Ready Player One—
Ah, where to start with Ready Player One.
The briefest description of Ready Player One I can come up with is that it stands within the dubious pantheon of books I wholeheartedly despise. For all that I’ve been a part of fandom, I’ve also spent my fair share amount of time in hatedom, read the Livejournal posts and nodded yes at the blogs on why Edward Cullen’s behavior was peak stalker; and so, when the inevitable backlash to RPO began, let me tell you, I was ready. Having listened to half of RPO on audiobook before frustration quitting (1) a year or so before the Spielberg adaptation was announced, I was more than ready to describe all the reasons I found RPO and Ernest Cline in general repellant.
On paper, Ready Player One very much meets the requisite characteristics of a thing I’m designed to hate: the worldbuilding is poor, the female characters are paper thin, the main character is an overpowered self-insert power fantasy, and to top it all off, there’s the smug veneer of Reddit nice guy entitlement, racism, and transphobia. All of these, individually, merit their own rant (and believe me, I’ve subjected plenty of friends to them), but I don’t actually want to talk about Ready Player One—there are plenty of thinkpieces around to break down just what delicious, problematic trash this book is, and God knows I’ve done enough soapboxing of my own. What I’d rather talk about is the way Ready Player One and so much similar frames nerd culture, and how that view of geekdom fails a large proportion of its demographic while also perpetuating a limiting view of what it means to be a nerd.
In other words: as many Tumblr posts have already pointed out, there’s a fundamental difference in the way fanboys and fangirls interact with media, and it’s naive to think the view of fandom offered by RPO is but one view of a much wider, much more heterogeneous community.
(The following discussion contains somewhat broad assumptions about gender roles and essentialism, with the “fanboy/fangirl” split meant to characterize a common cultural paradigm and not necessarily a fixed view of either fandom or gender. Tl;dr, the fangirl/fanboy dichotomy is a construct and very, very fallible, but also useful for the purposes of this discussion.)
The thing about Ernest Cline’s view of nerd culture—the thing that, once again, many, many pieces have pointed out before and more eloquently—is that, for all that it’s internally positioned as a universally relatable geek experience, it is very much nerd culture from the viewpoint of the cishet white male. (For the purposes of brevity and also the desire to not reinforce gender binaries as much as I can, I’ll be referring to this demographic throughout as CHWM). Part of it is in the objects themselves—the lack of LeGuin and McCaffrey, no mention of Ghibli despite the success of Totoro and Nausicaa (2), but a larger part of it is the way we interact with these objects.
In CHWM-fiction, when women appear, it’s always as ancillaries to the men, either frilly posers or ‘cool girls’ whose l33t skillz at first-person shooters doesn’t inoculate them from being soundly inferior to the protagonist. Women in CHWM fiction (at least the desirable ones) are easy to categorize: the male gamer, but with boobs and that oh-so-appealing need for male approval. Fanfiction, RP forums, yaoi, the activities and spaces dominated by women and non-masculine people—those get glancing mention, if anything. In media like Ready Player One, the girl geek is always an exception, a surprise posed against all those “other hoes” too air-headed to notice and appreciate your genius. She’s not as good as you (of course), but she’s good enough to be worth wanting.
And it’s not like these people don’t exist. Fun fact, there are indeed plenty of women who play Skyrim or are conversant in Star Trek—it’s just that, when non-CHWM people like nerdery stuff, they tend to stick together when they can instead. Fun fact two: if your clubhouse is full of misogynistic assholes, not a lot of women are going to be lining up to join in.
But back to the thing about fanfiction.
The thing about fanboy culture—stereotypical, peak CHWM fanboy culture I mean—is that is very a curator’s culture: who has the newest toys, the rarest talismans and shiniest Pokemon. Not to be generalistic (though that’s all I’ve been doing all post), but male nerd culture is very much about right and wrong, the sanctioning of a canon and levels awarded in accordance with your knowledge of sacred text. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. And amen.
By contrast, non-CHWM fandom—while still acknowledging and assigning power to the Word of God—is, on the whole, less concerned the sanctity of the text. Maybe it’s part of already being on the margins, relating to characters but never quite seeing yourself in them, but non-CHWM fans don’t put all that much stock in the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth; we’ve always known, after all, that the truth is quite whole or pure, For us, it’s the spirit of the thing that’s important and not necessarily the facts. Harry Potter can be a barista or an FBI agent or a Starship captain, but he can’t quite be an MCR-listening Satanist who wears red contacts and calls himself Vampire Potter because that would be OOC.
This is not the vindication of female-dominated fandom, the vindication of one way of nerdery over the other—I’ve been in fandom for over a decade now, and let me tell you friends, I have enough shit to be wholly over talking us up. This is, however, an attempt at characterizing a few major differences. Geek girls can still be assholes, yes, but in a completely different way from male geekery—just take a brief glance at fandom_wank if you want to see the depths of pseudicide, plagiarism, and cultic behavior that can come from a series about kid wizards. Which is all to say, The Daily Dot and Kotaku might talk about the same texts, but they manage to butcher them in completely different ways.
It is, however, a call for reexamining the somewhat monolithic view of nerd culture/geekdom that dominates popular culture, a plea to look between the familiar signifiers of D&D and Back to the Future. Yes, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Akira on popular culture, but what about Rose of Versailles or My Neighbor Totoro, which came out the same year as Akira? Yes, Philip K Dick and William Gibson were great, but what about openly gay black author Samuel Delany or Ursula LeGuin’s beautifully gender-bending work in Left Hand of Darkness? This is all work that’s going on at the same time, maybe a less mainstream perhaps but still popular, still relevant. If we’re going to talk about the 80s, why not talk about the fanzines and filk singers, the authors writing queerness and utopian politics into Star Trek?
Ready Player One, Pixels—it’s all the nerd fantasy of course, but it’s the ciswhite male nerd fantasy. And while that may, for many, be an assumed thing, the common ground on which all former LARPers and Renaissance Fair attendees can agree, it isn’t the whole of it. Nerd culture, in a very fundamental way, is about the community that comes from being an outsider, too passionate and too loud about our interests in the strange, the weird, the fantastical. And so of course, there is an obvious irony when you take nerd culture and you try to make one solid, brand of it—forgetting that for all that there is joy in being different together, there is still that element of difference. It’s ironic to tout fandom as some uniting force when you are still kicking people out for their differences, when being too black or too femme automatically shifts you away from the epicenter of nerd desire and community. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
All of which is to say:
Non-CHWM fandom is here, some of us are queer, and we’re here to stay.
(1) I’m generally a stickler about finishing things, but as it also generally considered bad form to scream at work, I had to give a pass on this one. Also, apparently listening to Wil Wheaton narrate what is essentially American Sword Art Online only decreases the enjoyability of the experience
(2) If you want to be a super pedant, this is the place where you would naturally point out that Nausicaa was technically created before Ghibli’s official founding, God what are you some sort of fake fan? But also, considering everything in this post….why would you do that