the conversations surrounding the controversy over Orson Scott Card’s affiliation with the homophobic National Organization for Marriage in advance of Lionsgate’s expensive adaptation of Ender’s Game, one repeated assertion has been bugging me quite a bit – the notion that the film itself will have nothing to do, and does not in any way exercise, Card’s problematic politics. Such a view sees the routine absence of homosexuality in popular movies – specifically, genre movies – as somehow apolitical.

Strangely enough, this is a perspective that is, to varying ends, endorsed by Card himself, Lionsgate, and even Geeks Out, the wonderful queer geek community-wrangler that organized the boycott of the Ender’s Game film.

Responding to the criticism about Card’s political affiliations, the author sent “Entertainment Weekly” a statement that opened with, “Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.” This statement both manufactures a 1980s in which LGBT identity was not involved with any “political issues,” and is complicit in the strange lack of social imagination in Utopian science fiction as discussed by Vilanch. It’s also only slightly less infuriating than some of the other things Card says in his brief, condescending statement.

While Lionsgate renounced Card’s politics, they too argued that Ender’s Game itself is somehow removed from politics as well:

“As proud longtime supporters of the LGBT community, champions of films ranging from Gods and Monsters to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and a company that is proud to have recognized same-sex unions and domestic partnerships within its employee benefits policies for many years, we obviously do not agree with the personal views of Orson Scott Card and those of the National Organization for Marriage. However, they are completely irrelevant to a discussion of Ender’s Game. The simple fact is that neither the underlying book nor the film itself reflect these views in any way, shape or form. On the contrary, the film not only transports viewers to an entertaining and action-filled world, but it does so with positive and inspiring characters who ultimately deliver an ennobling and life-affirming message.”

Thank you, Lionsgate, for mapping this moral terrain so deftly. Of course, films depicting “action-filled worlds” are always “contrary” to political views sympathetic to Card.

But this view that the adaptation of “Ender’s Game” is important entirely for its author and not at all for its content has been accepted as common wisdom. Geeks Out, responding at length to Card’s befuddling statement, asserts that, “This is not and has never been about a much beloved sci-fi novel,” implicitly conceding that an absence of overt LGBT themes/characters/politics in a creative work renders that work apolitical, unassociated with overt extratextual displays of homophobia. But systemic LGBT invisibility in genre cinema is not, in Card’s parlance, “moot.”

This is not at all to suggest that Card’s political involvement is exemplary of the rest of the sci-fi community. Fans, authors, filmmakers in that community tend to lean left. And that’s why Card’s egregious rhetoric should inspire a productive opportunity to interrogate the representational gaps in genre cinema. After all, if Card never joined NOM, never wrote a 2004 essay titled “Homosexual ‘Marriage’ and Civilization,” and never threatened to “destroy” the US government for recognizing gay marriage, Ender’s Game would still be a film that inconspicuously contained zero non-straight characters, like nearly every studio science-fiction film before it.

The narrative conventions and cultivated expectations of science-fiction permitted Card to succeed extravagantly, political alliances unnoticed, until now, and it’s important that people who proudly call themselves geeks seriously ask why that is.

This is also not to suggest that simply representing LGBT characters in genre fare leads to progressive politics – representation has the capacity to do more harm than good, and can often amount to little more than pandering to a superficial, token notion of what it means to exhibit diversity. Rather, the historical lack of queer representation in genre cinema is important in this case because it demonstrates what a boycott of Ender’s Game won’t accomplish: it won’t make corporate movies any friendlier of a place for queer themes, politics, or characters.

As Dustin Lance Black stated in his criticism of the boycott, “Boycotting a movie made by 99% LGBT equality folks in an LGBT equality industry is a waste of our collective energy. Making one phone call to a relative in the south who isn’t quite there yet would be 1,000 times more effective.”

While I disagree that the Card boycott is a “waste of energy” – we should try to meet the butcher before we buy the meat in as many of our transactions as we can – I do agree that this isn’t, to a degree, Chick-fil-A. Card’s politics don’t reflect corporate discriminatory practices or evidence a direct chain of commerce from consumers to homophobic organizations (I doubt Card got a back-end deal of the film’s theatrical gross). However, as Hollywood’s MO is risk-minimal capitalism, “99% LGBT equality folks in an LGBT equality industry” don’t necessarily make for “LGBT equality cinema.”

In response to the Ender’s Game controversy, Lionsgate has promised to hold a benefit/premiere for the LGBT community. This benefit is, naturally, meant for the benefit of Lionsgate – an opportunity for the company to cater to a niche audience and protect a multi-million dollar property. Hollywood does this across the political spectrum, turning ideology and identity into advertising – look at Man of Steel’s promotional efforts towards Christians. In response to Lionsgate’s response, Geeks Out stated that both Lionsgate and Card are entitled to any act of free speech they so please, but they are not entitled to anybody’s dollar.

But this also makes me wonder about what can ever be satisfying about this type of boycott, especially if it isn’t, according to any vocal side of it, supposed to be “about the movie.” Do we expect – or, more importantly, do we even want corporate entities like Lionsgate and their bottom-line studio practices to be elevated to the place of moral exemplars, meant to demonstrate the interpersonal values we hold as humans? Is there any possible outcome of this that won’t result in turning LGBT audiences into dollar signs, or a faceless group taken into account for risk assessment and brand management? Are we ultimately to suggest that the invisibility of certain politics is a virtue by default – and homophobia is only recognizable in its most cartoonishly virulent form, rather than as a series of nuanced but present practices and endemic assumptions?

The response to Ender’s Game has more than a few parallels to last summer’s protest around Mike Huckabee’s favorite preservative barn, especially because it’s articulated in the very same terms: not giving money to a commercial enterprise that might then funnel that money towards an anti-LGBT organization (a logic trail that implicates Lionsgate’s contracts with Card, rather than Card alone). For Slate last year, J. Bryan Lowder wrote this necessary piece about the limitations of corporate protest. Here are a few choice quotes:

“The stench of corporate personhood is all over this thing. Both the Left and Right are looking to boardrooms for guidance not only on what to buy, but also on what to believe. Corporations have become role models, moral actors worthy of praise or derision depending on your point of view. . . When we look to corporations for statements on sociopolitical issues, we’re promoting them to a status far beyond mere product or service provider. Suddenly, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A are being called upon to make moral judgments. The problem is, as organizations whose commitments shift with every quarterly profit report, they are supremely unqualified to make those kinds of pronouncements.”

In all seriousness, geeks and bloggers: keep up the boycott. Geeks Out: keep holding the practices and associations of studio filmmaking accountable and transparent. Orson Scott Card: go fuck yourself. No amount of advertising and sleek promotion means that a movie deserves our money or must be seen. If Ender’s Game flops, I will likely enjoy a brief moment of satisfaction. Not only because of Card’s homophobia but, as with Chick-fil-A, because some forms of mass production are just plain bad for you.

That said, Ender’s Game may make the bar, and it’s important not to see this or any single commercial film’s fate as the terms by which LGBT advocacy in the field of entertainment is valued. Queer cinema exists. It exists on HBO with Behind the Candelabra. It exists in underground cinema with Interior. Leather Bar. It exists in the arthouse with Laurence Anyways. It doesn’t yet exist in science-fiction.

Emphasis on “yet.”