In 2013, the LGBTQ community launched a boycott against DC Comics and Lionsgate for their association with a rather aggressively homophobic author. Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game (one of my father’s favorite books; I still haven’t read it), had a multi-decade history of writing anti-gay screeds trying to make or keep homosexual behavior illegal. At the time, one of his most recent works was the novella Hamlet’s Father which re-imagined King Hamlet as a pedophile who had preyed on Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and turned them into homosexuals. From 2009 into 2013, Card sat on the board of NOM (National Organization for Marriage) which funded many anti-marriage laws, and was, at the time, funding the legal fight in support of California’s gay marriage ban.
Despite his behavior, in 2013, DC Comics had announced that they hired Orson Scott Card to write a storyline for Adventures of Superman, and Lionsgate was about to release Ender’s Game, a big budget sci-fi epic that, if successful, was going to be the first film in a series of adapting the novels. So, a boycott started. Though DC Comics had originally tried defending its decision, the departure of Superman‘s illustrator, Chris Sprouse, spurred them to put Card’s story arc on hold indefinitely. Lionsgate made many promises to hold special premieres supporting gay causes (on which it never followed through), and made a series of ass-saving statements to the press that touted their support of the queer community. They even hinted that a screenplay for the sequel to Ender’s Game had already been written if the film was successful enough. But, the film only scored $125m on a budget of $115m, and was deemed a financial failure. So far, no sequel talk has emerged.
This wasn’t the first boycott that the queer community had launched. In 1977, Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant became politically active against homosexuals. Dade County, Florida, had legislated an anti-discrimination law that prohibited the use of sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation. In response, Bryant led the Save Our Children campaign to successfully repeal the law, which snowballed into a massive wave of anti-homosexual activism from St. Paul to Seattle* to California. In response, gays boycotted orange juice, removed screwdrivers from the menu, and started serving Vodka and Apple Juice and called it the Anita Bryant (it’s awful). By 1979, Bryant lost her spokesperson job, was divorced in 1980, was shunned by fundamentalists who believed you shouldn’t be divorced, and eventually went bankrupt.
Simultaneously in 1977, the ferociously anti-Union Coors Brewing was trying to break the backs of their unions over the right to discriminate against people they suspected of being LGBTQ and the Coors family** was funding anti-immigrant legislation in Colorado and California. At the same time, Coors was also trying to gain business from the gay community through sponsorships and advertising. To create a coalition with labor and immigrants, gay bars stopped serving Coors beer and dumped the beer they did have into the streets. For the longest time, the boycott did little. The AFL-CIO boycotted Coors for 10 years until it just stopped. But, in 1993, Pete Coors ascended to CEO and ushered in a wave of more accepting behaviors, including the formation of LAGER (Coors’ LGBTQ employee group), and extended benefits to same sex couples in 1995 (the 21st company to do so) saying it was just good business.
Why bring this all up now? We’re in an era where a company boycott is standard operating procedure. Chik-Fil-A discriminates against gay people? Boycott. Urban Outfitters’ CEO gives money to Rick Santorum? Boycott. Uber’s CEO gives money to Trump and was part of a Trump advisory panel? Boycott. Star Wars wants to have women and minority characters lead the new movies? Boycott. Here’s the challenge: boycotts need to be consistent and forceful.
Last weekend, as people were protesting Donald Trump’s travel ban – the unilateral executive order enacting spontaneous travel bans for Muslim people traveling from specific Middle Eastern countries, restricting entry in and out of the country regardless of their actual immigration status – Uber spiked surge pricing in and out of the New York City airports where the protests happened. Many people saw this as a move to simultaneously profit from people engaging in political speech and a move to lower the number of people entering the airports. Between this, Uber’s union breaking practices, and Uber’s ongoing support of the Trump presidency (through donations from the owner and his participation on Donald Trump’s economic panels), the #DeleteUber movement was born. People felt that they needed to pressure Uber to behave in a manner more in tune with their beliefs. To encourage this, Lyft (Uber’s biggest competitor) donated to the ACLU and promised to not to engage in surge pricing.
The Delete Uber boycott is just one of many boycotts that is an easy target because there are alternatives to Uber (e.g. Lyft, and the original taxi system). But, what about other companies where their product is more difficult to replace?
Marvel Comics’s CEO, Ike Perlmutter, gave $1m to Trump campaigns last year. His wife Laura also donated to the campaign. She eventually worked on Trump’s inauguration committee, while Perlmutter is on Trump’s board for Veteran’s Health Care. Regardless of Perlmutter’s ongoing support of the Trump administration, #BoycottMarvel protest is having trouble taking ground. Over at Bleeding Cool, Kaitlyn Booth wondered whether the protests would ultimately hurt the artists working at Marvel. She wonders if the powers that be would blame the lower sales on Marvel’s latest push for racial and gender diversity, where Wolverine is a woman, Ms. Marvel is a Muslim girl, and there have been a variety of solo series of minority and LGBTQ heroes. These pushes have already had Ghostbusters-style pushback though not as loud or proud. Kaitlyn also doesn’t want to hurt the artists creating these diverse works whom she believes will be fiscally damaged by a publisher-wide boycott. Booth concludes on a wishy-washy note of boycotting the merchandise but not boycotting the actual comic books. She adds an erroneous note about not boycotting the movies because Perlmutter does not benefit from the movies.
Disney’s Bob Iger sat in on the same advisory panel as Uber’s CEO. He has also donated heavily to Trump’s campaign. But, I haven’t yet seen boycotts aimed at Disney or any of its subsidiaries yet. Nobody has called for a boycott of Marvel Films, Lucasfilms (home of Star Wars), ABC (home of Blackish), or even Disney yet. In 2016, Disney had 5 of the top 10 movies at the box office (Rogue One, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, and Zootopia), including all of the top 3. Arguably, boycotting a company as big as Disney might be a drop in the bucket, but enough drops in the bucket eventually lead to a full bucket. In lieu of protesting Disney products, there is currently a petition to get Bob Iger to speak out against the Muslim ban, but he has, so far, remained silent.
So, now what? Boycotts have a decidedly mixed history of success. And, many corporations have been able to leverage token “progressive” behaviors as free advertising for the cosmopolitan liberal elite. Starbucks, for instance, has vowed to hire 10,000 Muslim immigrants as low wage workers in response to the Muslim Ban. This statement of solidarity, in turn, scored many accolades in the progressive community who showed off their Starbucks cups. (See also: 2015’s Holiday cup controversy)
We’re in an era where we vote with our wallets, but allow those decisions to be easily manipulated. I still don’t shop at Chik-Fil-A or Urban Outfitters or eat at any of the local restaurants who carried water for the national chain restaurants to weaken Seattle’s $15/hr laws without working toward a significant solution to the rising cost of living (especially rent) but stagnant minimum wage (Tom Douglas, I’m glaring at you).
In the age of progressive resistance, and there does need to be progressive resistance to this presidency, what are the best forms of protest? Is it with bodies? With voting? I can’t answer these questions for you. I can’t even tell you if Delete Uber was right or wrong. These are decisions you must make for yourself. But, boycotts are challenging. They’re not meant to be convenient. If it means giving up the next few Pixar movies, so be it. If it means giving up Star Wars or Marvel…so be it. But, also let people know why you’re avoiding whatever. If you boycott Marvel, make sure that sure Marvel Comics and Perlmutter knows that you’re boycotting their magazines because of their Trump support and not because of their increase in diversity. Ditto for boycotting Star Wars; make sure Disney and Iger know you’re boycotting his participation in the Trump administration and not the diversity of the Star Wars leads.
After all, what good is a boycott if nobody hears what you’re saying.
*Incidentally, Seattle’s Initiative Thirteen presents an interesting case. Seattle already had anti-discrimination laws on the books, but in 1977, the mayor declared the last week in June a Gay Pride Week, so to speak. In turn, a police officer named Falk launched Initiative Thirteen to repeal those laws. But, two months before the election, Falk shot and killed a young black boy who was mentally challenged. The black community rose up in anger, and turned their sights on his Initiative Thirteen.
**Joseph Coors, then CEO of Coors Brewing, was a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation in 1973, a conservative think tank that supported Operation Desert Storm, as well as such legislation as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Affordable Care Act. Watch 13th for more information about policies from The Heritage Foundation