Culture  Death of the author

Is a boycott of "Ender’s Game" worth it?

Trigger warning: This article contains examples of extreme homophobia.

To slither into an already played-out debate is often gratuitous – but in this case necessary. Ender’s Game, a sci-fi blockbuster, was released on November 1 across North America, amid controversy. The film is based on a book written by notably homophobic author Orson Scott Card (OSC in sci-fi circles), and since the summer the film has faced calls for boycott from gay activist groups.

Gallons of ink have already splattered various print media regarding the validity of the boycott; a few drops more won’t hurt.

OSC’s attacks against the gay community are legion. Writing in Sunstone, a Mormon magazine, in 1990, OSC argued that “those who flagrantly violate society’s rules of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.” Not exactly the patron saint of tolerance – especially when it comes to criticism of his own views. As he said more recently an interview with Salt Lake City newspaper Deseret News, “I’ve had no criticism. I’ve had savage, lying, deceptive personal attacks, but no actual criticism because they’ve never addressed any of my actual ideas.” Eagerly embroiling himself in the recent public wrangling over the issue of gay marriage, he suggested that gay people were the result of a “tragic genetic mix-up” and that married same-sex couples “won’t be married, they’ll just be playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes.”

The announcement of the release of Ender’s Game neatly coincided with the very public drama of same-sex marriage debate in the U.S., and OSC’s politics were thrust into the public domain. Demands for a boycott, then, are unsurprising. Most prominent among the opposition to the film is Geeks OUT, an organization gathering together self-professed “LGBT geeks.”

Geeks OUT campaigns on the basis that box-office tickets for Ender’s Game “fuel the anti-gay agenda” and that the film must be avoided in consequence. The group launched a series of events across North America at the time of release to, in their words, “offset any damage that might accrue from Ender’s Game becoming a blockbuster and making a new fortune for Orson Scott Card.”
Critics point out that OSC doesn’t stand to make any profit on the movie, his money having been made years ago when the rights to the film were bought. But he does still own the rights to the Ender’s Game novel, and stands to benefit from the boost in book sales that will likely accompany the movie’s release. Accordingly, Geeks OUT have conceded that their boycott is unlikely to cause financial damage to the project – their boycott is symbolic.

The threat of homophobia is worryingly ever-present and Geeks OUT is absolutely correct to draw attention to it. The wider question though is whether the film really should be boycotted because of the author’s stance. A large section of the audience does not consider the politics of the people who create the entertainment they consume. That might ruin the fun.

Unity of opinion on the right of the political spectrum has long been the envy of the left, and true to form, progressive opinion is in disarray. The subject matter of Ender’s Game, both book and film, does not broach the subject of sexuality. Humanity battles an alien species – stock sci-fi shtick – but the film invites the audience to ponder the morality of violence rather than revel in it unthinkingly. Surely this is a welcome departure from the aestheticized, exalting violence of most Hollywood blockbusters?

Ender’s Game has nothing to do with OSC’s homophobia, and his politics remain largely separate from his work. There is of course the unfortunate naming of the alien species as ‘buggers’ (Google to find out the connotations in British slang), but the association, reportedly, was not deliberate. In any case, the film’s entire cast have distanced themselves from OSC’s medieval views and asserted the fundamentally positive message of Ender’s Game. “It’s well known Orson Scott Card and I have different views on the issue of gay marriage and gay rights,” Harrison Ford, who starts in Ender’s Game explained to the Guardian. “It has been a real dilemma for me: I love the book Ender’s Game, it’s all about tolerance and compassion, and understanding the other.”

Ford underlines the main debate of this particular media frenzy: art is, more often than not, seen as an entity separate from the person that created it. The attitudes and personal history of an artist may make some uncomfortable, but they don’t necessarily preclude enjoyment of, or at least acknowledgement of the importance of, their work. Despite persisting evidence of his pedophilia, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the enduring influence of Woody Allen’s work in the worlds of comedy and film. Similarly, Ender’s Game, released in 1985, is a cornerstone of many sci-fi fans’ early development. The book becomes a thing of hermetically-sealed nostalgia, divorced from the uncomfortable views of the man who wrote it.

Geeks OUT is not calling for a ban, but a boycott, recognizing the author’s right to say whatever he wants (likely a good PR move on their part). OSC himself has accepted that he is at odds with a huge segment of popular opinion and that in the eyes of many, he’s already lost the argument.

Viewers should not guiltily see themselves as treacherous scabs if they watch Ender’s Game. It’s a relatively harmless sci-fi film. More practically, OSC has no stake in the back end of the movie — he’s already made his money. He does stand to make some more off of the inevitable boost in book sales that accompanies most instances of “Novel: The Movie,” but that has more to do with the inexorable Hollywood PR machine than the choice of an individual viewer.

In seeing Ender’s Game you are not using your freedom of speech to further Card’s views – the PR machine is already doing that. Boycott for symbolic reasons or don’t: you can enjoy the entertainment Hollywood’s conjured up for us without reproach. There’s no single correct way to engage with Ender’s Game. For concerned parties that agree with Geeks OUT, there’s a petition to sign, even if you missed their “Skip Ender’s Game” parties on the night of the premiere. Some who want to see the movie vow to donate at least the amount they paid for their ticket to an LGBTQ organization. Whether you decide to see the movie or not, simply engaging with the issues at play is a move in the right direction.