Mary’s blog post this week is adapted from a presentation she delivered at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in Tampa, FL today!
It’s 8AM, first day, so I want to start with a little exercise. The photograph on the left is me, Mary, and though I hate describing myself, as most people do, I would say I’m funny, empathetic, emotional, smart, and, sometimes, gullible. I’m a pretty tame person, all things said. I like an early bedtime.
The photograph on the right is my avatar, or one of them. It’s a character I play in Dungeons and Dragons, Vektro Velakov. Aside from being half genie, Vek is attention-seeking, impulsive, and hopeful. He’s also emotional, and often worried in the ways I am in real life. I say all this to emphasize the point that I am not my avatar—I’m not a man, not as attention-seeking as my avatar, yet we share many similar qualities. The idea of using avatars to represent oneself is not a new thing in the world of gaming. Old school tabletop RPGs ask players to create and pilot characters of their own design and contemporary video games, like the Fallout series, Skyrim, etc., frequently include an option for players to customize their character down to minute details. Avatars in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, and in video games like the OASIS system in Ready Player One, are both different and the same as their creators, and ultimately they blur the line between fiction and reality. They occupy a strange liminal space in the gaming world and fiction inspired by it. These avatars are simultaneously the player and not the player. The self and the other. Avatars afford players the chance to behave in unpredictable ways, guarded by the reassurance that their character isn’t them, not exactly. We are our avatars, but we’re not.
(Spoilers for Ready Player One to follow!)
This week, I’m taking a look at Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel that follows teenager Wade Watts as he navigates a winner takes all game in the OASIS, an online game that is more than just a game. Throughout his journey in OASIS, Wade (whose avatar name is Parzival, and I’ll refer to him as Parzival for the rest of this post) interacts with several individuals he considers friends and allies, including Art3mis, his love interest and rival, and Aech, his best friend and confidant—both of whom hide secrets about who they really are. Ready Player One explores the intersection of gender and gaming through Aech and Art3mis, who have chosen to utilize an avatar so different from their real world selves. This decision marks online games—and by extension tabletop games and any game that uses avatars—as a safe space to explore gender and sexuality under the veil of anonymity.
Art3mis and Aech rebel against traditional gender roles, even though they seem to reinforce the damsel in distress trope. Ultimately, the novel places the two women in supportive roles, yet Cline works to subvert reader expectations with the inclusion of Aech, a black lesbian passing for a white male within the immersive world of OASIS, a virtual reality video game (although really it goes beyond that). In OASIS, players can choose their avatars, erasing--if players so choose--divisions of race and gender. Aech opts to present as a white male because, she says, it’s easier, not because she’s ashamed of her true identity. Aech occupies a space of marginalization, and feels stigma about her race and sexuality. Art3mis also exists in a marginalized role; she is scarred in real life and chooses to style her avatar after her real life body, but missing the scar. Both women must change themselves to fit within the boys’ world of science fiction, and both women feel some amount of discomfort or shame about their real life bodies as a result of cultural views about gender and race.
Cline’s vision of the future isn’t a utopian society, or even a more accepting one. Instead of eradicating racism and sexism (as in some other science fiction and speculative works like The Giver), OASIS allows individuals to appear as the race and gender with the most power, white men. The online world of OASIS allows for the blurring of racial and gender identities, making the online world--at least in science fiction--a true place of equality. Yet the novel forces us to consider, at what cost? In Ready Player One, as in many science fiction texts, women play a vital, yet marginal role, delivering a big societal message in a small amount of space, but readers must consider if that message has the same impact if the women in question appear to be white men for most of the text.
For traditional science fiction, gender is a big deal. Like the genre of horror, sci fi has, at times, treated female characters unforgivably, casting them in support roles (like Dune) or using them as blatant, shallow sexual objects (also Dune, now that I’m thinking about it). Ready Player One bypasses—but doesn’t erase—basic sci fi gender tropes through the use of avatars in the online game OASIS. While Aech is technically a woman using a male avatar, the other characters in the novel don’t know Aech’s true identity until the end of the novel, meaning that they treat her like a man—and even more importantly, a white man—for the entirety of their relationship with her.
Aech’s gender comes towards the end of the novel as an intended revelation for the reader, who supposedly sees Aech as very masculine throughout the novel. Aech feels she must portray herself as a white man in order to be accepted by other gamers. When Parzival goes to meet Aech in real life—a huge deal since their entire friendship is based on an online game—he sees “a heavyset African American girl . . . about [his] age, with short, kinky hair and chocolate colored skin that appeared iridescent in the soft glow” (318). Parzival’s description of her is loving, in a sense—he notes her outfit details—a Rush 2112 concert tee that just covers her “large bosom”—and appreciates that she makes the same expressions as her OASIS avatar. Yet, Parzival’s first real reaction is “a wave of emotion . . . shock that gave way to a sense of betrayal.” He thinks to himself “how could he--she—deceive me all these years?”
Parzival’s reaction mirrors what women have seen and heard in the online gaming community for years-- If you need proof, look no further than 2014’s gamergate fiasco. His reaction also robs Aech of any agency she might have had in the scene. Before she’s even given a chance to speak, Parzival decides that his entire relationship has been a deception, even down to the voice altering software Aech uses to sound more masculine. After an “uncomfortable silence,” Parzival admits he didn’t think that Aech, “a renowned gunter and the most feared and ruthless area combatant in the entire OASIS” was a “young African American woman.” Aech calls herself a “fat black chick” and tells Parzival that she, like her mother before, chooses to use a white male avatar in order to make life online easier. Aech’s fictional life runs deep; her mother lied about Aech’s race and gender and submitted a falsified photo in her school application. Parzival decides that the only thing Aech hadn’t been deceiving him about was their shared appreciation of women’s bodies; Aech happens to be a lesbian.
Aech’s story highlights an important problem in science fiction—marginalized identities, but especially women and people of color—get pushed to the sidelines in favor of stories about straight, white men. While some authors (most notably Octavia Butler) have tried to change this unfortunate trend, there’s still only a handful of authors that tackle marginalized identities well in science fiction, and especially science fiction for young people. Ready Player One attempts to address how people of color might portray themselves if given the opportunity (the OASIS is, in addition to a game and a school, also a place of business as well. It’s a very public space where you can live most of your life as your avatar), but Aech also acts as a victim, a person to be rescued. When publicly accepted as her male avatar, Aech uses brash, misogynistic language to joke with Parzival. At one point, Aech asks, “Yo, Z! What are you up to? Jerking off to Ladyhawke?”, building on a previous conversation where she called anyone who liked Ladyhawke a “bonafide pussy.” Aech exudes a macho air, constantly flexing her masculine avatar persona. And for the most part, she does fit in with “the guys” she hunts with. Yet even after building a persona true to her IRL self and spending years getting to know Parzival, her gender and race immediately exclude her from the boys club of online gaming. Her history, her hard earned fame, none of that trumps her gender for Parzival.
Art3mis, Parzival’s love interest and another gunter, has a similar experience to Aech towards the end of the novel when her real self conflicts with her online avatar. Although Art3mis’s first appearance in the novel focuses solely on the physical—her raven hair, styled joan of arc short—and Parzival questions her true appearance, noting that “this ‘girl’ whom I’d been cyber-crushing on for the past three years, might very well be an obese, hairy knucled guy named Chuck.” Parzival never questions what Aech looks like, and solidly accepts his white heteronormative masculinity, yet he obsesses over Art3mis’s potential appearance, convincing himself that she is, according to western ideals of beauty, ugly. Parzival’s obsession with Art3mis’s appearance continue when they chat. He asks her, “So you’re telling me, definitively, that you are a female? IRL?” She asks “What if I were a 300lb gal named Charlene who lives in her mom’s basement in suburban Detroit? Would you still have a crush on me then?” His response? “I don’t know,” then, after some clarification, “Yeah, I probably still would.” Even though this should settle the conversation, Parzival continues to ask, “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?” This is a little degrading, to say the least.
Art3mis’s secret is a port wine birthmark that covers half of her face. She tries to cover it with her hair and hide it as much as she can. Instead of balking at Art3mis’s birthmark like he does Aech’s gender, Parzival says that even though Art3mis thinks she’s “hideous,” he thinks she “seemed even more beautiful to him that her avatar.” This interaction encapsulates an entire novel’s worth of chat conversations and avatar interactions between these two characters. Parzival suspects Art3mis isn’t a woman, and feels nothing but relief when she is, despite her birthmark. Though I don’t want to delve fully into Art3mis’s birthmark, I’m happy to talk about how it relates to disability studies in Q&A—her visible birthmark forces her to engage with those who might stare at her and her avatar provides her with a way to bypass this uncomfortable sort of social interaction. By hiding the mark completely in the online world of the OASIS, Art3mis negates the need for people to stare. In the OASIS, she is as she sees it, untainted.
In the novel, Parzival acts as a barometer for “proper” female behavior in the novel, and, I think, we could say the larger genre of science fiction. Aech’s gender reveal shocks Parzival because he cannot perceive a woman as being both masculine and attracted to men. Art3mis’s birthmark, on the other hand, poses no threat because, as he says, she’s still conventionally beautiful and, most importantly, female. The consistent attention to gender in the novel cheapens Parzival’s meetings with Aech and Art3mis at the end of the novel. Since all social interaction is filtered through Parzival, Art3mis and Aech aren’t allowed their own agency, and aren’t allowed to fully embrace their avatars, which sometimes act as a truer representation of themselves than their actual bodies.
This is why avatars are so vital—they can look and act like their creator while still maintaining a layer of separation from reality. Avatars are a very real part of how women experience online gaming. The disconnect women feel between their real life experiences as part of societal beauty ideals and their online experiences of harassment indicate that perhaps the urge to misrepresent oneself online has good cause.
Avatars allow for a realization of one’s ideal self and for play and exploration of other types of existence, through fantasy or otherwise. Avatars allow for a layer of anonymity that can protect minorities like Aech, who feel that being themselves online is dangerous. Aech and Art3mis almost subvert gender stereotypes and beauty ideals by crafting their avatars to look so different from their real selves, yet ultimately Parzival acts as the arbiter of how the women should be representing themselves. Of course, Parzival does make up with Aech and does fall in looove with Art3mis—what good YA novel would leave us hanging on those fronts?—but his initial reactions, his disdain for Aech’s body and his confusion about Art3mis’s birthmark, indicate that, even if for a second, he sees these women as liars and traitors. He doesn’t seem to believe that these women should be allowed to represent themselves how they choose online.
My hope for this post, and this panel I presented on in general, is to start a conversation about the many ways women appear in science fiction, and how, moving forward, these characters can be used to start real world conversations about diversity and prejudice. Take one look at the nightly news, and suddenly the appeal of an avatar becomes clearer.
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.