“So I’m supposed to believe that you’re one of those mythical guys who only cares about a woman’s personality, and not the package it comes in?”
I honestly can’t remember ever being quite so angry with a book as I was with Ready Player One.
Unfortunately, anger isn’t the most helpful of critical tools, and much as I would like this to be a rant it probably wouldn’t be a very good one.
So: here I am, Ready Player One, taking you seriously.
In Cline’s dystopian 2044, the Earth is, essentially, royally fucked up, with climate change, energy shortages and tyrannical mega-corporations making everyone’s lives hell. As a result, much of the planet’s population spends most of its time inside the OASIS, an enormous virtual-reality simulation created by Eccentric Genius James Halliday.
The novel opens with Halliday’s death. In his Last Will and Testament, a video released to all major news outlets, he reveals that he has hidden an elaborate Easter egg within the OASIS, and the player who manages to solve it will inherit all of Halliday’s fortune plus control of the OASIS. The world goes mad, naturally, and because Halliday was apparently inordinately fond of ’80s culture, all the ancient videogames and TV sitcoms and terrible science-fiction films make a comeback as players across the world seek for clues. (If I weren’t trying to be reasonable I would point out that this is not really how culture works. No, really.)
Enter Wade Watts, Our Hero, an ’80s nerd and a dedicated gunter (Easter egg hunter, geddit?). Can he defeat Halliday’s twisty puzzle and win Ultimate Glory and Power?
Spoiler: yes, he can.
The novel is essentially a play-by-play of a videogame. Wade faces a challenge. He overcomes it. He faces a slightly trickier challenge. He overcomes it. Rinse and repeat as required.
Which is reasonably lazy writing, but not anything to get angry about, right?
Well, a lot of the book’s issues actually do stem from its videogame structure, which facilitates a systematic and insidious erasure of diversity.
Wade, Our Hero, is, of course, white, straight and male. That’s fine. A lot of my favourite novels have white straight men as protagonists. But Ready Player One‘s videogame structure situates Wade not only as first-person protagonist but as player, as “Player One” and thus actually a stand-in for the reader. He is white, straight and male not because these are essential parts of his identity, but because white, straight and male is the cultural default, the standpoint which white straight men assume is the “neutral” one. We are supposed, in fact, to identify with Wade, almost to become him, as players of the OASIS.
Again: this is not make-or-break, although there are too many of these stories out there already.
What’s frustrating – rage-inducing – is how this white male gaze treats the rest of humanity as consumable; just so much CGI wallpaper generated for the white male player’s amusement and, yes, titillation.
Take Art3mis, the blogger on whom Wade, inevitably, has a ginormous crush. His regard for her has been formed solely through her Internet presence: her blogs, her videos and, oh yes, her avatar. Her OASIS avatar, Wade charmingly confides to us, is attractive to him because “it looked real, not fake and slutty like the ones the other women have”. (I’m paraphrasing; I took the book back to the library as soon as I possibly could.) Notice how Wade has no access to Art3mis save through consumable, exterior details: blog posts and images. And notice how his attraction (which we are supposed to ship, I’m pretty sure) is based on that misogynistic judgement: “most women are slutty, but she is different”. She also has a “Reubenesque figure”, and that reference to art isn’t a coincidence. Art3mis’ self-representation, and the self-representation of every other woman in the OASIS, is implicitly up for male judgement and consumption; subject, in fact, to male judgement and consumption, because we as readers have no other frame of reference, and because this is a videogame, right? What else is it for, if not consumption and enjoyment?
The saga continues. Wade is, of course, determined to have a relationship with this woman, even if she herself is not actually that keen on it. For Wade, it’s just another challenge to be beaten. He repeatedly invades her privacy, reading files that he knows she would hate him to have read (notice again how her history is made consumable), and stalks her throughout the game. And, finally, when he has won Halliday’s prize, despite all of this awful behaviour, she snogs him. (This part made me want to throw the book out of the window.) Because, in this novel-that-is-a-game, she is consumable: she is a prize for the victorious white man, a goal to be sought and won, an object not a subject.
I talked about erasure earlier. What we’re seeing here, it seems to me, is erasure of minorities as people, as subjectivities with separate worldviews; here, they’re just window-dressing for the straight-white-male gaze. And I think that erasure manifests itself more literally a couple of times in the novel.
It’s hinted throughout Ready Player One that Art3mis doesn’t want Wade to see her IRL. Eventually, we find out that this is because she has a birthmark on her face which she believes renders her unlovable.
Another of the non-player-characters, Aech, pretends throughout much of the book to be a straight white man. When Wade finally meets Aech IRL, he finds that she’s actually a gay black woman.
Both of these characters, then, have willingly undergone erasure – have self-erased – in order to please the straight white male gaze. (Aech pretended to be straight, white and male in order, apparently, to overcome prejudice. That Cline clearly thinks this is a good solution may well tell you more about Ready Player One than this entire rambly post.) Not only does Cline not problematise this in any meaningful way, he also has both women looking for validation from Wade that it’s OK for them to be the way they are. “You look even more beautiful with your birthmark!” Wade tells Art3mis happily, which I think was meant to be endearing but actually made me want to throw up. (And notice that adjective beautiful. This is, again, about consumption, femininity as male enjoyment.) And, after meeting Aech for the first time IRL, Wade thinks (this is a quote, as I had the foresight to quote it in my Booklikes review):
“I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.”
Look, if you will, at all those “I”s. This isn’t about Aech, who has just come out to her best friend; this is about Wade, demonstrating his Acceptance. That, ultimately, is the issue with Ready Player One: everyone and everything is only there to serve the needs of the player, the white straight male default consuming the world as a videogame is consumed.