Matt Wetsel on the novel that inspired this weekend’s biggest film.
“To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings.”
– bell hooks
Science fiction has often afforded the opportunity to explore issues of culture and ethics that mirror our very nonfictional reality. At the center of many sci-fi stories is the exploration of what it means to be human in the face of fantastical situations. Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game, is one such story – genius children are chiseled into military masterminds to fight an alien menace which almost wiped out all of humanity roughly two generations prior. Despite these fantastical circumstances, the story is entirely character driven as the young protagonist is manipulated into doing what his superiors want at great personal risk and cost.
My enjoyment of this beloved book has been hindered, though, by Card’s surprising and extreme social conservatism that has become the subject of much controversy in recent years. As issues of gay rights and marriage equality have entered the political forefront, Card has not hesitated to use a very strong rhetoric in opposition to all things LGBT, going as far as to state in a 2008 essay that any government attempting to legally permit same-sex marriage was his “mortal enemy” (Card, 2008). I was surprised and disappointed by his words because I had always seen in Ender’s Game, whether Card intended it or not, as a commentary on heteronormativity and patriarchal masculinity – a commentary I appreciated all the more since there is often room for this dialogue in sci-fi stories, although it doesn’t always come to fruition.
I. We Promise Gingerbread
Ender’s Game follows the story of a boy named Ender Wiggin, a child whose conception and life are practically commissioned for his potential military capability. The countries of Earth are unified by a fragile alliance to comb the globe for the brightest among the population, hoping to find someone capable of defending humanity from a potential third alien invasion. Ender’s brother and sister had already been considered and rejected for recruitment to the Battle School where potential children are trained; Peter was deemed too violent and unstable, while Valentine was too empathetic. The Wiggin family is specifically asked to produce a third child based on the potential of the other two, and Ender is seemingly the balance: a compassionate and empathetic child with the capacity for extreme violence when necessary. Ender loves Valentine and fears Peter, a fear which is exemplified when he sees aspects of Peter in his own personality.
The military sees it, too, and sets out to exploit Ender’s ruthless side. Each chapter opens with a dialogue between sometimes anonymous lead military personal chatting nonchalantly about how they run the risk of ruining Ender’s life and breaking him emotionally beyond repair. While there is muted concern for his well-being, turning him into the perfect soldier is the priority.
The opening conversation of Chapter II sets the stage when concern is stated that they are going to ‘screw him up.’ The unnamed party (most likely Colonel Graff) replies: “Of course we are. It’s our job. We’re the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive” (page 10). Thus, over the course of the story, Ender is forced and manipulated by his superiors into situations where his only course of action for self-preservation is to hurt his aggressor so badly that they will never be a threat to him again. In many ways, their molding him into the perfect soldier is nothing terribly original – it’s merely the fulfillment of patriarchal masculine ideals within the military as he learns to hide his weaknesses and stamp out threats. That is, with one exception: When he enters Battle School, Ender is only six years old.
Due to Ender’s brilliance and insightfulness, it’s easy to forget he’s so young, a statement which applies as much to the reader as it does to his superiors in the book, and it’s a point which should resonate well outside of science fiction. All too often, young boys are told to “be a man” and respond to challenges by hiding and eventually silencing their emotional lives, a process which bell hooks boldly calls out as “one way to socialize them to engage in self-inflicted soul murder” (from The Will to Change, page 155). Through the denial of the emotional self, outside of a narrow range of socially permissible modes of expression such as anger, boys are taught early on to be less than their human whole. It would be easy to try and write it off as a byproduct of a hyper masculine military culture being indoctrinated onto prepubescent children, which – to a degree – is somewhat unavoidable, even if unintentional. However, Ender resists this process, and it’s through his modes of resistance that heteronormativity is challenged in ways that it otherwise would not be.
It must be stated that despite the gender themes present in Ender’s Game, it cannot be considered a feminist or even egalitarian work. Card relies on throwaway explanations and stereotypes for a few story premises which are unnecessary, demonstrating that the gender commentary may be less than intentional. When Ender first meets Colonel Graff and is asking questions about the Battle School, he’s told that there are a few girls there, but that by and large they don’t usually pass the tests to get in due to “too many centuries of evolution working against them” (page 24). No further explanation is given as to what exactly makes girls inferior candidates for Battle School, and although a female student, Petra Armenian, becomes one of Ender’s most trusted friends and soldiers, it’s not enough to mitigate such a sweeping generalization.
The other glaring critique which must be made is one of cultural stereotypes in the form of Bonzo (pronounced bone-so) de Madrid, Ender’s first commander when he transfers to Salamander Army: The pride which drives Bonzo and is so easily insulted is a perfectly suitable character flaw and he is a fitting antagonist. The problem with it is that Bonzo’s sense of pride and discipline is explained away more than once as “Spanish honor,” a needless stereotype which betrays the diversity of the students at the Battle School and Card’s own ability at writing complex, multidimensional characters. Surely, a resentful older student humiliated by Ender’s superior performance and intellect could function admirably as an antagonist without relying on such vapid stereotypes. Bonzo, along with Card’s casual dismissal of women, establish his narration within a white male gaze.
I’m not prepared to exonerate Card for these errors simply because it was written almost thirty years ago. In fact, he himself establishes his own familiarity with science fiction stories which play with gender normativity in more obvious ways. Specifically, I’m referring to Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 award-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores what a modern society might look like in the absence of any gender norms. Card actually pays homage to Le Guin towards the end of his own novel by way of the ‘ansible,’ a device which allows direct, real-time communication across any distance. This is identical in both name and function to a device featured across Le Guin’s novels and used by her protagonist in The Left Hand of Darkness. Card’s acknowledgement is brief but obvious: “The official name is Philotic Parallax Instantaneous Communicator, but somebody dredged the name ansible out of an old book somewhere and it caught on” (page 249). A vague and passing comment which would be lost to readers unfamiliar with Le Guin’s work, it could be very well that Card wasn’t contemplating the disruption of heteronormativity when constructing his narrative.
II. “You taught me how to hide anything I felt. More than ever, I need that now.”
Card’s reliance on stereotypes limits the capacity for commentary on masculinity, but the saving grace that facilitates it is the complexity of Ender himself and the central theme of childhood innocence being violently and traumatically lost. The method of Colonel Graff, who oversees Ender’s training, is simple: isolate him, force him to demonstrate his superior ability, and make the other boys resent him. This process becomes cyclical as the resentment he experiences results in further isolation, requiring only for Graff to give him new orders which will force him again to use his intellect. Initially, Ender trusts that since he’s in a school that he can depend on the adults to intervene when things get out of control. He quickly learns that this is not the case as he is left to fend for himself in a series of events that could be considered passive traumatization. While the adults don’t directly do violence to him in a physical sense, by disregarding his safety and letting him handle things on his own he learns that the people he thought were supposed to be trusted with his safety cannot be depended on.
Ender’s awareness of the gendered normativity of toughness and violence is established in the first of these situations. In the opening chapter, the military stops monitoring him for a brief period, leading him to think that they’ve decided he isn’t going to get recruited to Battle School. In reality, they are anticipating him to be bullied and want to see how he’ll respond when left completely on his own. The same day they cease monitoring him, he is cornered by a group of bullies on his way home from school. Ender’s thought process reveals his understanding of gender norms and what’s expected of him as a male, something he seems conscious of specifically because he is resistant to those expectations. While weighing his options as he’s cornered, the narration explains that Ender is familiar with the rules of not just war, but specifically ‘manly warfare’, and it’s with that standard of conflict engagement already embedded in his young mind that he not only wins the fight but unknowingly kills the boy. Pleased with the results, he goes on to Battle School, and the cycle of isolation and conflict begins.
Ender fights back against the effects of his isolation by establishing careful friendships, but his superiors don’t ever let it last long. It’s here that the hyper masculinity of the military comes head to head with expressions of affection, both emotional and physical, as Ender and his young companions try to maintain their sanity. The first and most significant instance is when he is transferred out of his ‘launch group’ (the term for new students who most recently came to the station) and into Salamander Army. Students usually aren’t transferred until age eight; Ender is still just six. Ender fights back tears as he discusses the transfer with a boy named Alai, who notices Ender’s tears but doesn’t say anything. Alai instead tries to be encouraging and says that Ender already knows everything he can learn from his current group, but Ender counters that he was most hoping to learn what it would be like to have a friend. Ender hugs Alai on impulse, and as they say their goodbyes, Alai leans forward.
Kissing Ender on the cheek, he whispers “Salaam,” blushes, and walks away. They lock eye contact for a moment, and Ender leaves.
Later, once Ender is given his own command of a student army, he encounters Alai again. There is a muted affection between them, but they are now in competing armies and are being kept apart. That night, Ender falls asleep thinking of Alai:
But Alai had left something behind. Ender lay in bed, dozing into the night, and felt Alai’s lips on his cheek as he muttered the word peace. The kiss, the word, the peace were with him still. I am only what I remember, and Alai is my friend in my memories so intense that they can’t tear him out.
The physical affection between Ender and Alai is neither sexual nor platonic – it transcends classification because in that moment, neither boy is concerned with such matters. Though they developed a good rapport and trust through their training together, their bond is solidified with a kiss. Whereas adults may hesitate or limit the ways in which they express affection, particularly between males, circumstance and youth afford Ender and Alai the opportunity to reveal themselves to one another on a deeply personal level.
III. Don’t Be Alone, Ever
Alai’s level-headedness and encouragement of Ender is a foil to Bonzo, who achieves discipline and order with the students under his command through physical violence, and instantly resents Ender for being transferred. Ender sees the flaws in Bonzo’s command style, which don’t function well under pressure, because no one is willing to act on their own for fear of being reprimanded. Promising himself to be more sensitive to his own army when he gets promoted to command, Ender is surprised when he finds himself emulating all of the behaviors he hates: “My first practice session and I’m already bullying people the way Bonzo did. And Peter….Sickening. Everything I hated in a commander, I’m doing it.”
This well reflects patterns observed in social research when men who were neglected emotionally or abused physically find themselves engaging in patriarchal behaviors, emotionally distant and dominating in their relationships. bell hooks describes her own experiences with two different partners: “Growing…into manhood they simply passively accept the lack of communication with their fathers….And yet as they matured into manhood, both these men began to behave not unlike the fathers whose actions they had condemned and hated…[and] the early models of their lives were unconsciously reenacted” (hooks, page 59).
The reenactment of violence becomes unavoidable when Bonzo’s hatred of Ender turns into an effort to kill him. It’s no secret E:nder receives emails warning him to never be alone, and Graff is well aware of Bonzo’s intentions. He finally lets his guard down and is cornered in the middle of the shower by Bonzo and a group of boys. Attempting to talk his way out of it, Ender asks him if he’s going really going to fight a younger, shorter boy who’s completely nude. Undeterred, Bonzo’s response is to strip, making Ender’s most violent one-on-one encounter another violation of heteronormativity as the two fight naked in the hot water. As the encounter plays out, Card even makes a subtle effort to remind the reader that these are children—while Ender is taunting Bonzo and buying time, he reminds his aggressor that he’s “barely ten years old.” Again, the age of the boys belies the circumstances and their own maturity: the potentially sexual connotations of their encounter are lost to their youth while also mirroring the reality of patriarchal norms where so much of men’s violence is carried out sexually. Ender wins, but does not relish in his victory; on the contrary, he is further traumatized by the violence he was forced into, more bitter than ever that the adults could have stopped it but chose not to intervene.
Finally, the novel’s twist ending solidifies Ender as the archetypical ‘walking wounded’ as he is tricked into committing genocide against the alien threat during what he believes are merely combat simulations. Betrayed and deceived into doing violence on a scale he never could have fathomed, Ender wants nothing of the hero worship that follows. At twelve years old, he is patriarchy’s promise realized, scarred into an emotional stoicism despite barely having started puberty. The title of this essay, then, refers as much to the battle to save Earth as it does Ender’s fight to preserve his own humanity. As the novel closes, he sets off to travel to new colonies on distant planets with Valentine, knowing if he returns to Earth that he will never escape his legacy. There is a chance, though, that he will find the redemption he wants out among the stars, and again know the peace he felt as he lay in bed with the memory of Alai’s lips. They contemplate if he’ll be happy, but Ender half jokes that after living with pain for so long, “I won’t know who I am without it.”
It’s unfortunate and surprising that Orson Scott Card’s real life politics do not reflect his fiction. The hyper masculine culture of the military setting could have easily just been a story about children going to war, but the complexity of Ender’s character and indeed, his very survival, depend upon his ability to be in touch with his emotions and to resist heteronormative standards. The sheer youth and intelligence of the students blur the line further between childhood innocence and adulthood, and should make us all question what it actually means when a child is encouraged to “be a man.”