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Ender’s Game, Chris Brown, and the Slippery Slope of Ethical Pop-Culture Consumption

Photo: Getty and Summit Entertainment

These days, the topic of ethical consumption of pop culture usually centers around how to get more money to artists, be it through paying rather than Torrenting, hiking music-streaming royalty rates, or countering any number of everything’s-free developments in the age of the Internet. But every so often, the original definition of ethical consumption comes back into play: Whether or how to consume content when someone you do not want to get your money is involved. It’s a prevalent issue today with the release of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, based on the book by Orson Scott Card, author of a raft of homophobic diatribes. (Lionsgate execs and the cast and crew of the movie have worked to distance their movie from the author, and it’s largely a moot point, as The Wrap reports that Card will see no back-end profits from the film anyway. To hurt Card, you have to stop buying his book, for which he gets royalties.) But ethical consumption conundrums are not always as clear-cut as blatant hate speech. So in making your decision about whether you should be taking action against a project — be it through a boycott, or making a donation to a charity supporting the issues that the phobe in question decries so as to offset your pop culture spending — here are some of the increasingly complicated questions you should ask yourself as you head down the slippery slope of tracing where your money goes.

Is the work itself offensive? Snubbing or protesting a project that blatantly espouses stereotypes or lessons egregious to you is the easiest line to draw. For example, in 1991, a very different moment in gay rights history and the depiction of LGBT people in pop culture, the news that Paul Verhoeven was making a movie about a bisexual serial killer who offed her male partners with an ice pick during sex set off alarm bells for the organization Queer Nation. At the end of the Bush administration, Basic Instinct’s representation of sexually profligate, self-interested, and violent LGBT people played directly into then-acceptable political rhetoric that was used to justify denying the gay community equal rights. Activists disrupted the filming of Basic Instinct with glitter, told distributors they’d deface advertisements and leaflet screenings, and called for more representative images of LGBT people. The film would eventually become the ninth highest-grossing film of 1992, but the outcry did succeed in shining a spotlight on a nefarious message that might otherwise have been lost on people there for a cheap thrill.

Is the artist in question a criminal, or even just an unpleasant jerk? The second level of ethics: If the artist’s work isn’t abhorrent, but their personal behavior is, can that be compartmentalized? Some music lovers turned off by Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna before the 2009 Grammys and his subsequent behavior have struggled with the idea of bolstering his ongoing career by buying his music. In a creative form of offsets, Jill Peterson and Kevin Heinz, a couple whose video of their wedding march, scored to Brown’s “Forever,” went viral in 2009, have encouraged fans of the video to donate to a domestic violence charity to make up for their role in giving the song a second life. At the latest count, contributors had ponied up almost $50,000.

Will someone who profits from the movie use the money to harm other people? The Ender’s Game boycott by Geeks OUT (an organization of LGBT nerds and their allies) isn’t just based on the idea that Orson Scott Card is a notorious and unpleasant homophobe (and his anti-gay views are actually among his less crazy political beliefs). It’s that the money he’d make from juiced sales of his 28-year-old novel could go directly towards supporting his political agenda. Earlier this year, Card quit the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-equality organization. It’s not clear if he did so because he thinks the battle over marriage equality’s been decided, or because of negative publicity from the boycott. But that doesn’t mean his beliefs have suddenly become broadly warm and fuzzy.

It’s true that artists who believe noxious or offensive things can produce art that doesn’t reflect those perspectives at all. With the exception of the slang term “buggers,” which describes the aliens that Ender’s Game’s child soldiers are training to fight (a nomenclature Card himself has dropped), the book and movie have nothing at all to say about homosexuality or LGBT rights. So even though the work itself isn’t an overt or covert argument against equality, could Card’s rewards be routed to make those arguments in other ways?

Is there a statute of limitations on punishing an artist? It’s been almost 40 years since Roman Polanski fled the United States to avoid being sentenced for the statutory rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. Polanski has apologized to the survivor of his attack, who publicly forgave him in 1997 and has formally requested that the longstanding charges be dropped. Should any reticence to attend his films be dropped, or is the fact that his money and privilege saved him from facing the same justice system that everyone else must grounds for continuing to not patronize his films?

Was the work produced in a way that was unsafe or unfair to the people working on it? Take a step back from the high-profile people who are the face of a product. Consider these three stories:

1. In 2010, Gabriella Cedillo, an extra on Transformers 3, suffered a permanent brain injury on the set when a cable snapped, crashed through the window of a car she was driving, and sent her to the hospital, where she had to be placed in a medically-induced coma. Ultimately, Cedillo settled for $18.5 million after allegations of unsafe practices on the film and attempts by Paramount and Dreamworks to get out of paying her medical bills.

2. A push is under way to organize visual effects workers, many of whom have reported trouble collecting overtime pay that they’re due.

3. This year, French indie Blue Is The Warmest Color has come under fire for all sorts of reasons, ranging from eccentric behavior by director Abdellatif Kechiche to suggestions that the production juggled the books to conceal violations of labor law, like making the crew work sixteen-hour days.

It’s easy to express shock at an actor, writer or director’s quotes or writings, but incidents like these are a reminder that there’s a lot of ugly that goes into making entertainment industry sausage. With the proliferation of online entertainment news, what was once trade news now becomes just as widespread as celebrity gossip, so audiences can learn about safety problems and wage and hour violations as they happen. Just as negative reports on Apple factory conditions caused some to think more carefully about buying a new iPad, should you hold out on financially rewarding movie companies until all of their lower-level workers are treated fairly?

Will the work’s financial success encourage Hollywood to make bad things? Boycotts don’t always have to be political – they can be a matter of taste, too. Burned out on jive-talking aliens and sentient robots in franchises like Star Wars and Transformers? Exhausted by celebrity photographer Terry Richardson’s uber-naked aesthetic? Can’t stand to see yet another female character get killed and stuffed in a refrigerator or fend off the apocalypse in her skivvies? Trends like these exist because creators — and more importantly, their corporate backers — think there’s a market for them. Taking your wallet to a sci-fi movie with an actual African-American lead like Chronicle as opposed to a blockbuster with a blacksploitation sidekick, or to support Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s comics instead of the return of the boob window to Power Girl’s costume is a great way to cast a ballot for a different kind of cultural campaign platform. If you flock to blockbusters and always complain that they’re terrible, you’re giving studios no incentive to make them better.

Ethical Pop-Culture Consumption’s Slippery Slope