'Ender's Game' and Spider-Man: Pop Culture's Big Gay Panic

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Image Credit: Jaimie Trueblood

Most artists and writers instinctively dislike the idea of cultural boycotts, and for good reason. The scales should always tip toward freedom of expression — even disagreeable expression — and when we fight over pop culture, our arguments should stem from knowledge rather than from a flat refusal to engage with questionable material. Besides, most cultural boycotts are strategically ineffective; it’s hard to tally the number of people who don’t see a movie or watch a TV show, and impossible to determine when staying away constitutes a statement and when it merely indicates lack of interest.

As a manifestation of anger or disgust, boycotts are extreme and, appropriately, rare. So it’s noteworthy that talk of an organized protest against the sci-fi drama Ender’s Game, which opens Nov. 1, has heated up enough to provoke responses from both Orson Scott Card, the author of the novel on which it’s based, and the movie’s distributor. Card is an outspoken opponent of marriage equality whose decades-long history of antigay public commentary is well documented; now that he has a movie to sell, he is saying that in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, the issue is “moot.” On July 8, he gave a statement to EW in which he urged gay rights supporters to show “tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

It’s hard to know where to begin to dismantle the smugness and intellectual dishonesty in Card’s words. His assertion that gay rights are now “moot” in a country in which 37 states still consider my marriage unworthy of recognition is weak enough, but I’d rather move on to his self-serving appropriation of “tolerance.” No group of people is required to tolerate those who would oppress them, but beyond that, Card is using calm and temperate language to disguise the extremity of his position. He’s not simply against marriage equality; as recently as 2008, he publicly called for straight married Americans to unite in an effort to “destroy” their “mortal enemy,” by which he meant a revolutionary overthrow of any U.S. government led by “dictator-judges” who support same-sex marriage. He’s an off-the-spectrum hatemonger cloaking himself as a voice of principled opposition, and he richly deserves to be shunned.

But should Card’s extremism lead moviegoers to boycott Ender’s Game, which, after all, has nothing to do with gay rights? As gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), who opposes a boycott, has noted, the film was made by a gay-friendly filmmaking team working for a company, Lionsgate, that has now publicly rejected his views. I can answer only for myself: I won’t pay to see the movie. I can’t get past the idea that my purchase of a ticket might put even an extra penny in the pocket of a man who thinks I should be treated as less than human; a hit film will increase sales of his books, and I want no part of it. Is that a boycott? It’s a personal choice, and a boycott is really nothing more than a network of people whose convictions lead them to the same personal choice. I understand the case that the art should be separated from the artist, and I have seen plenty of art by reprehensible people. But everybody gets to decide for themselves where they draw the line. (Why didn’t I draw it at, say, Roman Polanski? Probably because he doesn’t want me demonized, but I’m aware that that’s a weak and self-interested argument.) In any case, I don’t believe that people who choose to see Ender’s Game are enemies of gay rights, but if you’re on the fence, here’s a compromise: Write a check for the cost of a movie ticket to an organization that opposes Card’s views, and then go enjoy the film with a clear conscience.

Now back to “tolerance.” Two days after Card made his statement, Andrew Garfield, the star of the forthcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2, cheekily asked EW writer Sara Vilkomerson what would be so bad about Peter Parker having a boyfriend. “Why can’t we discover that Peter is exploring his sexuality?” he wondered, slyly adding that he was “kind of joking, but kind of not joking” about Mary Jane, or M.J., being “a dude.” Garfield deserves great credit not just for open-mindedness but for being the first actor in years to say something interesting about playing a superhero; most of them just talk very soberly about the immense responsibility they have been handed and sound like they’re getting bar mitzvahed. But the way the comment board lit up, you’d have thought he stopped in the middle of the interview to roll a joint made out of a Dead Sea Scroll. The (printable) arguments against his suggestion were, in no particular order: (1) Andrew Garfield must have an “agenda.” (2) Spider-Man is not a “social experiment.” (3) “Don’t try to change a classic just to prove a point.” (4) Spider-Man isn’t gay! Go get your own superhero! (5) You’re gay. (6) No, you’re gay. (7) Why can’t there be an Aquaman movie? (You gotta love comment boards.)

Since comic-book movies are probably going to dominate screens for at least the next half decade, can we at least agree to lighten up a little bit? Moviegoers can be remarkably flexible when they feel like it. In the past decade, Spider-Man has been played by two different actors. We accept him as being in high school even though Garfield turns 30 next month. There has been an evil Spidey. Replacement Spideys. A Latino/African-American Spidey in a 2011 comic-book series. Alternate-universe Spideys. A singing Spidey in a lavish Broadway musical. Spidey has died and come back to life. However, the second anyone questions the sexuality of a boy who likes to dress in spandex and swing through lower Manhattan, suddenly you have a chorus of fanboys saying, “But that’s not realistic!”

I don’t think Garfield is suggesting that Spider-Man is gay; he’s merely pointing out that in a field as open to speculative imagination as comic books, the assumption of heterosexuality is more automatic than it should be. The sharp and even hostile reaction to his gentle provocation only reinforces the fact that it was a point worth making. What was that about gay people learning tolerance, Mr. Card? Thanks for the unsolicited advice. You first.

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