This is my second time through the New York Times bestselling Ready Player One, a fun and kind of terrifying vision of the not-so-distant cyber-future, in which a nerdy teenager has to overcome all kinds of virtual obstacles to win a lot of money. And there is a girl.
The obstacles come almost entirely in the form of 80s trivia puzzles leading to a prize at the center of a labyrinthine virtual world built to replace the dying, flailing real world. (This book didn’t do anything for my fixation on the doom of the earth, about which you can read more below in my post about fish.)
I can definitely picture the moment that this book was born. Someone in Ernest Cline’s life–perhaps a parent, perhaps a significant other?–must have said, “What can you possibly ever use your encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture for? In what scenario, outside of a game show, would that ever actually be helpful in real life?”
So he came up with one.
This book has Harry Potter syndrome, a term I just coined to mean that the narrative structure is compelling enough to make up for somewhat hamfisted storytelling.* Cline absolutely tells way more than he shows, but the things that he tells are fun, so whatever.
But there is one element of this book that makes me a little uneasy. And it’s hard to explain exactly why without sounding like an asshole. Also, spoilers ahead, but for real, this book came out two years ago, you’ve probably read it by now if you were going to.
The female character is only physically revealed to us at the very end of the book. She’s been hiding behind her avatar pretty much the whole time, and there’s clearly something she doesn’t want our hero to see. AND AT LAST when she is revealed it turns out that she has a BIRTHMARK! On her FACE! And I mean it’s a big one, but I was expecting….a paraplegic? A burn victim? I don’t know. Anyway, the main character looks past the birthmark like it isn’t even a big deal (which…uh…it isn’t), and the female character is overcome with gratitude at his acceptance and is learning to love herself and blah blah and I guess they bone, we don’t see that part.
I don’t love this.
The first time that I read this book it was in a group of guys as part of a science fiction book club, and they thought my analysis of this was too close. And also sinister. Because I kind of think this shit is sinister. Let’s look together:
So this is supposed to be an ‘I love you just the way you are’ moment. He’s supposed to be this great guy who can look past her deformity (which, let’s be reminded, is not really any kind of deformity at all) and she has never had anyone look truly inside of her before and see her inner beauty. So A) not the strongest female character ever. But I am willing to accept that sometimes men also have fears like this–I am thinking specifically of Ron Perlman as Beast in Beauty and the Beast, or maybe Liam Neeson in Darkman, but that dude didn’t even have skin, that was a bit more difficult to get over than a port wine stain. She has skin. (And Frances McDormand would totally have banged him anyway. As would I, fits of laboratory-smashing rage and all.)
But here’s the thing. Other than the birthmark, she is totally normalsauce. And being able to ‘look past’ it is really not that difficult. It’s basically the best case scenario for why she wouldn’t want to show her face. So minimum difficulty for him, but with maximum reward, because his ability to look past the birthmark has made her undyingly grateful, meaning that he has control over her.
I have known a lot of nerds, and I have dated a few. Guys go after girls with low self esteem because they feel powerful, like holding a baby bird that thinks you’re its mother cupped in the palm of your hand. The bird has no agency in that situation, and a person who has suffered abuse and feels bad about their physical appearance will cling to you for emotional support in much the same way. You might be good to the bird, and feed it and raise it and whatever, but it will always be your pet and it will never be a wild animal again.
Even if they do have a relationship and he actually is a good guy to her, there’s no way that that relationship will be healthy. What she needs is fucking counseling, not a boyfriend. The idea that he’s supposed to be noble or whatever because he is big enough to like her despite her obvious flaws sounds really fucking familiar. He sounds like a nice guy, if you know what I mean. Sounds like he maybe owns a fedora. The idea that his love is all she needs to cure her of her pain is weird and dangerous and will not make her a healthy independent human being.
Given, this book was really not meant to be looked at at that level. It’s an archetypal thing; girl thinks she is ugly, guy thinks she is not ugly, girl no longer feels ugly. About a page and a half is devoted to the entire process. But I really think it’s time to put this archetype to bed, because it hurts. It makes girls feel like if there are no boys seeing their INNER BEAUTY, they are actually not innerly beautiful or worthwhile as humans. It doesn’t teach people to trust their own judgement and value themselves according to their own scale.
And the friends that I read this book with were like, you’re focusing on this one tiny thing but there is this whole book full of cool shit, and I was like, oh really? Forgive me for caring about the only character in this fucking book who has a fucking vagina just like me.
I should go read some lady books. Mrs. Dalloway and stuff.
*If you want to start a fight about J.K. Rowling, I am ready and feel free to bring it.