"Ready Player One" and Women in Media

 

“Ready Player One” is a novel by Ernest Cline about an immersive virtual reality game that the world of 2044 has become obsessed with and dependent on. It is called the OASIS. When the game’s creator dies with no heir to his fortune, it is revealed that he has hidden an Easter egg in the game, and whoever solves his puzzle first will receive the right to his inheritance. Because of this, there are organizations that will do anything to get this prize, and nearly everyone in the world has attained vast knowledge of the founder’s interests in an effort to solve the puzzle - primarily 80’s pop culture.

The book is also due to be released as a movie in March 2018, one which I am all kinds of hyped for. I love this book. I think it’s wonderfully creative, funny and gripping, the trailer looks beautiful, and I think that Steven Spielberg is the perfect man for the job. I’m confident enough in the movie that it’s not even what I want to discuss in this article.

I want to discuss my only problem with the book. And that is the way that the main character talks to and about women.

(There will be some spoilers below.)

I’ll preface this a bit by saying that nothing that the protagonist or any other characters says is downright hateful or misogynistic, but I couldn’t help but notice some patterns that really rubbed me the wrong way. Patterns that weren’t quite fully acknowledged or apologized for. It all resulted in my having a bit of a hard time liking the character I was supposed to root for.

Wade Watts is an eighteen-year-old man that spends the majority of his time and little resources on the OASIS, which isn’t rare in this world. He also establishes that he often checks the blog of a young woman that goes by Art3mis, who often posts about her own exploits in the game. Wade makes his crush on her clear right away. (This isn’t the particularly uncomfortable part, though there is a scene near this where he mentions an apparent fetish for “cute geeky girls playing ukuleles,” and I certainly hope I’m not the only one that finds it a little creepy that this had to be mentioned.)

As might be predicted, he eventually meets Art3mis and begins to interact with her more as the plot progresses. And naturally, his feelings for her only grow, as do her feelings for him, but she acknowledges that a relationship with someone she’s never met would be at least a little unreasonable, and that she’s really only here to find the Easter egg. Wade doesn’t relent though, and he keeps insisting that Art3mis SHOULD go out with him, that they go well together. The two argue about this and eventually have a falling out, going a while without talking at all while the stakes of the larger story itself begin to rise. Eventually though, the two are reunited, reconciled, and are kissing by the last scene. What else?

Now I am not opposed to a romantic plot in an adventure-focused narrative, and I would be stretching a little to call this one “forced.” The two do spend a fair amount of time talking and getting to know each other. But this relationship still serves as an example of certain patterns that have really been annoying me in media recently. And it all comes down to that word above, ‘should.’

These two characters SHOULD be together. In a heterosexual couple, it usually seems to be the man that has this frame of mind, and that’s usually who the main character is. This girl that he likes SHOULD be with him, she just doesn’t realize it yet. He has to make her realize it somehow.

To be fair, this framing could have gone a lot worse. Barring anything violent, Wade could have acted like he was somehow entitled to a relationship just for being nice to Art3mis. But he is still disturbingly dismissive when she says that she doesn’t want a relationship with him. There’s even a scene near the end where - without giving too much away - Wade has to violate her privacy and get personal information without consent, including her real-life appearance. And as he’s doing this to save her life, he also sends her a message telling her to get somewhere safe with a postscript insisting that she is beautiful. It’s a little unclear whether or not he was just saying this to say it or because he was expecting that it would get him back in her good graces.

I was pretty frustrated while reading the scene where Wade sent this message, and I was happy when Art3mis was mad at him for seeing her information. I thought she should have stayed angry even longer before forgiving him. And I desperately want to think that she gets together with him because she genuinely liked him early on, and not because the message he sent actually did anything to charm her. Granted, we end up with the same result either way. What seemed unattainable is won over by our hero.

And it’s at this point that I realized something: Wade’s entire media diet has consisted of books, games, music, TV shows and movies from the 1980’s. Women in media weren’t portrayed in the same way that they are today. They didn’t have to be weak or one-dimensional, but there was still clear progress to be made in terms of screen-time, sexualization and fulfillment the Bechdel Test. (If only the value of beauty and disgusting concept of “getting the girl” weren’t still around today… but I digress.)

Wade’s attitude towards women makes all kinds of sense. He doesn’t disrespect them or see them as inherently marginalized, but make no mistake: he is the main character here. He is the straight white American male. He is the geek who will win the day and get the girl and find completion through this ideal because it’s only logical. He may not know this himself (explicitly) as the story continues, but the book does. So do the readers. It doesn’t make Wade a horrible person just as it doesn’t make Art3mis less strong or badass. But it’s the way things were, therefore it’s the way things are.

We can also remember that the whole world has been on this same media diet, because that’s what gives them a chance at winning a life-changing amount of money and power. This is what the founder loved, so this is what the world loves. It might not mean that the world has completely moved backwards - there haven’t been any human rights laws or policies getting rolled back - but the way people think might not be where their consciences say they should be. At one point, the living co-founder of the OASIS laments this whole campaign to find the Easter egg by calling out what it really is: a man who had no other friends in life is getting everybody to like the same things he liked, so maybe he can be less alone when he’s dead. He got the whole world to think like he did, now 60 years out-of-date, and maybe that’s the most horrifying part of what the earth has become in this future.

Whether or not this reading was intended by Cline, I have no idea. It doesn’t get a lot of focus in the end. And I think it’s dangerous to take the author into account with things like this. I don’t want to judge his potential views of feminism, or even make any hard conclusions about what views the book expresses. However troubling as this romance feels to me, as does Wade’s response to Aech’s sexuality and the dead founder’s relationship to romance, one has to take some liberties. The book knows what it is: a send-up of 80’s pop culture, acknowledging that it is something to be enjoyed and remembered, not put in control.

Overall, “Ready Player One” is an excellent novel, and this is the only potential flaw/qualm that I found in it. The book is still worth reading, and is potentially something that one can learn from in terms of how women are shown and thought of in media - throughout the past, present, and future. Look into it quick, before the movie comes out.