"An Ethical Guide To Consuming Content Created By Awful People Like Orson Scott Card"
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about how to approach Ender’s Game, Summit Entertainment’s forthcoming adaptation of the beloved science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card about children who are trained to fight off an alien invasion at an elite military academy to which they’re removed early in their childhood. I think I’m not alone in finding Ender’s Game to be a foundational text—Valentine Wiggin, the older sister of the main character, who becomes a sort of proto-blogger, is one of the reasons I’ve ended up doing what I’m doing. And at the same time, I find the political views that Card holds abhorrent: he’s a member of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, and has publicly committed to fighting back against a government that, to his interpretation, would change the established definition of marriage. As someone who’s volunteered with Freedom to Marry, and who holds marriage equality as one of my political priorities, I have no interest in giving Card any of my money to pursue an agenda I find hateful and dangerous. I’m trying to figure out if Card has points on the back end, and if purchasing a ticket would mean, even in an extremely small way, giving him money above and beyond what he’s already received for the film rights to the novel.
But at the same time, Card’s involvement as the creation of the work that’s the basis for the movie isn’t my only interest in it. As someone who thinks the emergence of Abigail Breslin, who will play Valentine, and Hailee Steinfeld, who will play Petra Arkanian, one of the child soldiers in Battle School, as young action heroines is a significant tool in bending the curve on career trajectories for Hollywood actresses, I feel a strong desire to see Ender’s Game succeed as a way to credential them for an audience of genre movie fans. I’m also curious to see what Gavin Hood, as a politically engaged South African director, will do. Card, to me, is not the only person who matters here.
But he’s also a particularly noxious illustration of a paradox that plagues politically engaged consumers of culture: a terrible person who has made significant art. I’ve never given Roman Polanski any of my money, even though I think he’s unlikely to commit sexual assault again, because I have no interested in financing his ongoing mockery of the American justice system—but I also haven’t felt particularly drawn to any of his recent movies, with the exception of The Ghost Writer. I don’t believe in piracy as a means of consuming art while causing economic harm to someone I find objectionable, if only because it’s a form of subverting the system that isn’t targeted: lots of other people suffer losses when someone who was legitimately potential customer, as opposed to someone who never intended to purchase the product in the first place, pirates a work rather than purchasing it. So what’s a customer who wants to consume ethically to do? All of these suggestions come out of my thinking about Ender’s Game, but they’re equally applicable to almost any situation where a person with deeply harmful views has created something worth consuming on its own merits.
1. Stay home: I’m entirely sympathetic to people who don’t want to see Ender’s Game, whether in theaters, as a rental, or streaming. But if that’s what you want, stay home for real. Don’t pirate it. Don’t let someone else rent it for you. And talk about why. Be really clear that Card’s involvement with a project is enough to make you deny yourself something that you want, that you otherwise would have been excited about, and that his involvement outweighs any other factors that might have pulled you to see the movie. If you want to create incentives for Hollywood, or anyone else, not to work with Card, you have to be clear how strong your resolve is, and how much he’s a turn-off.
2. Employ political moral offsets: If Card has points on the back end, the percentage of the purchase price of your movie ticket that goes to him will still be relatively low. But even so, offset that financial contribution to his well-being with a political contribution to an organization that fights precisely the kind of hatred that Card supports. As a ballpark, I’d suggest twice the price of your ticket purchase to Freedom to Marry, an exceedingly canny organization that does all sorts of wonderful marriage equality work. The Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which does a lot of media work, including publishing the excellent television census of LGBT characters, the Network Responsibility Index, is also a great candidate for donations.
3. Reaffirm your support of progressive media media: As much as I want to see Card become radioactive for companies who want to hire him to create new work, I think it’s unlikely that disgust at his hateful political views will make a major dent at the box office. But one place we could make a more significant difference? Turning out of LGBT film and television as a way to lend viewing and financial support to independent projects with smaller audiences, boosting those projects as a way to offset our financial contribution to a well-financed commercial blockbuster. I’d love to see a spike in sales for Pariah, Dee Rees’ feature film about a young African-American woman coming out in Fort Greene. Or a non-lesbian audience turning out for Concussion, a fascinating exploration of marriage between lesbian couples, sex work, and marital sexual satisfaction that debuted at Sundance. A hundred thousand viewers may not make a difference to Ender’s Game’s relative success or failure. But it could make an enormous difference in what Rees earns in residuals, or the perceived viability of Concussion as an independent movie, not to mention what gets funded through a site like Kickstarter. Creating demand for good things is as important as staying away from tainted ones. The latter leaves a void. The former tells the industry where there’s a market it could fill.
4. Commit to a discussion: All of these actions are useful to do in private. But whatever you decide in relation to Ender’s Game, talk about it. Talk to the people you would normally go to genre movies with, but whose invitations you’re turning down this time. Talk about it when you decide to go, and explain why you’re making the decision—but also why you’re taking offsetting action. Speak about this from a place of conflict if that’s what you’re feeling, as a genre fan, if that’s what you are. Ethical consumption is a difficult thing to do. And exposing that difficulty and those contradictions, and that they’re part of your process as a consumer, is perhaps the most important thing any of us can be doing, whether we swipe our credit cards or not.