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One Thing You May Have Missed Watching Ready Player One

OK, listen. I’m not gonna lie. Ready Player One is ridiculously fun. Like, the kind of fun you have watching a movie so completely fleshed out in its Technicolor dreams that you feel like you’re actually a part of it after a while. It’s the kind of fun where you soon find yourself muttering quietly (so nobody in the theater will shush you) that you recognize a particular pop-culture reference. “Hey, I know what this is!” might tumble out of your mouth in a whisper multiple times if you’re a pop-culture junkie watching Ready Player One. In fact, this was the case with me during a screening of Steven Spielberg’s latest film ahead of its official March 29 release date.

I’ll try to give you the best and briefest spoiler-free rundown of the movie. Adapted from Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name, the film follows Wade Watts, a young man living in Columbus, Ohio, who has found an escape from the run-down, crowded, part steampunk, part dystopian, part-Hunger Games-ish world he inhabits through the virtual reality world called The Oasis. When the creator of The Oasis dies and leaves behind a prize that would reward the finder with half a trillion dollars and control of The Oasis, Wade and a small cohort of friends come together to get the prize.
To get a better sense of what we’re working with, take a moment to watch the trailer.

From its dystopian setting (2045 with its various decrepit visions of a world where overpopulation has forced innovative living situations and people escape into VR worlds) to characters that are not only immersed in a variety of pop-culture characters and references (King Kong! A DeLorean! The Iron Giant! A plot that’s basically a big ol’ Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory reference!), but they know this pop culture well, Ready Player One is an attractive film. It brings out the better instincts of veteran director Steven Spielberg, who is always inclined to indulge in nostalgia and yearn for the magic of childhood and items and icons of childhood (consider his sense of play and whimsy in early films like E.T. and later, Hook and Jurassic Park). Here, the source material merged with Spielberg’s vision makes for a thoroughly exciting film, a summer blockbuster dropped into our laps in the early days of spring.
But I couldn’t fight the distinct “oh no” feeling that was rising from my stomach and into my throat as I watched Ready Player One. While the film is a visual feast and yes, it’s easy to get lost in this world, there’s one thing that was off: the function of the women in this film. This adventure, to retrieve the Easter egg that functions as the key to The Oasis, is distinctly seen through Wade’s eyes. This is his story, this is his glory to seize, this is his world. As such, it’s hard to not to feel like the group of friends he is surrounded by, which are notably people of color and women, are given very short shrift in the process.
Ready Player One Lena Waithe Olivia Cooke
Image: Warner Bros.

There’s Aech (pronounced like the letter “H”), Wade’s sidekick in The Oasis, who as an avatar is a male-presenting ogre of sorts. Outside the virtual world, Aech is Helen Harris, a black lesbian who is just as badass as Wade and who, as it becomes clear over the course of the film, has been made to conform to heteronormative gaming practices, needing to mask both her blackness and her queerness in The Oasis so she can find success. Just as people of color code-switch in the real world so they can conform to various cultural systems, Helen’s literally recoded herself into an avatar that fits in with the bro culture of gaming.

Ready Player One Olivia Cooke Tye Sheridan
Image: Warner Bros.

We also have Wade’s love interest, Samantha. In The Oasis, as Art3mis, she’s one of the top players and she’s actually a total badass. She is as skilled as Wade and is arguably even more fearless than he is. But Samantha quickly becomes a perfunctory part of Wade’s story — she brings him into the group of players he befriended in The Oasis and becomes one of his main aides in their quest to find the hallowed Easter egg. But we get the bare minimum amount of information about Samantha, and thus, we get further distanced from her. Aside from being encouraged as viewers to understand that the port-wine stain Samantha has on her face has contributed to her trying to create a version of herself in The Oasis that is fearless and beautiful and acceptable by societal standards, who is she? And no, it’s not acceptable to me that this movie implies that just being a love interest and assistant to Wade’s heroics is enough character development.

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So, that’s what Ready Player One does for its women. It others them. It distances viewers from them. It gives them a place in the story but actually fails to give them a voice. Perhaps the reason this bugged me so badly is that even if this is a shortcoming in the original book, the adaptation could have made amends and made room. And while I can’t comment on the intent or views Ready Player One‘s screenwriters — notably both male — have about women, their adaptation of Cline’s novel implies there will never be a real place or voice for women in the worlds of gaming, of pop culture or as true heroes in a story. Women are there to prop the male hero up, essentially.

Then again, this notion of “place sans voice” feels quite apt considering we’re talking about a film world where gamer culture and the nerdier pieces of pop culture rule the world, not unlike our own world now. Those corners of society, which are rapidly finding a place in the mainstream right now (think about the massive commercial success of the Marvel cinematic universe), value straight, white male perspectives and creative voices and memories. There’s a priority placed on revering certain items of pop culture as valued by straight, white men. Nostalgia for the pop culture of yesteryear only serves to remind us that the pop culture of said yesteryear was predominantly created by straight, white men, who in turn are telling us that that’s the most valuable pop culture to put nostalgic energy into.

That dominance in creative vision and in pop-culture memory was written by men, directed by a man and then filtered through the lens of a man in Ready Player One, and it only serves to remind me that as great as this film is in its popcorn flick-y kind of way, it’s ultimately a sly commentary on the fact that we need to make room for women who can come through with their own voices in male-dominated spaces and redistribute the wealth, as it were, just a little bit better.

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