The Enemy’s Gay is Down: Straightwashing Ender’s Game (2013)

 According to the Skip Ender’s Game geekavist website:

Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card is more than an ‘opponent’ of marriage equality. As a writer, he has spread degrading lies about LGBT people, calling us sexual deviants and criminals. As an activist, he sat on the board of the National Organization for Marriage and campaigned against our civil rights. Now he’s a producer on the Ender’s Game movie. Do not let your box-office dollars fuel his anti-gay agenda. SKIP ENDER’S GAME.

Well, this past weekend, I did not skip it and went to see Ender’s Game in the theater.  And, in fact, helped students organize an Ender’s Game screening at the local fourplex.  The Drew University Organization of Gaming (of which I am the faculty advisor) and the Open Source House collaborated to sponsor free tickets for Drew students.  The program elicited both concern and support from the university’s community resulting in vigorous if not frustrated discussion online and in person.  On the one hand were voices that felt that supporting anything OSC was misguided and tantamount to perpetuating hate culture.  On the other hand were fans and friends who understood the problematic relationship across author, text, production, and consumption but who also wanted to enjoy a much beloved story.

I expressed to the leadership of the movie event that I have two general takes on the whole Ender’s Game dust-up.  First, granted Orson Scott Card’s personal and public politics are of concern to many. Though I do not agree nor support his stances on certain things, I do question why the furor over this particular person, this particular novel/film, at this particular time? Is it because it’s in the news cycle and people suddenly care?  If we are going to hold Card and the filmmakers, distributors, actors, and others to particular political standards, where do we draw the line?  I am certain other people have also expressed dubious beliefs and made money off of problematic stances but as a culture we have not reacted with the same vehemence.  (For example, why haven’t we boycotted the book, which certainly feeds far more dollars directly to OSC.)

Second and perhaps more importantly, in my mind the best response would be to see the film, queer it, support it not because of Card but because there are things in both the book and film that actually challenge Card’s conservative beliefs.  The novel is rich and is open to a range of analyses and interpretations that would serve anti-heternormative and anti-oppression ends.  Might the film be as well?  (Granted, the film might be terrible, might be conservative in many ways other than about LGBT rights, and it should be held accountable for it.)  In other words, rather than respond to the film with paranoia or knee-jerk anger, how might we engage, in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s sense, a reparative relationship and reading?  How might we focus on that which is “no less acute than a paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic” (150).  The reparative reading “undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks” to extract “sustenance from the objects of a culture–even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them” (150).  Even the Skip Ender’s Game website acknowledges that the book “is not an anti-gay story and does not reflect Card’s hateful beliefs.”  Ironically, their issue “is not with the book itself or the content of the movie.”  To be able to divorce the author from the text in this case and not in other cases seems oddly selective (though this is not to argue that some of the goals of the protest are invalid).

When I teach Ender’s Game the novel and perhaps now the movie as well, I hope to use both content and context as entrances into the text and the discourses both allow.  Even a cursory close reading of the novel highlights a long list of queer, slash fiction-worthy moments.  From the near-all boys Battle School to Shen’s shimmying butt to locker room brawls to the shoot-from-the-hip, tomboy Petra to Alai’s sudden and tender kiss on Ender’s cheek and whispered “Salaam.”  James Campbell reveals, “Despite its lack of overt homosexual acts, the novel is thoroughly homosocial…its pre-pubescent students perform their share of male bonding and identification through aggressive rival groupings…Card’s boys, often including Ender, are violent, competitive, libidinous creatures, not cherubic Hummel figures in space” (490).  Even if the homosocial and the homoerotic were mere good-clean-boys-being-boys fun, the novel is preoccupied with queer anxieties over gender, particularly masculinity, over difference, bodies (human and alien), and otherness.  In a curious way, he is the “third sex,” the third term between his brother Peter’s masculinity and his sister Valentine’s femininity.  Ender is queered from the start–as the Third, the Bugger-lover, the remainder, the outsider, the child, the monster–and much of his bildungsroman is a navigation of the norms and expectations of family, school, military, and the culture at large.

His size and age queer him.  His intelligence and resourcefulness queer him.  His ruthlessness and fierceness (snap) queer him.  And, finally, his ability to empathize and identify with his enemies–particularly the Buggers, a term that cannot be divorced from its use as slang for sodomy–queers him.  Ender says, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.  I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves” (Card 238).  These lines are one of the most quoted from the novel, and for me, they reveal a key ambivalence, a terrifying queerness at the heart of the Ender story.  The love that Ender expresses, on the surface, seems strategic–like something out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

The end result of that strategic love is destruction and ultimately the annihilation of the Bugger homeworld.  It is the paranoid response, the paranoic reading.  Rather, the other side of this love–and the gendered pronoun “him” is tantalizing in its suggestion of same-sex queerness–is reparative, reconstructive.  It is the love that drives Ender to save the surviving cocoon of a new Bugger queen (double snap).  Ender’s ability to see situations in multiple dimensions, from multiple viewpoints and configurations is his queerest strength, which is dramatized by the repeated litany of “the enemy’s gate is down” (Card 89).  He learns not only different dos and donts of Battle Room strategy from each of the people he meets but also the dos and donts of what it means to be a man, woman, child, and Bugger.  In a deep way then the novel is about understanding orientation, understanding alternative and sometimes alien perspectives.

When I read the close of Ender’s Game I dispense with the salvation narrative–Ender as the savior of humanity and the Buggers–and foreground how unsettled and incomplete the ending is.  Like many queer figures and heroes, Ender cannot remain in the world he struggles to protect and to find a place in.  It is not a happy place, but it is not a annihilating one either.  Rather, as the “speaker for the dead,” he sets out to change the game, to change the perceptions and definitions and understandings between human and Bugger, and to build a different, queerer world.

And this is where the film diverges from the novel.  (Begin spoilers now.  Snaps in a Z formation.)

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First off, I am not a purist.  I understand that the change from one medium to another requires accommodation, transformation, and a whole lot of cutting.  I think as an adaptation of the novel, the film does a reasonably good job.  It was more than watchable and genuinely enjoyable for me.   I expected the whole Cold War philosophical tract between Peter and Valentine–as Locke and Demosthenes–to be cut.  And I expected much of the training and interpersonal story lines to be curtailed.  I really think the film could be a little bit longer–perhaps that is just the fangeek in me wanting more–to help with pacing and climax.  We needed more Battle Room scenarios.  We needed to see Ender’s learning curve.  And we needed to see how he came to trust his commanders and they him.  (Even an old school training montage would have sufficed.)  Most of all, the conceit that all of the training and simulations were “only a game” needed to be heightened (even though that spoiler knowledge is probably known to most people watching) so the end battle and Ender’s final existential crisis would be stronger.  (Alas, how much foreknowledge and personal expectation colors this, I don’t know.  It would be interesting to see what non-Enderlings think of the film’s arc and development.)

Ultimately, what troubles me and what makes the film (also) fascinating to me are the straightwashing of the homosociality and softening of the violence between children (interrelated effects I think).  To compare film to novel provides opportunities to see where the movie attempts to quell the narratives queer anxieties.  That doesn’t mean that the film isn’t queer–the subtexts and frissons are still there largely made more obvious by their absence and not-so-subtle recuperations.

The most egregious example of straightwashing of course is the femming-up of Petra Arkanian, the only girl of note at Battle School, and the suggestion of a budding tween romance between Petra and Ender.  In the novel, Petra “looks like a boy” (81) and trash talks like the rest of her macho cohort.  In the film, she (played by Hailee Steinfeld) is still tough but not too tough.  Her athleticism, ponytail, and role as sharpshooter are to remind us I think of characters like Catniss Everdeen in Hunger Games.  There are moments, particularly when she and Ender spar, when the gendered roles do flip and tumble.  And, in a small way, she is recovered from her fate in the novel as the only commander in Ender’s army that breaks and fails utterly.  But I cannot help but feel that she (like many other characters before her) still gets relegated to sidekick as soon as Ender ascends to his role as “the one.”  The film version of Petra loses much of her contingency and complexity, particularly when she says in the novel, “I’m a girl and you’re a pissant of a six-year-old.  We have so much in common, why don’t we be friends?” (79).  It is a backhanded dig at Ender but also a very succinct critique of their fraught outsider positions at Battle School.  The film tries to paint a more gender- and race-inclusive Battle School, but in reality, falls into blindness instead and therefore misses opportunities to really think about gender (and race).  Petra in the film becomes Ender’s beard, ostensibly to secure his heterosexuality even though the film is very clear that there is no sex at Battle School.  But if there were to be sexy time, it would be decidedly hetero sexy time.

Ironically, the director’s penchant for lingering close-ups, particularly to attempt to show the interior conflicts and emotional states of the characters, produces a formal equivalency between the way Ender and Petra look at one another and the way Ender looks at the other boys.  These glances between Ender and Bean, Ender and Alai, and Ender and Petra all seem to signal the same thing.  The quivering, misty eyes.  The stoic silences.  The “I know you know that I know” gazes.  A vestige of the Ender and Alai friendship and relationship does get a few seconds in the film.  Ender has been called away from the Launchies to join his first Battle School army.  Alai follows him into the empty corridor to wish him “as-salam alaykum” (or something like that).  It is not where near the heartfelt exchange from the novel:

On impulse, Ender hugged him, tight, almost as if he were Valentine…Alai hugged him back…Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, ‘Salaam.”  Then, red-faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks.  Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden.  (69)

In the film, when Ender and Petra spend time together, get close together, and longingly look at one another, we are supposed to understand their nascent love.  But the same shot-reverse shots are used with the other children, even with Ender’s sister Valentine (don’t even get my started on Valentine).  Somehow we are supposed to translate the same-sex or sibling-sibling looks as a different kind of love.  (These shots actually remind me of the ways the Hobbits were often shot in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you know where those characters ended up–frolicking in a big bed.  Indeed.)

The other curious bit of straightwashing concerns the softening of the violence in the story.  Given the PG-13 rating, the film cannot exceed the vague rubric that says, “The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance.”  It is that not “so intense” that is at work here.  It dilutes the sexuality of the characters to a low hum.  And it dumbs down the violence of the film particularly between the children.  In the novel, Ender kills the bullies he fights.  Granted, he never finds out about them (though it could be argued he surmises or assumes the worst).  The violence demonstrates the battle between the masculine and feminine forces in his psyche and his body.  The film is very careful to frame the opening fight with Stilson and the later fight with Bonzo as defensive, unwanted, and whatever the consequences, accidental.

Whereas the film is clear about certain norms about gender, masculinity, and sexuality, the subject of violence between children is too taboo, too dangerous.  Like Petra, Ender must be strong but not too strong.  He must be ruthless but not psychotically so.  And he must exert a rationalized violence over others.  But what the novel does that the film does not is complicate these relationships and assumptions about children, violence, humanity, and death.  In the film, Ender can commit genocide against alien monsters, but he cannot kill another person.  Alas, I think this cheapens both situations, which are supposed to be horrific and existential crises inducing.  He is expected to act like an adult but is insulated from the consequences of making adult choices.  Even the twist ending of the final battle, which Ender and the others assumes are only simulations and games, provokes a critique of power, ideology, nationalism, humanism, and terrestrialism.  But the final battle in the film and the final revelation fall flat for me because the violences in the film are all bark but little bite.  It would be like reading Lord of the Flies where Piggy survives to go home.

All in all, as I said above, I enjoyed Ender’s Game the film.  There are things I would have liked to have seen more of and there are things I would have liked to change.  But for the most part the film honors the spirit of the novel in many ways.  And where it missteps, there are opportunities for fruitful conversation and critique.  The straightwashing of the characters and the violence might be a direct result of Orson Scott Card’s presence.  But the choices made by the director, actors, and writers reflect far more than the conservatism of one man.  The norms about children, sex, bodies, sexuality, gender, race, violence, even technology are deeply embedded in the culture and in our narratives.  Rather than turn a blind eye to what the film (and novel) can show and teach us about these identities and ideals, we should embrace them, learn from them, and if necessary, work to challenge and dismantle them.  Dare I say that I love the film?  Warts and all?  And in that love, might I find ways to destroy it and recover it.

Works Cited

Campbell, James.  “Kill the Bugger: Ender’s Game and the Question of Heternormativity.”  Science Fiction Studies.  36 (2009): 490-507.

Card, Orson Scott.  Ender’s Game.  New York: Tor, 1991.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.”  Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.  123-151.

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