Why ‘Ready Player One’ And Its Erasure Of Black Culture Is Harmful
Ready Player One is a pop culture nostalgia lover’s wet dream. But as Jazmine Joyner writes, the novel’s lack of black culture has harmful ramifications.
Imagine the ‘80s devoid of people of color. No Prince, Mr. T, Menudo, Webster, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, MC Hammer, Eddie Murphy, Coming to America, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, and the list goes on and on. You are probably thinking to yourself, “How can you talk about the ‘80s and not mention Purple Rain or Thriller?” Well, if you’re Ernest Cline, the author of the bestselling book Ready Player One and screenwriter of the film of the same name, which is now playing, it’s apparently quite easy.
Cline’s Ready Player One has been touted as a 1980s nerd holy grail. The book takes place in the year 2045, where the world has been hit with an unending recession causing widespread and despair. Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) is a high school senior who, like most of humanity spends his days logged into the OASIS. A virtual reality world, created by eccentric billionaire, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies he leaves behind a quest: The first person to find Halliday’s Egg wins control of the OASIS and Halliday’s billion dollar fortune.
Essentially, Ready Player One is a Willy Wonka story: a poor boy goes on a hunt to inherit a huge company and millions of dollars. The film, as is the book, is steeped in ‘80s nostalgia. Halliday being a child of the decade made sure his love of all the pop culture was an essential part of the hunt. Wade and his Gunter—hunters of Halliday’s fortune—friends spend pages of the novel quizzing each other on ‘80s shows, movies, games, books, holiday specials, music, so as a reader we are also constantly subjected to this unending banter. As a black woman reading this book it became apparent very quickly that this book was tailored exclusively to one demographic: White Men.
In fandom there is a subset of nerds—white ones—that like to “gate-keep”. Google dictionary defines the term as “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.” Ready Player One consistently and aggressively enforces the narrative of an all-white nerdom. The protagonist Wade Watt’s is an entitled white kid who harrasses the female love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) until she talks to him, going so far as to say, “I tried everything I could think of to reach her. I sent her avatar flowers. I made multiple trips to her avatar’s stronghold, an armored palace on Bentar, the small moon she owned. I dropped mixtapes and notes on her palace from the air, like lovesick bombs. Once, in a supreme act of desperation, I stood outside her palace gates for two solid hours, with a boombox over my head, blasting ‘In Your Eyes’ by Peter Gabriel at full volume.” He is the epitome of the “nice guy” archetype, one who believes everything is owed to him, and that his knowledge about almost inane pop-culture topics is ultimately enough to save the world.
Ready Player One features huge chunks of dialogue where the cast drone on for ages about ‘80s pop culture but fail to mention any people of color who were stars in their own right during that era. How do you talk about the ‘80s for 372 pages (142 on-screen minutes) and not once mention Michael Jackson? A man who was ubiquitous throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Or hip-hop? 1982 was the year hip-hop took hold in pop culture. If you talk about the ‘80s and don’t mention Slick Rick, LL Cool J, De La Soul, or even The Beastie Boys then what are you even doing with your life? The erasure of brown-and-black people in Ready Player One is indicative of a bigger problem within nerd culture.
For years as a black Femme nerd I was constantly told that black people don’t like anime, video games (unless it was the 2K series), books, science-fiction, Star Wars, and role playing card games. These false stereotypes surrounding black-and-brown people made it impossible to feel welcome in nerd spaces. When we cosplay we are often told so-and-so character is white and us cosplaying as them isn’t “canon,” and that we should stick to the black characters.
In reality, anti-blackness is steeped not only into the culture of fandom, but also in the media that that culture absorbs. Franchises like Doctor Who, and Star Wars often villainize or kill off their black characters. Even when they do keep them alive and allow them to be good, they disrespect them—like Martha Jones in Doctor Who—until they decide to leave on their own. Ready Player One plays into this age old tradition of centering white narratives, by excluding the rich, vital black-and-brown contributions to 1980s pop culture.
When I first read the novel, I loved it. It was a fun adventure full of cool action and interesting AR (Alternative Reality) hijinks. But a few years later after re-reading it, I found it’s total lack of representation to be upsetting and disingenuous. It excludes not only POCs, but tokenizes them when they do show up in the text. Both Daito and Shoto are two Japanese characters whose avatars are wearing samurai armor. They are complete cliches of Japanese characters wrapped up in a narrative that uses their characters purely for atmosphere.
Aech, played by Lena Waithe in the film, is a gut punch. SPOILER: If you haven’t read the book, Aech is Wade’s best friend, and she is portrayed as a white man throughout the entire book. Until the very end where it is revealed that “he” is actually an overweight black lesbian woman. Like many people I found this reveal to be disappointing. It erases the chance to have a black female supporting role player, whilst seeming incredibly tokenistic. The only black representation in the book has a long familial legacy of rejecting her race. Told from a young age that in order to succeed she had to hide as a white male in the OASIS, rather than being an interesting exploration of institutionalized racism, Cline adds Aech’s identity almost as a “ta-da” reveal. “See there ARE black people in this story.” All the while, he nor the book never acknowledges the harm of Aech’s past and how her own internalized anti-blackness would affect her character. Yet, in the movie, the addition of Lena Waithe immediately changes the negative connotations of the book’s version by her participation.
As an openly gay black woman, she corrects the erroneous mistake that takes place in the novelized version of Ready Player One.
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a white-centered tale that works hard to erase any black or brown representation in its pages and on the screen. Relegated to being tokens, and being used as lame surprise exposition, POCs are pushed to the sidelines once again, and there is no argument that the erasure is accidental. Cline fails to recognize or even mention the most obvious of universal and black cultural touchstones. This aspect of Ready Player One reflects the larger problem within nerd spaces that many black-and-brown nerds have to face, a complete erasure from the narrative making it difficult for us to even join the conversation. Ready Player One serves as a testament to an outdated and erroneous idea of what nerd culture looks like. Hopefully, the film adaptation that’s in theaters March 29 — which Ernest Cline co-wrote — uses this as a chance to rectify the issues within the novel and make the story of Wade Watts and his hunt for the egg a more inclusive tale.
Jazmine Joyner is a Southern California based writer, whose work has appeared in /Film, Women Write About Comics, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and Ms En Scene. You can follow her great cinematic adventure on Twitter @Jazmine_Joyner.