Ready Player One, the best-selling ode to virtual reality and nerd-dom, is finally becoming a movie, but not everybody is a fan. The first teaser trailer has gotten some backlash for how it glorifies nostalgia. However, a bigger issue comes from the book itself in how it treats women—namely, its trophy love interest.
This is coming from someone who actually enjoyed the book, and has read it several times. But just because we like something doesn’t mean it’s impervious to criticism, just as we don’t have to hate something because it has problems. And Ready Player One certainly has problems. It positions heroine Art3mis as an important, well-rounded character, but she’s a plot point designed to justify an obsessive male gaze. In (virtual) reality, she’s little more than a prize to be won.
Ready Player One is about a teenager named Wade Watts, known in-game as Parzival, an Ultimate Fanboy who’s become obsessed with nostalgic pop culture of the 1980s in order to win a contest for control of a virtual reality empire called the OASIS. His obsession leads him to become one of the top players in the contest, and he ultimately wins the whole thing.
Art3mis is introduced as another obsession of Wade’s. She’s a strong, smart, and high-level gamer who runs a popular blog and, later, clothing line for plus-sized avatars. He follows her on every social media account he can get his virtual hands on, going so far as to save all her avatar photos on his computer. He even admits it during their first online chat, telling her: “I’ve had a crush on you since before we even met. From reading your blog and watching your POV. I’ve been cyber-stalking you for years.” In both virtual and real life, this is never cute or romantic. It’s a red flag.
Wade’s internal monologue is full of leering comments about Art3mis’s face and body, for both her virtual and real-world selves. (“Big hazel eyes, rounded cheekbones, a pointy chin, and a perpetual smirk. I found her unbearably attractive.”) However, they’re usually followed by a declaration that the only reason he likes her is because she’s not like other girls. This type of narrative tries, and fails, to excuse the objectification, because it’s for a woman who doesn’t fit what the man believes is the status quo.
Art3mis’s body was also somewhat unusual. In the OASIS, you usually saw one of two body shapes on female avatars: the absurdly thin yet wildly popular supermodel frame, or the top-heavy, wasp-waisted porn starlet physique (which looked even less natural in the OASIS than it did in the real world). But Art3mis’s frame was short and Rubenesque. All curves.
Sure, he might praise her for being “different,” but it’s still objectification. Just because she doesn’t look like a Barbie doll doesn’t mean he’s not treating her like one. (Note: This is not the first time Cline has been accused of this particular problem.)
Art3mis exists in tangent to Wade’s search for the contest’s legendary Egg, with his attempt to begin a romantic relationship with her serving as a sort of side quest that distracts him from his primary one. The more time he spends with her, the less he spends on everything else. He ignores his best friend Aech. He neglects the contest. Cline treats Art3mis’ dismissals as a roadblock, another game for Wade to beat, not the reasonable responses of an independent character. She’s basically an NPC.
During their many encounters, Art3mis repeatedly asks him to back off, but he keeps on pursuing her, inevitably believing they’re dating without any indication from her that this is true. (“When I wasn’t hanging out with my pseudo-girlfriend, I devoted the rest of my time to leveling up my Avatar.”) Any woman who’s been in that situation knows how that feels. It’s awful. Still, it takes her a long time to actually punish him for his actions. For a good portion of the book, she enables his bad behavior while making snide remarks about why she shouldn’t. The following conversation is immediately followed by a bunch of chats and dates.
Parzival: When can we chat again?
Art3mis: After one of us finds the egg.
Parzival: That could take years.
Art3mis: So be it.
Parzival: Can I at least keep e-mailing you?
Art3mis: Not a good idea.
Parzival: You can’t stop me from e-mailing you.
Art3mis: Actually, I can. I can block you on my contact list.
Parzival: You wouldn’t do that, though. Would you?
Art3mis: Not if you don’t force me to.
Eventually, after several weeks, she is forced to block him, but only after really dire circumstances. During a party, Wade confesses his love for her, telling her he’ll get on a plane that instant so he can meet her in person. Art3mis becomes uncomfortable around him and decides to suspend their friendship so she can focus on the contest.
I felt like I’d been punched in the throat. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No, Z,” she said firmly. “I am not breaking up with you. That would be impossible, because we are not together.” There was suddenly venom in her voice. “We’ve never even met!”
It’s an acceptable response to a bad situation... only Wade doesn’t actually accept it. Instead, he stalks her for weeks, sending her hundreds of messages and literally dropping gifts like bombs over her home base. He even goes so far as to stand outside her door for hours, holding a boombox over his head playing “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel, like Say Anything. The book is clear in that his obsession is not Art3mis’s fault, even if she claims responsibility for their relationship getting “out of hand,” but Wade’s treatment of Art3mis (both before and after their quasi-breakup) is presented as romantic instead of questionable. He was simply acting out of love. This is really alarming–not only because it romanticizes online stalking, but also because he still wins her in the end. His behavior is ultimately rewarded, not punished.
After saving the day and winning the contest, Wade finally logs off of the OASIS and finds Art3mis, who’s hidden herself at the center of a real-life version of the Adventure video game labyrinth. She becomes a literal prize for him to find. And when he does find her, he fully discovers her big repulsive truth she’d alluded to earlier in the book (“Trust me. If I ever let you see me in person, you would be repulsed.”). She has a birthmark on her face.
In the end, her conflict with Wade isn’t from how he treated her in the past, but caused by her own insecurities. This gives Wade a chance to (again) play the hero, since he’s able to look past it and still find her attractive. He then pledges to “spend the rest of [his] life” with her, even though they’d just met.
“I’m in love with you.”
Her lower lip started to tremble. “You’re sure about that?”
“Yes. I am. Because it’s true…
“Listen,” I said. “We can take things as slow as you like. I’m a really nice guy, once you get to know me. I swear.”
She laughed and wiped away a few of her tears, but didn’t say anything.
So, how does a strong and empowered woman become a silent, crying, and lovesick trophy at the end of the game? There are several reasons why. Conventional, male hero storytelling. A need to satisfy an atypical power fantasy. But I think the main reason comes down to how the story is framed.
Ready Player One suggests that nostalgia is universal, how similar interests can bring strangers together, but all of that nostalgia is filtered through a distinctly male lens— and not just because Cline insert a lot of his personal fandom into the story. In the book’s world, OASIS co-creator James Halliday created the contest that the entire world is obsessed with, so everyone’s nostalgia is filtered directly through him. (“The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture.”)
This framing leaves little room for women to desire anything that doesn’t also reflect what men want. Just like the game, Art3mis is a character created around male interests; she can’t be anything other than a trophy because there’s no room in the story for her own interests (you won’t find her watching Sailor Moon or Jem and the Holograms, but she sure as hell likes John Hughes). If your entire world is centered around the obsessions of one man—first James Halliday, followed by his protégé Wade Watts—what purpose do you serve that doesn’t also serve his needs?
It’s a failure of the story to give women true agency, and a failure of the writer to understand nostalgia that exists outside of his own sphere.
We’ve only gotten a brief glimpse at Art3mis (or Artemis) in the upcoming film, played by Olivia Cooke. Who knows, the film might do something different with her character, perhaps even give her a background that consists of more than a giant birthmark that makes her feel like shit. But given that they’ve already regressed in their casting by taking away the one thing that set her apart (her fuller figure), it’s doubtful they’re helping more than harming. The source material failed Art3mis, and it’s just a shitty reality we have to face. Wade Watts might idolize Art3mis, but Ready Player One doesn’t respect her.