By Ernest Cline
This is going to give away some ending details, so ye be warned.
I liked this book, but I was disappointed with the portrayal of women. Yes, one of the male characters in OASIS (the virtual world everyone prefers to the real), the protagonist’s best friend, turns out to be a heavyset African American queer girl, and the protagonist is fine with it. Cool. We’ll get into that later. But the only other female character, save for a friendly little old lady, is exactly what I expect a teenager boy to dream up.
Art3mis (the girl) is into everything Parzival (the protagonist) is into. Art3mis, though she doesn’t portray herself as a supermodel, is voluptuous and attractive. She’s about as smart as Parzival, maybe a bit smarter. Her main flaw (or feature, unclear,) is that she really wants to win the game before dating Parzival. And that she wants to meet him in person. The entirety of the depth of her character is that she has a port-wine stain on her face that she’s is worried will make Parzival not like her. (Don’t worry, he does.) Wow. Deep.
Ernest Cline makes everything easy for Parzival. Parzival doesn’t have to deal romantically with his suddenly female best friend because she’s gay. (In fact, Aech’s real-life character gets about a page and a half of limelight, and it’s all a quick explanation and acceptance and we’re done.) He doesn’t have to deal with any problems with his crush other than winning the game. His crush magically likes him a lot. And the book doesn’t have to deal with women at all, really. With maybe twenty named characters, only the two are female.
And it’s unclear if Aech even counts as a female as she’s treated as a male character the entire time and no, I don’t count that as progressive. Aech doesn’t get the opportunity to ever be female, I don’t care if she actually is. She doesn’t get the time or character development that would allow her to be a queer, African American woman forced to live in a world where she is only accepted as a white, straight guy. She’s gets a page and a half of explanation and then she’s Aech again, as if nothing had ever happened. How does Art3mis feel about Aech being female? How does Shoto or Ogden Morrow?
The more I think about it, the madder I get. Ernest Cline seemed close to wanting to try to deal with female characters. He wanted his female character (Art3mis) to be cool and powerful and snarky, so he did that but in process made her a cookie-cutter of what his main character was looking for. (Here’s a question that’s never brought up: is Parzival what Art3mis is looking for?) He wanted to talk about how virtual reality might effect minorities so he made Aech who she is, but then didn’t unpack it all. For him, that’s not important. What’s important is that his white, straight, male main character gets to have a lot of fun. Hm.